Leading Tech Teams

Leading Tech Teams

Slides from my workshop at I T.A.K.E. Unconference 2014

Scaling Agility: The Technical Angle

Scaling Agility: The Technical Angle

Slides from my talk at I T.A.K.E. Unconference 2014

Behavior follows system follows mindset


How can you get different results? Should you change people’s behavior? Should you create different working systems? Or should you address their mindset? I think it’s the latter.

Jurgen Appelo spawned an interesting thread on Facebook by saying:

You cannot change an organization’s culture. What you can change is your behavior and your influence.

Several people joined in and voiced their opinion. I both agree and disagree with Jurgen. The following lines will try to describe how.

I believe behavior is a result of the social system people are working in. So, if you’re a tester and you’re being measured on the amount of bugs you report (a systemic feature), you will tend to open more bug reports to meet your targets. And you’ll do that even if the agile coach or the management writer advises against it. Or if you’re a project manager who is handed down a fixed price, fixed scope contract, all the arguments of the #NoEstimates crowd will likely fall on deaf ears.

I believe the system is a result of your mindset. What do you believe about people? Are they lazy and always trying to cheat? What do you believe about social systems? Should we focus on efficiency, utilization and optimize for each function (development, marketing, product management etc.). Then you will design hierarchical, silo-ed organizations, controlled via budgets and projects.

Based on the two assertions above, I don’t think it’s enough to change your own behavior to achieve meaningful results in the organization. Changing your behavior does not affect the collective mindset. What you can do however — on this I agree with Jurgen — is influence other people, try to get them to change their mindset. In other words, effectively engage in double loop learning.

As a coach, I must spend at least a third of my time trying to change mindsets. “Why should there be a development and a QA team?” “Can performance be managed via yearly performance reviews?” “How is the team leader role helping us achieve our goals?” “Should we have one developer per module?”

I find that I can’t start influencing people’s behavior until we start debating questions like the ones above. Only when we agree to learn more about each other’s deeply rooted beliefs can we start designing new systems. And these new systems, in turn, usually generate different behavior.

Behavior follows system follows mindset.

Optional Conference impressions

This week I attended the Optional Conference organized in Budapest. Below you can find my notes.

My talk on the Agile Mindset

I gave a talk at the conference comparing the agile and the traditional mindset. It’s the stuff I’ve written about in a paper earlier this week. Here’s the presentation from the conference.

Notes from other talks

Here are some notes I jotted down during the talks:

  • Budgets don’t work because they force two different numbers into a single one: the estimate and the target budget.
  • It’s hard to manage people in Generation Y, because their parents made sure they have everything. As such, they can’t be threatened or bribed. Instead, they must be inspired.
  • There are two types of stress and we want to avoid the second. When we start adding pressure, at first eustress kicks in, but with enough additional pressure we become distressed:
    • eustress is good, it helps achieve results
    • distress is not good, because it triggers the limbic system (our primitive brain)
    • agile helps because it generates mainly eustress
  • If you want to get into a state of flow, you need the right balance between the difficulty of the problem you are solving and you own skills. This model of flow illustrates the various combinations between difficulty and skill.
  • Ericsson is doing agile in a 112.000 persons organization. The R&D department is more advanced in terms of adoption, and they have a massive 24.000 people involved.
    • The program manager for a product being developed by 450 people told the story of trusting too much in incremental architecture and being bitten by it when they had to make significant investments to switch from a simpler database to a more scalable one.
  • Deutsche Telekom is another massive company who is transforming to agile. In one city, they have 100 teams who are organized using agile concepts: long lived, cross-functional, collocated. To ensure a constant flow of ideas, periodically one person is rotated between the teams.
    • The team members rate their managers on how well they embody the company and agile principles.
    • Teams have veto rights on new hires.
  • Rational arguments are not that useful for convincing people. What works better is storytelling.
  • Boris Gloger had the closing keynote. He advocated for an agile management style based on strong leadership skills. He emphasized four: clarify the purpose, give positive feedback, listen and use appreciative inquiry.
  • I need to learn more about holacracy, human system dynamics, radical management and appreciative inquiry.

Agile and HR

More and more people are asking me about how to “marry” agile and HR practices. The performance review is one of the most pressing concerns for HR professionals, and they want to align the practice to fit with agile principles.

Jurgen Appelo advocated during dinner for dropping the practice altogether, but my feeling during the Open Space was that most managers were afraid of this perspective (I ran a session on this exact topic). Boris Gloger gave me an interesting idea to chew on when, after discussing various alternatives, he said “So, are we thinking that the HR manager should be like a ScrumMaster for the organization?”

I’ll have to clear up my thoughts on this, but I feel that’s an interesting direction to explore.

How Disney and Pixar manage creative people

A recent blog post on Harvard Business Review got me really excited. It’s an interview about how to manage in a creative environment with Ed Catmull, the president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios. His words match many of my beliefs about modern management, and I’ve highlighted below my key takeaways.

Embrace diversity
Disney has several studios doing animation, so a lot of traditional managers would push for unification of technology in search of economies of scale. Ed advised his employees differently:

“You may look at the tools that the other has, you may use them if you want, but the choice is entirely yours. You don’t have to take ideas from anybody else.”

Deliver quality
There was some media attention that Pixar had to push to 2015 the movie The Good Dinosaur, originally planned for 2014. Ed isn’t worried though:

Ultimately, there’s a criterion whether the film is good enough and we don’t let the other stuff get in the way of it. One thing I don’t believe in is the notion of a perfect process. Our goal isn’t to prevent all the problems; our goal is making good movies.

Create a spirit of trust
When Ed took the leadership position, there were several people leaking information about the movies to the press. Instead of entering an Inquisition mode, he focused on building trust. He had a speech in front of the employees in which he highlighted that when somebody goes to the press, they break their colleagues’ trust. This simple message was way more powerful than threats to change behavior:

When I said that, the entire audience burst into applause. For the one or two people who were talking to bloggers on the outside, what they saw was that everybody else in the studio was really upset that somebody was doing this. So the message didn’t come from me, the message came from that response of the audience − and whoever was doing it stopped doing it.

If you want to learn more, Ed has a longer article (How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity) and a book (Creativity, Inc).

Is your mindset blocking your agile transformation?


In the last few years I’ve been involved in several agile or lean transitions. Some of them went smoothly and for others we had various challenges.

Upon reflecting on the main causes that slow down or even kill transitions, I became convinced that the prevailing mindset of the organization is one of the key blockers. To fully detail my view, I’ve written a paper called Mindset as barrier (PDF, 9 pages).

Give it a read and tell me what you think.

(Image from: https://flic.kr/p/bwXYfa)

Three conferences in three months

For the next few months I’ve decided to put some of my ideas to the test by sharing them (as a speaker) with the attendees of three great conferences. Read on if you’re curious what I’ll be speaking about.

Continue reading

2013: the state of agile


If you’re considering adopting agile, or have already done so but wonder how your adoption is going relative to other companies, you’re in luck. VersionOne has recently released the results of their yearly survey titled “The State of Agile“. For companies transitioning to agile or considering it, the report provides valuable clues on how to maximize the results of their change initiative. 3501 responses were collected for this survey.

Going over its contents, some things stand out:

  • Scrum is still the market leader and seemingly the only choice at the moment. Teams that have adopted vanilla Scrum, Scrum + Extreme Programming or Scrum + Kanban account for 73% of the total. Kanban-only implementations are at a low 5%. [1]
  • Agile passed the early adopter phase. 19% of all companies have been doing it for more than 5 years, and 53% for 2-5 years.
  • Agility is scaling past the individual team level. 57% of the respondents said they have at least 5 teams doing it and 38% have more than 10 teams.
  • Not all agile practices are equally popular. Some numbers I hope to see increasing in the future: 50% of respondents integrate development and testing, 47% do refactoring, 30% pair program and only 15 % measure cycle time. On the flip side, there’s a 10% increase in the usage of retrospectives in the last 2 years. This is good.
  • It seems we’ve found a scenario where agile seems to be difficult to implement: outsourced projects. Plans to run that type of project using an agile approach dropped from 77% to 39%.
  • There are still many misunderstanding regarding agile. The biggest concerns people report are related to a lack of up-front planning, loss of management control and lack of predictability. In my experience however, it’s often the opposite: teams and managers report they feel they have more control and optimized predictability after adopting agile. Expect a blog post on this soon.
  • I imagined everybody would report a faster time-to-market as a result of going agile. After all, that was the whole point of agility, wasn’t it? The percentage, 83%, while still good, indicates that more change is needed across the organization to reap full benefits. If I had to guess, I’d say it is at the portfolio and program management level or in the marketing or sales departments.
  • If you want to succeed, the most important recommendations are to involve senior management and to properly train everyone. At the same time, you must be ready to face the biggest barriers to change: company culture and reluctance to change.

In closing, I want to thank VersionOne for making the effort each year to make this happen. I’m sure it does wonders to their sales, but it’s also a very valuable resource for us agile coaches.

[1] It’s likely that the results of this survey are biased — after all, the majority of the replies comes from VersionOne customers. The report even indicates that 2/3 of the respondents are from the US and 3/4 are from companies with 100-1000 employees. As such, you might want to take the results with a grain of salt. I especially suspect that smaller companies and startups aren’t accounted for all that well. However, the general findings match my experience with companies adopting Agile.

Re-blog: How to be a change catalyst

Over at the Mozaic Works blog I’ve published a new post describing my view on change and some of the techniques I’m using when I try to initiate and catalyze it.

Re-blog: Do Agile Teams Have Performance Reviews?

I’ve been recently getting a lot of questions about managing performance on agile teams. Managers and HR professionals are used to the annual performance review process, where the manager analyzes a subordinate’s performance and plans their next improvement steps. This doesn’t seem to be congruent with a self-organizing team. So, how do we address this issue?

Read more: Do Agile Teams Have Performance Reviews?