Agile – An Honest Reflection

Image – George Hodan, publicdomainpictures.net

Following Agile Without Knowing It?

I had this simple question Have we been following Agile for all the successful projects without knowing that we are following Agile.  Here are some thoughts which I would like to share from my experience and would like to know your experiences.

What We Used To Do

When I started writing programs long ago (about 25 years ago) in dBase III Plus I used to directly interact with the business user, who could be an accountant or a supervisor on the shop floor to understand the steps/tasks in the process and build programs to automate those tasks.  It was such an exciting period.  There was no or minimum documentation, only direct interaction and visible deliverables in the form of reports, screens etc.  The only objective was to give what business wants and (more), that would result in great value for them.  Every couple of days, I would build something and show to the user, they test and tell me what is correct and what is not as expected (they start using what is working!).  That way, most of the developers in MIS department used to work with business to get to a point where the user sees maximum value in the given program (only restriction for business was that a developer used to be assigned for a fixed period).  When I compare what we followed years ago to the Agile manifesto, it just resounds.  I am sure there are many who would have experienced the same.

What Do We Measure?

Later in the following years software development, gradually moved into a phase where they started measuring their value by timelines, cost, quality (as per their own definition – bugs, rework etc.) and many other criteria which is more focused to show case development team value.  While this is important, even more important is to measure the business value created by development team which I think is missing in most cases.

Dismal Project Failures

We all know, in spite of several process innovations in the software development, there are less and less number of projects actually successful.  I would provide reference to the latest “Pulse of the profession” from PMI (http://www.pmi.org/Learning/Pulse.aspx) –

Fewer projects are being completed within budget or meeting original goals and business intent. More projects are actually failing and creating significant monetary loss for their organizations.  

Of course, these include all projects (not only software projects).

I do not want to mention about the projects which are not meeting the business intent.  But would like to mention about the projects which are getting successfully delivered and meeting the business intent (which are less of course).  How are these few projects meeting the business intent?  How are they successful?

And Then Came Agile

From my experience, and it is a known fact too that every successful project no matter which methodology is followed, delivered value to business, made customers happy and delighted.  In doing so (in my view), the teams working on successful projects followed Agile manifesto inadvertently.

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

I don’t remember to have come across any successful project which did not follow these.

Spirit of Agile

One example I would like to highlight is from a typical waterfall projects.  How many successful project managers and teams would agree (HONESTLY AGREE) that during the business testing phase, there is more interaction (ignoring the processes, if any, which would impede these interactions), get into seamless collaboration with customer, no or minimum documentation (no time in the first place to document).  Also, during this phase, the team would accommodate majority of the changes to make the business happy and sees value in what is being delivered (of course based on priority).  Agree, all this creates more agony to the people developing software as well as testers who are testing.  But this is the price teams pay for success.

The point I am trying to make is, though in theory, there are successful projects which are not identified as following Agile but in terms of practical purposes any successful project no matter what methodology is followed would have followed Agile Manifesto without knowing that these are Agile.

Please do share your thoughts and experiences.

To Be A Great Leader, Use This Body Part Skillfully

Prabhaker Panditi's blog (image courtesy Виталий Смолыгин, publicdomainpictures.net)

Image: Виталий Смолыгин, publicdomainpictures.net

Leader and The Body Part

To become a great leader, you should use the right body part in the right way.  When it comes to leadership, not all body parts are created equal. Some are more powerful than others!

Most people maintain an almost grotesque imbalance in the use of their mouth vs ears, in the emphasis on speaking vs listening. Speaking seems to dominate. One reason is that everyone likes to listen to their voice. Another is the opportunity for self-expression, to say what we think, what we like and what we think others should like!

There’s nothing wrong in self-expression, in using your mouth. But it must be balanced with something more important, something that will actually bring greater results to you as a leader: listening. You need to use your ears as much as, if not more than, you use your mouth.

 

Why Active Listening Will Fail

I once read a comic where a husband asks his wife “how can you say that I am not listening to you? Don’t you see me leaning towards you, nodding my head often, keeping eye contact,  and even rephrasing back what you say?” Active listening, it seems does not always work!

Active listening techniques will not work without the right intention, presence and an open mind. Bereft of these, it will only make you appear phony, as the husband in the cartoon discovered.

 

Hearing Vs Listening

We cannot close our ears. So, aren’t we listening all the time? No. There is a different between mere hearing and listening. Hearing indicates only the physical interaction of the sound waves, ear and the brain. It can be passive. Listening on the other hand is an active process of trying to understand what is being said. You can hear without listening.

On reading this, you might think ‘active listening’ is the answer. Active listening has become a buzz word, a promise for quick fix, another ridiculous self-help promise to “influence people in 60 seconds or less!”

 

“Leaders use their ears differently. They back their ears up with their heart and mind.”

 

Listening is not about a few techniques. It is about intention, about presence, about keeping an open minded.

 

INTENTION

It is possible to pretend to be listening while you are preparing for what to say next. This is a common phenomena most of us experience at some point or other. To avoid this trap, start with the right intention.  Do you desire, really, deeply want to understand the other person? Do you care about him or her? Once you establish this, your energies will be automatically focused where they belong: towards the other person.

 

PRESENCE

Sometimes our mind is 100 feet away from our body! When you are not present, you are there physically, thinking you are paying attention. But you are preoccupied with something else. At best, you are going through the motions.

 

“You may not realize it, but others can feel your lack of presence.”  

 

When you are present, on the other hand, you are fully in the moment, immersed, without the constant stream of thoughts and distractions going through your mind. Think of a time you were with your child or someone you really care. That is what presence feels like.

 

OPEN MIND

Having an open mind is to be receptive to other ideas. It is to give up preconceived and self-baked theories. If you are open minded, you are curious. You ask open ended questions to invite opinions and ideas. You genuinely appreciate others’ views. You may not always agree to what others say. But you respect their opinions and consider them in light of the discussions.

 

Become A Better Leader

In summary, use your ears more than you use your mouth. Instead of relying on some mechanical script for active listening, begin with an intention to listen, ensure your presence and keep an open mind. If you do this, you will be better leader than you are today.

5 Robot-Friendly Tips You Should Never Use With Human Teams

Image courtesy: Tanya Hall, publicdomainpictures.net

Image courtesy: Tanya Hall, publicdomainpictures.net

Leading a team of robots can be both challenging and frustrating. You need special skills, attitude and instincts. Here are 5 tips to lead them effectively:

1. Watch out for emotions

Robots are notoriously unemotional. They are strictly logical beings. So, carefully avoid all emotions.  If any robot displays signs of emotions, immediately quelch it: it is unnatural. This may be a sign of malfunction. You should strive to keep your own emotions bottled up as well. Be strictly logical.

Alas, this approach will not work for leading human teams.   Neuroscience is increasingly discovering that human beings are not only emotional but emotions actually help in making the right decisions.   While uncontrolled emotions can have a downside,  emotions guide us in selecting the right information to make crucial decisions. Take emotions away, and humans display a pathetic lack of even basic decision making skills.

2. Avoid Humor

Mechanical, as they are, robots don’t appreciate humor. Don’t waste your energy by dwelling on the lighter side of life. Ditch those Dilbert cartoons and smilies.

If your team team is made up of human beings, on the other hand, recognize that humor is essential.  A timely senses of humor may make a difficult or embarrassing situation easy. Research is unambiguous — these days, work stress is high, engagement levels are plummeting. Humor comes to the rescue. Appropriate humor reduces stress, improves morale, increases creativity.

3. Give detailed instructions

When dealing with robots, merely defining what to do is not enough. Tell them ‘how’ to do the work as well.  Map out every step, every criteria, every detail.   Leave little room for thinking.

You guessed it! This technique does not work for human teams. People perform at their best when they are given a high level goal and are left to themselves to figure out how to achieve it. If you really want their greatest creativity, motivation and commitment, go a step further: tell them also ‘why’ the work is essential. Purpose unleashes hidden reservoirs of energy.

4. Keep them apart

Except where coordination tasks and touch points are clearly engineered, robots work well in isolation. So, don’t bother to encourage them to communicate with one another. In fact, if you find two robot getting together in an un-engineered situation, be suspicious. A sicence-fiction like situation may be on the anvil.

For humans, as scientists  are discovering, social connection ranks right up there with food and shelter. Collaboration dramatically increases ideas.  Having even one person whom you can trust and talk to at work can increase engagement, reduce stress boost well being. So, for your human team, the ‘keeping them apart’ does not work. Find ways to get people to work together, play together, create together.

5. Show them who’s the boss

Making robots independent may be dangerous. You need to be in charge, be in control. Otherwise, (who knows?) they may be planing to take over the planet! So, delegate responsibility but not authority. Keep the remote control with you…always.

Once again, research in unambiguous : human teams flourish when given autonomy. So, jettison this rule when dealing with humans. The more autonomy people have, they happier they are at work. Happy people are more productive, creative and engaged.

Robots vs Humans

What’s the obvious lesson? You need different approaches for leading robots and humans. Much of the agony at  work is due to leaders who apply robot-strategy to human teams. Perfect approach: wrong species! Fortunately, approaches to leading human teams can be learned.  Are you learning?

2 Little-Known Obstacles to Team Development

Prabhaker Panditi - Two Little-Known Obstacles to Team Development and How to Overcome Them

Team Development  challenge

For organization to grow, teams and leaders should constantly learn. However, it is not as easy as it first appears. Studies show that most of us routinely overestimate our knowledge and skills. We ignore negative feedback, overestimate our positive traits, and notice only what we want to notice. In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conducted experiments that demonstrated this cognitive bias. Dunning Kruger Effect, as it is called, implies a tendency for individuals to rate their skills much higher than what they are in reality.

Organizations face a grim reality: they want to develop people, but those who need development most are the ones who think they are ‘already up there’!

Stages of development

The first thing to recognize is that individuals move through various stages while developing a skill or competence:

Unconscious incompetence

Individuals in this stage do not recognize that they lack the competence or skills. This stage is analogous to Donald Rumsfeld’sunknown unknowns.”

In  this stage, people don’t know what they don’t know!

Conscious incompetence

Real development starts at this stage. Individuals recognize their lack of competence. This mere awareness is sometimes powerful. Given the right environment and opportunities, this can propel people into the next stage of development.

Conscious competence

Individuals in this stage have learned this skills. However, they use these consciously, noting each step carefully. This requires a person’s full attention to avoid mistakes. To know what this stage feels like, think about the time you first learned to drive.

Unconscious competence

This is the stage of mastery. Repeated use or practice of the skill makes it almost second nature. Individuals use the skill with ease. Think about any expert in sports, business or entertainment for a demonstration of this phase.
Wasted training money Organizations often make the mistake of diving headlong into leadership and team development programs. They underestimate the combined force of Dunning Kruger Effect and Unconscious Incompetence. People attend the programs but promptly resume their earlier habits. Money spent: yes. Results achieved: no.

The Solution

There’s a better way. The first goal of organizations should be to make people ‘aware’ of the deficiencies or developmental needs to move people beyond unconscious incompetence. Otherwise, the cognitive bias blocks any new information. Once this happens, any further efforts to impart knowledge only gets superficial commitment. That is why direct feedback in the initial stages often does not work.

Awareness should be spread subtly: showing examples of good leadership, inviting great leaders as guest speakers, using informal opportunities to discuss about a particular skill. In fact, if it looks serendipitous, the impact will be greater!

Once people become ‘aware’ and move beyond the initial stage of learning cycle, direct discussions and feedback about the developmental needs also will be more effective.

Some caveats

  • Once the ‘awareness of incompetence’ is achieved, teams and leaders will be ready to move to the next stage. Even at this stage, making the training or coaching too broad leads to failure. Complex skills need to be broken down into smaller, meaningful units. This fosters faster learning, greater sense of progress and higher retention and use.
  • Desired competencies should be seen as developmental needs and not as tools for punitive measures. Otherwise, anxiety overtakes the learning spirit, and will lead to negative consequences, often exactly opposite to those intended.
  • It is also important to develop trust through genuine commitment and sincere appreciation of ‘efforts’, not just progress. People grow at different pace. Comparisons are often detrimental.
  • Whether it is training, coaching or mentoring, one should be sensitive to feedback from the participants. Learning does not progress linearly. There will be stages where individuals may get stuck or make progress slowly. It is important to be patient and persistent.
  • Direct feedback about the developmental needs can always be combined with the above approaches. As long as leaders are aware of the potent

The great thing about organizational learning is that it is contagious. Once some teams start to develop, others will follow. Organizational learning becomes a habit that keeps its knowledge ever fresh, likea red, red rose.”

Here’s Why Agile Team Members’ Brains Grow Constantly

Here’s Why  Agile Team Members’ Brains Grow Constantly

Prabhaker Panditi - Agile and Neuroplasticity If you are working on an Agile team, chances are your brain’s physical structure changes every day.  It is  growing more neural connections and making strong neural wiring. In effect your brain is evolving in ways that you did not realize.

 

Neuroplasticity

“O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon, That monthly changes in her circle orb, Lest that thy love prove likewise variable” cries Juliet to her love in William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’   What Juliet and even Neuroscientists until recently did not know was that  the very brain that swears changes its structure and function with each experience, each thought and each act including, unfortunately for Juliet,  swearing!  Your brain evolves continuously by forming new neural connection throughout life – a process known as Neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is good news. You can rewire your brain with every thought.  Any activity that needs mental focus like sustained thinking and problem solving improves your brain.  The more you use reasoning skills, the better your brain gets at it.  Even your IQ score may go up!

Frequency of thinking

Not being a Neuroscientist myself, I am using the word ‘thinking’ in the limited sense of planning, focused problem solving and exploration of alternatives.  All project teams have to think, regardless of the process used.  This is obvious.  The method adopted, though, alters the frequency and type of thinking needed at each stage of the project. In waterfall, a lot of thinking goes on in the beginning. Team then move on to execution, which itself will need a different type of thinking. Agile teams, however, explore more often.  The cycle of problem solving and execution repeats every two to four weeks, depending on the iteration length.   

The following table shows some Agile activities, their frequency and the thinking that goes on in each activity.

Activity
Frequency
Thinking
Stand-ups Daily Achievements since the previous day, plan for the day and impediments.
Pair programming Daily The observer pays total attention to the code being written, constantly thinks about alternatives, possible bugs, larger picture and design improvement.
Sprint planning 2-4 weeks Each team member thinks about the problem and the solution, considers others’ views and constantly adjusts his own thoughts.
Sprint retrospective 2-4 weeks What was the commitment and how well did the team do? What went well and what did not? Does the team need to change anything or introduce new practices?

Agile and Neuroplasticity

The activities shown in the table above or topics discussed in each one are not exhaustive!  There are several other situations and ceremonies that make Agile teams think more often.  The sheer frequency with which teams shift between thinking and doing is unique to Agile. And the results on their brains will be different.   

[dropshadowbox align=”center” effect=”lifted-both” width=”90%” height=”” background_color=”#f6fcc7″ border_width=”1″ border_color=”#dddddd” rounded_corners=”false” ]The sheer frequency with which teams shift between thinking and doing is unique to Agile. And the results on their brains will be different.[/dropshadowbox]

Compare a person who exercises for an entire week continuously to someone who spreads the same exercise over several weeks. Even if the total amount of exercise is identical, the results will be dramatically different.

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6 Obstacles to Process Improvement

Six Obstacles to Process Analysis and Improvement, Prabhaker Panditi - www.LeadingAgility.com

6 Obstacles to Process Improvement

“The cup is overflowing” cries the student as the master keeps pouring tea. “Like this cup, you are already full of ideas”  replies the master calmly. “I cant put anything in it before you empty your cup.” Despite Hollywood’s caricature of this Zen episode, it has a profound message for business process analysis and improvement.

Let’s say you want to study the current process of liquidity management of a bank, or materials planning for a manufacturing or distribution entity. Approaching this assignment with your ‘cup full’ robs you of the chance to notice anything new. You miss the subtle variations in processes that invariably exist among organizations.  And unless you examine the current situation thoroughly and understand why each step exists, the redesigned or re-engineered process is bound to be sub-optimal.

As for the outside world, you will be confronted by what you see. And what you see is primarily what you look at.

— Zen saying

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The Greatest Pitfall For A Coach Or Mentor

The greatest pitfall for a Coach or Mentor

Greatest Pitfall for a Coach or Mentor - Prabhaker Panditi

.Image Courtesy – Frits Ahlefeldt, www.publicdomainpictures.net

How to get noticed

Picture this: the teacher asks a question to a group of school children. One of the students blurts out the answer immediately. “Good. Very good” acknowledges the teacher.

The student learned an important lesson.  To get recognized, you need to jump in, be the first, seize the opportunity … as quick as light. Over the next few years, this lesson would be reinforced time and again; in the playground, during cultural events, in the college canteen.

 

What’s wrong?

This  Me-First, I-Know-IT  attitude may be helpful in some situations or for some roles.  For a coach or mentor, however, it will be a liability.

Despite the difference between the two roles, both demand some self-restraint.   You need to give space to the Coachee or Mentee, to let her discover things.  Dishing out solutions robs them of the chance to explore, to deep dive, to reflect.

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3 Signs of Radical Agile Transformation

Agile Transformation (Image Courtesy - Roland Ally, Domainpictures.net)

What indicates  radical Agile transformation?

a)  All the organizations’ projects now using Agile.

b) The organization now follows most of the Agile practices.

c) None of the above.

If you have answered ‘C’, congratulations. “Radical Agile Transformation” indicates a larger change. A shift in the culture of the organization. A rewriting of its DNA.  Using Agile in projects is a good step, but no guarantee that transformation has taken place.   Agile Principles and Practices are only the means. They are not an end in themselves.

Ends may vary.  One company may set a modest goal while another aims for a complete metamorphosis. Regardless of the goals, three broad things show a radical organization wide Agile transformation.

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7 Special Things You Can Gift Your Agile Project Teams This Holiday Season

Get your team’s spirit soaring and turbo charge productivity. And enrich yourself as well.

7 Special Things You Can Gift Your Agile Project Teams This Holiday Season This holiday season, gift something invaluable to your Agile project teams. Whether you are an Agile Coach, Scrum Master, Project Manager or Product Managers, your team will cherish these gems for a long, long time. They will  get the team’s spirit soaring and turbo-charge productivity. Research proves these benefits.

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The Shrink Law of Agile

Shrink Law of Agile, Prabhaker Panditi - www.LeadingAgility.com

Parkinson’s Law meets its match: The Shrink Law of Agile

How long does it take to paint the Statue of Liberty?  If a team has hundred days to clean The Titanic, how many days will they take to do it?  What if they have fifty days, instead of hundred?  Though hard to believe,  the answer to each of these questions may be same.  Each task will take the time allocated for it!

That’s Parkinson’s Law at work. Work increases to fill the time available.

C. Northcote Parkinson introduced the Law in his article in the Economist in 1955.  “The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may… leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil” he declared. Originally aimed at the  bureaucracy, you can see the Law at work in everyday situations.   The Law may sound funny, outrageous, irrational, insulting…until you look at others’ work.  Not yours of course, other peoples’. 

The Law applies to almost all human endeavor.   Exceptions are only few.  Agile  is one of them.

When the going gets tough, the tough…lower goals.

Agile not only ignores Parkinson’s Law, it actually reverses it…to start with. 

In Agile,  work reduces to fill the time available. Reduces!  I call it the Shrink Law of Agile.

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