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“What is there about Agile that hasn’t already been said? Lots, actually, but much of it is “elephant in the room” stuff. We know it’s there, and it’s probably big, but we pretend not to see it. Maybe it’s time to start talking about it.”
One of the issues I’ve observed is that we don’t recognize our own dogmatism. A lot of people have a preference for one of the Agile frameworks. This can be for any of many reasons. Maybe it’s the one we learned first, the one for which we have our most recent (or only) certification, the one the “cool kids” are talking about, the one we know the most activities for, the one that “just feels right.” Maybe it’s something else. But we just know our framework, activity, method, process or other solution is the right one. We risk becoming a bit, well, fanatical.
There’s an old saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Are Scrum, kanban, SAFe, unSAFe, etc. our hammers?
What if our favoured flavour of Agile isn’t right for the context? What if Agile’s not the answer? What if we open our minds to the possibility that some other solution will work?
Do we talk about this? With our employers and clients? Amongst ourselves? Do we even think about this? Or do we introduce our preferred frameworks, structures, tools and processes and make sure everyone does them correctly?
Perhaps it’s time to think about how we understand the first value of the Agile Manifesto.
Which leads to another conversation. Agile practices were designed to replace current processes, not pile on. They are instead of, not in addition to.
In my long-ago Scrum training, people from a large financial institution, objected to almost everything our instructor told us. “We can’t do that,” they whined. “Audit won’t let us.” I might have called out, “How do you know? Have you asked them?”
As Agilists, our role is to improve the way people work, not add to their burden. Certain reporting requirements and other practices become redundant when teams work in an Agile way. Does the corner office really need that status report when they can see the work board? Is this security practice still relevant?
The same sort of conversation can help us – and our
bosses, partners and clients – understand whether agile practices and actually address the business problem. Or which practices address it and which add no value.
They may have hired us to teach teams to use Scrum properly and get all those user stories lined up in Jira with the right amount of story points to the appropriate decimal place. How is that going to help our clients, our customers or our organization? Perhaps it does that. But do we know? Do they know?
When we have a constructive, two-way conversation about the practices they and we are introducing, we contribute.
Do we wait for the all-singing, all-dancing, all-ducks-in-a-row. super-technicolour Agile solution to come along, all signed-off and budgeted and staffed up with seals of approval all over it? Change does not have to be a big, hairy deal.
We can make change non-threatening – for everyone – by framing change as an experiment. “Let’s try this small thing for a short time and see if it works. We’ll learn something. We’ll use the people and budget we already have. And, if it doesn’t help, we’ll stop it.”
Nothing will convince people you are serious about experiments and empiricism like cancelling a change that didn’t work out.
A few days ago, a colleague asked me what I would recommend new Agilists do to build their knowledge and credibility. I suggested they learn about business – not just business, in general, but their business. We need to understand what are the business results organizations are hoping to achieve through Agile practices. Are we getting them? Is what we’re doing helping?
The software industry has done well to move from a process focus, to a program focus, to a product focus. The next focus must be an outcome focus. What is the point? What are we getting? How is it working?
One of the most disturbing things I have observed is a sort of “Agile Arrogance.” I see Tweets about, “these guys just don’t get it,” and comments about “management morons.” Why are some people so dismissive about people who don’t buy the ideas they’re selling? (Recall the dogma section.)
I suspect they define success in their jobs as “people do what I tell them.” Is that really the deal?
We are hired and paid for our expertise and experience. We offer our best support in the best way we can. People, including those who hired us, won’t always take it. Recall Jerry Weinberg’s Third Law of Consulting: “Never forget they’re paying you by the hour, not by the solution.” Our job is to make the offer.
We offer our mad programming, facilitating, coaching, change management and people skills and experience. They are more likely to be appreciated, and our support accepted, if two other traits are in place. You can’t be certified in them and they may not show on your resume. But people know when they are present. They’re worth discussing – and practising – if we are to improve our profession and our own chances of success as practitioners. We need to develop humility and curiosity in ourselves and nurture these traits in others.
We need conversations about all these things, where we use empathy and confidence, in equal measure.
What I’ve seen, in over 50 years in the workplace, is that real confidence comes from knowing you don’t have all the answers and being OK with that because you’re going to find them – or you’ll find something better on the way.
In this era of social media influencers, anyone who’s read a book or watched a TED talk can self-promote as an expert in that topic. Now that we’re isolating in a pandemic and everyone is rushing online, I could be a legit distancing diva. After all, I’ve been working, coaching and training online since the ’90s. And I know how to use breakout rooms, polls and whiteboards on Zoom and have the power to mute anyone at will.
Unfortunately, I seem to want no part of it anymore. I’m not sure why, except that it worries me.
LEVERAGING TECHNOLOGICAL INTERMEDIATION
Buzzwords make you look smart, right? I see folks in my professional world believing, imagining or pretending that their online tools connect them. They judge that they – both people and tools – are being effective. They wonder what made us think work teams needed to be co-located. Unfortunately, no matter how good the tools are, they provide, at best, a shallow, fabricated, artificial connection. When work requires true collaboration, is real communication happening when we spend our days on Zoom?
I recognize that tools are what we have, as we isolate, temporarily, in this pandemic. And I’m rather fond of what Zoom has done and can do for me and my tribe. What worries me is my certainty that some business people, watching work groups make this ‘remote work thing’ actually work, are thinking, “Hey, this ‘remote work thing’ actually works; let’s keep it going. We’ll save on premises costs, travel and the hassles of dealing with people all day.” The cost issue, alone, will be attractive once the pandemic ends and the accountants tally the financial impact while the PR folk position this to maximize share price.
Worry Number One: What will be missing when technology is, forever, intermediating? Even deluxe, wonderful intermediary platforms (Adobe Connect, iObeya, D2L, etc.) require careful thought about what, why, with whom and in what context we are communicating. Are we considering these things when we set up – or sit through – the seventh online meeting of the day? Or when we reformat our highly interactive in-person workshops as webinars? Or when we move our annual conference to virtual? Or when we forget that there are still neighbourhoods without reliable highspeed?
Worry Number Two: Are we chasing solutions before we understand the problem? And what is the problem, anyway?
My email and Twitter feeds are generously sprinkled with messages from tool vendors and consultants pitching their solutions to this new challenge of Working From Home (WFH). I want to scream, “This is not teleworking. This is staying at home in a pandemic and trying to work.”
Tools aren’t the WFH solution, no matter what tool vendors, your boss, the IT department or some dude on Facebook tell you. I’m married to Gadget Guy. As a result of that happy union, and having worked from home since the ’80s, I’ve accumulated heaps of teleworking tools and toys. Speakers, microphones, lights, cables, software, furniture, coffee makers. What do I use? Not many.
As I wrote in Part 1, when you’re WFH, tools are less important than behaviour. I can’t overstate the importance of the human aspect of working at home. It was always important; now, more so, since we’re working in a cloud of uncertainty.
Still here are a few things I’ve learned about WFH tools.
This may be the most important WFH tool. Best created as a collaborative effort, it sets out how you’re going to work together. It’s formal, but not immutable. It will evolve as you learn what works for your team.
A team agreement sets out such things as:
Under normal circumstances, it’s best to have a dedicated place you can call your home office. But these circumstances aren’t normal. You may be sheltering in place with roommates, spouse or children who are also working from home. And pets.
Speaking of Zoom, there are a gazillion of remote communication tools available. Don’t use too many. When you need to find information someone sent you, you don’t want to have to check email, Slack, Trello, Sharepoint, the google drive and voicemail. (See team agreement, above.)
So the big idea is: Don’t stress about the tools. Do the best you can with what you have. Do what’s really important. Don’t expect yourself – or anyone else – to be as productive as you are in your workplace. And remember we’re all human.
SUPER REFERENCE – LISETTE SUTHERLAND – COLLABORATION SUPERPOWERS
If you want excellent tips and resources for teleworking, head to Collaboration Superpowers, where our friend Lisette Sutherland has assembled tips, tools, resources, podcasts and workshops, all dedicated to working from home. When the coronavirus hit and people started working from home, she set up a How To page. https://www.collaborationsuperpowers.com/covid19/ It’s loaded with ideas and links to more resources.
Except for people providing essential services and a few idiots, most of us are in the second week of self-isolation due to COVID-19. Whether it’s lock down, shutdown, quarantine or social distancing, scads of people are now working from home. Nobody knows for how long.
As businesses scramble to get set up with communication and collaboration tech tools to keep the wheels of industry turning, I thought I’d write a series of posts to share what I’ve learned in 26 years of working, teaching and learning from a computer connection.
THIS IS NOT NORMAL TELEWORKING
The first thing to remember is that, night now, we’re working from home as a result of a pandemic. Anything that anyone, including me, tells you about their past teleworking experiences needs to be viewed through a lens of “this ain’t normal.” This is not an experiment. We’re not doing this to save money or travel time. We’re trying to slow the spread of a deadly virus. Government health departments and, in some places, uniformed officers, are telling us to stay at home, for our own sake and that of others. People are, justifiably, distracted and concerned and that will affect everything they do.
Any organization that thinks people working from home will produce the same amount and quality of work as they did in the office is in Fantasy Land. In normal times, there’s a productivity drop, at first, as people sort out the procedures and processes involved in teleworking. In normal times, they’re not working with concern for their health, their loved ones, their jobs, the economy and the food supply. Lower your expectations. (This applies whether you are the boss or an employee.)
THE BIG IDEA
Remember you’re dealing with humans. Tools and processes matter but, despite what the vendors claim, they’re not the key to working at home. What matters is human connection. We’re a social species. Even when our work can be done solo, it’s important for us to know we’re working together, part of something bigger.
I was part of a team that started working from home in the early 1990s. As teleworking pioneers, our tools were lousy, by today’s standards – PCs on modem dial-up to a LAN/WAN, IBM’s chat tool, no email, no Internet, no printers, and the ability to call into a teleconference line. As we quickly learned, the tools were not going to be the key to success.
We made being remote work through reaching out to each other. We used that conference line for a quick early morning meeting to check in with each other and synchronize our work. (Agilists will recognize this as a virtual stand-up.) We used the chat system to share personal news, vent frustration, celebrate milestones, post dumb jokes. (This was before the era of cat photos.)
As managers, my boss and I felt we had a responsibility to keep people connected to each other and to the organization. He and I chatted every morning – a virtual coffee break. I did the same with my team in the afternoon. We made it very clear, by the nature of the conversation, that we were checking in, not checking up. This was critical in our time of change. It’s more critical, today, as people deal with additional burden of uncertainty and worry caused by the pandemic.
Invite your team to design its own ways of staying in touch and keeping the human connection going. Keep activities optional. Not everyone wants to attend a Zoom Happy Hour.
All forms of communication become critically important when you are not face-to-face. The illustration to the right shows what communication professionals call “media richness.” We get the most information from a face-to-face discussion. (I currently believe there’s an even higher level – face-to-face with a whiteboard. But that’s a topic for another day.) The least info is conveyed by a poster or mass mailing.
When we’re together, we don’t rely on words, alone, to convey our meaning and intent. We have tone, body language, pace, intensity, volume. When we have only words, such as when we’re sending a text or an email, we must be careful about our choice of words. You’re not just responsible for the message you send; you’re responsible for the way it’s received. Be sure your intent and meaning are clear.
Give everything a “tone check” before you hit [Send]. And don’t rely on emojis to convey your tone. Your cute little grin may not travel well across platforms and applications. Instead, be conscious of your words and explain your meaning clearly.
You may recall that inside your mobile phone, there’s an actual phone. A call may not be as effective as a face-to-face conversation, but it’s kilometers ahead of anything you can write and probably a lot faster. Whatever method you use to communicate, your investment of time and effort in being clear will avoid misunderstanding, speculation and all the ugliness that can accompany them.
Up next: Teleworking tools
Coming soon: Distractions, staying sane, online training.