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When We Need to Slaughter Our Sacred Cows. Agile Companies Are Slaughterhouses.

July 17th, 2009 4 comments

sacredcowIn some medieval cultures, cows were sacred, never to be killed for food or even used to assist in the plowing of fields.  These sacred cows enjoyed a serene life, having free run of the space within the community’s gates in which they resided.  These cows suffered no enemies and were generally able to lead long lives, ultimately dying simply of old age.  They were never challenged, except in very rare circumstances, as was the case one spring in medieval Europe…

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To all of the residents of this particular community, it was like any other spring day, tending to their gardens just outside the fortress walls, readying their fields to provide the food that would supply the needs of everyone for the year.  But this was no ordinary day.

It started as a low rumbling, and as each minute passed, the rumbling got louder, signifying to the town’s residents that there was something unknown approaching, and approaching fast.  In those times, precaution was the measure of the day, so all of the residents outside the city walls quickly moved behind the protective barriers, ensuring that they would be able to weather the force of whatever was on its way.  After everyone was safely within the garrison, they closed the fortress gates, manned lookout positions on the upper walls, and armed themselves in preparation for the unknown.

It wasn’t more than a few minutes after they were fully readied that they spied the first wave of attackers on the far ridge, and it wasn’t but a few minutes longer that hundreds of attackers were now fully positioned along the walls, readying their attack.  And attack they did.  The initial attack was followed by an even more brutal, elongated barrage of arrows, battering rams, and intimidation.  But the town held their own, holding off the attack, and keeping the community safe.  But the barbarians at the gate were not to be driven off.

BarbariansOne day of this siege turned into two, and then two into three, until the town found itself fighting for survival for a number of weeks.  The townspeople knew they would not be able to survive forever, they only hoped to last longer than their attackers.  But food supplies were running low, and the men responsible for thwarting the attack were getting weak.  They had no access to additional supplies, and were cut off from the outside world.  They did, however, have an abundant supply of sacred cows within the township’s walls.  Unfortunately, not only was the idea of killing a sacred cow taboo, it was also a horrible crime.

But these were not ordinary times.  Should the soldiers defending the attack fail, the town’s sacred cows would almost certainly be slaughtered by the barbarians.  But, if the town’s soldiers were to kill some of the cows to provide food, they would likely be stronger and better able to continue the fight and perhaps prevail.  There really was no other alternative, the soldiers knew that in order to have any chance at saving the town, the people, and their way of life, they would have to re-evaluate the sacred nature of their cows, even if just a month ago this thought would have been abhorrent.

So in a bold attempt to save their community, these brave men evolved and re-defined the place of the cow in their society, ultimately to the townspeople’s benefit, and to the cow’s obvious demise.  But the town survived.

So what does a town and it’s sacred cows have to do with Agile teams?

Plenty.

Sacred cows roam free in many of today’s companies, never being questioned, never being examined objectively, simply they are revered by those that are forced to live with them.  Sacred cows can take many forms, but are easy to spot with the simple question “why are we doing this?”  If the answer that returns is “because we have always done this” or “this is the way it is done here,” you likely have yourself a sacred cow.  And as most companies that have moved to an Agile approach know, sacred cows most often times need to be slaughtered.

Choosing to slaughter sacred cows is a much different exercise when the decision is made while there are barbarians at the gate.  This type of decision springs from necessity, or more often, desperation, and ultimately results in something far short of a true changing of culture, a step that is required for most companies looking to move from waterfall to Agile.  Choosing to slaughter a sacred cow when there are no barbarians at the gate results in a decision made in an effort to improve rather than a decision in an effort to simply survive.

Now, don’t get me wrong, in the grand scheme of things, it is still a better situation to be able to dispatch with sacred cows, regardless of the impetus.  At times, being forced to remove sacred cows can result in a greater comfort level in identifying additional cows that should be asked to leave.  It is a muscle that needs to be stretched from time to time so that it does not atrophy.  But as many of you are likely aware, most larger companies simply do not encourage, let alone allow, the examination of these stale relics of the past, but instead have misplaced pride in the history of policies and actions that brought their company to their current position.

Learn to evolve, or plan on starving to death.

In today’s business climate, with its rapidly changing competitive landscape, those companies that choose to not examine their own sacred cows will likely find themselves in the unenviable position of needing to make these decisions while barbarians are banging at the gate.  The recording industry is a great example of a large organization that was unwilling to examine their own cow.

The compact disc.  A golden example of how sacred cows detrimentally influenced the recording industry.

The compact disc was a boon to the recording industry.  It was cheap to produce, had superior sound quality, and were selling phenomenally well, in spite of a price point that was often complained about by their customers.  The recording industry was able to enjoy this situation for more than two decades.  They enjoyed this hugely beneficial climate for so long that is effectively created a sacred cow, one that would only be challenged after they were forced to, but ultimately much too long after the point in time they could have slaughtered the sacred cow for their advantage, rather than simply survival.  A college student named Shawn Fanning created a simple piece of software that allowed users to trade copies of their music across the internet.  Napster created a shockwave across the industry, but it was only the first in a long time of technologies that would allow customers to find their music quickly and at reduced cost.  There was a window of opportunity for the recording industry to see the changing tides, but instead they had tunnel vision, only seeing the glory days of the CD, and the money that went along with it, and chose to fight reality in their effort to bring the past to the present.

And they failed miserably.  And they continue to fail even today to some extent.

Steve Jobs was the first to successfully challenge the sacred CD cow with the advent of iTunes, and after a short period of time was able to prove that it does not make sense to leave your sacred cow sacred.  Often times it is important to wield the cleaver and put down the cow that has an organization following beliefs of the past during times which require an evolution in approach.  Sacred cows are rarely sacred forever.

But in light of all of this, it is not easy to bring our own sacred cows to light.  They are often sacred for a reason (although rarely a really good reason mind you), and those individuals that do choose to point the finger at the cow in the room will likely be met with scorn or dismissal by those other individual’s intent on protecting the institutions of the past.  Clearing these cows from our hallways and boardrooms takes courage.  And in reality, there is safety in numbers in these types of endeavors.

Become a Sacred Cow Hunter.

It often takes nothing more than keeping a vigilant eye.  Encouraging (or requiring at first) some type of ‘inspect and adapt’ mechanism within your organization, where a safe environment is created and allows for anyone to call out a sacred cow sighting.  Companies must believe that if any value, belief, process, policy, or corporate mantra is valuable enough to be kept, it should also be strong enough to be challenged.  It is cancerous in any company to allow a festering sentiment about ‘why something is done’ to grow without address the why behind the what of the policy.  Transparency in communication from the top down and the bottom up is most often sufficient to flush out cows hiding in the dark corners of your organization.  And if you think your company has none, they are much better at hiding than you are at finding, so keep looking.

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Flutter: The New Twitter

July 11th, 2009 1 comment

In case you have not already seen this, this is hilarious, especially if you find yourself on Twitter more than you would like, or at least like to admit.

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Categories: Humor Tags:

Traveling for Business Is Like a Box of Chocolates…

July 11th, 2009 No comments

I spent a couple of days in Columbus, OH, delivering an AgilePM training class, and had found a hotel just a couple of miles from the training location.  This hotel was downtown, which usually means that parking is pretty expensive, so I was surprised to find that parking at this hotel was only $12 a night!  In fact, when I checked in, the nice young lady helping me actually referred to it as “our convenient hotel parking.”  So I finished checking in, returned to my car, and then found my way to the parking garage that is used to offer this “convenient hotel parking” and this is what I found…

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Book Your Next Ski Vacation in Hell…The Agile Process Maturity Model is Rearing It’s Head Once Again

July 10th, 2009 1 comment

hellfreezesEvery time the topic of an Agile Process Maturity Model (or APMM for short) comes up, I simply sit back and watch the backlash grow to a furious pace, then see the APMM proponents slink off.  But here we are again, seeing the growing trend of APMM discussions, but this time, it looks like there are some pretty big players backing the movement, including a division of IBM.

As I was poking around the web and polling my Twitter folks, I found a couple of interesting links.  The first was a short post on InfoQ by Scott Ambler (dated June 15, 2006), titled Has Hell Frozen Over? An Agile Maturity Model? And then, just a single Google search later, I found the IBM website that showcases the work that has been put together in favor of this APMM.  The crazy thing?  It too was authored by Scott Ambler.  Now, don’t go misinterpreting what I am saying here, I do not think Scott is crazy, afterall 3 years have passed between the two posts, but I do find it a little peculiar when big business (like IBM) partners with an industry expert in an attempt to capitalize on any growing trend.

For those of you that have spent any amount of quality time in the Agile trenches, then you will likely know what I know, which is the idea that an overly burdensome process can easily sap an Agile project of any power and efficiency that may have been there otherwise.  Processes are like governmental positions and agencies in that once they are created, they very rarely go away.  What we have succeeded in doing with Agile is having the conversation about this truth about process and then encouraging the courage required to eliminate that which does not add value to our efforts.  Lean and mean is the way to go, but this is not an approach that is likely to play friendly with any type of review approach that will judge and evaluate success based on adherence to a pre-defined process.

Do I think that APMM could single-handedly ruin the Agile movement?  No, but as far as I understand it in its current form, I do not think that it is going to help teams become any more proficient in their approach or deliver a better product.  I believe that the man behind the curtain with this whole movement is pushing his levers in a poorly veiled attempt to appeal to large organizations that find value in the certification designation that they get to display proudly when they pass “the test.”  I have worked with more than one organization that was currently still stuck in this trap as it concerned their CMM designation.  These companies spent more time and effort worrying about keeping their current level, or moving to the next, to accurately evaluate if what they were doing and what they were delivering translated into true value.

Uhhhg, this may simple be a battle not worth fighting.  Let those companies that want their certificates showing they are at X Level of APMM go for it.  Let them spend the money.  Let them do all of this and then at the end of the day, let them continue doing the same things they were doing before the set out to rank their approach in terms of the APMM.  I do suppose that there is going to be a lot of money out there to be made for consultants who specialize in taking companies to higher levels of an APMM designation, so I might as well surrender to the movement, and then plan buying a bigger mattress under which I will stuff all of this new consulting money I plan on making.

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There Is No ‘I’ in Agile: How Teamwork Can Make or Break an Agile Project

July 9th, 2009 No comments

flyingformationFlying just a few feet off of the wings of the pilot in front and to the right of him, this skilled pilot was determined to keep a tight formation. And he was not alone in his efforts and highly honed flying abilities, as every single pilot in his entire squadron was similarly adept at maintaining this tight formation no matter the direction, the weather, or even the specific order in which these aviators organized. The formation would have looked impressive to anyone observing from the ground, but it wasn’t a formation used to impress observers, it was utilized because it worked. By maintaining this flying organization, each member of this flying contingent was able to benefit from the lift created by the pilot off of his wing, to the tune of a 71% improvement in fuel consumption. The exception to this economy of course was for the sole lead pilot, which did not benefit from having a lead aircraft providing a boost of lift. So to account for this, each member of the flying team would rotate to the lead position at regular intervals so that they could ensure that every member would share the burden for a portion of the total flight time.

This highly skilled team of aviators recognized that they could not possibly fly as far or as long without teamwork. But this spirit of teamwork did not end with the decision to maintain an efficient formation. They recognized that in order for each of the pilots to be safe, they would need to take care of each other, even when disaster struck, which it did one brisk autumn morning…

The morning had been uneventful, each of the team’s pilots maintaining a tight formation, and a vigilant eye on the ground, because on this particular morning, they were traversing enemy territory. And even though this was a dangerous mission, this mission was much like most of their other missions, as they often were forced to travel over possibly hostile terrain. But unlike most other mornings, a trailing member of the formation was struck, by what no one could be sure, but struck nonetheless, and within moments, his ability to continue flying was affected severely: he was going down. He didn’t have a choice to eject, but rather piloted his disabled craft safely to the ground so that he could assess the damage. But as experience would show, being on the ground where he was much less maneuverable, he was at a greater risk of attack. In order to keep a member of their team safe during emergencies such as these, two fellow pilots also descended from formation, landing near the downed team member, and provided protection while repairs were made. These guardians would stay by the side of the disabled pilot until he was ready to fly again. To this fleet of pilots, teamwork meant never leaving a fellow pilot behind. After a short while, the downed pilot was able to successfully repair his vessel and all three took back to the air, rejoining their squadron. Alone, the pilot may not have survived the ordeal.

geeseThis is a true story, although it is a story that likely first took place thousands of years ago. And it is a story that continues to play out even today. You see, the pilots in the story above were not the pilots you may have been thinking of, these pilots were geese. Geese offer an incredible example of teamwork and how teamwork enables each member of the team to achieve more, travel greater distances, and weather more intense emergencies than they would survive alone. Geese use this tool of teamwork because although it requires a commitment to something greater than each individual, it repays that commitment with many more benefits not available without this pledge of membership.

So what do geese flying in formation have to do with Agile teams?

Plenty.

I would venture to guess that no company in existence would openly say that they do not believe in teamwork.  I would further venture to say that most of these companies would state firmly that their teams are very good at demonstrating team work in the projects they undertake.  But the truth of the matter is that most teams rarely demonstrate the type of team work that produces results proving the possibility that the whole truly can be greater than the sum of the individual parts.  The word ‘teamwork’ has unfortunately been reduced to nothing more than a term on the balance sheet of requirements for a group of project associated individuals; a definition never verified, never authentically encouraged by the organization, but believed to exist nonetheless.  It is a word that has lost its power.  It is routinely applied to describe a group where the group behavior does not merit its application of meaning.  It is overused, under-realized, and misunderstood because of each of these are true.  And yet only a small percentage of ‘teams’ out there truly endeavor to seek the rewards that come from achieving a level of performance and professional satisfaction that is the byproduct of individuals that sacrifice their distinction, their difference, and their dissimilarities in their pursuit of that which is greater than any one person.  They pursue the quotient that is achieved when individuals become teams.  When individual output transforms into teamwork.

mmeadequoteAgile requires teamwork in the truest sense of the word.  Agile processes reward and recognize good team behavior in the spirit that good teams can produce great results, and as teams mature, great teams can produce extraordinary outcomes.   Don’t believe me?  Then let me pose a question to you…

Have you ever been a part of a team where everything seemed to click?  Where if you had an issue, someone on your team was there to help almost before you were able to ask?  Have you ever been on a team where the work seemed less like work and more like an expression of your and your team’s passion and energy?  If so, then you are not alone, as most people have actually had the experience of achieving this level of team maturity that results in true teamwork.  If you were not able to relate, then it is up to you to create this atmosphere with your own team, on your own project.

But before we can truly become a team, we have to also address the flip side of the coin, and that is the dysfunctions that can easily sink the most well intentioned ship of individuals who set out to discover the holy land of team performance.  Patrick Lencioni did a very good job of identifying these major areas in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of  a Team, so instead of reinventing the wheel (or the team), let’s use Lencioni’s model as our foundation.

Dysfunction One:  The absence of trust among the team members.

I think that I can safely say that if you do not have trust, you do not have anything…at least you do not have anything so far as it relates to creating a true team.  What do you have when your team members don’t trust each other or don’t trust you?  You have a group of individuals working in close proximity, but you do not have a team.  You also have a group that is not able to focus their efforts on creating a truly great product, because they must divide their attention on ensuring that they are not going to be stabbed in the back.  Even if the distrust does not rise to the levels where your resources begin to connive against one another, you still have a group that cannot truly communicate, because true, effective, healthy communication is based on a foundation of trust.

Dysfunction Two: The fear of conflict.

Great teams fight.  Perhaps the word ‘fight’ is a bit strong, but great teams are not afraid of conflict, because out of conflict can emerge true resolution.  I say true resolution, because resolution can happen without conflict, but it is not authentic because it typically is simply a result of one party giving in to avoid the conflict, rather than remaining passionate about the best outcome.  Conflict is not beneficial simply for conflict’s sake, but when teams fear confrontation and conflict, communication suffers, knowledge sharing suffers, and ultimately the individuals begin to manage their own actions from a place of fear, which never returns great results.

Dysfunction Three: The lack of commitment.

We use the word commitment a lot in Agile, but in this context, the word commitment is more aligned with being absolutely committed to the team’s goal rather than our own individual objectives.  When a team of individuals is committed to achieving the goals of the team, no other possibility exists, and when faced with adversity or the risk of missing an objective, the committed teams gets creative to resolve their own issues.  Commitment does not have a back door through which we can escape when times get tough.  When a team embraces their commitments, there is little that they cannot not accomplish.

shindlequoteDysfunction Four: The avoidance of accountability.

The buck stops here.  Not at the desk of the project manager, but at the door of the team’s war room.  The team’s ability to remain accountable to their commitments means that creativity is likely to flow in the face of project difficulty.  I am not accidentally being vague here, I am purposely avoiding being too specific because I have seen many varied examples of how a team’s creativity in their attempts to resolve issues has surprised even them.  Keep all possibilities open, along with your mind, and allow the intelligent people you have assembled for your team to be accountable, even up until the very end.  With accountability comes the possibility of glory, don’t take this away from your team.

Dysfunction Five: The inattention to results.

In order for any team to have the possibility of making improvements, they must be able to honestly assess the effectiveness of their results.  It may be nice to sugar coat our reality, so that we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but all we are doing when we practice this soft-handed approach, is sweep under the rug the very information that is most likely to assist us in improving our future efforts.  Results are not good or bad, it is just information.  What teams do with this information will determine the character of the team.  Team’s that choose to ignore the difficult to digest results will continue to produce that same quality of results, but instead of improving their actions, they will simply develop an immunity to the effects the poor results use to inflict.  If it is painful for a team to honestly and authentically examine their results, then this is a sure sign that they need to examine them in detail.  Allow the team to feel the pain, experience any negative reaction that comes from this examination, and most importantly, use the total experience to open up the possibility of valuable conversations that will allow the team to avoid repeating it all again in the future.

antoinequoteThere is no ‘I’ in Agile.

Individuals are great, I love having superstars on my team, but when we work together to achieve a common goal, I only recognize good team behavior, not individual efforts.  The people on your team are just like people everywhere, they are going to behave in ways which reflect how they are rewarded and recognized.  So if your company does not officially reward team’s that perform, only individuals (like during annual reviews), start the conversation to address this.  In you don’t, please do not be surprised when all of your cheerleading over the important of teamwork, team play, and team building are met with cheers, but then never realized.

Agile requires many different areas that reflect the need for a true cultural paradigm shift within most companies, teamwork and team building being one of the majors, so get ready, it is now up to you.  Becase if you have made it this far in my post, you have heard the bell.  And you cannot un-ring the bell, you know.

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Categories: The Agile Team Tags: , , ,

Audioboo, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook…Social Networking Tools Continue to Pop.

July 2nd, 2009 No comments

audioboologo2A bit off topic here, but as I was roaming the vast halls of the internet today I ran across a new social networking type of tool called Audioboo.  It works much the same as others, providing a technology to share, interact, and connect with friends and collegues over the internet, but is much different in the way that instead of simply capturing text, it captures audio.  You sign up for the service (free, which is in keeping with the rest of the category), then you can download the application onto an iPhone and you are all set.  [For those of you without an iPhone, they also allow uploading of audio on their sister site PhoneBoo, which costs nothing, other than what your provider charges you for the call.]

From your iPhone or any other phone, you simply record anything that you would like to share, up to 3 minutes in length.  Then once you are done, you upload the audio, and voila! everyone that you are connected to is able to listen to your audio share.  If you are doing this from your iPhone, it also encodes location data, showing where (on a map) that you recorded the sound byte.  Optionally, you can also snap a picture to show along with your audio.

At this point, I am not certain if I will find enough value in this tool to use beyond the initial ‘wow this is cool’ phase, but nonetheless I find the tool innovative.

Which brings me to another topic that seems to continue to be all the rage, Twitter.  Now, there is nothing that I could write that would add any new insight into this seemingly unstoppable technology, in fact I am almost embarrassed to say that I have not been able to see enough value in Twitter to use it consistently. In fact, a colleague of mine and I just a conversation a day or so ago to discuss possible business applications of the service.  I know that businesses out there must be using Twitter in some of their marketing, sales, or simply communication efforts, but I have not really seen any that appear to be more than just gimmicks.

But I am coming around to Twitter, it has just been slow.  A couple of factors have began to change my mind concerning whether I should be using Twitter more consistently.  First, while looking over the analytics of the traffic making its way to this blog, I am seeing more and more traffic being driven by Twitterers (or is it Tweeters?)  If I am going to grow a readership that utilizes Twitter, I suppose I should jump into the fray.  The second factor, one that seriously surprised me, was the results of a survey conducted by LinkedIn that found more businesses identifying Twitter, more than any other competing technology, as the service to master in order to be successful in today’s business climate.  A great write-up on the survey was completed by ReadWriteWeb and is worth a read if you have a few minutes.

I am soliciting feedback from you…share how you are utilizing Twitter, your experiences with the technology, and if you believe it to be more than a gimmick in its offering.  As I develop my own ideas, I will share them here.

And if you would like, follow me on Twitter, username AgileAdvisor.

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