Thursday, September 20, 2007

Agile Is Not "Make It Up As You Go"

Bookmark and Share

Much to my delight, there is growing recognition that the Agile movement has attracted more than a few constituents that leverage the great principles of Agile as an excuse to "make it up as you go". It's true that Agile enables and even encourages a system that responds to change and adapts efficiently in response to the collective assessment of the team in the context of demonstrable progress and up-to-the-minute (or up-to-the-sprint) evaluation of needs and opportunities. Good stuff. It's also true that Agile emphasizes people and collaboration. And it encourages empowerment and local decision-making. Really good stuff. Unfortunately, there are many examples where these valuable leadership characteristics are being taken to an extreme or taken out of context and applied in ways that can be damaging to the team, to the project, and to the business.

I was speaking with a senior IT leader recently. This individual, for whom I have a great deal of respect, has not had much exposure to Agile and was telling me about an recent experience with a self-proclaimed "Agile" team. The primary take away from their close encounter of the Agile kind was frustration that months into a project the team could not even describe the most fundamental aspects of their objectives. It reminds me of that quote, "if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there." Adaptation and empirical process controls are good things - incredibly powerful and valuable. But Agile doesn't mean "we have no idea where we're going or when we'll get there or which road we'll take." Agile in the absence of meaningful vision and direction is just hacking, and hacking gives Agile a bad name.

Mike posted a nice writeup on how we might look at RUP as an effective framework for organizing Agile teams at scale. In this post, title The Agile Heart of the Unified Process, he writes:

The secret to scaling Agile lies in doing just enough up front planning to ensure the teams understand the big picture of the product they are creating and have defined the significant mechanisms of communication between the various subcomponents. The RUP provides an ideal framework for helping a collection of small teams define what needs to be done in support of a large scale Agile development effort.
Whether you follow Mike's advise or some other, be sure to know where you're going on an Agile project - and be sure you've picked the right road to get you there.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Leadership - The Secret Sauce

Bookmark and Share

More and more it occurs to me that one of the most important ingredients in the secret sauce of leadership is the ability to create a situation where the people feel like they're responsible for their own destiny - that what they think (and believe) has an influence. I'm reminded of that Eisenhower quote, "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it."

One way we do that is by enabling and empowering the people to advance the cause - to invent and improve the means of accomplishing the goals. To do this, it's essential that the people understand and believe that the system belongs to them. As leaders, we should reach inside and create among the people a hunger and a quest for improvement of their system. The improvement then generates from the center and radiates outward. This is "inside-out leadership" or "leadership from the center" and creates a sense of ownership that leads to ridiculous energy… and ridiculous improvement… and outrageous performance.

Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System ("Toyota Way"), said it like this:

We need to use the words ‘you made’ as in ‘follow the decisions you made.’ When we say ‘they were made’ people feel like it was forced upon them.

The results of this leadership style are tremendous. By harnessing the energy and intellect of the team, you not only benefit from the "Wisdom of the Crowd", you instill a sense of ownership and commitment that is able to overcome any barrier - take any hill. Author Gary Hamel speaks to this in his "Management Innovation" article in the February 2006 edition of the Harvard Business Review:

“Only after American car makers had exhausted every other explanation for Toyota’s success – an undervalued yen, a docile workforce, Japanese culture, superior automation – were they finally able to admit that Toyota’s real advantage was its ability to harness the intellect of ‘ordinary’ employees.”

There's a particularly meaningful nugget in that quote… Harness the intellect of "ordinary" employees

Adaptive and agile organizations are learning organizations. Learning organizations achieve outrageous levels of performance by harnessing the intellect and energy of the people through "inside out leadership" - the secret sauce.