Agile – The Answer to Your Problem?

You know the type, folks who tell you it’s their agile way or the highway. I’m not one of those people, but I’m not shy with sharing my thoughts on working in ways that produce better results.

In other words, I’m agile in my approach to Agile. I think there are a hundred right ways to accomplish a task and a million more ways to fail miserably.

Textbook Dysfunction

I won’t go into details, but there was this project where I was swimming in a sea of anti-patterns tangled in a blend of agile and waterfall kelp. Everybody was drowning and management was micromanaging the sinking of the ship with devotion – instead of abandoning the ship. I’d never seen a situation like this before and there was evidence of failure and burnout everywhere but all the group’s leader wanted was more reporting so he could monitor the disaster in real time.

I did my best to recommend alternative approaches but it seemed this management team’s collective mind was made up and they stopped at nothing to make their plan work. While I admired the passion of their resolve I couldn’t make heads or tails of why they thought their plan would work. I know I must have sounded like an Agile Prima Donna, but I was just trying to help fix the leaks in the hull, stay afloat, and keep them pulling my lifeboat under as the ship sank.

I’m sharing this experience to help describe the stark contrast between a broken project and a smoothly flowing project.

A Better Way

There are a few things that are always present in successful projects.

  1. The right mix of multidisciplinary people on the core team.
  2. Shared ownership where the whole team feels responsible for the quality of the product.
  3. A shared understanding of the customer and their needs.
  4. Open communication without the fear of retaliation.
  5. A collaborative environment – which happens naturally if you get the first four right.
  6. Open dialog with supportive leadership.

Please notice that none of these are unique to any particular process methodology. These elements are the grease for the gears. The gears are the process. So without the grease, the gears will eventually grind to a halt due to friction and the project will fail.

But just like any a machine, the design of the machine may be putting undo stress on its specific parts and burning up the grease. The only solution is to change the machine’s design (the process) or spend more time greasing the gears (nurturing a collaborative environment).

The situation above was simply a case where the machine was not designed to work properly and grease was in limited supply. To make matters worse, the people that knew how to fix machines and grease gears were told to just buck it up and turn the gears by hand.

Lessons Learned

The big takeaway here is that for things to work, people need to feel supported and empowered so they can collaboratively solve problems. Managers need to either stand back or lend a hand and grease some gears themselves. Directing everyone to get out and push the broken machine down the road will not solve the problem.

The bigger the organization the longer situations like this can last. Out in the wild in smaller companies this kind of nonsense and poor leadership fail.

If you find yourself in broken situaiton a good healthy dose of leadership is what’s needed to fix it. You can try to bubble-up some solutions yourself, which is where I always start (because highly functioning multidiciplinary teams are good at solving problems) or you can work with leadership to make the necessary changes (especially if they are in-part responsible for creating them).

Sadly at the end of the day there’s not always a solution because people will do what people want to do and it’s not always possible to talk them out of it. In those cases, do what’s right for yourself.

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