agile mandate

XYZ were a digital agency and over the years had done many software projects for their customers with varying degrees of success. After learning that many companies were having great success with Agile processes and noticing that even the UK government had decided to adopt those ways of working, the directors had realised the use of these new techniques would improve the performance of their own company. To that end, they had issued a mandate to the project team that by the end of the financial year, they had to have performed at least one Agile project. By this time next year, all projects needed to be Agile.

So it was that Colin, our intrepid consultant, found himself in the office of Richard ‘RJ’ Jones, head of XYZ’s Project Office. RJ had contacted Colin so he could get the training and coaching he needed for his team before they started their pilot Agile project.

“Tell me,” said Colin opening the conversation, “how big is your team?”

RJ though a bit before responding, “We have a team of about fifteen project managers, maybe twenty or so business analysts and half a dozen architects”

Colin looked at him quizzically, “but what about the engineers, the coders, and the test analysts? How many of those do you have?”

“Ah! I see your confusion,” he replied, “We don’t have any engineers of our own. We outsource all our development and testing work to best-of-breed suppliers in India. We haven’t done any of our development for years.”

He continued, “Three of the developers for this project are an outsourcer’s head office in Chennai; the other two are in a subsidiary office. Again, they’re in Chennai but they’re about forty-five minutes apart. The two-man QA team is in Mumbai but they work for a separate supplier company and, again, have their own office.” He looked at Colin, “Is not having our own engineers a problem?”

“It’s not so much that you don’t have your own team, although, admittedly, that is a problem. The bigger issue is where everybody is located,” said Colin, “Agile is based on a set of principles and one of the most important of those principles is that face-to-face communication is the most effective. You’re not going to be able to carry out face-to-face conversations with people halfway round the world.”

RJ had a frown on his forehead, “I hope this isn’t going to be a big problem. There is no way I will be able to get everybody on the same continent, never mind in the same room. I just don’t have the authority; I have no say at all in the working practices of our outsourcing partners. I was hoping you would be able to just give us some training and maybe follow that up with some coaching.”

Colin smiled at him, “It’s not quite that simple. Agile isn’t something where you can just attend a class, get a certificate and all of a sudden you become Agile. Agile demands real change.”

RJ looked worried now, “Hold it a minute, are you saying we won’t be able to do Agile at all?

“In a sense I am,” said Colin nodding seriously, “Agile is a binary thing; either you are, or you aren’t. Having said that, the intent of Agile is to uncover better ways of doing software, so why don’t we start by looking at the things we can improve by bringing in some Agile practices?”

RJ sighed with relief, “So we will be able to do some Agile then?”

Colin agreed with him, “You can do some Agile practices and you can use some Agile techniques. You won’t be Agile you’ll be what we call ‘AgileBut’ In other words; you’ll be doing what you can to be Agile but you won’t be upholding all of the principles. For example, you don’t have a co-located team.”

“I should also tell you that responsibility without authority is one of the most common recipes for stress. You have the responsibility for making your projects Agile but you don’t have the authority to make your team uphold the Agile principles. It’s a no-win situation for you and you might want to have a conversation with your boss about that.”

“I’ll do that,” said RJ, “Thanks very much for your help today, it’s really put things into perspective for me.”

Colin left, wondering how many HR complaints this current trend of issuing Agile mandates might bring.

Tags: coaching, organisational culture, project management, RJ, Stories, workplace well-being
Date: Monday, January 13, 2014