“Enough of you and your annoying agile development stuff already!”

I laughed a lot at this outcry a friend (let’s call her Lisa) reported she had heard from her boss in a quick update meeting recently.

How did that happen?

Wasn’t this guy just proudly showing their shareholders progress in their latest product, raving about the quick prototyping process you’d gone through?

I wasn’t too popular when I said I found this reaction not all that surprising, it has happened to me before in business building situations, and it might be amplified in a situation where a business is under pressure to digitally transform.

The “Huddle” Effect

Agile software development methods are fantastic, aren’t they? You are quick to show results, you can react to business demands super fast, everyone is motivated, the culture of the team changes fast to become truly collaborative and multi-disciplinary rather than insular, you can adjust to changing budgets, you feel completely in the driving seat, empowered and responsible for the sake of the business. All this is great – yet you are “annoying” – how is that possible?

Well, what might have happened is that my friend just “lost” her executive. An executive in agile working processes is not necessarily the most popular role. Hamid Shojaee of Scrumhub.com about executives: “Then there are these guys – they generally get in the way, but it turns out you can’t build many products without them”.

Hang on, you might say when reading this, I am an executive, and I love the way my people work? You might, but even if you’re a hands-on leader with a strong operational focus, you are likely to have additional points on your agenda, some of them might even counter-act the goals of your scrum teams or squads and that might be perfectly reasonable.

“The Executive” and the Scrum Team

I mentioned empowerment a little earlier. Agile teams are empowered: to make decisions, to shape parts of the company, to swap priorities within their work – especially in more traditional businesses this will come as a breath of fresh air to the culture, and it will be motivating.

The executive now getting in the way might be a result of:

A: Project teams requesting to much attention for detail and time.

There may not yet be an established culture of linking and managing various scrum teams, so that they see a greater, joint responsibility, but that each team requests attention and decision-making (or maybe money) from the “annoyed boss”. Spotify speak about aligned autonomy in their video about Engineering Culture. This cannot be fixed through a traditional Project Management Office (PMO) with NPV calculation for project realisation and ressource alignment, it will have to do with the Scrum Masters working really closely together, defining joint targets and thus solving quite a few of their issues themselves.

B: The boss not being coached well enough

Hang on? Executive coaching? No, that’s not what I am talking about. Agile organisations are not necessarily easy to manage and it will take time for teams to adjust, learn and become efficient, at least a year, if not more. And, executives also belong to that team. So, an agile coach (as some people today call experienced Scrum Masters) also has the role of coaching the executive into living an agile role and needs to understand the constraints this person might face.

The executive, on the other hand, also needs to understand her or his role in the team and this may well vary from the role she or he are used to in more traditional project work (receive proposal, spend a long time making sure it’s perfect, sign off, don’t hear anything for months, big presentation, everyone’s nervous about meeting expectations etc.).

So, what happened to the friend? Why was she annoying and are they still on speaking terms?

Well, after talking this through for a while Lisa realised she was actually being pushy. Coming out of a sprint review, developer retro and sprint planning, she felt important adjustments needed to be made to the project scope. And, because her pace had become, let’s say, “agile”, she came across as overbearing and with an inappropriate urgency for her boss, who had (she didn’t know) just come out of a politically difficult negotiation and had a flight to catch. When he realised this wasn’t actually a matter of life and (electronic) death, he got annoyed and told her so (and wished he could go back to the world of presentations for a bit).

Resolution: they had a 30min meeting, which Lisa prepared properly, presented the status directly on the test system and right there a time and budget extension was signed off on.

So, even in the new world, old rules count: put yourself in your audience’s place and be to the point to save both your time.

Agreeing rules for collaborating is key, so that the boss isn’t perceived as slow and blocking the agile process and that the “product” is not taking an unrealistically large part of executive attention . Not much new there, then!

1) Intro to SCRUM (by scrumhub.com): https://youtu.be/XU0llRltyFM
2) Spotify’s agile engineering methods, part 1: https://youtu.be/Mpsn3WaI_4k