Monday, November 22, 2010

With a Wimper

The other day I ate lunch with a colleague. She argued that training the entire company on The Oz Principle and having each employee participate in eight two hour evaluations each quarter was worth the expense and bother even if only she and I were inspired to demonstrate responsibility-taking behavior before our co-workers. My position was that not a single management fad I have ever witnessed emerging from the executive suite had had any impact on corporate culture or effectiveness. The Oz Principle walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and, more to the point, smells like a duck. The most disappointing part is that seasoned businessmen and women actually buy these books.

I have made no secret of my doubts about Agile Development. To be sure, my company showed all the signs of an Agile Failure environment - top heavy decision making, Agile by mandate, lack of top-level buy-in, a culture of just-get-by. You can't just flip a switch and change the corporate culture. Now, after only a few months, the course of events is unfolding exactly as I anticipated based on my two decades experience at various companies.

First, at the sprint planning session, the so-called User Stories are written based on the steps required to complete some system design that each developer holds in his or her head. Instead of "As a call center rep, I want ..." every card begins, "As a developer I need to ...". Since our product owner comes out of IT instead of the user organization (she says she KNOWS what they need) no one blinks. When I brought this up, I was told that according to some Agile books, this is allowed. I shut up after that. Next each user story is assigned a complexity based on an unstructured discussion in which the senior members of the team dominate - no input from the underlings. Finally, the programming manager, who is on the team, provides the task estimates and then assigns each task to a developer before the first sprint has even started!

Here's what has happened: the manager nixes any self-organization and the focus remains on IT delivering the functionality that they believe the user needs. To top it off, the higher-ups are demanding hard deadlines and treating every problem as a fire, yanking team members around like manic chess pieces. This process reflects the exact sequence of events that went into planning a project before we went all Agile. As I expected, the members of IT have found a way to do exactly what they were doing before but pay lip service to being Agile. It was that way at the phone company and it's that way now.

The challenge to management is to cancel their Management Book of the Month subscription, do some real research in organizational behavior, look hard at the culture they have to deal with and find creative, insightful ways to move the company out of the 1980's. Good luck.

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