These days agile is the new black, and thanks for that! Having been an IT Project Manager for around 30 years, I have seen too many classic-style projects fail, because the budget or the time allocated to do the project did not match the scope, because of late or poor decision-making from the steering committee, or simply because the competencies to do the project were not available.
A lot of wishful thinking was forming our projects, and if you protested, you often got a direct order to go and fix the unfixable. You were the Project Manager, after all… I’m thankful that I had my crystal ball and magic wand, since I was often asked to be a magician 😊
Did these bad things go away with agile approaches?
Well, the answer is a definite maybe!
If we look at the Cynefin framework (By Dave Snowden) below, I guess that anyone with project experience can agree that we are usually in the complicated and/or complex area, sometimes even in the chaotic area, but seldom in the simple area where everything is perceivable, predictable and repeatable.
Therefore, we can forget the idea that the command-and-control style of management will work in these scenarios or insisting that as long as we plan long enough or try to standardize complexity – which by the way is impossible, we will achieve project success.
This has been experienced by many organizations, who have started to transform in a more agile direction. Usually they start up agile teams believing that their problems will then go away. Well, they may – but only if you are willing to pay the full price. Agile systems are not a team-thing only. They require a different management style too.
3 ways that managers obstruct agility
When you move in an agile direction you will indeed see improvements. Mainly due to:
- Increased transparency
- A more frequent dialogue with your customer = earlier feedback
However, the big-scale improvements you were looking for, remain a dream only until you fix what impedes your agile system. Often the biggest impediment is the lack of real and consistent management support of your agile ambitions based on sound decisions.
- Mid-level managers do not really want to delegate decision-making authority to agile teams. Are they not managers after all!
- Both top- and mid-level managers return to “good old” waterfall habits as soon as difficulties arise. Even if experience shows that waterfall will not give them the results they seek
- They pick the agile elements they intuitively like but leave out what they don’t. This way your agile recipe will never work as intended
Changing your management style based on a shallow understanding of agile is not likely to happen. You must dig deeper!
For many years I have been coaching, training and working with organizations, large and small, to plan and execute their agile transformations so the new ways could turn into new good habits that stick.
We may as well face it: There is no easy fix. Again, look at the Cynefin framework. We are working in complicated or complex circumstances with known or even unknown unknowns. How could there be an easy fix?
“Going agile” is a change project that introduces paradigm shifts in the way you collaborate, manage and support agile teams. This requires effective, continuous communication and training at all levels in the organization.
Yes! Managers, even top-level managers, must be trained too. How else would they know how to best support their agile teams? This also sends a strong signal: “We believe in this transformation, it will not go away, and we are willing to change too”.
Scratching the surface is not enough. E.g. looking at the Scrum process which fits nicely to one single piece of paper, could never give you a deep understanding of the prerequisites to making Scrum work. The apparent simplicity of Scrum has generated numerous waterfall managers in disguise. They may use agile words, but they act as they always did.
Knowing this, we should recognize that:
- Changing old habits is a big thing that will not happen overnight. We need to be pragmatic and patient
- Many managers may intuitively feel that that they have more to lose that to gain working in agile systems. We must be able to explain what’s in it for them
- Old ways offer a false sense of security. They don’t work too well, but are known and feel comfortable. We must prove that agile systems are more predictable and more fit-for-purpose in complicated/complex scenarios
Analyze what agile framework or method is the best fit. Don’t forget Kanban. It is the alternative path to agility that works even where there is a lot of unpredictability.
Allow time to practice and make agile collaboration become a good habit. Then you will see benefits that will just keep growing