Perfection and Pragmatism

This is a long post, so here is the digest version first.

  • Develop a vision of perfection for your Agile business that includes the product AND the people that create it.
  • Think about what it feels like to work in this perfect Nirvana – engage your right brain.
  • Start moving toward that vision now as fast as you can without losing control – be pragmatic.
  • Be prepared to suffer some mental pain along the way – so eat cookies and drink milk.

That’s it. The rest of the post is some ranting to prime some thinking.

In large enterprises transitioning to Agile, it can feel like trying to swap out or retrofit your machinery while it is still cranking out product. The business still has to generate revenue and doing a massive flash-cut from traditional to Agile, unless your entire organization is truly educated and ready to go could end up knocking you out of the race, at least for a while. Trying to change your shoes while running is hard. There is a balance between fast enough to make a significant impact and so fast that you lose control. You have to aim for the sweet spot between inertia and total chaos.

Alright, I got a bit sidetracked. The real point is about what a perfect Agile Organization looks like, feels like, smells like, and delivers like, compared to where an organization is today. If you know the vision of perfection, then you can start moving pragmatically towards it, as fast as you can, taking intelligent risks along the way, inspecting and adapting, exploiting tactical advantages where you can, and removing or working around as many impediments as you can. It can feel ugly and confusing at first, but once you get moving, nurturing and growing the new behaviours and operating model, it begins to grow its own legs and carries itself forward.

One challenge for some of us ex-PMP types like me is to avoid thinking that there is one best way and to institutionalize a cookie-cutter Agile organization that looks homogeneous wherever you go. There is no one right way, no recipe, and no point in looking for one. Allow teams to solve problems like how to deal with multiple-time-zone projects themselves. Some of the solutions they will come up with are better than anything you think up yourself. Also, recognize that each person, each team, each project, each product, has unique context-sensitive attributes that must be handled in a unique way. Be consistent in the values, vision, and principles, but leave the “how” part to the teams, and give them a forum where they can share experiences and learn from each other.

Be careful with your metrics. You want to encourage the right behaviours. You want transparency. Numbers in a spreadsheet is no substitute for spending time with teams. Go to the Gemba, my friend, early, and often, and learn firsthand what is going on. Think about your business goals, and then look for ways to answer the questions around those goals without adding metrics overhead. If you constrain yourself to basic Scrum artifacts, conversations, and data mining your code base and automated test reports, what can you infer? You might be surprised when you look deeply at what is right in front of you.

If we believe that trust is the foundation of a healthy organizational culture, (just like in a family), then how does that manifest itself in the way you work in a team, or lead an organization?

What is a perfect Agile organization? What is your vision for perfection? Consider the business, its performance, but also the people. How does it feel to come to work every day? How much time are you spending doing value-added work every day? What are your relationships like within your team, across teams, between and with management? If you are a manager, how do you feel about your teams? Are your teams the most important people in your organization, or is it the CEO? How much time do you spend looking up vs down vs laterally?

If you believe happy healthy teams are more focused and better at delivering value to customers, what are you doing to create these conditions within your team, or for the teams in your organization?

Your vision of perfection is incomplete if you are only looking at the product delivery side. A precondition for high business performance is high performance teams. Are you creating great teams? Are you organizing the work around great teams or organizing teams around the work? Are you living with communication barriers or are you removing them through co-location, and high quality collaboration tools for multi-site teams? Given the choice between getting written status reports or having a conversation, which do you choose?

If you have traditionally thought of the product first and people second, try reversing that for a while until you achieve a healthy balance. You need to think about both. Think about perfection in both. Think about the different vectors and how they point towards perfection. You can have both. You must have both!

Get ready for pain, resistance, and mistakes. This stuff is hard. Changing yourself and your organization is challenging. You need to build a support network so that you don’t feel alone. A self-help group for change agents. You can meet ad-hoc and share stories, eat cookies and drink milk together. You can start each meeting with “Hi my name is Linus and I am a change-aholic”. Charlie Brown and Lucy give you a big hug. The point is simple. Pain comes with the territory. Find a healthy outlet.

With a perfection vision in hand, what can you change today, right now? (Pragmatism). Oh, and the answer “nothing” is not the right one. Start with yourself. If your first act of the day is to close the door and read your e-mail, try walking the halls and talking to people instead. If you can’t create a perfect Scrum team today, how far can you go? Start there. If you have constraints that cannot be removed immediately, what CAN you do? Think about what’s possible. Avoid the Yabut game. Start asking how many impediments you and your colleagues have removed in the past week. Clear the road to Nirvana.

If you tell yourself that starting today I must live the perfection vision, start listing all the reasons you can’t do it and start working those issues. Take one step, and another, then another, and pretty soon you are a lot further than you thought you’d be.


2 thoughts on “Perfection and Pragmatism

  1. Could you give me any examples of medium sized companies that successfully applied SCRUM / Agile into their organizational models / culture? I am an independent consultant on business process improvement, where I favor the integrated approach. I sincerely believe that agile organizations are the way to go, but changing the business culture is one of the biggest and most difficult challenges. Change is not something to be afraid of, but it is often perceived as such. At the same time, change must come from within and needs to be supported holistically. I would be interested to see some examples and results.

  2. The best example medium size company example that I know of that made the switch successfully is Systematic. They do IT for high reliability applications like military and medical. They have some papers on their web-site. I have two related posts on the topic.

    The “mature scrum” post has a link to a paper about Systematic. Hope this helps.

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