In many of my conversations, I often get challenged about my use of the word purpose; especially when it comes to Agile initiatives. The following story is one of my favorite moments where not only was I challenged but also generously offered a new perspective that slightly, although significantly, changed my definition of working with Agile initiatives purposefully.
It was Tuesday; the meetings were streaming by without anything exceptional to report. People were applying tools like time-boxing, subject focus and situational leadership within their meetings and that made me a most happy Agile coach!
The audible notification of the next meeting from my phone signaled that there were ten minutes left to the current meeting; ; an epic architectural planning session for the sprints following the current and next sprints. We closed the meeting with a review of the parking lot items and the next action items on the board, followed by a quick ROTI (Return On Time Invested). Result: 4.5, great!
I asked the two 4’s to provide one improvement that would make the rating of this meeting a 5. One individual suggested introducing architectural concepts to a developer and the other suggested including the development director from time to time so that he'd be able to understand and engage in the development lifecycle.
“Excellent. I’ll bring these two suggestions to our next retrospective and see what outcome we get.” I said.
“Thanks Marc, and make sure you don’t forget the muffins for the retro!!” replied the head architect with a forceful wink. I later received a couple of chuckles when I offered a healthy twist to the snack by bringing zucchini, lemon and bran muffins.
I then rushed to the next meeting room which was two floors up. I brushed the general director of the IT department while skipping every two steps with the Agility of a puma.
“Marc!!” he shouted.
“Sorry Allan. I’m tight for my next meeting. Send me an email if it’s important and I’ll read it after the meeting…”, I said continuing with the momentum I had built up. I’m not sure he heard the last words coming out of my mouth as I was already a flight and a half further up.
I arrived to the meeting room two minutes early. All the Scrum Masters were present for the next meeting except for George, which was not surprising to anyone. We counted down the last two minutes before the meeting by a light conversation about the sidewalk conditions in the city during this unusually snowy winter. At the ring of the bell, I wrote down the meeting time on a post-it, stuck it to the outside of the door and closed it.
I opened the meeting with a warm welcome and decided that a check-in might be of value for the day’s meeting. There was nothing particularly alarming going on in the organization but I thought that a positive exchange of check-ins might be enjoyable.
The door swiftly swung open just as Alex, the Project team’s Scrum Master, was about to speak. George came in with his usual nonchalance, but this time there was a tinge of guilt in his demeanour.
“Hi everyone. Sorry for the tardiness.” George said in an interrupting yet mellow tone.
“Welcome George.” I replied. “Alex was about to start the check-in.”
“Oh. OK” said George with a smile.
We cycled through the check-in ‘popcorn style’. Everyone checked-in without anything outstanding to declare. We were then ready to proceed with that week’s Scrum Master meeting.
The format of our meeting varied every other week. One week we adopted the Open Space format. The other week was designated for a specific developmental topic that was decided during the Open Space. That week’s topic was: Developing with purpose, a topic that I found very compelling and inspiring.
I started the discussion with an open question: “What does purposeful development mean to you?”
The answers were complementary to one another and didn’t make the discussion evolve toward more than a simple reflection of what was already being done. I felt that the group was not taking advantage of the full power of the meaning of purpose. I decided to challenge them a bit more with another open question: “How do you know the purpose is the right one?”
This one hit them like a ton of bricks. Faces were frozen with befuddled looks. A lengthy silence ensued and then Eric, the Contract team’s Scrum Master, spoke out in a partially irritated voice: “Purpose is the reason we do things. There’s no right or wrong. It just is.”
I nodded, acknowledging his statement. Another prolonged silence overtook the group. Then Eric continued, increasingly irritated by the question: “What are you getting at? I mean, how can you verify purpose when you develop? The teams just do what’s written in the stories, that’s it! No need to overthink!”
At this point, I started worrying about my understanding of purpose. Then I reminded myself that they were the ones who had chosen the subject the previous week.
“Why did you guys want to address purpose in this meeting?” I retorted.
Another silence filled the room for what seemed like more than fifteen minutes. Being very patient by nature, I decided to wait this one out.
Mary, the Finance Ledger team’s Scrum Master, shyly proposed the theory that: “Maybe there’s a feeling that the teams are simply developing what’s being asked of them and that they see no real purpose to it.”
“That’s the point! To do what you’re told to do!”, replied Eric in a disconcerting manner.
Mary started replying with a bit of conviction: “I’m just saying that the teams feel they’re not involved in the process. Maybe they would engage more into what they’re doing if they were to develop with some kind of purpose in mind.”
“Can you provide an example Mary?”, I proposed.
She hesitated before answering. “Something like… I don’t know, like for example, if the purpose for this sprint’s development was to ‘Make Finance Ledger entries accessible and quick to access’.”
“Do you really have to explicitly declare something like that? Isn’t that the premise of delivering value and quality in Agile?”, interjected George.
“I guess so…”, said Mary. “But I think it’s not naturally retained in people’s thoughts. It gets lost in the habits and daily routine.”
“I see what you mean”, said Alex.
“Maybe there’s some value in reminding them the purpose of why they’re developing such and such.”, he continued.
I couldn’t appreciate how purpose was being used at that moment. It was just not ‘big’ enough. It didn’t seem to have the global reach and influence that purpose should have. I decided to challenge Alex’s reference to purpose.
“But isn’t purpose something bigger than a simple condition of satisfaction? Isn’t it something that aims at inspiring more than a simple developmental aspect?”
“Purpose resides on varying levels. I think that purpose is useful to the extent that it engages a people and teams. Ultimately, the owner of the purpose is the product owner; and he should have the task of inspiring the team with it.”, replied Alex.
No one answered. I took some time to let this sink in. This was a new perspective for me as I have always believed that purpose served evolution and development of one’s self. Anything less than that, I simply categorized as a ‘reason’ to do things. But Alex was onto something.
This launched a series of discussions in which the Agile coaches came up with activities and new ways to encourage their teams to find purpose in what they were working on. The culmination of the meeting was the introduction of purpose for… you might have guessed it: the weekly Scrum Master meeting!
We closed the meeting with a ROTI. Result: 5!!
Completely satisfied, I rushed back downstairs to meet the director that I had almost run over coming up. I knocked on the door frame and he invited me in.
“Marc. I was thinking as I walked around the floor this morning. It seems to me that the teams don’t seem to be as engaged as they could be. What do you think?”, he asked.
“Thanks for asking Allan. As a matter of fact I think it’s a very timely subject. Can I interest you in a discussion about purpose?”
As a director, leader or coach, are you inviting people and teams to develop and work with purpose? Are you limiting the definition of purpose based on your perspectives? How can purpose serve your teams and especially your organization?
This text uses software development as an example, but I strongly believe it is applicable to a variety of domains, and in fact, to everyday life.
Warren Buffet maybe one of the best and renowned investors in the world, and believe me, he’s made quite a fortune throughout his career. But is money or material the only things you can invest in? If your career involves interacting, communicating, helping and guiding groups and individuals it may be worthwhile to consider yourself as the hottest commodity on the market.
This is especially true for Agile coaches, Agile managers and ScrumMasters. With the ascension in popularity and implementation of Agile methodologies investing in self-development is no longer an option. Organizations are now asking for individuals who are able to guide, positively influence and make a difference as coaches, managers and ScrumMasters.
A testament to this is the mindset alignment Lyssa Adkins and her team at the “Agile Coaching Institute” have taken.
The ACI favours coaching at a human level versus a technical level. Reason being they are fully aware that Agile transformation occurs when we as coaches and ScrumMasters prioritize individuals and interactions over processes and tools. We at Epicoaching stand by that mindset.
Considering individuals as an important part of transformation is by no means a revolutionary principle. Marshall McLuhan coined the term “The medium is the message” in 1964, demonstrating that the individual is an essential part of the message. It still stands try to this day.
That being said, coaches and ScrumMasters are not only vehicles but instruments of successful Agile transformations. Hence, the posture they adopt as messengers and evangelists of Agile values and principles are of the utmost importance.
To make my point, take a reputed stand-up comic and government official and have them deliver the same joke, word for word to the same audience. Which one do you think will have the most laughs? The stand-up comic clearly comes out as a winner on this one. The message, in this case the joke, fulfils its purpose, but only because the medium was fully aligned and shared the same purpose as the message.
Some people believe that being a stand-up comic is something that comes naturally. The make the assumption that most stand-ups succeed on their first try on the stage. As any stand-up comic will testify, that cannot be any further from the truth. Stand-up comics work very hard to create material that will have the impact they desire. But that is only a fraction of the work they do. Being able to deliver the skit is as much work if not more than the writing itself.
The point here is not to compare stand-up comics to coaches. The purpose is to expose the reality that roles that require interaction, communication and presentation require one to develop their ability to be fully present, in the moment.
A speech, conversation and even a song can feel awry when the person communicating or delivering is not fully present. For example, if you've ever witnessed a rewards ceremony like the Oscars you may have witnessed some memorable speech deliveries that just simply didn't seem right. This is mostly due to people succumbing to their instincts and from there ego takes control of the show.
Coaches and ScrumMasters may not fall prey to their egos to the extent that it makes them behave irrationally. However it does play an important role as to how receptive, open-minded and intentional they are when communicating with teams and individuals.
The appropriate question maybe: As a coach or ScrumMaster, what role does the ego play in your ability to be in complete service to your teams? How does it affect your capacity to truly listen and act without any biases or hidden agendas? Are you fully aware of your shadows that limit and constrain your perspectives, possibilities and actions?
Invest in yourself. It may just be the best investment of the year… or even your life.
As you might already know, Agile is a set of values (4) and principles (12) which helps in the adoption and maintenance of an Agile methodology. It also helps enhance the quality and delivered value by incorporating continuous improvement in all areas. For example, the adoption of TDD, automated unit testing, BDD and clean code practices allow the teams to incorporate quality and value in their iterative development cycles.
The previous practices have proven to be valuable for organizations that have harnessed their potential, but few how managed to reap the promised rewards of Agile implementations. Why?One of the main reasons is a recurring obstacle that has hindered organizations’ abilities to fully incorporate Agile practices in their daily routines. - Immunity to change (ITC).
ITC is a term coined by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. It is the difficulty in adopting change in culture, habits and values at an individual, team and organization scope.
As of Dec. 2015 there have been more discussions, blogs and articles written on this subject than any other aspect of Agile. Yet, organizations, teams and individuals are quick to dismiss that this is a problem within their Agile adoption. People are simply not ready to be vulnerable and admit to having difficulty with changing their habits, let alone their culture and mindset.
As an Agile coach I have witnessed ITC in every instance of Agile adoption I have worked with. Why is this? The reason is fairly simple; ITC is present in all of us to certain degrees and at different levels. A strong ITC at any level of the organization will definitely render any Agile adoption difficult.
Accompanying a group of Agile coaches for a round at the local pub can be quite a revealing experience. Stories of ITC at individual, team and organization levels abound. Most of the comments and observations involve middle management’s struggles in adopting an Agile mindset.
ITC in middle management is very present and this can be explained by the fact that we are literally asking them to go against what they have been taught to do for so many years, which is to manage things and resources. For that reason alone I believe Agile adoption to be more difficult for middle managers than other members of the organization. So they may need to be supported and accompanied with as much compassion and attention as other individuals.
So what can be done to reduce the negative impact of ITC in your organization’s adoption of Agile?