There are 3 things I consider paramount in the stance of an Agile Coach. To some they seem controversial, to others, a rather obvious choice. One thing is for sure, no one stays unmoved by the list I catered. Standing for these 3 points of view touches the fundamentals about how you work, how you think and what you believe as an Agile Coach. It makes you vulnerable. So, let’s be vulnerable together as you read.
Moving away from resources and towards people
The year is 2021 and we are still having this conversation. Nomenclature matters and people as resources is something as old as the factory-efficiency time in the early twentieth century. We are way beyond that generation and the most attractive companies today are those who refer to their employees as people. Sure, you can embellish your language some more and even go toward human capital or talent management to highlight their importance to the company. But it just suffices to mention them as people. Because that’s what they are.
I am really after something here. I’m trying to help you see the blind spot that language can trick us with. Resources are useful things we use to accomplish tasks. Keyword being things. Let me replace resources with computers, since that is one resource no company can live without, almost like employees. Resources are interchangeable. You can change hard drives, memory, entire servers and your technology infrastructure should operate immediately better or show no significant disruption. If you swap people from teams or projects, I would expect they need some on-boarding, getting to know how things work, time to acclimate. I would go as far as to say that people who used to perform brilliantly in a team might not perform as great on a different team, due to group dynamics. People are way more complex than things. If we think of individuals as resources, we might feel tempted of inadvertently treat them as swappable, disposable elements. Harsh, but true.
Lastly, I would mention the danger of resource utilization. Things are designed to support maximum charge. We want to squeeze all possible performance from our things, our servers, our supplies. 100% utilization makes our money well worth it. But people cannot operate under a 100% utilization in the same sense. People literally need slack time to empty their brains, to be creative, to socialize. It is also not a great idea to have one person split on 10 different tasks. A person cannot decently allocate 12.5% of their time to one thing, 7.5% to another, etc. This works great on paper, as just math, but is inevitably untrue and a stress point on human beings.
Moving away from projects and toward products
There’s a lot of resistance on approaching this view because they fundamentally change how companies organize themselves. I understand the tall order: we arrived changing language, now we are changing structures. Suddenly companies are transforming, some rather dramatically.
And that is the point if a company was not operating in Agile. It will be different in order to get different results. Agile is not operating as you’ve always had and just giving it a new name. New language comes in and so new perspectives. The perspective of treating initiatives as products brings to light some important competitive advantages in Agile.
When you think of products you think of longevity. Who wants to have a product that is worthless six months down the line? This new way of thinking forces decision-making that are good for the long term as opposed to short term gains. It is also through thinking in product instead or projects that you start to empathize with your users in the real world and have ideas that will actually delight and surprise them. All your efforts on production become an actual investment, generating quality and awesomeness to those who make and to those who use your product. An investment, not just some gambling.
Speaking of the makers of your products, they now operate towards executing a vision. It is not just a list of tasks to be performed by a certain deadline and measured against a Gantt chart. People regain their autonomy and creativity once they can see a vision. Instead of telling people to do one thing, now they have a direction and they chart the path towards success, by suggesting and implementing features. It is not uncommon for the makers operating under a vision to have insights that no Marketing team can beat. And what is more, makers understand now the why, as well as the what and the how. They are primed for product life.
I am talking more than just a roadmap that is alive and dynamic. The corollary of a product approach is outside-in thinking. That is when we redesign the tools and processes inside the company to reflect what is required outside by the customers, for effective and quality results. We start listening to the customer by all possible channels: surveys, built-in data analysis, customer communities, and the likes. The company that focuses on a product in a certain way becomes a service company: a company that serves their customers. So, if we are to have a cost-cutting measure or if we are searching for efficiencies, they become valid only if they are actually improving _not hindering_ customer experience. We aim at reducing complaints, increasing satisfaction, creating loyalty customer and fan bases. Do you think that leads to profit and growth? I think it does!
Moving away from solutions and toward experiments
What if you were never done, you just decided you had enough of something? That is the contrast: finding a solution implies an end, whereas hosting experiments is an ongoing activity. In a world full of complexity solutions don’t really exist. We can only weed out as many uncertainties as possible. Do not believe me? Just think of this: no medication is fully safe, they are safe enough. That’s experimentation.
Experimentation is a tenet of Agility, yet somehow in many companies this is more than misunderstood, it is neglected. People will define sprints, cadences, iterations and come back in the end of it to showcase… what they did. I don’t remember seeing reviews (be in Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, or whichever your framework or method) in which we showcase the learnings. I don’t remember people saying what is the hypothesis with which they entered that cycle and if it was proven or disproved. Nobody talks about what they found out. They just talk about delivery. The insane pursuit of insignificant delivery. Yet another update on my product that just annoys me and seldom gives me anything new in my experience as a user. Are you building for me or for yourself?
We need to move toward experimentation and away from delivery. You are not reading it wrong. Delivery should be a accumulation of experimentations done right. All ideas, all insights should be tested before we go full blown on features that at most looks like a different version of something we have already seen. In a space of experimentation no one goes in with their bias: we have to think and generate a hypothesis, build an experiment to see things in action, observe (survey, ethnography, collect data in that app in a seamless, non-intrusive way) then make decisions about what is next.
What is next could be pursuing this new feature that everybody seem to be loving and is a hit. It can range from some level of disruption to the next digital gadget of the century. Major changes can start with small tests and insights. Involving everybody to have a bank of ideas. And weed out other ideas through experimentation, not just by seniority thinking or natural biases we all have. Yet another way to have happy, engaged makers for your product. They are creative, excited, there’s lots of learning, lots of possibilities. In creating value to your customer you are creating value to everybody in the chain. To me this seems like a virtuous circle.
Experimentation can yield something else: the ability to move away, to change our minds, to responsibly abandon investments that would not really pay off and that it would take us a couple of years to know. This is not explored enough. Every day we have way too many things to do and we might as well get lost in just delivering all that output. It is by building a culture of experimentation with processes, tools, rewards aligned with it, that we transform the everyday madness into a disciplined selection of “what’s next”. That roadmap becomes a real, live roadmap: lots of different roads, you pursue one at a time, take detours, ignore certain paths. In case it is not clear, we are talking about saving money and time. Interested?
What do you stand for?
The mission of an Agile Coach is not an easy one. We are hired to help entire companies change, but in many cases their environments are not primed for change except in the life of a few teams. To this day I’d say the one thing that is not widespread throughout the leadership layers on most companies is how Agile will fundamentally alter the way companies operate. Agile Coaches are not in companies just “do the Scrum teams thing”, because even the “Scrum thing” starts with values and behavior. Conversations, coaching and teaching need to happen at all levels to help companies truly understand the impact of adopting Agile ways of working. It is not called an Agile Transformation for nothing. The expectation is that we transform.
I surely stand for these 3 things. Does every company I help embrace them fully? Surely some are already on their way, and as their coach I am there to help. More importantly, I also preserve the coach stance to serve my client, not my personal agenda. In the end, whoever embarks on a journey of Agility must be fully responsible for adopting new behaviors and mental models. It will change their everyday lives, so they should be onboard. This cannot be forced. What to do then?
I will paraphrase Lyssa Adkins from her Coaching Agile Teams: you show people what greatness is and they are free to buy in or not. No matter their decision, you, the coach, do not have to abdicate your vision of greatness. So, I do not abandon what I believe in and at the same time I remain compassionate towards the difficulties my clients will experience. These are not contradictory stances: standing for greatness and being compassionate. And whenever a client is ready to move up just one grade at the scale and ask for help, I will surely be there. What do you think?