Some thoughts on "Doing things right"

August 24, 2016

This post was inspired by a number of recent discussions I've had about different organization's approaches to agility.  Read the following statements, keeping note of how each one makes you feel or a story of your own that comes to mind:

"We put stickies up on a wall, and move them sometimes.  That means we're agile ENOUGH, so they should leave us along right?"

 

"Our team has some sort of a backlog, it's a list of things that we track in this one shared document and we can all see it but one person maintains it."

 

"Every 3 weeks we huddle up as a team and our team lead tells us which user stories we have to get done in the next sprint or iteration, whichever term he/she is using this week."

 

"Well, we do have these stand-ups where we talk to each other but we don't stand up during them.  Hopefully that doesn't get us in trouble and they'll stay off our back."

 

"We have a combined Scrum Master / Product Owner role hybrid where they kind of do all of the things that we heard about in Scrum but it feels kind of like how we did things before."

 

"Every 4 weeks we  demonstrate some things that we finished in the past 6 months.  Our product development manager runs the demo and we just hear the customer say they want something different for everything that's shown, kind of frustrating."

Sometimes statements like these are apologetic in nature, almost like "we're sorry we aren't doing it right".  Other times they more defensive, statements like "look, we are doing it just enough so get off our case".  

 

Early in my agile career I might have been put off by some of the situations, where I'd scratch my head and have that inexperience influence my opinion, judging the team that they weren't TRULY agile.  That they didn't embrace the mindset.  That they didn't want to change.

 

Nowadays, I have a completely different mindset when I hear statements like those above.

 

I am thrilled about it. I'm honestly excited when I hear things like this!

 

The reason for this is that years ago, there were individuals and organizations that wanted NO PART in any approach loosely related to agility.  There are still places where "agile" is a taboo word, and you are caught in some re-naming vortex mapping an old process to new terms.  

 

Today there are more organizations out there with at least a cursory knowledge of different approaches and frameworks.  Maybe they mix up terms, maybe they don't have some of the mechanics down pat, maybe they are missing the mark on the intent of a ceremony.

 

That's totally fine! In fact I think that's awesome!

 

I think it's great that organizations are simply trying SOMETHING!  There was a time when there would be no experimentation, nothing outside of how they've always done, no innovation whatsoever.  The fact that someone says they are trying something even if it's a little bit "off" of what the original intent was would once make me a bit uncomfortable.   Now it is something I embrace, because the conversation shifts from one of "doing it right" to "how can we make it better".

 

I'd ask any of the teams that inspired the quotes above the following question:

 

"What  conversations are you having about improving those activities?"

 

If your team is having these meaningful discussions, I suspect your organization has an environment where real and positive change can occur and accelerate the path to learning. That's what many of us are pushing for and I think that's excellent!  

 

Instead of shutting a team down for doing something "wrong", I would instead encourage leaders to have these types of discussions.  Even if it's not a formal Sprint Retrospective from Scrum, consider starting out by asking the following questions:

1. What do we think of this activity / session?

 

2. Do we think it's helping us, or hurting us?

 

3. Are there any experiments we should consider?

 

4. How could we make this a LITTLE bit better?

A big reason I shy away from using the term "Best Practice" is that it suggests that the organization will always perform this action from here out.  What's often missing is revisiting and updating these approaches in a structured manner in the interest of improving it.  What once was thought of as "best" might be surpassed based on available tools and what we've learned.  Imagine if we still communicated via pony express, that was once the "best" right?

 

Related to this concept, remember the three parts or legs that make up Empirical Process Control:  

 

Transparency - Inspection - Adaptation

 

An organization can have their process be visible and understood by all who participate, but at times lose the mindset of having an "Inspect and Adapt" culture where things could always be improved.  Have those conversations about really looking at things for what they are, and what adjustments could be made in the spirit of continuously improving.

 

Teams are trying things, and even if they are "off" by whatever yardstick you want to use that's okay!  I'd commend teams for taking some sort of action instead of standing pat.  At the same time I would encourage these teams to have the conversations about how they can make things a little bit better, and foster an environment of continued learning and improvement.

 

Try to get away from the mindset of "doing it right", and instead figure out as a group how everyone can make things just a little bit better. 

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