Think About Pilot Teams, not Pilot Projects – Guest Post by Alan Atlas
Rally’s Alan Atlas shares with us his insights on picking a pilot project for Agile. His post nicely complements the account Sue McKinney and Pollyanna Pixton gave about their approach to bootstrapping Agile at IBM (click here). It also touches on some of the points made in our post The First Decision to Make. Whether you agree or disagree with Alan, his thoughts are always intriguing. You will find additional insights by Alan in The Scrum Mechanic.
Alan has been professionally involved in high tech for nearly thirty years. His career spans top technology companies such as Bell Labs and Amazon as well as various intriguing start-ups. He brought to market numerous products, including OSF Motif and Amazon’s S3. His passion for Scrum has recently led him to make a career switch into full-time Agile Coaching and Training with Rally Software.
Here is Alan:
Picture this: You’re an Agile Coach and you arrive for the first day of your new, monster engagement at a large enterprise that has hired you to help them become Agile. You’re very excited as you walk into your first training session with a select group of employees. As you start the training, you are greeted with questions from your happy, excited audience. “Can we get this over with early?” “I don’t want to be here. My manager said I had to come.” “What is this all about, anyway?” “I have a friend who got fired for advocating Scrum. I don’t want anything to do with it.” “Why am I here?” Is this any way to start an Agile transformation?
A necessary step in Agile adoptions is picking where to start. Consultants often help management or transition teams with the selection of so-called pilot projects. Project teams are then notified that they are the lucky winners in the Scrum Lottery. The result can be a (not entirely incorrect) feeling amongst employees that they are being forced to become Agile, which can lead to the scene I just described.
This command-and-control (C&C) approach can easily erode trust, destroy motivation and handicap an adoption program because it ignores the critical contribution that team buy-in and ownership can make toward successful implementation of the new development process. At best, it leaves a mild bad taste in the mouths of the employees and gives them a good reason to believe that this Scrum thing is just another management flavor of the week. At worst, it removes the single most important success factor in Agile adoption: the active and enthusiastic participation of the team.
Is there a reasonable way to avoid the pitfalls of the C&C approach and still meet the legitimate needs of management? Can we start a transformation with excited, enthusiastic employees instead of sullen ones? Can management make a decision to ‘go Agile’ and still establish a collaborative relationship with employees? Can we take advantage of the inherent appeal of Agile methods to increase our chances of success? I think the answer to all of these is, “Yes!”
Agile’s people-based approach tells us to view the world from a team-centric point of view and not a project-centric point of view. Applying this to our Agile transition itself, we realize that we don’t need to assign Scrum to projects. Instead, we can let teams choose to adopt Scrum (or not to adopt, to be fair). It’s the team that will make the Agile process work and lead to success, not the project itself. This approach will maximize the likelihood of success by finding the teams that want to make it work.
The way to ensure the success of early Agile transformation efforts and simultaneously to align management and employees without coercion is to provide teams with the permission and knowledge to make their own decisions, and then for management to support those decisions. Teams that choose to ‘go Agile’ will make it work. Teams that are told to ‘go Agile’ might or might not make it work.
Implementing this isn’t hard. Start by making introductory Agile training available to the target organization (a few two-hour classes spread throughout a week is a good start for all but the largest organizations). Announce that teams are welcome to try Scrum, and tell them how to request further team training and coaching (don’t neglect to make sure their immediate management is on board). There might be reasons to give priority to certain teams and possibly to delay others, but in general the teams that want to do Agile should be allowed to do it. The company is now supporting and leveraging teams that want to transition to Agile and allowing those that don’t want to change to continue as they are. This in itself is an important message to all that the Agile philosophy is being taken seriously by management.
The result of using this approach is that there is no bad taste among employees, the most enthusiastic teams self-select to participate in the new experiment, nobody is forced, and management demonstrates its willingness to support employees in the new endeavor.
No managers were harmed in the filming of this scenario. Seriously, we put the focus on teams without negating any of the needs of the enterprise. The ability of teams to get further training can still be managed. The identities of the teams can be known so that there can be followup assessments, monitoring, and support. In the cases where it is necessary, teams that have interdependencies or other complexities can be staged appropriately. The biggest and most important difference between this scenario and the more traditional C&C scenario is that here the teams that are excited and interested about Agile become the first in the water.
Using this method for starting your transition doesn’t change anything else about your organizational Agile initiative. You still have all of the cultural, technical, engineering, management, organizational, and human issues to deal with. It just gives you a way to pick the starting point in a more positive and Agile way.