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Archive for February 3rd, 2009

A Social Contract for Agile

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How do you make Agile work in spite of layoffs? The following war story is pertinent.

During the 1967 war between Israel on the one side and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria on the other, my paratroop battalion carried out a helicopter raid on the Egyptian artillery in Um Katef. The raid was quite successful in neutralizing Egyptian artillery fire which was playing havoc with the Israeli infantry. We incurred, however, quite a few casualties as a result of firing bazookas at Egyptian ammunition trucks. The resultant explosions created an inferno that proved lethal to Egyptians and Israelis alike. We retreated when the Egyptians sent in reinforcements to reign us in. We carried back our wounded in dunes in which you sink to your knees even if you are not carrying anything. Also, we carried back our dead. The dead continued to be part of us in spite of not being with us anymore.

The relevance of a paratroop raid some 40 years ago in the Sinai desert to Agile practices in software circles today might appear to be tenuous.  This post takes the view that the two – paratroop units and Agile teams –  are actually quite similar from a leadership perspective. It is next to impossible to get soldiers over the top if they suspect they might be left behind on the battlefield if they were wounded or killed. Likewise, empowerment, collaboration and the willingness to experiment go down the drain when an Agile team expects “casualties” in the form of forthcoming layoffs.

Flying at the Teeth of Layoffs

The design for the 2005 roll-out of Agile at BMC Software did not put in place any planning in advance on how to deal with the impact of possible layoffs on Agile assimilation. Everyone knew, of course, that layoffs might and do happen in the software industry. However, Agile was kept in a different mental “drawer” from the one in which possible layoffs were kept. Planning-wise the two were not really connected.

When we had to carry out layoffs in 2005, we encountered severe cognitive dissonance:

  • On the one hand, the excitement in the business unit about Agile was tremendous. We were witnessing the psychological aspects of Deming‘s System of Profound Knowledge in an unprecedented manner. Skill, pride, confidence and collaboration were building up faster than you could say “Agile”.
  • On the other hand, the layoffs put a damper on all four elements – skills, pride, confidence and collaboration. Folks who worried whether they might be next in line to be laid off were not able to place the Scrum team’s accomplishments ahead of the credit they sought for themselves. The determination to learn more and deeper about Scrum slackened as employees bided their time in anticipation of the next round of layoffs. Obviously, pride and confidence went down the drain.


Preserving the Agile momentum in the face of layoffs required striking a new balance between what employees were getting out of Agile versus what the company was expecting to accomplish through Agile. I actually viewed it as a kind of balance of payments problem. It was quite clear what the company was already getting out of Agile, and even clearer that the long-term payoffs from successful implementation of Agile could be very significant indeed. We did not, however, have a good answer then for worried employees who asked: “What is in it for me?” A record breaking Scrum implementation 12 months down the road is not too meaningful for an employee who suspects he might not be with the company in 6 months.

It so happened that in 2005 we started seeing job specifications that either asked for or mandated Agile skills. This gave us the clue to a meaningful reciprocity in the face of potential layoffs. By investing aggressively in Agile training we would not “only” improve productivity, we would also enhance marketability of our employees. We would be providing a better safety net for them.

A Social Contract for Agile

My sense in 2005 was that the social contract between employers and employees in the software industry was broken. Without a working social contract, the friction and antagonism can bring a system down. For example, in 1942 – the turning-point year of WWII – 833,000 days of coal mining were lost due to strikes in the British coal industry.

The preliminary thoughts I had on the subject in 2005 turned into a mini social contract. The mini social contract is an agreement between an executive and his employees on the rules of the game that are mutually satisfactory. The mini social contract I used evolved over the years. Here it is in its latest form:

Team, my overarching organizational objective is to preserve our team and its institutional knowledge for our corporation and its customers for years to come. We will achieve this goal by enhancing our software engineering prowess to the level that the resultant benefits will outweigh the repercussions of the current financial crisis. The state of the Agile art should enable us to attain hyper-productivity which will serve as the best antidote to layoffs. In the event that we fail to accomplish hyper-productivity and our assignments fade away, you will find the Agile skills you developed much in demand in the market. Whether you will or will not be with the company in the future, I acknowledge your need to develop professionally as Agile practitioners and commit to invest in your education/training.

Impact of the Social Contract

Applying the social contract produced four effects:

  1. It legitimized discussions on a taboo topic.
  2. It reduced fear while increasing hope.
  3. It was a hard proof point to the folks in the trenches that I as an executive was one of them. This is a most critical aspect in the executive-employee relationship in software companies.
  4. It led to fruitful exchanges with Agile practitioners in other companies who were wrestling with the very same issue. These exchanges helped us improve the social contract.

Criticism of the Social Contract

I got some flak from colleagues on the commitment to invest in Agile training. The concern was that such a commitment, even if it is given as a gentleman’s word, is too open-ended. Proficiency in Agile, it was argued, is quite relative. Hence, when could one state that the contract was “fulfilled” with respect to commitment to invest in Agile training and coaching?

The Fine Line Between Management and Leadership

The criticism of the social contract cited above should not be rejected out of hand. Obviously, one does not want to create expectations that might not be fulfilled.

Quite simply, committing to Agile training and coaching actually illustrates the fine line between management and leadership. As the quip goes – “Leaders do the right things; managers do things right”.  Committing as an executive to Agile training and coaching across the board might appear to be not doing things “right”.  Making this kind of commitment, however, is in the very nature of leadership. And, frankly, it is also doing things “right” for executives who have the best interest of the company at heart.

Where do You Lead From?

We were taught to lead from the front in the paratroop corp. Over the years, I have learned one other important aspect of leadership: leading from within. To me, the social contract is leading from within.

Written by israelgat

February 3, 2009 at 5:32 pm