The Agile Executive

Making Agile Work

Teach Your Boss to be Agile with a Social Contract – Guest Post by Alan Atlas

with 4 comments

When I [Israel] joined BMC Software in Fall 2004, I made a promise to each and every one of the hundreds of employees in my business unit:

I commit to read and respond within 48 hours to any email you send me. My answer is not likely to be long as I am drinking from a hose right now. But, it will be substantive.

Till this very day, various ex-employees of mine tell me that this simple statement was actually the first step toward our adopting Agile – it created mutuality in our relationships. A few months later, when we started discussing the ground rules for Agile team empowerment, I was credible with respect to adhering to voluntary “contracts” due to the mutuality established in the “email policy” cited above (and other “it cuts both ways” steps we as a management team have taken along the way).

Fast forward five years to today. How delightful it was to get the guest post below from Rally coach Alan Atlas. His post has taken me all the way back to the very gratifying experience of starting the enterprise-level Agile “adventure” at BMC. Furthermore, Alan’s post made me realize I need to add mutuality as the fifth ingredient in my ‘secret sauce’ for large-scale Agile implementations.

Here is Alan:

Hey, how’re you doing? How’s the new Agile thing going? What? Oh, yeah. We had that same thing. The manager thing. Yep. It can be a killer! Wanna know what we did?

Dan Rawsthorne first introduced me to social contracts. He had put together an example that was called something like “Contract Between the Team and the Organization”.  Israel Gat’s work on Agile Social Contracts gives perspective on using them at the enterprise level.

I have put social contracts to good use more than once, and I am convinced that they are a tool that has much to offer to coaches, consultants, and maybe most importantly, internal Agile champions at companies around the world.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of Working Agreements. Working Agreements are a form of social contract that is often used to help a self-organizing team to establish behavioral standards without having them imposed from the outside (e.g., by a manager). Working Agreements are:

  • Established and changed by mutual agreement
  • Enforced by mutual agreement
  • Outside of established corporate legal structure, and
  • Made between peers.

A social contract, at least the way I have seen them created and used, is essentially a Working Agreement between non-peers.  In an Agile context, social contracts are written between a team and its management, or a team and its encompassing organization.

Of what use is an agreement in which each clause can be summarized as “I promise to do something that you want until I change my mind”? I think there are two really important benefits to be realized by using social contracts:

  • They codify and externalize the agreement, making the substance of the agreement clear, and
  • They form the basis of an “interaction between people” (i.e., a conversation).

Here’s an extract from a hypothetical Social Contract:

  1. The Organization and the Team agree that:
    1. Customer satisfaction is our ultimate goal
    2. Mutual respect will be the foundation for trust between all parties
    3. The Team promises the Organization that:
      1. It will develop the most valuable software, as defined by the Organization through the Product Owner, at all times
      2. It will provide transparency in all things related to its activities
      3. The Organization promises the Team that:
        1. The Team’s success will be judged by the production of working software
        2. The Team will have a Product Owner and a Scrum Master and a reasonable expectation of team stability

Yes, it does seem a bit idealistic and maybe even unrealistic. Yet, it is invaluable when used in the following way:

“Hey Boss. One part of launching the team on Scrum is to sit down with you and go over our social contract. Let’s take a look and talk about the things that are in here.”

The social contract is, above all things, a means to direct a conversation with your manager about roles and behaviors in the new world of Scrum. If you can all actually agree on one, and even sign it, Wow! But if you can’t, you can still use it to begin to teach your boss (I bet she wasn’t included in team Scrum training, was she?) how to be a good boss in an Agile world. If you are afraid of broaching certain subjects, arrange to have a neutral Agile coach supply you with an Agile contract, in which case you can’t be blamed for the content.

“The Organization promises the Team that impediments raised by the team will receive prompt and thorough attention at all levels.”

“The Team promises the Organization that it will adhere to all corporate quality standards when building software.”

“The Team promises the Organization that it will maintain the highest possible level of technical rigor through design and code reviews.”

And on and on…

Don’t be too disappointed if it never gets completely agreed and signed and put on the wall. Use it to open up a dialog with your management that you can build on over time.

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Written by israelgat

November 5, 2009 at 7:46 am

4 Responses

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  1. Fantastic post,

    I wish I had read this before starting my last project,it may have been the missing glue between the principles I was espousing and the practices I was recommending.

    I’ll definetly try to set something like this up on my next gig…

    Jeff Anderson

    November 5, 2009 at 6:21 pm

  2. Excellent post, wish I had read this befor. I started my last project.

    I found it very challenging to get agile and lean style ethics implemented. It seems that social contracts could act as the missing glue between principles and actual practices and actions.

    Jeff Anderson

    November 5, 2009 at 6:26 pm

  3. “Glue” indeed is a very appropriate metaphor for the social contract. Another good one is “bridge” – it captures the dimension of physical (and sometime emotional) remoteness of employees in offshore locations.

    Israel

    israel Gat

    November 6, 2009 at 7:52 am

  4. […]  had four simple ingredient: intentionality, know-how, flexibility and patience. Based on insights by colleague and friend Alan Atlas, I have recently added mutuality as the fifth ingredient. Your own secret sauce might be somewhat […]


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