Leprosy, as you might know, is a long-term infection that attacks skin and peripheral nervous system. According to its effects, it may result in a lack of ability to feel pain, which can lead to the loss of parts of extremities due to repeated injuries or infection to unnoticed wounds.
What does this has to do with Agile, managers and power?
Some years ago, I read a book where the author writes that many companies, nowadays, are behaving as they were sick of leprosy. That vivid and crude description, indeed, is a great example to explain the distance some organizations today experience between management and teams on the fields. Strategy and execution are very often miles away from each other.
The teams and front line employees are the hands of the organization, which actually do the work, are the experts and know very well the context in which they live. Through these hands, a company would better explore, touch, perceive and understand what the market is and what the customers really want.
However, what if an ill central nervous system (management at higher levels), is no more able, or does not have time, to listen to or perceive any messages the hands are sending? Or, additionally, what if it induces them to do useless or counterproductive things, putting obstacles instead of giving them the right tools and environment?
Let’s be clear and avoid any misunderstanding: the problem is not with management per se, the problem is within the system in which they live.
System thinking and complexity teach us that peripheral networks are too important to be neglected. There, the action takes place with clients; there, sensitive information and feedback are available and there, ideas are nurtured, innovation is tested and value is finally delivered.
Agile teams are important components of those peripheral networks. Agile teams are hands of the company body.
Let’s see what management could do to avoid that they get ill of leprosy: managers should become more connected, transform their role into connectors and be ready to interpret and exploit power in a new way.
Connected and connectors
To get the best out of Agile teams, a manager need to understand firsthand what teams are doing, experiencing and deciding. This means that managers need to walk the team rooms, listening, asking and observing (in a positive sense), actively participating to team events.
That should become business as usual, not an exception; it is actually the best way to get updated and aware of what is happening on the floor, in this uncertain and volatile world. Furthermore, managers should actively work on removing obstacles within the organization, by helping in increasing overall efficiency and shortening time to market.
Managers should act as welders, connectors, creating physical and time spaces where teams can bring together to update each other, share experiences, collaborate and be innovative.
Removing these obstacles literally means two things: 1) work every day on those items, 2) sponsoring and supporting change management initiatives for systemic ones.
All of the things above mean that managers must free time on their agendas, setting clear objectives and delegating/empoweing teams. Have you ever heard about the “Principle of Mission”?
They also have a great opportunity: according to their position, managers have greater visibility of what is happening into the organization.
To increase the value Agile teams are producing, managers should act as welders, connectors, creating physical and time spaces where teams can bring together to update each other, share experiences, collaborate and be innovative.
How and when can they do that?
Well, they have plenty of possibilities; this list is just to cite some examples according to Lean/Agile approaches: Team Scrum Events, Scrum of Scrums, Release Demos, Lean Coffees, Communities of Practice.
Team Scrum Events
Given the fact that managers should be more involved into Agile teams’ lives, whenever a manager, during one team’s scrum events, sees an opportunity for improvement, learning or sharing for other external teams, she should suggest to invite representatives from one team to other’s events.
These events could be sprint planning, backlog refinement, daily scrum or review.
Product/Program synchronization meeting
When teams are working on the same products/services, is important they synchronize in dedicated events. An example are Scrum of Scrums events, which aim to bring representatives from each team and any other key stakeholder, to discuss about any impediments, progress in terms of scope, quality, performance and team health.
At this level, systemic issues coming from teams’ retrospectives are brought and discussed. These are great improvement opportunities for the whole company, which management should leverage on for changing the status quo and letting the organization become nimbler.
Every team (or team of teams in case of big programs), should arrange release demos. Release demos are like sprint reviews, but at a higher system/program level. The integrated work of the collaborating teams is demoed with the intent to update about the whole progress and receive feedback.
This is a great occasion indeed to invite stakeholders, other teams and other managers, to show progress and transparently talk about system issues afflicting the company.
Here you can find what SAFe says about System Demo.
Lean Coffee is a structured, but agenda-less meeting. Participants gather, build an agenda based on the more urgent and/or interesting topic, and begin talking. Conversations are productive because people voluntarily decide to participate and the agenda for the meeting is democratically generated and prioritized.
Thanks to the lightweight format, organization and facilitation is quite easy. Here are available the details: http://leancoffee.org/
This is a great way for managers, from one side to activate new ways of working and, on the other one, to let people come together and share.
Oh, do not forget to bring some (italian) coffee!
Communities of Practice
Communities of Practice, CoPs, are groups of people that have common interests in specific domains (business, technical, methodological, etc.), which arrange themselves to collaborate and regularly share information, improve skills, actively working to advance the knowledge of the community in that domain.
Healthy CoPs usually emerges naturally in agile organization and are fed by with voluntary participation. They flourish thanks to cultures founded on transparency, networking, personal relationships and mutual improvement.
Managers need to understand the importance of these communities, facilitating and supporting their growth, creating the right environment and organization culture.
A new meaning for power
Power, in its very essence, is the capacity of someone to influence other’s decisions, apart from any hierarchical position or job title written on a business card. Power, in its positive meaning, is exercised transparently, aiming to company objectives.
Recently I read the book “Smart Simplicity” written by Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman, where is explained a simple but powerful framework on how companies can reduce complicatedness, simplifying rules and, thus, becoming more adaptive in facing the complexity that surrounds them. Power is a topic which permeates every chapter.
In that book, among other great concepts, I found a great metaphor which explains how power should be exercised today.
Power, in its very essence, is the capacity of someone to influence other’s decisions
The authors write that the way we deal with power could be compared as when we play with cards. By combining the cards of a deck (degree of power) you are able to create sequences, scales, combinations, which allows you to influence the game (and other players) and obtain some results.
Elaborating a bit on this metaphor, managers should distribute most of these cards (amplifying power) among teams, in order to give them the possibility to take decisions and “play” the right ones according to the situation at hand and the local information they have.
Going a step further, managers, being now more connected and aware of what is happening on the market/field, are finally able to spot new opportunities and create new interests for the company, thus metaphorically increasing the number of cards (multiplying power) available in the deck and that could be, again, distributed among teams.
There’s no better place and moment, for managers, in our recent history, to be even more powerful and impactful to let companies grow and be successful.
It is all about enabling and empowering the hands of the organization, to explore the outside complexity and then bring this learning, through the nervous system, straight up to the company’s brain.