#NoProjects: the book

I have frequently written about #NoProjects on this blog. In fact if I look at the entries which mention #NoProjects the first one is late 2013, which means #NoProjects is over three years old! Amazing, time flies.

During much of this time I’ve been saying: I am not writing another book.

That changed last summer when I reversed my position. But the book stalled.

It restarted before Christmas and although it is not finished it is nearly 40,000 words and over 230 pages. And there is more in draft.

The draft book is available now from LeanPub.com – #NoProjects: correcting project myopia

I’ve set up a half price discount for blog readers: #NoProject Blog Discount

As it is a LeanPub eBook readers will receive free updates as the book progresses.

My plan is to continue writing the details of #NoProjects then do a complete end-to-end edit. If it is selling well I will invest in professional copy editing and perhaps even a professional cover. If things go really well I may even create a printed version on Lulu, an an ISBN and list it on Amazon.

Anyway, please buy the book – money is great feedback, the more copies which sell the more time I can justify spending on the book! And copies which sell after this blog post will also tell me people like the blog.

Clinic: Agile Coaches, Scrum Masters, Delivery Managers…

​From time to time questions show up in my mailbox from people asking questions. I like to post the questions and answers here in the hope that others might benefit. I’ve done this a few times before (“Agile Clinic: problem with our agile…”)

I’m always glad to help but it can be hard to find time, plus, not everyone wants to talk about this in public. So, before I jump into this clinic Q&A, I should mention that members of part of Alex Pappworth’s “Be a Brilliant Business Analyst” group can now book one-on-one online consultations with me.

Anyway, to today’s question….

“[We are a Drupal based software development organization in India. It is 150 member team with representations in South East Asia and the US. We have 2 Agile coaches in the organization who are stretched in time managing different projects.”

Hardly surprising, 150 people, multiple projects, multiple locations. I don’t know what the “right” ratio of coaches to teams/people – there probably isn’t one single answer, not least because it will depend a lot on the maturity of the teams, i.e., established teams will need less help than new teams but all teams should have a coach to call on.

“We are looking at restructuring our organization so that these coaches can be supported for project delivery. As of now the Agile coaches have 3 primary responsibilities – 1)project delivery 2) Agile process coaching and 3) people management. Of these 3, project delivery and people management is the most time consuming and exhaustive.”

This is worrying. To my mind Agile coaches should be spending most of their time on process coaching and helping people – not helping with their work, helping them improve, maybe one-on-one coaching or maybe team coaching. I wouldn’t call “helping people” people management, that sounds like line-management or traditional project management.

So first off: get some project managers.

Regular readers will probably be surprised to hear me say that, and I am a little but there are times when a project manager is the right solution. One example, as in this case, when there is a client-supplier relationship and expected deliverables within a project model.

Yes, I question whether the project model is the best model to be using, and I’ll even question whether this company really does projects, but based on this information they do, they should have project managers.

Once you have project managers then the coaches can work with the project managers to improve team performance.

“We have contemplated separating the people management piece by placing a Delivery manager between a coach and scrum master.”

Scrum Masters too? Can’t they pick up some of the project delivery work in the absence of project managers?

One problem with “Delivery manager” is that the role is not well defined or even understood. It is a new role and one which is still emerging. We will probably never have a universal standard delivery manager role but right now it is ill defined.

If you were to add a Delivery Manager I think they would end up becoming a type of Project Manager. In which case we’ve both identified a missing role in your organization, the question is: who are the right people to fill it? Whether you call them project or delivery managers there it seems there is a missing role here.

Line management is a more difficult problem. Here we really have an evolving field.

So far I’ve not heard of any good solutions to “Who is the line manager?”

• Project Managers aren’t line managers because they lack the skills, plus projects are temporary and you want some continuity here.
• Scrum Masters and Coaches aren’t line managers because the type of coaching they (should) use shuns authority.
• Delivery managers…. well if I ever find out what a Deliver Manager does I’ll let you know.

Since Agile as a whole aims for self-organization the issue of line management, and there in some authority, has received little attention. Arguably you should drop the role all together but that is quite radical.

One solution I’ve heard is to make one manager responsible for all line management. At the same time moving towards greater self-organization reduces the need for line management.

“In the existing system scrum masters do not have the maturity or the experience of people management. Since we are still trying to figure our way out keeping in mind that we don’t increase our overheads I have the following questions to ask of you-“

Good call, if the people don’t have the maturity yet don’t make them line managers. And as I said, Scrum Masters probably shouldn’t have that role anyway.

“a) Is an Agile coach expected to do all 3. i.e delivery management of projects, people development(career progression, feedback in retros, conflict mgt) and Agile process coaching ( tech forums, building an Agile culture etc)?”

Well… that all depends how you define the Agile Coach role. I’d ask the coaches to sit down together and draw up a list of things they think they should do, and a list of things they do not to. Similarly I’d do this with the Scrum Masters.

As I’ve said, in my view, most of the time coaches should not be managing the delivery of projects or people development (line management). They will run some retrospective and feedback sessions, although I’d expect the Scrum Masters to take on most of this. And I would expect them to work on process, culture, etc.

(This old post might be useful What does an Agile coach do?).

“b) Given our geographical spread should we be hiring more Agile coaches?”

Yes, at least one per location.

Even if you don’t have developers in one location you will have some people – analysts? sales? – who would benefit from better understanding of the new way of working. And in a location with multiple teams you probably need multiple coaches, but not necessarily 1-to-1, as the teams have Scrum Masters, and some new managers of some sort, the coaches should focus their attention supporting these roles and the teams.

“c) If we were to get a delivery manager in between a SM and Agile coach, people management should be whose responsibility? (We are facing a huge challenge in finding the ideal combination of tech skills and people leaders)”

I don’t think so, this isn’t a hierarchy or chain-of-command. Project/Delivery Managers and Coaches are peers, they each have a different focus but have overlapping responsibilities. On any one team the Scrum Master and Project/Delivery Manager will need to decide between them they work together and which responsibilities they pick up.

Agile Coaches don’t have any additional authority however they are not under taking the day-to-day work, their job is different again.

Right now I think you need to untangle the Agile Coach role first, give it a few months and revisit these questions.

Can’t say I’m surprised you are finding it hard to get the right combination of tech skills and people leaders. Such people are few and far between, sometimes it seems the two are mutually exclusive. Could you work with the existing tech leaders to improve their people skills? – training, coaching, etc.?

“d) Would it be a better idea to identify SMs with potential to be groomed into people managers and move them to a delivery manager role? My concern is that an Agile coach should not be stepping on the toes of a delivery manager.”

Certainly you could help the Scrum Masters grow in that direction. Whether they stay Scrum Masters or become something else I don’t know. And since you don’t have any delivery managers (yet) you talk that through when you are recruiting people (i.e. don’t hire people who have strong beliefs on this!)

(And, by the way, avoid the word “grooming”, in English English it has a very specific, very negative, meaning these days.)

Pheww…

In summary:

  • More Agile coaches

  • Have the coaches define their responsibilities

  • Educate and grow the Scrum Masters

  • Add a new role: perhaps experiment with one or two hires at first

I hope that helps.

A sad Cobol story

This isn’t a happy story, it has no happy ending, I suffered personally, its personal but I want to share.

Its about trying to solve a problem with the fashionable solution rather than rolling back the last fashionable solution you applied which created the problem to start with…

A long time ago, well, the best part of 10 years ago, in a town far far away (actually the other side of London) I went to help a small part of a very large company “become agile”.

The managers wanted to be “agile” and insisted they knew what it meant and what the implications were. So my job was merely to help the change resistant workers change.

Now this company, like so many others, had decided that coding was expensive and should be done in a far away place, and this time I do really mean far away, far enough away to be cheaper.

The system in question was big, and old, over 20 years old, and millions of lines of Cobol. Fortunately the company still employed most of the people who had built the system over 20 years. Unfortunately they were to forbidden to code. They were too expensive for that. So the far away cheap people coded. I forget the job title the old coders were given, maybe it was SME but I thought of them as Architects – although Systems Analyst might have been a better title.

The far away coders, employed by a “partner” (outsourcer) were young, they lack programming experience. I suspect they had learned Java at college and been given a Cobol boot camp when they joined the partner. From what I could tell they were quite capable of making a code change at the function level but… anything involving system structure, multiple functions or some of the larger (too big) functions required help.

They needed to talk to the architects.

To avoid this the big company had the architects write “design” documents. But still the coders needed regular conference calls.

These coders also had a habit of changing, after 18 months on the contract the outsourcer moved them on. But then, many of them didn’t last that long; many left of their own accord before then. Consequently, just as one of the coders got to the point off properly understanding Cobol and the system they were gone.

To make sure the right work was done the big company had Business Analysts detail the need in big documents. Lots more to read.

Of course all this required a lot of testing for the partner, plus another partner (in a third location), and internal “user acceptance testing” (in a fourth location.) Implicitly the process and managers accepted lots of failure and expected testing to generate a lot of (re)work.

Now something else happens when you use an outsourcer and so many people: you need more management, at both the client and supplier.

All this complexity (not to mention cost) piled up and made them unresponsive. Hence they wanted to be Agile! That’s why I was there.

Every so often one of the projects would get into a real mess and the architects would be allow to take over and code. When this happened it was completed in a few weeks.

Most of the offshore efforts took months.

Yes the company was saving money on programmers but…

• They were spending more on business analysts and architects

• They were spending a lot on test

• They were spending a fortune on managing

But most of all they were paying in late deliveries, new products not in the market, delayed cost reduction initiatives and so on. Plus they were pained by poor completing date forecasts.

And it was getting worse.

So of course Agile was the answer.

But the problem the company faced wasn’t one Agile sets out to solve. The problem was one of knowledge: the company had the knowledge but wasn’t using it effectively. While they didn’t use the knowledge they were losing the knowledge. Knowledge couldn’t just be moved from the heads of people in London to the heads of people in a far away place.

The company ignored knowledge, or at least thought it could be written down. They saw the problem as expensive typists.

And me?

I diagnosed the problem as managers failing to understand, hence I wanted to spend time talking to managers. But they said they already understood and Agile was the answer so my wanted to talk to them was not what they wanted.

I crashed and burned.

Kodak and The Mayor of Rotterdam problem

In The Living Company (one of my favourite business books, highly recommended) Arie de Geus describes the Mayor of Rotterdam Problem, it goes like this.

Imagine you have perfect foresight. You can see the future accurately. It is 1920 and you visit the Mayor of Rotterdam. You tell the mayor about how the events of the next 25 years, specifically about the destruction Rotterdam will suffer during 1940-1945.

de Geus asks: What is it reasonable to expect the major to do?

Think about this for a moment.

de Geus draws the following lesson:

The future cannot be predicted. But, even if we could, we would not dare act on the prediction.

So, I might say “You project is a train crash and destined to fail.” But if you have invested $100million do you dare to act on my information?

I draw another lesson from this story:

There is nothing we can do to change the future, even when one has considerable power.

Most people regard a Mayor as a powerful figure. But what could the mayor do in 1920 to stop Great Depression, the rise of Fascism and the pending war?

And thats assuming people believe you.

Why bring this up now?

Well… increasingly some of our most established companies face exactly this dilemma. The raise of digital business, coupled with disruptive innovation, agile working and new management models place CEOs of some of the largest business in exactly the Mayor’s position.

If you are the CEO of a business with a few million customers and you can see how digital disruptors will steal your business over the next 10 year d you dare act on the information?

Acting now might mean destroying profits for years to come, acting now might mean laying off thousands of workers and dropping millions of customer. Success if very very far from guaranteed. And thats assuming you can persuade people you were right.

There is one company where this has already happened: Kodak.

A recent MIT Sloan Review piece Willy Shih gave an account of Kodak which differs substantially to the commonly received view. Kodak is regularly held up as an example of a company that failed to recognise how digital would change their world and as a result went bankrupt. But…

Shih describes it differently, he says that Kodak managers did understand what was happening – after all they invented digital photography. The problem was: Kodak couldn’t change direction because of their ecosystem and the economics of their business.

Part of the Kodak problem was that had Kodak publicly acknowledged the decline in their traditional market they would have accelerated the change.

Kodak did try use their legacy business as a cash cow did enter the digital market this left a big problem: how do you manage, and motivate, people in the legacy business who will never make the transition?

The question to ask right now is:
• What other Kodaks are there out there? – unable to change direction because of their legacy.
• Which CEOs are Mayors of Rotterdam? – unable to act on accurate predictions of the future.

If you are the CEO of a Kodak an alternative strategy might be ignore the future, crank up the machine and do even more of the same – whatever your current business model is. Aim in the short run to minimise risk while maximising your personal return. Plan to jump out of the business yourself before it goes bang or just plan to blame the failure to predict the future.

My dyslexia inside the corporation

This is the first blog post of 2017 so something a little different, a little more personal, a little speculative…

I’ve written before about my dyslexia (Dyslexia makes me stronger) and I’ve also noted that what is good for dyslexics what helps them learn, is usually good for the wider population too; i.e. if you make things dyslexic friendly non-dyslexics also find things easier.

A corollary for that might be: reading which many find a little difficult dyslexics find very difficult.

Now I’ve stumbled on something that has got me thinking, let me explain…

Something really unusual has happened to me for the second time within a year. I find myself working regularly inside a big corporate organization, specifically, I’m working with the same company regularly enough for them to have given me a company e-mail address, which means I need to log into corporation Outlook. It also means the corporation is sending me lots of internal stuff and people are communicating with me via e-mail and by referring me anonymous webpages and and and…

OK, for most of you this is normal, it was once too for me but I’ve spent most of the last 10 years working either with companies which aren’t big enough to do this sort of stuff or, I was wasn’t working with companies enough to get into this position.

I’ve noticed that I’m ignoring much of this material, I sometimes feel like I’m drowning. And I notice that I only skim read (at best) much of the stuff that is thrown at me. Its overwhelming and I have a very low tolerance level, perhaps because…

Above all what I notice is I feel troubled inside when confronted with pages and pages of corporate text. I even feel like crying. I switch off.

Little companies, growing companies, have this stuff too but much less of it. And usually you can find someone to ask. In the big company not only is there lots and lots but asking is hard – try calling IT support and you find out how much these people don’t want you to.

I’ve had this before but only now have I made a connection with my dyslexia because I’ve remembered where I’ve had these feeling before: at school and at University.

I realise that confronted with this mass of text I feel like I did when confronted with books at school.

It is not about reading, I love reading, I am reading several books for enjoyment at the moment and I continue to read the news papers and websites.

But confronted with masses of material I need to read, which not reading makes me in some way a failure, school text books and corporate webpages I feel inadequate, I feel intimidated, I want to cry and a bit of me feels like I’m at school.

It occurs to me that as companies rely more on automated systems, documented processes and policies, and they move away from conversation and human interaction then those of us who are dyslexic are at a disadvantage.

Sure I can read the words but I can’t process them.

Ironically, as I mentioned when I blogged about my dyslexia before, I think my dyslexia is an asset, I think dyslexia made me a better programmer. But equally dyslexia makes it harder for me to operate in a modern corporate environment. So by documenting themselves big corporates could be deterring or disabling the very people they want.

(I say disabling very specifically: Dyslexia is a socially constructed disability, it is only a disability because of the society we have created, in earlier, pre-text, societies it may be considered an advantage.)

Or is it just me?
Do other dyslexics feel this?
And what about the mass of non-dyslexics? – maybe they feel the same

This blog contains a lot of conjecture, free thinking if you prefer, I write to find out if others think this way – please comment.