@#$% the Dip!

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Photo by Thomas Hawk

In working at various companies, I've come across a common concern from managers when we start talking about their teams learning something new:

"How long will we be in the Dip?"

"When will be out of the Dip?"

"How can we avoid the Dip?"

It seems that we've come to understand that learning something new involves an initial dip in productivity or results, and now managers are trying to decide when is the right time for the learning to happen.

THE TIME IS NOW.

In my experience, delaying learning is a bad choice. Clearly the status quo is not sufficient, which is why the subject came up at all. Typically it's around the technical practices learning needed to become a two-star team. It's often not as bad as we imagine it to be, and empirical methods help us evaluate progress along the way.

Promote learning when there is interest or need. Support it when it's difficult. The Dip was not meant to deter us from trying new things. It's about the journey to mastery.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Normalizing Discomfort in Agile Transformations

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

When teams start adopting agile practices, managers often feel lost or out of place.  Their role has changed, and it is not clear what they should be doing.  They are told not to talk at daily scrums, don't assign tasks to team members, and don't tell the team how to do the work.  Where does that leave managers?  They have to grown, and they are responsible for creating an environment that fosters growth for teams and individuals.

It leaves them with an incredibly difficult job--normalizing discomfort:

There is a great checklist on Dr. Brene Brown's website for giving engaged feedback.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Strength Through Authenticity

Photo by Steve Johnson

Photo by Steve Johnson

Michael Sahota's blog first introduced me to Brene Brown, and I'm so thankful for it.  He recently summed up Dr. Brown's view on vulnerability, which requires 3 elements: Courage, Compassion, Authenticity.  Good managers exhibit those elements, and today I wanted to focus on Authenticity.

Pawel Brodzinski shared how he is unable to hide his emotions in the workplace, and one of my coworkers is the same way.  Rather than view it as a negative, Pawel classifies it as authenticity--it's part of being honest and transparent.  But organizations don't always want honesty and transparency from their leaders; they expect leaders to put on a mask to protect the organization's interests because employees cannot be trusted to know everything or shouldn't be distracted by the ins and outs of organizational details.  In such situations, managers are caught between company culture and their employees.  

It's known that employees often quit bosses--not jobs--but studies have also shown that the exit rate of bad bosses (those who don't improve the productivity of their workers) is almost twice the rate of the average-quality boss.  According to the researchers, the best bosses are teachers and cheerleaders.  I suspect that the best bosses might also use those skills to shape company culture, making it more transparent so all employees can be more authentic.  After all, it's tiring to not be yourself in the workplace, and it's associated with lower job satisfaction.

So go on, be an authentic leader.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Good Practices Gone Wrong

Photo by grahamcartergc

Photo by grahamcartergc

There's a danger in taking best practices too far and applying them at the wrong time or in the wrong situation, and it's a big challenge for leaders who are struggling to advise teams--the leaders are also learning what works and what doesn't while the teams are learning. 

As an example:

User stories are commonly used in Agile organizations, and they are often estimated in story points.  A team estimates each story in its product backlog, and knowing the team's velocity, we can predict when the work reflected in the backlog will be done.  At the beginning of a project, the team knows the least amount of information about the work itself--they will learn more as the project progresses.  There is value in estimating the product backlog before the project starts and estimating the team's velocity as an initial estimate for the project, but it's just that: the initial estimate.  It will be refined as the project progresses and the team learns more about the work.  When estimating the stories at the beginning of the project, it's common for some of them to be epic in size--in fact, that's good.  Epics can be broken down later when the team has more information, so they put a larger story point size on the epic for now as a high level estimate.  But if estimating stories is good and breaking them down into smaller stories is good, wouldn't it be good to break down all of the epics from the start and estimate those?

Not necessarily.  Are heads going to roll if the estimate is wrong?  The team has to spend more time and effort trying to break down those epics at the beginning of the project, and remember, this is when they know the least information about the work itself.  How likely is it that the stories will not change drastically by the time they get to those stories in the product backlog?  Or that the stories will be needed at all?  Epics help keep some of the details vague so the requirements can emerge later.

For every best practice, it's important to know why it is a best practice and when it is best applied.  Some of that will come through trial and error, and some of it can come from reading and talking to others outside your organization.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Focusing Your Energy through Lists

Photo by Kyle Steed

Photo by Kyle Steed

My husband and I first met in college, and when I was overwhelmed with the amount of stuff I had to do, he would tell me, "sleep is for the weak."  It didn't give me much comfort, but I survived college thanks to the occasional all-nighter and power nap.  When my husband was in graduate school and tired, I reminded him of his "sleep is for the weak" motto, but he didn't buy into it.  Clearly it wasn't something he truly believed.  Lots of people have similar mottos, like "you can rest when you're done," but such thoughts only encourage us to do more than can be reasonably expected and push us beyond a sustainable pace.  They're harmful.

Now that it's 2013, many people have created resolutions for the new year.  I identified some things that I wanted to focus on in January, and admittedly, I've done a terrible job of following through on them.  Why?  Because I didn't specify what I would stop doing.  My To Do list increased, but my To Not Do list did not.  

Lots of managers have busy schedules and full plates, often reacting to their boss's and employees' needs instead of being proactive and shaping the organization.  More than perhaps any other group, managers need To Not Do lists.  Teams achieve focus through the use of backlogs and timeboxed iterations, but managers typically lack such tools.  I suggest implementing them to create just enough structure to inspect and adapt more effectively.  Using a backlog (a.k.a. a To Do list) is a great way to achieve focus on the highest value items, and the visibility of requests for time can help identify items for the To Not Do list.  The use of a backlog and timeboxed iterations requires discipline, but the results often speak for themselves, and it'll build more empathy with development teams.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Trust the Team

Photo by Shawn Honnick

Photo by Shawn Honnick

The hardest part of an Agile adoption is learning to trust the team.  An Agile project might not provide the normal indicators of progress that managers are accustomed to seeing.  The Agile adoption can feel uncomfortable for managers, particularly since their role is often not explicitly defined.  But how a manager acts can greatly impact a team:

  • A manager who questions the amount of work a team pulls into a sprint can make the team question its own judgment and feel pressured to do more.
  • A manager who demands to know what each team member is working on can make the team feel unsafe and may lead to estimate inflation or overcommitting to work.
  • A manager who tells the team how to solve a problem can make the team dependent and slows learning.

I wish I could say that rebuilding the trust after such actions is as easy as clapping your hands and saying, "I believe in the team."  But the truth is that trust takes work.  Demonstrating trust includes both the absence and presence of behavior, so focus on ways to build trust and avoid breaking it

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Developing Super-Powers

Photo by Corey Bond

Photo by Corey Bond

In my role as a consultant, I often talk about super-powers--not because I am a geek who watches superhero movies, but because I believe that teams have super-powers.  In the agile world, we know that teams are more than the sum of their parts--they can do more together than they could as individuals.  A true team can do more by collaborating than a group of individuals coordinating their efforts.  It takes concerted effort from an organization to create strong teams.

Most organizations that I see are matrixed, which can bring its own set of challenges as middle managers may have competing goals, there can be an abudance of competing status reports, and the projects and requests seem endless and all high-priority.  A manager may understand the importance of teams and genuinely want them to develop their super-powers, but the transition can feel painful.  It can feel like a blind leap of faith, and there may be stumbles.  Are we asking for too much from managers?  Are we crazy to think that a strong team will meet the needs of the organization better than partitioning team members to answer the constant requests?

Today's managers need a different set of skills--they need to develop their own super-powers.  I like the "Matrix Leadership Competencies" found in the Leading in the Matrix infographic from Hay Group:

matrix.jpg

Infographic from Hay GroupIf that isn't detailed enough, you can also check out Esther Derby's post on What Do Middle Managers Do

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.