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Agile development teams focus on individual competency as a critical factor to project success. If the people on the project are good enough, they can use almost any process and accomplish their assignment. If they are not good enough, no process will repair their inadequacy (“people trump process” is one way to say this). However, “politics trump people.” Even good people can be kept from accomplishing the job by inadequate support.
A recent update of the Chaos Report from the Standish Group outlines a recipe for success that includes ten items. The first three are executive support, user involvement, and experienced project management. These are certainly key items, and we agree with having those three in the top ten. However, “competent staff” is buried inside the 10th item: “Other.” While it is true that lack of user and executive support can kill a project (“politics trump people”), it is equally true that the developers won’t manage to produce a system if they are lacking the basic competency for the job. Interestingly, people working together with good communication and interaction can operate at noticeably higher than their individual talent levels. We see this time and again in brainstorming and joint problem-solving sessions.
Therefore, agile project teams focus on increasing both the individual competencies and the collaboration levels. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman discuss the outcome of a long-running research program by the Gallup organization, in which 80,000 managers in 400 companies were interviewed over a 25-year period (Now, Discover Your Strengths, Simon & Schuster, 2001). In this book, they highlight the interplay between talent, skill, and knowledge. Regarding high-performance working environments, they write: “The larger, establishment camp is comprised of those organizations that legislate the process of performance. … They try to teach each employee to walk the same path.” “This [people-based] type organization focuses not on the steps of the journey but on the end of the journey.” “The distinction between the two camps is real. Step-by-step organizations are designed to battle the inherent individuality of each employee. Strength-based organizations are designed to capitalize on it.” Extending their ideas, it’s not that organizations that employ rigorous processes value people less that agile ones, it’s that they view people, and how to improve their performance differently. Rigorous processes are designed to standardize people to the organization, while agile processes are designed to capitalize on each individual and each team’s unique strengths. One-size-fits-one—every process must be selected, tailored, and adapted to the individuals on a particular project team.
Too many software engineering and rigorous process adherents confuse process and competence. Process can provide a useful framework for groups of individuals to work together, but process per se cannot overcome lack of competency, while competency can surely overcome the vagaries of a process (“people trump process” again).
Look under the cover of XP, Scrum, Adaptive Software Development, Crystal Methods, Feature-Driven Development (FDD), or DSDM and the emphasis on people and their talent, skill, and knowledge becomes evident. This is a competency attitude, not an elitist one. Whether it’s the practices of pair-programming and mentoring in XP or chief programmers and inspections in FDD, the goal remains consistent—improving the knowledge and skill of individuals through working jointly. The recent book of one agile development practitioner is therefore appropriately entitled – not software engineering – but Software Craftmanship (Pete McBreen, Addison-Wesley, 2001).
Agile teams are characterized by intense collaboration and self-organization. Here we distinguish between collaboration and communication. Communication is the sending and receiving of information. Collaboration is actively working together to deliver a work product or make a decision.
Agility requires that teams have a common focus, mutual trust and respect; a collaborative, but speedy, decision making process; and the ability to deal with ambiguity. Self-organizing teams are not leaderless teams, but teams that can organize again and again, in various configurations, to meet challenges as they arise.
The DSDM manual, as an example, identifies the differences between traditional and agile project managers, one of which is this: “A traditional project manager will normally focus on agreeing a detailed contract with customers about the totality of the system to be delivered along with the costs and timescales. In a DSDM project, the Project Manager is focused on setting up a collaborative relationship with the customers.” Scrum projects are characterized by intense 15-30 minute daily meetings in which participants constantly adjust to the changing realities of high-change projects. All too often, project teams are given the ultimate accountability for product delivery, while staff groups—project offices, process management, data administrators—are given decision power. In order to innovate and react to change, agile teams reflect a better alignment of accountability and responsibility. It is again an emphasis, at the team level, on competency rather than process.
An agile team working within a rigid organization has as difficult a time as agile individuals working within a rigid team. Many project teams we have interviewed report that when they responded to customer’s requests and to technology platform changes, to deliver usable value to the customer, they were admonished by their management for lack of conformance to the original plan.
Agile organizations and agile managers understand that demanding certainty in the face of uncertainty is not dysfunctional. Agile companies practice Leadership-Collaboration rather than Command-Control management. They set goals and constraints, providing boundaries within which innovation can flourish. They are macro-managers rather than micro-managers. They understand that who makes decisions isn’t as important as collaboration on information to make informed decisions. They understand that agility depends on trusting individuals to apply their competency in effective ways. Newtonian Neurosis is the label give to traditional project management by Doug DeCarlo. Neurosis in trying to attack complex, non-linear problems with simplistic, linear processes.
A project is built from people having differing personalities and differing skills, working in a physical environment within an organizational culture. The people, the environment, the organizational culture, all influence each other. When a strong person leaves, the organization rearranges itself to compensate; when the team spreads itself across multiple floors, communications change; and so on.
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