The Revenge of Frankenagile

The ubiquitous employee handbook is filled with rules, regulations, and descriptions of how employees are expected to behave. The larger the organization, the thicker the handbook. Handbooks and associated policies like this have been described as “corporate scar tissue.” Someone somewhere at sometime made a serious mistake, whether intentional or not, and so a policy was created to prevent that something from ever happening again. The same effect can be seen with many consumer products that have lengthy warning labels and manual pages stating things like “This toaster is not suitable as a flotation device in the event of a boating accident.”

In an effort to prevent a re-occurrence, the policies effectively limit – much like physical scar tissue – the ability of people within the organization to adapt, improvise, and innovate. They limit an employee’s range of motion within the organization’s solution space. In an effort to save the organization from human error and create the perfect business machine, excessive policies condemn the organization to a slow but certain death.

Anyone who has worked within a large organization recognizes this. For some, it’s a comfort. Knowing the rules. Knowing where the fences are. And knowing where to place blame. The less ambiguity around how a situation can be interpreted the better. For others, maybe after an attempt to change things, the environment becomes too stifling and they leave for greener, wider pastures.

Given enough time, the policies become the document of record for the organization’s culture. Any attempts to change the way work gets done within an organization that has deep scar tissue will have to confront Shalloway’s Corollary:

When development groups change how their development staff are organized, their current application architecture will work against them.

I’ve learned this corollary is not limited to software companies. In every case I’ve experienced, whether in a software company or not, the system will push back. Hard. Every Agile practitioner needs to know and respect this. Riding into work on a unicorn with a bag of rainbows and pixie dust is a gig that will not end well. At best, the organization will have made an incomplete effort at implementing Agile and “Frankenagile” will be roaming the halls – a collection of project management methodological parts that by themselves served a valuable purpose in a larger or different context, but have been stitched together to form a monster in Agile form only.

In a small company, particularly if they are working to create a software product, the monster may be small. So performing corrective surgery, while still a lot of work, is quite possible in a relatively short amount of time. For larger organizations, particularly those with deep roots in traditional project management, it can be a scary sized beast indeed. Something not to be trifled with, rather something that needs a well thought out strategy and plan of action.

It is the latter scenario I’d like to address in this series of posts (this being Part 1,  the introduction) over the next several week. What I’d like to present is a method I’ve used quite successfully over the past 10+ years for assessing the extent to which Conway’s Law and Shalloway’s Corollary are in play. It is a method for determining both team and organization health within the larger management context. The extent to which Agile can be successfully implemented in an organization is dependent on how aware management, the Agile coach, and scrum masters are of the system dynamics driving organizational behavior.

Clouds and Windmills

I recently resigned from the company I had been employed by for over 5 years. The reason? It was time.

During my tenure1 I had the opportunity to re-define my career several times within the organization in a way that added value and kept life productive, challenging, and rewarding. Each re-definition involved a rather extensive mind mapping exercises with hundreds of nodes to described what was working, what wasn’t working, what needed fixing, and where I believed I could add the highest value.

This past spring events prompted another iteration of this process. It began with the question “What wouldn’t happen if I didn’t go to work today?”2 This is the flip of asking “What do I do at work?” The latter is a little self-serving. We all want to believe we are adding value and are earning our pay. The answer is highly filtered through biases, justifications, excuses, and rationalizations. But if in the midsts of a meeting you ask yourself, “What would be different if I were not present or otherwise not participating?”, the answer can be a little unsettling.

This time around, in addition to mind mapping skills, I was equipped with the truly inspiring work of Tanmay Vora and his sketchnote project. Buy me a beer some day and I’ll let you in on a few of my discoveries. Suffice it to say, the overall picture wasn’t good. I was getting the feeling this re-definition cycle was going to include a new employer.

A cascade of follow-on questions flowed from this iteration’s initial question. At the top:

  1. Why am I staying?
  2. Is this work aligned with my purpose?
  3. Have my purpose and life goals changed?

The answers:

  1. The paycheck
  2. No.
  3. A little.

Of course, it wasn’t this simple. The organization changed, as did I, in a myriad of ways. While exploring these questions, I was reminded of a story my Aikido teacher, Gaku Homma, would tell when describing his school. He said it was like a rope. In the beginning, it had just a few threads that joined with him to form a simple string. Not very strong. Not very obvious. But very flexible. Over time, more and more students joined his school and wove their practice into Nippon Kan’s history. Each new thread subtlety changed the character of the emerging rope. More threads, more strength, and more visibility. Eventually, an equilibrium emerges. Some of those threads stop after a few short weeks of classes, other’s (like mine) are 25 years long before they stop, and for a few their thread ends in a much more significant way.

Homma Sensi has achieved something very difficult. The threads that form Nippon Kan’s history are very strong, very obvious, and yet remain very flexible. Even so, there came a time when the right decision for me was to leave, taking with me a powerful set of skills, many good memories, and friendships. The same was true for my previous employer. Their rope is bending in a way that is misaligned with my purpose and goals. Neither good nor bad. Just different. Better to leave with many friendships intact and a strong sense of having added value to the organization during my tenure.

The world is full of opportunities. And sometimes you have to deliberately and intentionally clear all the collected clutter from your mental workspace so those opportunities have a place to land. Be attentive to moments like this before your career is remembered only as someone who yells at clouds and tilts at windmills.


1 By the numbers…

1,788 Stand-ups
1,441 Wiki/Knowledgebase Contributions
311 Sprint/Release Planning Sessions
279 Reviews
189 Retrospectives
101 Projects
31 Internal Meet-ups
22 Agile Cafés
10 Newsletters
5.5 Years
3 Distinct Job Titles
1 Wild Ride

2 My thanks to colleague Lennie Noiles and his presentation on Powerful Questions. While Lennie didn’t ask me this particular question, it was inspired by his presentation.

Parkinson’s Law of Perfection

C. Northcote Parkinson is best known for, not surprisingly, Parkinson’s Law:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

But there are many more gems in “Parkinson’s Law and Other Studies in Administration.” The value of re-reading classics is that what was missed on a prior read becomes apparent given the accumulation of a little more experience and the current context. On a re-read this past week, I discovered this:

It is now  known  that  a  perfection  of  planned  layout  is  achieved  only  by institutions  on  the   point  of  collapse.  This   apparently  paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the  more esoteric details of  which we need not concern  ourselves. In general  principle, however, the method pursued has been to  select and date the buildings  which  appear to have been perfectly  designed for  their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a  period of exciting discovery or progress there is  no time  to  plan the perfect headquarters.  The time for that comes  later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.

Several years back my focus for the better part of a year was on mapping out software design processes for a group of largely non-technical instructional designers. If managing software developers is akin to herding cats, finding a way to shepherd non-technical creative types such as instructional designers (particularly old school designers) can be likened to herding a flock of canaries – all over the place in three dimensions.

What made this effort successful was framing the design process as a set of guidelines that were easy to track and monitor. The design standards and common practices, for example, consisted of five bullet points. Building just enough fence to keep everyone in the same area while limiting free range behaviors to specific places was important. These were far from perfect, but they allowed for the dynamic vitality suggested by Parkinson. If the design standards and common practices document ever grew past something that could fit on one page, it would suggest the company was moving toward over specialization and providing services to a narrow slice of the potential client pie. In the rapidly changing world of adult eduction, this level of perfection would most certainly suggest decay and risk collapse as client needs change.

(This article cross-posted on LinkedIn.)