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It's Not a Kind of Magic!

10/09/2013 by Rui Miguel Ferreira

Today I will write a few lines with one clear objective: Lower your expectations, get your feet back on the ground. (OK, maybe two objectives.)
I believe that most of you felt, during the Agile-adoption process, a kind of overenthusiasm, a feeling that "this is the solution to all evils." Well, Agile is a completely different approach compared to more traditional ones. It's really challenging! And it has a built-in set of principles and values that are very close to human nature . . . but not so close to the typical nature of an organization.
At this time, allow me a quick visit to the Agile Manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan
Looking at this, especially at the left, bold side, and starting using an Agile approach, it's not difficult to become overexcited about a tremendous New World.
But I also suppose that many of you have experienced situations that were very close to those you dealt with before you decided to try out or adopt Agile processes. And that is because teams and organizations are made up of people. The Agile approach is just a tool to be of service for the team. It is there to help the team, to make the job go better, faster. But it only works if people are willing to embrace change.
To succeed, supposing you are a change agent, you will need to be brave, to truly believe in what you are doing, sometimes to get excited, to be completely motivated about the process -- but do not expect miracles. This is not a magic potion!
All teams and organizations have their problems, and yours have some too, for sure. The first thing you will notice is that your Agile process sometimes get stalled (please see this article, a great one I modestly believe, about flow: And, after a few retrospectives, you will notice that although some causes are sporadic, there are others that become repetitive. Those are the bigger problems of your team (and may even be caused by the organization). And this is the first great virtue of an Agile approach -- it brings the problems to the surface, one by one.
After identifying your main issues, it is supposed that the team starts to working on mitigating them. And this is the next phase of the process, and one during which you will find resistance. Change is hard; changing the way people think or act is harder! For this article I will select the three most challenging barriers I have faced in my own experience.

Low level of commitment among team members

One core value of Scrum is commitment, and I think I do not have to spend too much energy explaining why. This is the beginning of everything! Every single team member must understand the meaning of this word -- must understand that the sprint backlog, as the result of the planning meeting, is the commitment of the team for the next sprint. It is much more than a plan that should be followed. It is, in fact, the amount of work that the team believes is reasonable for them to deliver at the end of the iteration.
My way to mitigate this kind of problem is to use one-on-one meetings, assuring high levels of commitment for each element, providing the best conditions I can for each one.

Concerning the product owner, he or she must understand that the job is selling a vision to the team. So the product owner has a lot to gain if he is capable of motivating the team to his vision, motivating the team to work harder to achieve the business goals. Even if the product owner belongs to the customer, he must be with the team.

Organic problems in the organization

Agile, Scrum in particular, is the perfect way to bring those organic problems to the surface. Typical problems are approval work flows, dependencies on other teams, or infrastructure troubles. For this point in particular, I think it is the territory where the ScrumMaster must and can excel. If your organization has a lot of problems, you will need a great ScrumMaster to survive.
My messages are to anticipate, challenge others, give and obtain compromises, never be satisfied with a "no," and transmit confidence to the team as a way to show that there are no impossible missions.

Lack of management support

Well, this is an old one, but it appears again because it still has a major impact on project success or failure. Regarding methodology issues, middle management will actually have much more impact than executive management. You will have to deal with acquired rights and roles, delegation issues, and the real need for management to help on major impediments when those are related to organic problems.

Once again, Agile approaches will help a lot in making some of these problems much more clear.
However, as Agile practitioner Vasco Duarte said in a recent and very interesting discussion, never forget that this is just a tool. If it is getting too hard to use, throw it away.

To finish, I expect you know that everyone one of you, as an Agile agent, has a lot of work to do, a lot of barriers to deal with -- and a great tool to help you. Just don't expect miracles. . . .