By Stephen de Villiers Graaff
Agile software transformations are difficult at the best of times. No matter how dynamic an organisation, that level of change is uncomfortable and disruptive, and its appetite for taking on that change is determined by its personality.
As an Agile coach I've learned that ignoring the fact that organisations – through their people –have personalities is similar to testing for electricity by sticking your tongue into a wall-socket; you'll definitely get the answer you're looking for but there are more comfortable ways to get there.
With that in mind I thought I'd explore three personalities I've come to know quite well, and how each in turn approaches agility. See if you recognise yourself in any of them.
Meet Mildred. She's old, large and cantankerous. She has a walker and wears slippers to work. She hangs about in a faded blue cardigan that matches her hair and smells vaguely of moth-balls.
Mildred is very set in her ways. There are certain things she expects, even though she's long forgotten why she expects them. She generally hasn't a clue what she wants and won't be happy until she gets it.
Organisations like Mildred don’t change direction very easily. Whether it’s down to age or habit, they have the turning-circle of the Queen Mary. Ironically, no one really likes Mildred, but everyone seems oddly attached to her. Is there something vaguely comforting about the slow, myopic plodding?
Mildred is a top-heavy, command-and-control type of organisation with constrictive governance and little or no agility to speak of. Change is scary and is usually beaten with a large stick before it gets anywhere near the boardroom table. Agility is viewed as some new-age, hippy movement dreamed up by a new generation with no sound business principles behind them.
Like Madison. She’s young, sexy, and crazier than a box of frogs. She wears tie-dyed T-shirts, considers flowers a mandatory fashion accessory, and shoes are optional. She has the Japanese kanji for "Sesame Chicken" tattooed on her neck (she thought it meant "Peace").
Maddy has the attention span of a spider monkey. She routinely over-promises and under-delivers, flitting about from task to task in a frenetic cloud of jasmine incense and flower petals.
Everyone loves Maddy, in the beginning. Her wild and unencumbered approach to almost everything is intoxicating and fresh. Why plan when you can just do? Delivery is a high-speed train that Maddy throws requirements at as it rockets past. Some land, some are smeared down the side of the locomotive, some just get bounced back without leaving a mark. The fun starts to fade quite quickly when the train schedule is extended into the evenings and weekends to make up for the chaos.
Maddy is a small, flat and ultimately chaotic organisation. Under the guise of agility and creativity, change is not only embraced but revered. Any form of framework is viewed as suffocating and restrictive, but the actual choke points are routinely ignored. There's way too much work in progress and far too little being delivered.
Then Maleficent. She's stiff, stern, and strangely scary. Her lean, leather-clad curves give developers palpitations and have project managers breaking out in a cold sweat.
Maleficent purrs seductively about focus, collaboration, self-managed teams, face-to-face communication, a siren song to some and lunatic ravings to others. Not that she cares, because she simply knows she's absolutely right.
She’s an evangelical proponent of one or other Agile variant, more than ready to launch into a self-righteous speech about anything less than the rigid and unwavering application of that framework. She doesn't care that Mildred would simply fall over without the walker, or that Maddy's train is on a circular track and never stops.
So aside from their familiar peculiarities, what can we learn from these distinct personalities? For one, although broadly common, they hardly ever exist in isolation. For every Mildred, Maddy and Maleficent there are dozens of variants between, often in the same organisation.
Every organisation has its own challenges. What works for one may be an abject failure in another. At the heart of every agile transformation are people, and if you remove respect, sensitivity and flexibility, all that's left is agile paint-by-numbers.
Agility, rather than agile, is not about tools or frameworks. It’s not about how often you apply your Scrum iterations. Yes, these are important, but more important is how you manage the people and personalities that use them, and find the right shade of agile that works for them.