The [Agile] Doctor Will See You Now

I recently had to go to the doctor to deal with something that had been bugging me for close to a month.  Notice that I said “had to.”  Like most other red-blooded American (probably global) male, I make not going to the Doctor sort of part of my core values.  Growing up in rural Middle America helped solidify the belief that one only goes to the doctor, a) if the bone didn’t set right, or b) you can’t stop the bleeding with even a tourniquet and that was only after the chores were done.  Anyway, the doctor identified and started treatment on the immediate need and then set another appointment to deal with continuing care – making sure that I stay healthy as I continue to inch into my forties.

It struck me in this encounter that we, as “agile organizations” treat our state of agile in much of the same way.  We heavily rely on agile midwifery to birth us into this agile journey and through the infancy of our adoption and then give an “I’m OK, you can leave me alone now” kind of nod to the folks that have experienced, and hopefully been successful through, all the challenges that are coming up in our very journey to maturity.  Then, when we proverbially “cannot handle the problem any more,” we reluctantly pick up the phone and hope we can get an emergency visit for that day.

Before I go any further, let me state that I don’t think that only a handful of agile superstars hold all of the knowledge that will immediately fix broken bones, restore eyesight, or regrow hair (to continue the analogy).  We know that agile is not a silver bullet.  We know, also, that just as doctors “practice medicine” we “practice agile” meaning we are always seeing new scenarios and coming up with better ways to approach work.  We are just folks that have probably been through a lot of the common problems that face agile organizations and have figured out a way to improve.

Taking cues from the healthcare professionals, here is a framework that we could apply to help us through this life of agility:

First, unlike a gazelle or a giraffe, your agile teams aren’t going to go from birth to galloping through the Serengeti in 0.8 seconds.  At the company I work for, we talk about agile maturity for teams and organizations being a lot like your own personal growth starting from infancy and maturing into a professional.  This means that “achieving” agile maturity takes time and might even need to be assisted by someone who has been through The School of Hard Knocks.  Recently, I heard a person in leadership remark that a team was in “like sprint 5 or 6” and that they shouldn’t need an agile coach with them any longer.  I completely and holistically reject this idea.  Agile maturity is not based on how many sprints a team completes, but rather a myriad of variables and situations and how the team responds.  Teams should have access to agile coaching (whether internal or external) as long as they, as self-managing teams, feel is necessary.

Second, a team is only as strong as its support mechanism.  Being a father of three, when my children go to the doctor for either well or sick visit, I don’t drop them off at the front door and tell them, “I’m going to Starbucks.  Text me when you are through.”  I, or my wife, go in with them.  Why?  Not just to pay the bill, but also to understand what is needed to either continue health or improve health.  My wife and I, as parents, are a support mechanism that reinforces good health.  In the same way, a team cannot be successful in a agile-hostile environment.  Last week I visited a client that took this concept seriously.  When they, as a development organization, decided to become agile, they didn’t just say, “ok, go be agile,” they actually created a physical and leadership environment that facilitated agility.  For them, this looked like removing high cubical walls, installing white-noise generators because they didn’t have the ability to give a “team room” to each team, creating a flat organization, investing in other improvements for remote folks, and more.  It even meant that the VP gave up his office in order to provide space for collaboration.  Yes, he now sat in a desk in the open space.  This provided the teams with the opportunity to be in an environment that allows failure and recovery (fail fast, fix fast) without becoming detrimental.

Finally, it isn’t good for teams to go a long time without a checkup.  There was a time, I am not proud to say, that I didn’t get regular healthcare check ups.  I could say it was because of finances or because nothing was “going wrong,” but what I found out was that it “normalized” behaviors that were not beneficial to me.  Another side effect was that the longer I went without seeing a doctor, the more I believed that a doctor wasn’t necessary in my life.  A few months ago I reconnected with a friend that worked for a former client of mine.  As I normally do, I asked how their agile journey was going.  To my not-so-surprise, my friend stated about ten or eleven agile anti-patterns to me that had become prevalent in that organization, from a multitude of “hardening sprints” to constant team change to the increase of managerial oversight by using the once independent scrum masters.  I realized that this organization had forgotten that regular check-ups are not only beneficial for good agile health, but necessary when certain patterns start to form.  There was a meme that stated, “Oh, you read it on WebMD?  You must be a doctor.”  Again, not saying that agile coaches are doctors, but we have dedicated our professional lives to helping people be more agile and we are want to see you improve!

What are the takeaways?  Easy peasy lemon squeezy:

  1. Plan to be coached for longer than you think as an adopting organization.  Maybe consider a “buffer” just as you would if you were planning a long-term project.
  2. Plan and execute ways that create a support mechanism for your new agile teams.  This might be as simple as not making them submit the same ole status reports to an extensive remodel of your space and organization, but start somewhere.
  3. Even after your initial coaching engagement, make sure you have weekly or every-other-week checkups from an agile coach.  This limited investment could save costly anti-patterns in the future.

In the immortal words of the movie, Demolition Man – “Be Well, John Spartan”  – or some other line to help you to remember that agile health is not a passive activity 🙂

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