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The Brewing Anti-Agile Executive Rebellion - Part 1

Expert Knowledge Alan Willett

The Angry Executive

The conference room was full of people, and yet it was silent except for a chair that needed oiling. The person in that chair stood up and moved to the back of the room. No one wanted to be near the front of the room where it appeared the division president, Alex, was about to rain down anger. Alex was holding up a hand as a stop sign and not speaking. The system software development leader, Matti, stopped the presentation and waited with the rest of the onlookers.

Alex finally spoke in a soft voice with clear, clipped words. “I expect this to be the last time anyone tries to explain Agile development to me. If anyone ever tries to use ‘because Agile’ as an excuse again, they will be seeking a different position.”

Wait. What?

This organization had started an Agile Transformation a few years earlier. To hear this now from a leading executive was quite a shock to everyone in the room. Matti’s presentation was all about how they were implementing their version of SCRUM, an Agile methodology.

The question Alex had asked that led to the meeting shutdown was, “When will the system be ready with the promised content for release to the customer?”

It wasn’t the question that was the problem; it was the answer.

Rather than answering Alex’s question with a calendar date, Matti wandered around the question by explaining an Agile principle as implemented in Scrum and how the team did sprint planning. As Alex watched the Agile buzzwords flow, it was clear that Matti was preparing to do a whole lecture on Agile. It was clear that Matti was not going to answer the question. The executive confided to me later that it sounded as though Matti couldn’t answer the question “because of Agile.”

The meeting stumbled to a close. The executive told Matti to come back to the following meeting with an answer to the question. The stunned and dispirited development team filed out.

An Emerging Trend

The story I just told is real, and I have seen variations of it many, many times. I have seen this happen in companies around the world. In my experience, the problem emerges most often in companies that are developing systems that include hardware, firmware, and software.

The roots of the rebellion are most vigorous in companies that have been working for a few years on implementing Agile, often conflating the manifesto with popular methods such as Scrum. This trend is in the early stages. It is worth understanding why this is occurring and taking appropriate actions to ensure your company will be successful at meeting your objectives.

Why the Executives are Getting Angry

The executives felt that when they embraced the “Agile Revolution” that they were investing in an methodology that would allow them to be faster and more flexible. Some organizations are indeed getting those results. However, those at the forefront of this brewing Anti-Agile Rebellion are experiencing a different story.

That meeting and the executive’s anger were just the most visible tip of this emerging iceberg. This organization and others like it are encountering a common set of problems.

Missed deadlines Especially when hardware systems are dependent on high-quality software, the deadlines that are missed are costly. Often when the system is delivered on-time, it is only with a small percentage of the promised content.

Bad quality Many teams think they are delivering the software on time. However, it is not on time if it doesn’t work. The executives realize this cold hard fact; Too often the software delivered to test, and even to customers, has too many significant defects to be declared “good,” and definitely cannot be considered high quality.

Lack of committed dates Perhaps the worst failing in the executives’ opinion is that leaders of development teams lack the ability or willingness to make a strong commitment to dates and quality. I have too often heard the statement “in Agile we don’t need to make commitments.” Note that there is nothing in the Agile Manifesto that supports this opinion.

Executive Alex was frustrated by Matti’s development team’s missed dates, lousy quality, and especially exasperated by Matti’s unwillingness to commit to delivery dates. Alex later said that it just sounded like #AgileWhining. What Alex heard were excuses. What Alex wanted was ownership.

Why the Development Teams are Frustrated

Many members of Matti’s development team were in the audience to hear Alex’s message. I sat in on the development team’s debrief and what they said mirrored many other development teams’ frustrations.

Matti’s team decried Alex’s leadership. What they thought they heard would have been a complete surprise to Alex. Here are the critical messages the team thought they heard.

Executives don’t care about quality. The developers want to make a quality product. What they thought they heard from Alex was to “cut corners” and just get the product out quickly.

Executives don’t understand Agile. They assumed based on Alex’s anger that there was no understanding of Agile and no desire to learn.

Executives don’t understand the complexity of the system. Since Alex didn’t ask about or want to listen to a description of the challenging parts of the project, the team assumed that Alex didn’t understand or care.

Developers are victims of bad leadership. The team was deflated and were very willing to cast themselves as victims. They were happily blaming Alex for all of the problems encountered in development.

The team said that all they heard was #ScheduleWhining. What they wanted to hear was support for building a great product.

The Friction Point

The critical friction point of this conflict exists between the two points of view. In the organizations where the Anti-Agile Rebellion is most prevalent, the communication between executives and development teams has failed. Friction points generate heat as they did in this instance. Both Alex and Matti were quite upset.

The bad news about the heat of friction is that it can start fires that tear down relationships and hamper the ability to get things done. The good news about the heat of friction points is that the energy generated can be used to spur innovation. Either Alex or Matti alone can act to change the situation. When Alex and Matti both tackle the challenge, amazing things can happen. 

Do you want to know how this story develops further? Read part 2 of this article.

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