Article by Joshua Kerievsky

Ask for the Moon

If you’ve heard the phrase, “Meet people where they are” I invite you to get to know what I mean by, “Ask for the Moon.”

When adopting agile/lean ways of working, meeting people where they are means not starting with major changes to how a team works. No new roles, responsibilities or rituals. The only change is to visualize the existing workflow so a team may see bottlenecks and decide whether/how to fix them.

This is a perfectly decent and gentle way to get started. Yet when I look back on the last 20 years of helping people, teams, departments, divisions and organizations learn to be agile (“characterized by a ready ability to move with quick easy grace” and “having a quick, resourceful and adaptable character”), the most significant successes I’ve had didn’t come from meeting people where they were. Instead, they came from asking management for the moon.

What am I talking about?

Asking for the moon means asking for optimal conditions for kicking butt. I’m talking about ideal executive support, people who are excited to try a new way of working (rather than have a process imposed on them), a genuinely cross-functional community of dedicated people (“everyone needed to be successful”), an ideal workplace for collaboration and concentration, training to help develop essential agile skills, coaching to help cement those skills, chartering to align everyone on a clear vision/mission/objectives, retrospectives to help the community continuously improve and coaching-the-coaches to help the organization build capability to help others learn genuine agility.

I’ve asked for the moon on several occasions and gotten it! The results were outstanding. After asking for the moon and delivering fantastic results, the host organization built upon the success by spreading the same approach to more and more teams. The agile transformations about which I’m most proud started by asking for the moon. These initiatives grew into long-lived improvements that deeply impacted wide swaths of the organization’s customers and staff.

There is no one correct set of items to ask for when you’re asking for the moon. Here’s a closer look at what I ask for:

  • Executive Support: This is CRUCIAL. There are so many obstacles to agility. I remember one company that was a complete cubicle farm. We needed an ideal workplace, with caves and commons. An executive who fully supported us asked me to draw the ideal workspace on a whiteboard. I did. The next thing I heard was that this sketch I’d made was being implemented the next day. That’s support! Another example was an industry-leading product that was suffering from too many software crashes. The product manager on the team had an entire collection of new features to add to this unstable software. They had no business working on any new features. We asked executives to support us in helping this product team stabilize their product and not add any new features. They agreed and directed the product manager to listen to us. Many months later, when the product shipped, there were countless messages from customers thanking the team for putting out a solid version of the product.
  • Assessment: By 2001, I’d discovered that assessments were a critical safety tool for helping discover whether people wanted to improve and how we might go about making those improvements. The word “assessment” sounds very much like us assessing others. But it’s actually a two-way street. Assessments give people a chance to get to know each other, explore problems and consider future directions. Assessments also help us avoid imposing process on people. We talk with people, expose them to agile ideas and determine what they’d be willing (or excited) to try. We don’t move forward if we lack a majority of motivated individuals.
  • Cross-Functional Community: A motivated cross-functional community includes all of the people necessary to do a fantastic job. I’m not talking about have 1/3rd of Susan’s time and 50% of Roger and 10% of Dinesh. Sure, some people (like legal, facilities, etc) can be part time, but the core people in the community (the ones who will be doing most of the work) need to be 100% dedicated. Cross-functional means a complete “product team.” It’s one team (no divide between IT and Product), focused on delighting customers with an amazing product/service.
  • An Awesome Workspace: Caves (places where people can focus alone or in small groups) and Commons (a place or places where teams of people can collaborate comfortably). Ideally the commons will support group activities like collaborative product ownership, it will have “information radiators” on the walls (posters or monitors that display key information), there will be plenty of large screens and computers (to support pairing or mobbing) and coffee/cafe tables for casual conversations around the commons. Having an awesome workspace does not preclude having remote teams members.
  • Training and Coaching: You can waste a lot of time coaching people who haven’t already been trained. And you can get poor results if you simply train people and don’t give them coaching. I like to ask for whole team coaching, as it is an ideal way for a team to build the muscle memory of what working agile is like and it exposes the whole team to a variety of agile/lean management, planning and programming skills. I make sure the trainers and coaches we supply are deeply experienced practitioners, with real-world experience applying lean and agile principles and practices.
  • Chartering: Assemble the cross-functional community to draft, craft and refine their vision, mission, objectives and community agreements. Revise these as things change. Without a clear charter, you lack vital connective tissue between executives and staff. Without a clear charter, it’s harder to make good decisions about what is or isn’t in scope. Without a clear charter, you don’t know what you’re really going after.
  • Retrospectives: “Inspect and Adapt” is an often-ignored phrase. Retrospectives, when practiced right, can help. They are best when they are blameless. They are useless when they are simply a chance for people to complain. Whether you practice retrospectives on a cadence or continuously, the idea is to seek ways to genuinely improve. Retrospectives ought to lead to experiments. Ideally, a team uses retrospectives to help them continuously improve.
  • Coach-the-Coaches: A mark of great teachers is that they are no longer needed after a time. For long-lived agile/lean transformations, it’s essential for people inside the organization to gain the training/coaching skills to help others learn to be lean/agile practitioners. Having deeply experienced coaches coaching future coaches is a way to fulfill this idea.

So that’s what asking for the moon looks like. Of course, there are many more details and practices that we like to help people learn. But you’ve got the general idea now. This is a deep dive into agility with motivated individuals, executive support and an environment that is highly conducive to allowing real improvement to thrive.

When I look back on the biggest successes that my colleagues and I at Industrial Logic have had, they began by asking for the moon. Give it a try sometime and please report back on your experience.