The biggest killer of agile transformations and how to cure it.!!
The contagious disease “ButWeAreSpecialenza”
This story might read as an attack on managers. That is not my intention at all !!
Manager: Doctor why isn’t our agile way of working paying off?
Doctor: Let me see, there are several interesting things here. You know, the agile principles aren’t perfect, and you say that due to special circumstances you need to have these things that are in conflict with the agile principles.
Manager: Yeah, it makes sense in this case. You see we have this special [insert not so special circumstance here]. Therefore we need to adapt our approach counter to the what the agile principles suggests.
Agile doctor: Ok…. You have some specific circumstances all right. But wait….Oh no … this might be worse than i thought …. have you ever heard of ButWeAreSpecialenza ?
Manager: What is ButWeAreSpecialenza?
Doctor: ButWeAreSpecialenza is an extremely contagious condition of the mistaken and limiting belief that one or more agile principles does not apply to an organisation, because of a specific circumstance, when in fact the circumstance does not invalidate the principle at all.
The thinking is: It’s the agile principle which will forever be unsuitable here due to our special conditions. Our mental model, biases and blindness to some areas of what is going on, is not what is limiting us.
After being infected with ButWeAreSpcialenza the subjects and organisation remains stuck in the current paradigme and improvement stagnates.
Manager: Who gets attacked ?
Doctor: Everybody can be infected, but it is most often a condition seen in experienced leaders. It is especially infectious in the spring seasons of an agile transition. Higher ranking leaders seem to be more contagious than lower ranks.
Manager: hmm never heard of that. Sounds terrifying ! I’m glad I feel fine. But now that I think of it, I’m actually concerned that some of my colleagues in our other department might be infected.
What does the symptoms look like?
Diagnosis is often complicated and delayed. Especially when the organisation is transitioning gradually and slowly from large batches and tight centralised control to smaller batches and fast feedback. When batches are large there are very valid “special” circumstances for (non agile) large batch roles, process, management and control.
Manager: ohh now i’m really concerned for these guys. This is exactly the situation we are all in here! How can I tell if they are infected ?
General symptoms include the following:
- Failure to recognize batches and flow. (Follow me and read about batches and flow in my next medium story)
- Organisational rules, roles, process or values that are in conflict with agile principles and hinder adaptability, fast feedback, globally optimized but decentralised fast decisions and value focus.
Self diagnosis — a few concrete things to ask:
- Do we have phase managing roles such as innovation manager, test manager, release manager.
- Do we have roles with central authority, who can stop or veto decisions or change priorities of work based on a narrow area of concern (less than total lifetime product value). Examples: Architects, platform manager, project manager, quality manager, [insert something we consider important or urgently need to improve] manager ect.
- Do we have agile terms and artifact lipstick. I.e the (mis)use of user stories to create big batch artifacts like test plans or any other document or thing which is not a deliverable product functionality.
If you answered yes to any of the above, you might be just fine ! They are valid ways to manage large batch work, but the need disappears when dealing with small batches.
So here is the real test if you recognize these symptoms: Ask yourself what actions you took last week to progress the organization towards smaller batches ? If the answer is one of the below, it’s not a good sign!
- We can’t have small batches here because …
- Phew ! I’ve never even seen a batch floating around here, so I guess ours must be tiny
- Not really sure what a batch is and why that’s important
Manager: They are definitely infected in our other department. You should go talk to them. I’ve seen some of those symptoms there.
Doctor: And what about around here in your department ? have you seen any symptoms here ?
Manager: Well … it might look like we have some of those symptoms, we actually do, but …But…We...Are..Special...enza. I mean we really have special circumstances here, really !
The condition is often recognised by co-workers or subordinates. The victim is often insisting that their mental model is not the right object for change.
How can the disease be treated ?
It is neither the special circumstances or the symptoms that are the problem. So don’t treat them ! Treat the root cause and both will magically disappear.
The underlying problem in most cases is that the organization is optimised for working on large batches, instead of fast flow.
Therefore the counterintuitive treatment is to leave the roles and process in place. Accept that they are actually valid optimisations for dealing with large batches and instead focus on the current blindness to the costs of large batches. With that understanding, batch sizes can gradually be reduced.
A word of warning; Change by calling pieces of batches by new agile names and doing new kinds of meetings is fast, visible, look like progress and unfortunately is also very very unproductive. Full organisational recovery to small batches and fast flow is the foundation of agile, comparatively slow but very powerful. Result are unfortunately not immediate. The other good part is that most people enjoy the recovery journey as soon as treatment has begun.
There are currently no known successful treatments for people who are unaware of their condition, so the first step in treatment is always to make the victim aware and wishful for change.
OBS for managers: If you are one of the above managers and thinking “Wow thats an evil doctor” — don’t worry. There is plenty of room for your competences in the agile boat. The journey to servant leader is actually quite fun and the destination is even better :-)
Hope this story was helpful to you ! Follow me and learn about small batches, their benefits and tricks to reduce them in my next medium stories.
THINK ABOUT IT !! Do you recognize this illness? Are you aware of symptoms, treatments or similar, please let us know in the comments !
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Want more ? Read my next story: The big deal about small stuff