Devin Hedge is an Agile Coach with Big Visible Solutions, and is now coaching one of the largest financial management firms in Raleigh-Durham. He agreed to be interviewed for “TGIF,” our Friday custom of seeking out choice bits of thought exchange. MANY THANKS to Devin, who can be reached through his website (www.devinhedge.com) for feedback or inquiries.
AB: So we’re speaking today about working environments in which the impetus for adopting Agile does not come from the top down. Have you witnessed this phenomenon of Stealth Agile?
DH: I would say 99% of the impetus for adopting Agile is grassroots. A small team within a software development or IT shop is fed up with bureaucracy and the typical way things get done, or rather don’t get done. Agile compelled me in this way, that’s where I started. Going back to 1997, all the Agile teams I worked on, they were all stealth. We dumped the traditional project plans, we dumped the Gant charts. We looked around for other models.
I was working in the European telecommunications industry, in which many countries were just starting to transition to free markets, it was scary for them, times were uncertain and we needed to be able to deliver value quickly. [DBH] I started as a staff developer but quickly became a Team Lead once they realized that I had a leadership background as an Army Officer. I started looking around for all sorts of ways to turn a chaotic situation into delivering what our business partners wanted.
I had learned about doing stand-ups from an article in a pop-management magazine about lessons to be learned from a Navy boat commander. He would have stand up briefings at the beginning of the day. This got everyone focused on the same things. The article pointed out that the Command and Information Center had big visible charts all over the place. It put all of the work happening on the right out in front of the whole team. The Navy has been that way for years, whether you’re on a destroyer or a frigate or an aircraft carrier, there are big glass walls where they would put everything. That way the commander or captain could – at a glance – gain complete situational awareness. It was also a way for each of the officers to hold each other accountable for getting things done.
This really resonated with me because as an Army NCO and later as a young Officer, I spent time supporting a lot of elite forces. There was a team dynamic there that I was going for. I knew these kind of teams could exist and be highly productive because I had seen them in our government. These were self-contained teams, close knit and cross-functional. When I applied the same principles to software development teams, it all just clicked.
I started having standups, set up the big charts on the wall and then asked, “What we could show after one week?” By the end of one week we were able to turn a prototype back to the customer and ask for feedback. We didn’t get much sleep, but we were wildly successful. If kinda snowballed from there once the customer was able to see and touch the software early on. After that, I was asked to be a the project manager for 30 guys and gals on a one month sprint. After that, it was a distributed team, spanning the UK, Australia and India.
As a Project Manager, I started to have a cult following. This was not because I walk on water (obviously!) but because, when you put people at the center of the process, everything works.
AB: What is it about Agile that attracts workers on a stealth basis?
DH: Quality stays right out front the whole time. Good quality assurance programs try to harmonize the fact that you can meet every specification, but if the market rejects it, the product isn’t good. We know that having two truckloads of documentation at the end of a process is not actually proof that a product was good.
One thing about quality, it’s in the eye of the beholder, just like beauty. Many quality implementation frameworks end up transforming something that was well-meaning into a check-the-box exercise instead of actually looking at the product. It should be more like an art critique. Agile just does that naturally, through tight feedback loops.
Most small teams like Agile because it fires up people’s creative juices. We are not robots; we are not here to do the same repetitive task over and over. We are here to do a unique task that is highly nuanced – singularly unique every time – based on human experience. That’s why Agile is so appealing to knowledge workers who should have been hired for creativity, for situations in which what is required is kind of fuzzy. It enables the human potential within them to come out, expressing the intrinsic value of work.
Agile has all sorts of built-in reward systems. Computers give us interesting puzzles to figure out. The problem is, if you’re the only person who plays with the puzzle it’s not that rewarding. Someone else recognizing what you went through to produce that product is a self-reinforcing reward system. Agile recognizes people’s mastery.
AB: What happens when a Stealth Agile team tries to scale up?
DH: A couple things. When you first start adopting Agile outside the initial hive, we often see “teams” that aren’t acting like cross-functional, self-organized, empowered teams. Instead we find groups of individuals. Part of this is the Gulture Culture of celebrating being an Introvert. Nothing wrong with that. However, we need teams. So, the Introverts who aren’t used to collaborating very well might resist getting dragged into a team. Usually the objections aren’t real objections, they’re expressing insecurity about some facet of the process. Takes a little digging to figure out what’s really going on. A command-and-control culture might say that the person has “issues” or “lack of skills,” expressing a judgmental attitude. That is rarely true. Often the situation is that the Leadership Style being employed just hasn’t found the right way to motivate the person. In Agile we take the time because people are more important than process.
Also, to scale out of being Stealth, you have to create an environment where it is safe to fail. I’m not talking big failures, but lots of little ones that don’t cause any real harm, the kind people actually learn a lot from. Christiansen in the Innovators’ DNA talks about how safe environments help workers connect their synapses by asking probing questions, personal networking with others, and taking time to observe in and out of the company.
In Stealth mode, it is easy to create this environment. You’re in an isolated bubble. At some point, Stealth Agile starts to gain what I call “viral velocity” and the team hits a wall when it can no longer be stealth. You have to explain why you’re not doing such and such documentation of where you have failed forward as a learning opportunity and someone just sees it as failure. Generally there’s someone in middle or upper management who just doesn’t understand. This really isn’t because of process or policy. It is because the culture inside the Stealth Agile team is so different from the larger organization around it.
So you have to find your champion and your change agent. We’ve found that having a group of at least four people, two supportive people at two different levels in the company, is a critical factor for getting past this culture shock to the organization. There is real Brain Science at play in the way people will resist the Stealth Agile team joining the rest of the organization. The basal ganglia part of the brain is always searching for pattern recognition. A response to the new and unfamiliar can override reason because it triggers flight or fight. In situations where you’re trying to expand out of a Stealth Agile team, the rest of the organization doesn’t have a “pattern match”, so the champion and change agent have to create the experience, the pattern match, that helps click pieces into place horizontally and vertically through the organization in order for the new culture to stick.
The message from the Stealth Agile team to the rest of the company should be two-fold. First, they should communicate the story of their pattern of responding and adapting to rapidly changing business needs. The strength of the feedback loop created through close customer collaboration creates a narrative all by itself which then becomes compelling to the champion and change agent and gets retold.
The second part is management seeing the potential for what happens if the company embraces Agile outright. At a very personal level, you have to activate the senses of management: desire gets triggered and then fulfilled just the way it does in a user story.
There is a hitch to all of this. There have to be structures for fulfillment around the Stealth Agile team or group or department otherwise there’s no survival at scale. So you have to create a lot of buzz around how much return on investment you’re going to get by being able to adapt and quickly respond to changing business needs, to ensure that the requisite structures are in place to be successful.
It’s management’s job to push, see how hard they can push people. That’s their job. It’s how they do that in the culture that matters. There’s a directing style of leadership and a servant or motivating style of leadership. The latter recognizes that people aren’t typically motivated by someone dictating policies. Stealth Agile teams need to trigger a larger desire within the company for a different way of working and then fulfill that desire.