That's not agile!
Has something like this happened to you? You’re in a meeting and one person refers to a POC on a software you didn’t even think the project was considering. Meanwhile, another has decided to make sprints for a development without having the customer engaged. Someone in the corner raises a huge risk, but it gets shut down by a stressful voice saying it is off topic. One person wants to address an “issue” in the context of it being a “risk that has already occurred” while another considers it a “piece of work within an epic”? Some just think it’s a word people use when they have a problem with something and wonder why it is being brought up in the meeting at all. They are all right within a certain context, yet no one makes a point of dissecting this as it would be seen as nit-picky, so they all just move to the next topic to get through the agenda. My personal favorite is the business case card that gets played like a joker in all stages of the project. Then the meeting concludes and everyone runs to the next. Could be tempting to align - to try to get on the same page - but not only will that make you seem pedantic, it also can feel impossible since there are just so many loose ends. Where would you even begin to try to reel things in?
Welcome to the world where transformation rules the day. In fact, according to Harvard Business Review, “a recent survey of directors, CEOs, and senior executives found that digital transformation risk is their #1 concern in 2019.“ The good news is that compared with a decade ago, when I first began working on large transformations, you now have a much more capable pool of educated and experienced project professionals to staff up on your teams. The bad news is that each one of them has their own education and experiences that are different from yours and the other project team members. Now, I am not saying diversity is bad; for goodness’ sake, diversity could have possibly saved the Irish from the potato famine! But it does mean we need to take a few measures to ensure we set ourselves up to harness the benefits of the diversity.
Establish a Frame of Reference Since your project is probably filled with a great group of people who have all worked on various projects and taken a variety of courses on Lean, PRINCE2, SAFe with all its various versions, etc. it is critical that you find a way to establish a common language. It doesn’t need to be all encompassing, that would be overwhelming, but you could start with the most urgent and then continue to add to it when necessary. Example topics could be: How do we capture decisions and make them visible? When we talk about risks, how do we monitor and manage them? Have we all aligned on running the project Agile? And if so, what do we mean by that? Nothing can be done waterfall? Have we collectively decided that all things linear and sequential are not cool? Will we have a daily SCRUM meeting? DevOps sprints? Does it mean we will just behave in a less rigid way and try to do things more quickly? Should we buy a foosball table? Does everyone on the project even know what we are supposedly transforming? Are you driving key business benefits to support the company strategy or are you just replacing a software that is “end of life”? It is quite possible that everyone on the team has their own private story about what is going on. And since the variations could be endless, it is hard to know where to begin. The endless nature of alignment can paralyze leadership from taking action, but you should instead begin to eat the elephant one piece at a time by establishing a frame of reference to get the project team on the same page.
Making new sense In addition to establishing a frame of reference and structure, there is a mindset shift required if you want to transform successfully. Have you ever stopped to ponder the magnitude of that word? Transformation. We say it now in almost every company, and almost every project is somehow linked to one. But do you ever think about how great the implication of that is? If you are trying to transform something you are, according to Miriam Webster, trying to change “the composition or structure; the outward appearance of; or the character or condition of something”. Doing something this great, essentially making a metamorphosis, should not be managed with the same management styles we have come to rely upon for standard operations. In order to even hope for success when the odds are against you, the leaders and team members involved need to build a very special environment: an environment of transformational learning. In Talk Sense: Communicating to Lead and Learn, Barry Jentz guides his readers to “challenge reflexive assumptions” that most of us keep hidden and “work together making new sense, as opposed to correcting or protecting, through disclosure of information and listening for understanding.” This means that each person on the team, instead of sitting back and relying on their personal “truth” to serve as the baseline for each conversation; rather, should be encouraged to enter each conversation with a learning mindset and not be shy about sharing their “private sense making” instead of assuming everyone else knows. This skill can be applied in the project frame of reference work mentioned earlier, which is in fact a great way to kick start practicing the behavior, but it can also become infused into the way the project team members interact with each other on smaller, unconnected tasks which have not been part of that framing on an ongoing basis.
Imagine you want to set up a SCRUM meeting, which by its very definition is a quite structured style of meeting within the Agile methodology. You could assume everyone has the same exact text book definition that you believe you do and that they all will go into it expecting the same things, or you could take the time to have a quick discussion with the team about what it means to you and find out what their expectations of it are. Maybe you could align on who is invited so people do not secretly harbor resentment about the effectiveness of the meeting. Ten “pedantic” minutes might allow you to drown out any misconceptions and improve a daily experience. And it could save it from becoming the boring, shoe kicking daily update meeting that many will believe adds no value.
How The good news is that creating a frame of reference and encouraging team sense making can be fun if you create a collaborative spirit that points to a group purpose. And working within the framework and with the mindset does not take any extra time, since it can generally be incorporated into your existing meeting structure, even making them more effective. Kickstarting it will require a bit of thoughtful effort, perhaps pairing it with a team building event or designing a few workshops to engage the team collectively. It might feel like an additional activity on an already overloaded project team but the return on investment for this time will be huge, not only in time gains, but also on quality and monetary gains in the long run. And although it is overwhelming to consider the endless variations of realities, the good news is that once you start eating a few bites of the elephant, you will be surprised how taking care of the main topics not only resolves a huge proportion of conflicts, but also sets up a mindset and framework on which the team can align, even in smaller unstructured encounters.
Get started It starts with the project leader deliberately putting a focus on having conversations about things that many people consider to be obvious. People consider them obvious because each person has made their own personal “common sense” about them and assume others share it. The same hesitations that prevent people from aligning in piecemeal meetings, on a macro scale, prevent project leaders from trying to align on a project or program level. But making it a priority to establish a team “common sense” and of course build some fundamental structure to support the output of those discussions, which often a PMO function will support (risk/decision log, project glossary of terms, business case etc.), is one of the best decisions you can make to get your transformation set up for success or back on track. Creating an environment where people are encouraged to define their perspectives and describe the assumptions they are bringing into the conversation so everyone can align is a drastically overlooked prerequisite for creating a learning environment which is a springboard for change. It starts with you.