OnPoint, LLC

Collaboration Issues – Is there an iceberg nearby?

Agility requires collaboration.  You will not hear many arguments against that statement.  After all, one of the four agile values is “individuals and interactions over processes and tools (www.agilemanifesto.org).”  Collaboration enables quick feedback, allowing teams to solve problems faster, and increase velocity.  High-performing, self-directed teams cannot exist without collaboration.  And yet in many organizations, even those that have been on an agile journey for some time, there are built-in barriers to collaboration.  Here are some examples. 

  • Hierarchical organizational structures that hinder horizontal communication
  • Leaders who promote “us vs. them” inter-departmental rivalry
  • Managers who behave as if their sole mission is gatekeeping
  • Office floor plans that prevent team co-location because they were designed to allow line managers to “keep an eye on” their developers
  • Line managers who insist on “no surprises” and being the first to know everything


These barriers are remnants of the command and control culture in which many of us built our “pre-agile” careers.  Some barriers are so ingrained in our thinking that we may not notice them anymore, but they will manifest directly or indirectly in the form of impediments raised by our teams, such as:

  • Product owners who are disengaged, delaying needed decisions on priorities or sign-off on completed deliverables
  • Toxic behavior (e.g. back-biting, gossip, emotional outbursts) by team members
  • Miscommunication regarding success criteria, resulting in challenges integrating deliverables from other teams
  • Subject matter experts who do not have sufficient band width to consult with the team when needed


So what can we do to remove barriers to collaboration? We can chip away at the problem by attempting to remove impediments as they are raised up by our teams, but that will be not be sufficient.  Since these impediments exist because of legacy beliefs, values, and behaviors, the real solution lies in the cultural change that must accompany any agile transformation. The subject of changing culture is beyond the scope of a single blog post (or even an entire book) but for now it is helpful to understand that collaboration barriers are merely the tip of a pretty large iceberg.

Agilists – watch your language!

It appears the agile principle that “business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project” is often not followed in practice.  When practioners share their experience with agile transformation they frequently complain that the business is not fully engaged.  Perhaps we agilists are complicating matters unnecessarily.  We produce metrics that describe things such as story point velocity and wonder why our executive sponsors appear catatonic.  We schedule meetings with odd names like “scrum of scrums” and wonder why business people do not attend.  We have developed language and ceremonies that are completely foreign to the business and have therefore created the impression that this agile thing is for IT.

If we are serious about agile at scale, we need to adapt our communications to the needs of the business.  Don’t make them learn our secret handshakes and gang signs.

Respect – it goes both ways

At a recent workshop, the instructor noted an animus among agile teams towards managers and executives.  Perhaps it is inevitable that, with the focus on self-managed teams, agilists would discount the importance of those outside the teams – particularly “management types.”  After all, managers are the ones who set impossible deadlines, implement bureaucratic controls, and resist change.  However, it is also helpful to remember that managers fund projects, help remove impediments, and sign paychecks.  If we agilists like these things, we should begin to appreciate the people who provide them.  Otherwise, the agile movement could stall at the team level and fail to achieve its full potential at the program and enterprise levels.

We should approach managers with at least the same respect that we demand of them.




Getting in touch with your inner control freak

We like to criticize managers who have an excessive need for control.  We refer to them as micromanagers, control freaks, and the antithesis of organizational agility.  Rarely do we refer to them as the person in the mirror.

I have observed far too many of these “hands on” managers over the years and have identified a couple of common traits.  First, they tend to be very conscientious.  They are driven to perform their duties to their utmost ability.  They are willing to put in as many hours as it takes to accomplish a task.  As a result they are quickly promoted to the ranks of management.  A second, far less endearing trait is that they speak with disdain about others.  They accuse one person of being lazy and another of being stupid.  They question the judgment of one peer and the honesty of another.   After a brief conversation with a micromanager, it becomes clear that no one is up to his standards.  This prideful attitude is the reason they are unable to delegate.  After all, how can one delegate to someone who is incompetent?

So, returning to that person in the mirror, how often do we fall into this pattern of thinking ourselves?  A little humility may be in order.  That humility may result from getting to know a team member well enough to understand his areas of expertise.  It may come from an embarrassing, public mistake of our own.   A sure cure would be to assume management responsibility of a function for which we have no experience.

From time to time it is good to get in touch with your inner control freak.  And then knock some sense into him.

What is the cost of “no surprises?”

Early in my management career, I reported to a politically savvy executive who insisted on “no surprises” from his direct reports. He wanted to make sure that he would always be able to respond to questions about any of our projects and thus avoid the appearance of being out of touch. Since then, I have met managers who either explicitly or implicitly expected the same. Some would become angry with their direct reports any time they were presented with questions for which they were unprepared.

Beyond exhibiting insecurity, these managers are increasing costs for their employers. Their direct reports waste time on frequent and sometimes detailed emails on day-to-day problems and issues. Meeting time is devoted to bringing the boss up to speed and PowerPoint presentations are developed to ensure the manager is properly briefed.

Managers who want no surprises are focused on control rather than empowerment. They demonstrate that do not trust their direct reports to make decisions themselves. As a result, they inflict a level of organizational paralysis.

In a fast moving organization, managers look for ways to remove obstacles for their teams rather than control their actions. For such an organization, the cost of no surprises is the loss of agility.

Cultivating a culture of trust

Reflect on someone that you trust completely. You are confident that person will look out for your best interest or will meet his commitments. Now think about your co-workers. Do most of them meet that description? Conversely, how would they assess your trustworthiness? High performance, agile organizations require a high level of trust, and those of us in a leadership position must cultivate a culture of trust. Here are three tips for doing so.

Bury the hatchet
It is not possible to hold a grudge and simultaneously trust the person who is the object of the grudge. As leaders, we need to discipline ourselves to let go of animosity and instead focus on the work to be accomplished. Further, we need to coach everyone on our teams to do the same.

Turn off the email flame-thrower
Flaming emails are a sure sign of a low-trust environment. If you feel the need to correct or admonish someone, do it in person rather than sending an email with a broad “cc” list. If you are copied on such an exchange by someone on your team, have a word (not an email) with the sender and coach him on proper email etiquette.

Make commitments and then meet them
Your customers, co-workers, and team members rely on information from you in order to do their jobs. When asked to provide some information or a deliverable, don’t just say, “I’ll get it to you.” Instead, say, “I’ll get send it to you at Tuesday afternoon at 2 pm,” then do it. Make it a habit to set expectations and then meet them. Before long, others will learn to trust you to get the job done.

The Power of a Good Example

After an argument with a defiant teenager, an exasperated father was heard to say, “He’s not completely worthless – he can always serve as a bad example.” Just for the record, I was not the defiant teenager in question. While this father was able to find some good in a bad example, there is much greater power in a good example, particularly in an agile culture which runs on interpersonal relations rather than formal authority. A project manager who arrives at meetings on time and looks after the best interests of his team members will have greater success in meeting project objectives. A developer who consistently meets commitments and deals well with customers will have her choice of new project assignments. A product owner who publicly praises the accomplishments of the team will receive better response to requested changes.

All these people can wield considerable power in their organizations. Why? The reason is simple. Knowledge workers have a great deal of latitude in their daily work and they will use this latitude to support those who treat them respectfully and get even with tyrants, micro-managers, and political animals.

A Perspective on Stress

Many years ago, I was speaking with a relative who had just taken a management position at the Pentagon. Paul had been a bench scientist for decades, and was completely unprepared for the stress. Congressional staffers were demanding information, budget cuts were a constant threat, yet he noticed that a co-worker came to work every day whistling and in good spirits. He asked the co-worker, who was a retired colonel, how he was able to handle the stress. The colonel replied, “Easy – no one is getting shot here. What are they going to do to me? Yell at me? Call me names? Fire me? I’m okay with that. Last I checked, they aren’t taking us out in the parking lot and shooting us!”

The old colonel’s words are worth remembering.

Cultivating an Agile Culture

Agility builds on competence, ingenuity, and team work rather than workflows, tools and techniques. An organization with an Agile culture will focus on providing business value, foster collaboration between business and IT, and encourage personal accountability. In so doing, it will also highlight deficiencies of certain team members and leaders. Team members who lack initiative, interpersonal skills, or proficiency will become highly visible. Project managers with a command and control mindset will find it difficult to allow team members to figure out problems on their own.

To cultivate a high performance Agile culture, it will be necessary to provide special attention to those team members and project managers who are having difficulty adapting. That attention may mean additional coaching, but if the coaching is not successful, it will be necessary to remove people from teams. Not everyone can adapt, and it is unfair to the individual or the team to continue in a role for which they are not suited.

Values – Aspiration vs. Reality

The Values section of business plans commonly mention customer focus and respect for others.  Unfortunately, it is a bit less common to see these values at work in the organizations.  Why is there such a difference between the plan and reality?  All too often, the values statements in the business plan are not consulted when making day-to-day staffing decisions.  Who is promoted, who is hired, and who is terminated?  The result of these decisions is commonly a management team that falls considerably short of the aspirations stated in the business plan.

Reflect on the attitudes and aptitudes of the key members of your management team, and consider the following:

  • Are they noted for their technical expertise rather than their understanding of the business or customers?
  • Do they employ distrustful or contemptuous language when describing their interactions with customers or colleagues?
  • Do they complain when customers change plans or priorities?
  • Do they excessively control the flow of information between their team members and the customer?
  • Would you characterize their personality as fault-finding rather than problem- solving?
  • Are they verbally abusive to those who report to them?

Decisions made in promoting people to leadership positions should be consistent with the strategic plans.  Otherwise, the entire organization will conclude that the plans are “merely words” and not to be taken seriously.

OnPoint, LLC