Agile Delivery Management: Six Base Principles

As my career in QA management has grown to focus exclusively on working with testing in Agile delivery teams, my responsibilities have honed in on not only Quality Assurance but also Delivery Management.  I found that in order to be shaping and informing what good testing looked like for the product’s content I had to be explicitly aware of the process by which that product is built and delivered to users. So, I have come up with some base principles which I feel Agile delivery management should embody.

Principle 1: Do Agile before Managing Agile

Don’t drop in to manage a process you know nothing about. A good manager is an experienced manager. Apprenticeship must predate mastery.  This is especially true for Agile software delivery because of the particularly peculiar nomenclature and philosophies behind Agile. (In fact, there is a Manifesto written about Agile, and it is horribly surprising to learn how many Scrum masters or project managers have not read it.)

This is not to say that someone new to Agile cannot manage it well: it’s just easier if you hire someone who’s done it already. You avoid the arguments and debates over nomenclature – the little stuff – and you can focus on actually delivering software and the philosophies behind why stories and epics and bugs are important to prioritize together and why more than 6-8 people on a team becomes unmanageable.

If you have not pragmatically managed Agile (this means you are looked to as a mentor to stand up and literally guide a group of people through daily stand-ups, special topics, knowing when and how to table the right conversations, lead retrospectives, and be able to lead exploratory conversations around Agile first principles of card types, sizing philosophy and pragmatic implementation, KPIs) then you should read up on it, get a mentor, and not present yourself as an expert if you are not one (you will be found out quickly and it will ding morale.  Nobody likes a pretender.)  There’s no shame in being open about being new to Agile – in fact, it’s one of the principles covered next.

 

Principle 2: Humility Helps

“Things small as nothing, for requset’s sake only, He makes important; possessed he is with greatness.” –Troilus and Cressida 2.3.170-1, Ulysses to Ajax, William Shakespeare

You need strong inner honesty to succeed at Agile (and, arguably, life.)  If you can’t tell whether you are failing at a commitment to yourself, you will not have the underlying ethical consistency to grow yourself in Agile.  Quite literally, you need to know at any moment where you are failing and where you are succeeding before you can have the conversation (with yourself, and then others) as to what to do about it.  (I should say that I failed at this for a long, long time, thinking I had a lot to lose, and then I evolved past it.  If you are interested how I did it, contact me.)

Here are some ego warning signs (all of which I have suffered from, by the way):

  • It is very important to you that you have a specific job title
  • It is vital that you are paid a percentage increase over your last job
  • You are a perfectionist
  • It is okay if you occasionally show up late
  • It is okay if you occasionally make a promise and break it
  • It’s not a big deal if you didn’t know something because you didn’t get an email or txt
  • You feel the right to something in your life you haven’t explicitly earned
  • You spend time marketing yourself as a leader as opposed to setting goals and failing

The above bullet points, some of which delve into your personal model of the world, are all limiting beliefs that will slow your progress to being a great Agile manager.  They are not bad.  They do not make you a bad person.  They will however limit you.  I know for example a very religious man who is very intelligent and whose views differ from mine in regard to the origin of life.  He is a friend.  We can talk on many topics and converse freely about nearly anything except the origin of life and the universe, where we diverge.  That divergence makes our friendship no less, it is simply a known limitation in our relationship.  Your relationship with your team as an Agile manager will encounter these inflexibilities as you read through the above list and resonate with any of them.

The best Agile managers are egoless (and they do exist.)  They know no emotional difference between right and wrong, only that there are questions to be asked and answered and direction applied accordingly. Agile managers are information sponges that know their people’s strengths, weaknesses, what kind of snack/bourbon each person prefers, and how to talk to their team and how to talk to each individual.  The best Agile managers are not emotionless robots, nay, they are the opposite: they are Everymen.  They are chameleons, meeting each person where they are at, helping them around their limitations, propping them up, giving them tribute and praise for good work, celebrating success with them, and mentoring them sometimes in ways in which they do not realize you are teaching them.  Good managers mold, shape, and keep critical feedback transparent and well-framed.  Good managers never take from their team.

 

Principle 3: Become an Assertive Listener

Being assertive is having empathy for others while shaping an open conversation.  I wish someone had saved me a lot of time and told me that flat out, but I had to discover it on my own.  So many people start out with such great intentions but just screw it up because of their own insecurities or hidden agenda or whatever.  I’ve been there, most recently than I’m proud of.  Being assertive — really effectively assertive — requires a gentle, gentle touch.  It requires you have a veritable fountain of empathy.

I can’t train you to be assertive.  I will share with you some of the memories I have of what helped me become better at it, and I have a long way to go.

  • You an be assertive as a manager without being a jerk.  I am convinced this is impossible in personal relationships.  Know the difference, record your mistakes, and learn from them no matter how much you think you are right.
  • Understand how your own body tells you you are having an emotional reaction.  (For me its red ears, flushed throat, hot cheeks, and a warmth in my chest.)  While you’re having a reaction in a conversation, make no statements.  Breathe through your nose and out of your mouth slowly, as if you’re soaking in the reaction and blowing out the black smoke of whatever it is you’re feeling (anger, fear, confusion).  Ask only questions during this time, and make no recommendations or suggestions.
  • Make time for personal reflection.
  • If you are open to it, explore ways of catalyzing your potential as a human being and take courses or retreats to increase and build your emotional evolution.
  • If you find you have a very busy brain that you have trouble shutting down to cool off, and if you are open to it, pay the money to learn Transcendental Meditation and practice it for 20 minutes daily.
  • Even if you don’t meditate, ensure you have a safe place to go where you have privacy and uninterrupted peace for at least 30min a day.  Arrogance and its cousin Impatience grows where frustration and overwhelmed-ness is allowed to build.
  • Generally assume your essence level understanding of a thing is somehow incorrect.  Do this and you will almost never fail at getting to the truth of the matter at hand.
  • Understand that human communication is a spectrum, and no human alive has ever reached the edge of perfection.  Nearly every human ever alive has spent considerable time at the other end of Incomprehension.
  • Learn to recognize when you feel “right”, and then stop and ask questions in the present moment.
  • Do whatever you have to do to quiet your mind and listen.  You can be a better listener than you are.  This is a life truth.  Pursue a path of compassionate listening – compassion for yourself and your limitations, and therefore others’.
  • When all else fails, remember you are a beautiful miracle and a universe of light and beauty lies within you.

 

Principle 4: No Whining Allowed

Very intelligent people learn tremendously fancy ways of whining that are so well-groomed that they fool themselves into thinking they do not, could not, and would not ever, whine.

While at Sapient I learned about two sides of an imaginary balance: on one said were Fears, Uncertainties, and Doubts (FUDs), and on the other side were the corresponding Critical Success Factors (CSFs.)  During our Rapid Implementation workshops, we would spend significant time getting to understand FUDs and getting them all out on the table so that we could explore what we would need to do as a team in order to succeed.  Those themes became our critical success factors, and together with the company values, they told a useful story that became a sort of moral centroid of why we were there working together, and we called that our Purpose.

Many software professionals regardless of role find themselves falling into the trap of “stopping at the FUD.”  They prognosticate on what they are concerned about happening in a future that hasn’t happened yet, muse about what they know they don’t know and what they don’t know they don’t know, or are just outright jaded at having gone through the ringer for 1, 2, 10 years trying the same thing and failing (insert quip about I must be Insane to Work Here).

This is a trap in thinking.  There is a sociological phenomenon called the Knitting Circle where professionals get together, quietly bitch about someone or a group of people doing something they don’t like, and then quietly disperse and do nothing about it.  This damages the entire company.  If you find yourself doing this, stop it.  It’s socially acceptable by all the people who will not help your company grow and will certainly not help you rise to the top in your career.

Rather, capture those FUDs transparently.  Do this in the following way:

  • Note all of your personal fears, uncertainties, and doubts privately.
  • For each item, imagine a utopian world where time and money are no object.  List out what would need to happen to fix each one to your satisfaction.  Use honest, genuine answers; being cynical in your own answers will only fuel your own demise.  (If you find yourself answering “a freakin’ miracle”, you are plotting your own demise.)  If needed, go for a walk, take a day off, visit family and friends, and then do this exercise.  Disconnect from the emotional darkness, if any is present for you.
  • Next, review all of your “need to happens” and pick out themes.  Try to organize your list into 7 or less themes.  These are your critical success factors.  Take some time to reflect on how your company or team may have tried to implement these CSFs in the past and why they have failed.  Reflect on what the root cause of the failure is – and perhaps update your CSF theme list as a result.
  • Finally, think about a gentle way in which to inject these forward-moving ideas into your team.  Discuss these with your manager privately and see what his or her advice is.  Go to them with an open mind, and be ready to say, “There are some things about how we are working together that has bothered me, and even if my perception is wrong, is it okay if we spend 10 minutes talking about some ideas I have?”  Even if your manager can’t talk then, that is a perfectly reasonable way of getting in sync with them and getting to next steps.  Ideally, this becomes a special topic after the scrum to see how the team leads feel about it.  Your product person should be someone you sell these ideas to, and during sprint planning the entire team can noodle over how to implement small pieces of your ideas into stories that are implemented.  Large problems are solved in this way.

 

Principle 5: Know Risk

I’m amazed at how many people talk about risk but struggle to explain it.  There are many ways of framing risk – you have the right one when your definition is working for you.  For me, Risk is the multiple of probability and impact.  You can extract various flavors from that vintage, but the basics are there.  Be careful of hiding a FUD by dressing it up as a risk.  This is common with junior managers because they are not well-versed in expected value conversations.

How do you know if something is a risk?

  1. If you can identify and frame a potential suboptimal outcome,
  2. You can visualize how the situation may play out and can estimate a measurable impact to an internal or external customer, and
  3. You have a sense in probability space of the likelihood of the bad thing playing out in the way you’ve framed it.

If you have all three, you have a good candidate for your Risk board.  If you have all three, you have the basic tenets of having a good expected value conversation.  If not – sorry, but you’re probably FUD’ding.

 

Principle 6: Aim for and Drive Toward Expected Value Conversations

Anything else is just an argument or an exercise in arrogance distribution.

You can tell if you are having an expected value conversation because

  • You won’t be vested in the outcome
  • You are most interested in finding out what is true and what your options are
  • You are open-minded and driving toward transparency
  • You won’t be focused in on ticky-tacky details because you’re seeing the broad picture
  • You will be able to zoom in on detail where appropriate and then zoom out to the broad picture
  • You will be able to artfully guide the conversation to the right level
  • You will be open to feedback that you’re not having the conversation at the right level and be able to adjust your engagement
  • You will feel neutral and assertive
  • You will be able to gauge whether the value of the conversation is increasing or decreasing and shut it off as soon as you feel that threshold
  • You will be getting in sync with people instead of talking at them

 

If you can master the above 6 principles, you will have more fun as a software manager. You will implicitly build a stronger-knit team with a happier community feel because you will be managing smarter and protecting your team from distractions effectively. Coursework in effective human potential coursework such as Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) or the amazing experiential curriculum at Executive Success Programs have catapulted many people (myself included) forward emotionally and intellectually to achieve more faster in their careers. Consider classes such as these if you want to move yourself from good to great.

Take time to reflect, and enjoy!

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