Beyond Practices

Beyond Practices


I am a manager working in software development. If you read this blog, there’s a chance that’s what you are too. Then again, maybe you’re a software developer, or a generalist PM, or a marketer, or a share broker. Whatever it is you do with your days, if you’re in work and especially if you’re in a knowledge work field, never forget this:

You are a very lucky bastard.

Now, I know you’ve heard it before. There are billions people without the life that a job like the ones above can provide. People starve, nations are at war, racism, sexism, forced labor, child labor, there’s a whole heap of reasons that you’re lucky. On top of all that though, you’re lucky because you’re part of a movement.

The world of work has changed in the last few hundred years. Today, people have more freedom than ever to find ways to make their working lives more satisfying. Bright, determined people (like you!) experiment with working from home or co-located, alone and in teams, in silence, in traffic, in bean-bags. More and more their tools and processes are their own.

The work we do and the way we do it is ours for the moulding now, more than at any time in history. We’re able to choose practices and behaviours for ourselves that are in line with our beliefs, move us closer to our goals and help us derive a greater personal fulfilment from our jobs.

Today’s workers are part of a movement to take back their lives, rid themselves of antiquated management ideas and show that by doing so, they can make a greater contribution to organisational goals, while fostering a more satisfying and human work environment.

Woah. Here’s a couple of questions for you.

  • How many times have you heard a person say “I don’t care what they do, as long as the work gets done”?
  • How many times have you heard a person say “If only they’d leave us alone and let us do things our way, we wouldn’t have these problems”?
  • How many times did any of them really mean it?

Would the first person really have been happy to watch people play cards everyday, from 9 until midday? So long as some kind of prescribed work quota was achieved?

What about that second guy, is he really ready to stake his job on a promise to deliver greater quality, productivity or efficiency? Or a greater adherence to some values? Is he ready to measure such things and monitor them with complete honesty, looking at all times for things to improve?

Such statements reflect exactly where work is going. In good organisations, traditional managers really do want to allow people the freedom decide their own path, and those people really do want to meet the challenge. In GREAT organisations, those on both sides of the equation understand the huge responsibility that each of them holds in entering into such a contract. There’s a trust in that understanding which makes a person’s involvement more than just a job.

Alright then Mr. A. J. Knowledgeworker. You’ve got the reigns. The boss trusts you and you believe it. You have licence to develop your own way of doing things and you’re comfortable with the responsibility that comes with that. You’re excited in fact! Ready to stand up and be counted. You’ll show this world what you’re made of!

What are you going to do? How are you going to select and adhere to a set of practices that deliver on your promise? What do you do? What do you do?

Self-help. Read a book. That’s what you’ll do!

In software, the revolution’s been raging for ten years and the rebels have won. Agile has held the day, pervading all areas of development in all sorts of forms. It’s been embraced and suspected, twisted and interpreted (for good and bad) and generally commoditised. The Agilists are the squares now!

Agile literature is huge. A search for “agile” in Amazon will return you 2632 books. About half the number most of us claim to have read. There are 3 types:

  1. Books describing agile practices
  2. Books imbuing agile principles and beliefs
  3. Books that do both

Good.
Better.
Best.

Agile books are GREAT. They’ve frequently inspired me and often steeled me with courage when I doubted myself (about once every two weeks!). When I need answers to “what could I try here” questions, Agile books provide me both ideas and the conviction to try them, and their value ends there.

Are you listening? Their value ends there.

“. . . . . . . self help books, why do so many people need help?! Life is not that complicated. You get up, you go to work, eat three meals, you take one good shit and you go back to bed. What’s the fucking mystery?!

And the part I really don’t understand, if you’re looking for self help, why would you read a book, written by somebody else?! That’s not self help, that’s help!

There’s no such a thing as self help…if you did it yourself, you didn’t need help. You did it yourself!”

George Carlin

 

Ok, “To the point Batman!”. Read your books. Make some decisions. Take some action, then leave it all behind.

No two teams, organisations, buildings or people I’ve ever had the privilege of working with have been the same. Equally, none have ever matched exactly an example provided in a book. Using what I’d learned about the practices used by others is always a great start, but it’s always been a matter of adapting to circumstance. Evolving practices as we go.

Careful though. The easiest lie to tell is one you tell to yourself. Your practices need to support the beliefs and objectives that you and your co-workers subscribe to. It takes maturity and (here it comes again) trust to admit when you’re adding, omitting or altering practices to serve yourself. Have you ever dropped a practice that was laborious or difficult, even though you knew it was valuable? Me neither.

Three New Questions for the Emperor

When I work with new teams now, we start together down the road, exploring our objectives and beliefs, and then agree to some initial practices and behaviours that we think fit the bill. These usually come from the books!

After that, good retrospectives and conversations, supported by the right measures will (and should!) take team practices where they need to go. Free of the constraints of a rule book or the dogma of a recognized “system”.

In evolving the team’s methods, we explore three questions together, as frequently as we need/can. If answered honestly they provide anchor during a storm and a compass when the sailing is smooth.

 

 1. What are the team’s practices right now?

“We started out with some. We knew what they were, I’m sure we did! I can’t seem to find them now….”. Are the practices of the team recorded somewhere? Is there a set of documented working agreements that everyone has access to? A lightweight living document that everyone is familiar with? Wait, do we even need one of those? We must be able to demonstrate that the team’s methods are known to everybody and there’s no confusion about the approach.

 

2. Can we explain why we do those things?

The things we did at the start of our life as a team were aimed at reaching a goal. When we change something, does it support the objective? Do all the things we do add value? Each and every one of our accepted practices should be aimed at getting us closer to our goals.

 

3. What’s not working right now?

Are our retrospectives productively seeking improvement? What are the things we don’t like at the moment? Are they visible and front of mind? What’s the action plan for improving them? Nobody will ever admit to being perfect, so there’s always something worthy of being worked on. If we let ourselves stagnate . . . . . . we’ll stagnate.

 

Like so many things Agile, this approach depends greatly on the buy in of the team. They’re the ones keeping score on themselves. There’s no central register of official team practices in a company handbook. They’re doing what they believe is best. Each team chooses they way in which it works, but the questions remind them that they they’re accountable.

If you can handle a second dose of bad language, go back and read the Carlin quote above. You can do it yourself! With these three questions, you can chart a course for yourself, with the belief needed to succeed and the confidence to fail. Read outside the agile field, work your way through all those TED talks, attend some meetups and seek the truth as it applies to you.

I believe that if you’re really being agile (not doing Agile), then you’re able to answer the three questions without hesitation. They’re about knowing where you’ve been, where you are right now and where you think you need to go. Beyond the books, beyond the framework wars. Beyond practices.

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