Many Agile implementations in organizations suffer from this issue: humanity is taken out of Agile. In this article, learn how to make Agile more humane.
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“Can we get serious now?” quipped Captain Charles Sully Sullenberger, the iconic character played by Tom Hanks in the movie adaptation of the Airbus A320 Hudson Water landing incident. He goes on to articulate the crux of his argument in the safety hearing: “You are taking humanity out of the cockpit while looking for human errors.”
I have a feeling - more from experience - that many of the Agile implementations that are done in organizations suffer from this very same issue: humanity is taken out of Agile. This is a sad irony as Agile by design is meant to amplify people practices. There are several manifestations of this in Agile. Task sign-up, self-organizing teams, servant leadership, a daily Scrum meeting, team retrospective, and various principles are all examples of the human side of Agile.
Let me illustrate my view through a few examples.
John (name changed) is a scrum master. He "manages" a team of six members having cross-functional skills. Every morning at 9:00 AM he meticulously conducts the daily Scrum meeting. I had the pleasure of observing some of these daily Scrum meetings. After watching this ceremony for a while, I felt that with advancements in AI, these meetings could easily be done by bots. They are full of the same questions, articulation, and responses. One unusual human-like meeting went like this though:
Team Member: “I underestimated the task I am currently working on. I don't think we can finish it in this Sprint.”
Scrum Master: “As Scrum is timeboxed; we cannot change what we committed initially. Put in your best efforts and try to complete it." (Best efforts here refer to late nights and weekends.)
Team Member: “But can't we discuss with the Product Owner and move it to a subsequent Sprint?”
Scrum Master: “Unfortunately this is non-negotiable.”
Team Member: “But…”
Scrum Master: (The killer one:) “Let's take it offline.”
There are multiple issues here. a) Scrum Master is not encouraging constructive discussion on a real issue that the team member is facing. b) Scrum Master has gone wrong in his understanding of Agile (or maybe misusing it for reasons unknown).
Another time I was part of a retrospective meeting that looked picture-perfect without any issues: yes, no issues or learnings from a retro. The Scrum Master (a different one this time) asks with a sense of pride, “Anything wrong in the last Sprint?” The response was just sideways nodding from the team. The team then elaborates good practices, most of which are copy paste from previous Sprints.
The real problem here is that there is no human-human conversation. Conversations in Agile are meant to be open, creative, emotional and honest. Such conversations will bring out both good stuff and bad stuff. Such conversations are essential to maintain a highly motivated team and are the heart of Agile.
If we templatize the practices and practice Agile ceremonies, just as "ceremonies," we have taken away humanity in Agile. I'm sure that's not something that proponents of Agile would have wanted.
Guidelines To Make Agile More Humane
Here are a few guidelines to make Agile more humane. These are not complex management thoughts; rather, just common sense.
Start your ceremonies cheerfully, be it the daily Scrum meeting, Sprint Review meeting, or Sprint retrospective meeting. Greet people, inquire about them, and talk about what's going on in general. A joke or two in the right context wouldn’t hurt.
Have personal conversations about official work to better understand the person. Do this with a genuine intent to listen, learn and empathize.
Never use metrics to find fault with an individual. This is emphasized in all good theories but seldom followed in practice. If the metrics show something is wrong, fix the process and not the person.
Encourage good behavior. A recent Harvard Business Review article titled "Feedback Fallacy" states that feedback should be positive reinforcement. When someone does well, point out saying “Yes, that”.
Do care for people's "stuff." I have seen many leaders who give lip service and don't care a wee bit about people's problems. These problems are real. They could be emotional. Care for them. You may not be able to solve all of them magically, but at least lend a patient ear.
6. Psychological Net
Provide a psychological safety net for the Agile team to operate. This will help them to focus on the right things, innovate, and excel.
7. Encourage Bad News
Industry leader Ajay Banga once said, “I want bad news to take the lift and good news to take the stairs.” Leaders should get first-hand information of bad news and issues and must not shoot the messenger.
8. Enjoy Success
Do your job with genuine intent. There is nothing wrong with being happy. You don't have to look serious and gloomy to tell others that what you do is important. Smile, open up, and spread a child-like cheer.
Embrace Agility. Celebrate humanity!
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