One of the books on my reading list this year was “Influencer: The Power to Change Anything” (Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, Switzler). As I read it, I was struck by how the ideas in the book can be helpful for guiding an agile adoption.
The book is split into two parts. The first section outlines how any change can be made inevitable by looking for the vital behaviours that will bring about the change. The second section outlines six different types of influence strategies that you must use in order to make those vital behaviours happen. In this post, I’ll just be talking about the first section on vital behaviours.
According to the authors, any change can be made inevitable if you can find the correct set of vital behaviours. For many common problems, these vital behaviours have already been discovered by various research teams. For example, the vital behaviours for losing weight and keeping it off were identified by a U.S. government research project: a) weigh yourself every day, b) eat breakfast every day, and c) exercise with home equipment. A strong marriage can be determined by looking for the following vital behaviours during arguments: a) statements that communicate shared respect and purpose, and b) taking timeouts when required to halt emotional escalation. The best teachers a) reward positive actions often and b) alternate frequently between teaching and testing.
So what are the vital behaviours for agile adoption? First, let me suggest that agile adoption isn’t the goal at all – rather the goal that we are looking for is to have successful projects. Agile adoption may or may not be required to meet that goal. If then our goal is to have successful projects, has anyone done the research to find the vital behaviours that are part of all successful software projects? Indeed – Alistair Cockburn did significant research into this topic and found three common behaviours amongst all successful teams. He described his findings in a 2006 Agile Toolkit podcast where he said: (starting at about 3:25) “Those that were collocating face to face, short delivery cycles, access to customers were delivering. Those that were following some process very carefully were not delivering.” In an article where he describes his research methods and results he writes that a) they improved their communication by co-locating, b) had access to their customer and c) had short delivery cycles. He also commented in his article that “I ran the seemingly odd hypothesis that if you simply put four people in a room with whiteboards and computers, give them access to the users, and have them deliver running software every month or two, they would have a high likelihood of success in delivering useful, working software. Surprisingly, this hypothesis has not yet been broken.” Reflecting on my own project history, I find that I agree with his hypothesis. You can read more about his research here. Notice by the way, that all 3 of these behaviours are about shortening the feedback loops.
If you look at Alistair’s work and writing on Crystal Clear, you’ll notice something interesting. These three behaviours are all in included in the 7 properties of Crystal Clear. However, of the 7, only 3 are listed as mandatory and one of the above was not included in the mandatory list. “Easy Access to Expert Users” was excluded (still on the list, but not mandatory) and replaced by “Reflective Improvement” despite his findings and hypothesis. I’ve asked Alistair about this and look forward to his answer – I’ll keep you posted.
Another interesting observation about “Easy Access to Expert Users” is that for external products with external customers, it would be difficult or impossible to have access to those users. It makes sense then that the Lean Startup movement is heavily focused on tools and techniques to find and measure feedback from your external users.
While these 3 vital behaviours may be the ‘key’ behaviours that will help your team be successful, they will also spawn other behaviours to improve your results. For example, in order to have short delivery cycles, you will need to deliver small increments of value which could lead your team towards the practice of user stories. In order to have short delivery cycles and not spend an inordinate amount of time doing manual regression testing for each delivery, your team will likely move towards automated testing. In order to have short delivery cycles and not spend an inordinate amount of time creating deployment packages, your team will likely move towards a continuous deployment practice.
In conclusion, if you are a manager, executive or coach wondering how you can make your teams more successful but have struggled with or without agile techniques, try encouraging and supporting these three vital behaviours as a starting point and then examine the results. Then, use something like reflection workshops to examine the results and start adding, deleting, or modifying practices over time to improve your results. Based on what we know about organizational change management, this iterative approach to process improvement has an increased chance of being successful. If the Influencer book is correct, (and there are lots of examples in the book to indicate it is) then these three behaviours should make a significant impact on your projects.