The Agile methodology was created to improve the productivity and effectiveness of development teams. However, the management style of some external stakeholders, such as business owners or managers, can alter the team dynamic and hinder open and honest communication. In this article, we will try to understand how leaders, especially in a small business context, can implement effective monitoring in an Agile environment and stay aligned with the development team’s activities without negatively interfering.
The Importance of the Setting in Agile
Agile events such as the Daily Scrum, the Retrospective and, to some extent, Planning are designed to create a setting, a specific context in which the team can operate. There is a set of rules and conditions regulating this setting to promote responsibility, participation and transparency within the team. The idea is to exploit the positive correlation between the level of these three aspects and the effectiveness and productivity of the team: a more responsible, participatory, transparent team will also be more effective and productive.
Without going into academic research, here is an interesting and simple article on team working with some other in-depth links; or even the article by Pier Paolo Stoppino, where among other themes the author highlights the impact of subjective and organizational factors on results.
The Risks of External Presence
The presence of external people, such as managers, HR managers or company owners, alters this setting.
A person outside the team, even acting as an observer, has the effect of a magnet in a pile of iron filings: it attracts, distorts and orients the team’s conversations.
When the manager, entering the meeting, says go ahead, act as if I wasn’t there we reach the top!
Among other things, behaviours like these can lead to less open and sincere communication within the team, with the risk of hiding important information or emphasizing irrelevant aspects.
If the reason that induced the stranger to take part in the meeting is to know how things are, it is clear that this legitimate need cannot be satisfied by an unexpected participation in a meeting.
The problem of accountability
Another thing that makes it difficult for managers to relate to agile – and Scrum in particular – is the team’s shared accountability for things to do. The whole Team is accountable for managing the work, not John or Mary or nobody else. Managers, on the other hand, appreciate to get just one person accountable for a piece of the work. In my opinion, this is one of the most difficult mentality changes to digest, for an effective implementation of Agile.
Shared accountability is an important principle because it guarantees that in the team there is sharing, mutual help and an overview to reach the implementation objective (which should then be the only real thing that matters).
Strategies for Effective Agile Monitoring
Conversely, leaving the team free to experience the events with no interference and to share responsibility transmits a very important message: the boss trusts us. Typically, in a healthy environment, he generates an “and therefore, to respond to trust, we must give our best.“
On the other hand, where does the need for control come from? The owner of a company has made investments and incurs costs. In a small business this may have meant diverting resources otherwise available to one’s family, or having contracted debts with banks, to invest them in the business activity. Anyone would like to see what is happening to the money so laboriously found and set aside.
Then there are greater or lesser individual predispositions for controlling anxiety and interpersonal trust. But also a management style, built with experience, based more on controlling behaviours than on achieving objectives.
When members of a development team focus excessively on specific tasks, neglecting the objectives and broader context of the company there is a problem. This attitude is even more harmful if adopted by management.
In other words, the manager’s task is to look at the broad context, the purposes and the meaning of the activities and to relaunch these elements among the collaborators, when necessary.
That’s why the legitimate need to be aligned with ongoing developments and also with any cooperation issues within the team must therefore find other ways to be satisfied. Let’s look at some of them.
1. Habit of Success
If we can provide an averagely competent team with clear objectives, the means to achieve them and a climate of underlying trust, we expect that these objectives will be achieved, resulting in success.
Consequently, these successful experiences encourage the team to do their part better and the manager to provide the necessary trust and means with greater conviction. This is a virtuous cycle that promotes productivity and effectiveness, shifts attention to objectives and results, enhances professionalism and reduces management control anxiety.
2. Specific Agile Events
Events such as the Review and Planning are designed to involve stakeholders and management: these are situations in which attention is focused on the objectives achieved or to be achieved, raising the professional level of the discussion and raising our gaze beyond the daily development work.
Here’s why accurate and effective preparation of these events produces a shared understanding of the objectives and state of achievement between the team and stakeholders.
3. Agile metrics
There are metrics, which can be used in an agile development context. They can give information on the health of the team and the quality of the work performed.
These metrics may not make sense in some contexts or frameworks. In any case, they must be read within the organization’s context and its objectives.
As a result, a carefully calculated metric will never tell anything significant for effective Agile monitoring if the objectives, context and resources committed to the work are not clear. Having made these necessary clarifications, let’s look at just a few:
- Velocity: number of story points for each interaction cycle. It allows us to predict the possible completion dates of an ongoing project or the amount of work that can be completed in a certain time frame
- Cycle Time: the time elapsed between the expression of the need and its satisfaction. It tells us how long a stakeholder will have to wait to see their need satisfied and, in general, it helps us understand the structure’s reaction time to a change.
- Lead Time: the time elapsed between the start and end of work on a need; an increase in Lead Time could mean that there are too many activities in progress. Furthermore, by analyzing it together with the Cycle Time you can discover and analyze bottlenecks in the development process.
- Bugs Count: the number of bugs (or hours dedicated to bugs) on velocity. It is a possible indicator of the quality of the code released into production.
4. The Product Owner’s Role
The Product Owner (PO) is the link between stakeholders and the development team. He is the first person a stakeholder should turn to for effective Agile monitoring. By managing priorities and sharing them with stakeholders and the team, the PO carries forward a shared agenda which will be updated and validated by the various releases over time. So, encouraging an effective role of the PO can improve transparency and communication between the parties.
5. Individual interviews
As a manager, owner or HR manager of the company, it is normal and appropriate to have formal and informal moments of exchange with collaborators. These are the best times to take the pulse on various things.
However, on these contacts, managers must take great care not to send messages that sound contradictory to those conveyed in more formal contexts. They also have not to take positions that could create disagreements in the team, perhaps indirectly or involuntarily. For example, suggesting to a collaborator that he would be better as a scrum master than the current one.
Similarly, they need to pay attention to the assignment of tasks and the request for features or activities. They should instead request them at the appropriate times and ways. For example: “Philip, since you’re dealing with this, could you get me a report with data on the topic?“. Product owners, teams, sprints etc. exist and are paid for these things.
6. Periodic meetings
As a last resort, periodic meetings can be organized to discuss the status of activities and share updates. It is better if the meetings involve several different teams and are well structured. That’s the way to make them interesting and not perceived as a waste of time by the participants.
Therefore, meetings should be used sparingly and well-prepared, as they consume a lot of time and resources. In any case, well-prepared and conducted meetings can also contribute to effectively monitoring the Agile development process.
Maintaining a balance between the desire to stay informed and the need not to interfere with the team dynamics is a challenge.
The premise of everything is that there is a professional management approach to the management of human resources and company organisation. A sort of “rule of law” in the company whereby the rules also apply to those who established those rules.
This respect for the rules, which is also and above all respect for people, is one of the keys to successful managerial management.