Monday, July 27, 2009

Post agile, one third of you will be gone...

About 6 years ago, I was at a company going agile... I didn't know much about it yet. I didn't realize how it was going to affect me and my career path. I had no idea that it would invigorate me and show me a better way. But there was one thing I heard immediately that I did understand, and it excited me.

The head of the division stood in front of 3,000 employees and stated
"... and after we are done going agile, I won't be surprised if one third of you will be gone."
You could have heard a pin drop. I rarely hear deafening silence, but I heard it that day.

He went on to explain...
"...some of you are managers. You are not the type of managers we will need. Some of you are employees, you won't be comfortable working this way. The pressure will go up, but the motivation and reward will also."
And finally...
"This is okay. It is where we are going. We are committed to it. I accept that this will happen and am respecting you enough to say it right now. Many of you worked hard to help us get to here, but that doesn't mean it will continue to be a good home for you."
(disclaimer: for those who were there with me that day, I know these weren't the exact words... but they were the message!)

9 months later I remembered that statement and I glanced around. I realized I was working with different people. I was on an awesome team. The team I was on before was really good, but they were all like me... the same role. Now I was on a team with really smart hard-working people that weren't like me. We were all different roles and we all have to think and work together to be successful. It WAS harder, but it was ALSO more fun.

And yes, we lost a lot of people. The people that just wanted to tell other people what to do were gone. They either left or were removed. The people who liked sitting in cubes and being told what to do left also.

This is why my first agile experience was so revolutionary. I doubt many of you had such a hard immersion through the transition, but it was wonderful!

The question is, who was left on the sidelines through all of that? Mike Cottmeyer wrote a good piece on this yesterday. How do those remaining managers adapt?


  1. Kevin- Great piece...thanks for this first-hand account of a company going agile. I'm intrigued by the agile process and really wish I had been there that day to hear the pin drop.
    Brad Egeland
    IT/Project Management Consultant

  2. Brad-

    It was a wonderful experience. It's been 5-6 yrs since then and my career has been much more interesting because of it. As agile becomes mainstream, I see its dilution and wish everyone had the experience I had because it makes a difference!

  3. It wasn't explicitly stated for us when we went agile, but I remember that one of my first thoughts on "our new software development process" was "Ok, so if you suck, EVERYONE sees it."

    The transference of project ownership and stewardship from a select few invisibles to the whole team was, and still is, incredibly energizing.

  4. I love the approach your company took... no guts no glory. I left the old way of development years ago as the work was becoming mundane and dull. Contracting has given me a spring in my step and even though I develop projects solo I still get a great deal of benefit from adopting the agile methodology. I have learned its a great way of being a solo developer and also a project manager at the same time. All the best with your revived career!

  5. That's a great experience. I wish all managers had the courage to face the employees like this. It's always better to be truthful.

  6. Steve-

    One of the things I love about agile once it takes hold of a company is that it brings out the best of people and forces the bad apples out. It's such a better environment to work in!

  7. Gary-

    I once heard a description of change management defined in one of these 3 contexts:

    - toe dipping
    - wading in
    - cannonball

    We definitely took the cannonball approach!

  8. Thanks to whoever put me on reddit! I'm getting serious traffic from it!

  9. I am a big fan of Agile, but what you are talking about is a cultural change at your company. I have seen Agile adopted and exactly the opposite happened. Management suddenly couldn't cope with our sprints and new work flow and hired many *more* product managers and other lackeys. It turned into a cluster****. I suppose one could argue that management did not truly adopt Agile, but I think you see the point I am driving at. A change to any methodology needs to have complete and total sign-off from the top and buy-in from the right people. So while Agile may have been a cog in the wheel, I would be willing to bet it was the general cultural change that lead to your leaner management, and more purposeful teams. Where I work now is *not* Agile but we have what you discuss - a very thin management structure (all developers equal with a couple of informal team leads -> director (1) -> CTO (1) -> CEO (1)). Our development style is much closer to waterfall than anything Agile. As a huge proponent of Scrum I wasn't sure about this when I came on but it works great here. The key is the corporate culture. We seldom hire people that aren't really, really good, and when we do we get rid of them. Management hires smart developers so they can make smart decisions, and management only steps in for planning, to remove hindrances, etc. These aren't tenants of Agile, they are tenants of good management and hiring good people.

  10. Jason-

    I totally agree with you. Agile is a delivery mechanism for ideals and culture that should exist in every company, agile or not. XP engineering agile practices aside, most "Agile" implementations are more about the cultural change than the process change. I have trouble separating the two, and many of the agile advocates I work with also don't split these apart. This is part of the reason I follow Esther Derby's, Diana Larsen's, Linda Rising's work.

    Thanks for the comment!

  11. That sounds utterly horrific.

  12. Oh, wait, it was satire. Good job!

  13. I know the manager of which you speak and I can totally believe he was upfront about the whole process. I very much enjoyed working with him (not Siemens, a different place) and would do so again in a heartbeat. Wish I could have been there to see that go down.

  14. @anonymous - it wasn't a satire. This is a true story! It was scary for folks, but it was a situation of strong leadership being transparent and honest. They invoked fast change to lead us to a better place. I honestly believe that without this transition, our current path would have caused jobs to have been lost (much more than the number of people who became unconfortable and left).

  15. codeslinger-

    It was great while he led the division. I left around the same time he did and it was a shame to see the momentum slow down after he left.

  16. It took three sprints to get the team I currently have now, which is a powerhouse. In learning to communicate and work together, Agile really helps create transparency in identifying teammembers who really are a mismatch for the current project or contract. Many companies invest a large amount of time and $$ into an employee before they see that they need to part ways. Agile brings that right into the forefront and allows for course immediate correction or reassignment.

  17. Nicholas-

    3 sprints is impressive. I typically see it take 6-12 sprints to get to a decent point. Shorter sprints help because the sprint rollover seems to have more impact than time (ship cycle).

  18. I wish that my manager showed as much courage as the head of your division. Timidity is impairing adopting Agile development in my team and the team is suffering as a result of this.

  19. Frederic-

    There are portions of agile that the team can adopt bottom up as long as you are somewhat empowered to own your work. Focus on some of the XP practices while your management gains faith in Scrum or other facets of agile!