Your organization is on its way to the holy grail of agility and consists of small self-organizing teams. Based on trust, every team is very transparent about the value it adds to the organization. The teams inspect their way of working and the outcome of their efforts frequently and adapt where necessary. The management team, however, still works in a more traditional way. Strict budgets, deadlines and year plans. Is it possible for the management team to better support the teams and adopt a more agile way of working themselves? Certainly! Below are a number of practical experiments that I would like to share.
I joined the IT management team of a major energy supplier in the Netherlands. The team has a weekly meeting with a permanent chairman and a fixed agenda. It is not clear to colleagues in the Scrum teams what exactly the management team is doing and how it adds value. At the same time, the members of the management team are overwhelmed by operational matters that lead to a lot of discussion during the meetings. Time for some experiments.
The information on the walls helps to inspect & adapt
Transparency, Inspect & Adapt
One of the tenets of Scrum is transparency. Of course, we want to set a good example from the management team. We start looking for a space where we can hold our meetings and be transparent at the same time. Where all the information we need is visualized and has a permanent spot on the walls. This has two advantages. First, the visual information helps us focus when we meet. But even more important, because the meeting space is available for other internal meetings for the rest of the week, all people in the department can view the same information and give us feedback.
We also agree to frequently evaluate our way of working and adjust it where necessary: inspect & adapt. Just like our IT teams, we hold a Retrospective every two weeks. In this meeting we look in all openness at our cooperation and effectiveness and especially at how we can further improve. In addition, all the information on the walls helps to inspect & adapt. Are we still doing the most important things first? Do our efforts still contribute to the main goals of the organization?
The Retrospective is part of the Scrum framework that all teams in our department use. So, it makes sense to see which other parts of Scrum we can apply in our management team. There appear to be quite a few.
We appoint a Product Owner and Scrum Master and start by applying a rhythm: a one week Sprint. During an offsite teamday we translate our annual plan into a Product Backlog: an ordered list of activities. We visualize the Product Backlog by means of a Story Map. The next week, we start with a Sprint Planning: what is our goal this week? What are we going to tackle this week and how? The activities in our Sprint are visualized on a Sprint Backlog and discussed during the daily 15-minute Daily Scrum. When the Sprint ends we conduct a Sprint Review (what has been achieved and is there reason to adjust our Product Backlog? ) followed by a Retrospective to improve our way of working.
After a few Sprints, it appears that our way of working does not provide sufficient improvement on the operational level. The many, sometimes urgent challenges in the operation require a lot of attention and fight for attention with the more strategic steps we want to take. At exactly that moment, a colleague and I visit an introductory afternoon where we experience Holacracy first-hand by Brian Robertson.
The tightly regulated Holacracy Tactical Meeting seems to be an excellent addition to our Scrum method. Time for a new experiment! The step-by-step plan of the Tactical Meeting is followed: first focus on the status of all current initiatives through the checklist, the project list and the dashboard. Then collect operational matters and handle them 1 by 1.
Now we often tackle 20 small tensions in an hour
A nice aspect of the Tactical Meeting is the carefully chosen terminology. Robertson is not talking about problems that need solving, but about tensions that need processing. Instead of the search for the ultimate solution to intertwined complex problems often involving many stakeholders, the aim is to reduce a tension of one colleague. In the past, a heated discussion about a complex problem could easily take an hour with no clear outcome; now we often tackle 20 small tensions in an hour. This approach provides a lot of focus, less discussion and more room for strategic activities on our Sprint Backlog.
Did we find the holy grail? Certainly not. There’s a lot of room for further improvement. For example, the transparent space that previously had partly glass walls appears to have become less transparent due to all the information on the walls. Colleagues also appear not to just walk into the room to see what the management team is doing. We also do not yet have any stakeholders (our colleagues!) in our Sprint Review and the organization around us is still asking for detailed reports and annual plans that take a lot of time. And so we keep applying inspect & adapt.
We adopted a more experimental mindset
We had a lot of fun experimenting with some elements of Scrum and Holacracy to the way of working in our managemen team. Do we apply Scrum or Holacracy? Not at all! Did applying elements of Scrum and Holacracy help us? For sure! Transparency has improved followed by more valuable discussions with our team members. We adopted a more experimental mindset. We learned what it takes to be Agile Leaders and how to support our teams and colleagues.