Leadership in Times of Crises

Keep Calm & We’ll All Get Through This

By Chad Greenslade

 

I went to get my car inspected on Fri Mar-20, as part of renewing its yearly state registration.  The lady at the car shop said to me, “You might want to wait, because with all this craziness and everything shut down, if they can’t process your registration renewal in time, you’re just going to have to get it inspected again!

 

I thought about it for a quick second, taken aback, the only response I could think of was, “Yeah, but it’s a mail-in application.”  I knew it wasn’t a very strong retort.  She again says, “Everything is shut down; the driver’s license office is shut down!”, as if she was actively trying to get me engaged in her hysteria.

 

Having a very skeptical view of her impassioned argument, along with my quick determination that she appeared to be hysterical and ignorant, and given the fact that I had already taken the time to drive there, considering the mere $25.50 inspection fee, I decided to risk it.

 

My renewal application hit the mail on Sat Mar-21.  Yesterday, Fri Mar-27, I received my sticker.  When you subtract mailing time, that’s a three (3) day turnaround for the county tax assessor’s office to deliver my registration sticker, which apparently, is still functioning.

 

My point with this anecdote is that everyone needs to remain calm.  Here’s a lady, right in the middle of Prosper, TX, actively spewing uninformed garbage like it’s gospel, stating the government is shutdown and I should forego my legally required automobile inspection and registration.  How many other people did she convince of her narrative?

 

The world is not ending.  Do you know what I’ve done since this quarantine began?  Work.  Work every day.  Long hours.  It has upended the Clients that my company serves and we’ve had to pivot sharply.  We all have a role to play.  Go to work, if you can.  Pay your bills, buy your groceries.  I think we can all manage to keep ourselves indoors if we’re sick and only venture out for essentials for a while.  Take a socially distant walk.  Exercise.  Listen to the leaders that you trust; you know that you have a few whom you consider to be moderate or reasonable.  Pay attention to what’s happening at the federal level so that you can take advantage of the $2 trillion in cash that’s about to hit the market.  If we all don’t freak out, we can adapt to this crisis with grace and class.

 

I’m fortunate to have a job I can do from home.  My Clients, however, are in all industries, and are all struggling to make sense of the new world.  As a leader in my company, I have to act level-headed at all times.  The biggest call to action for me was to keep everyone focused and on-task.  Find ways to push forward.  Listen to Clients and Employees and quickly adjust.  Succinctly communicate facts and limit opinion.  Be open and honest, diligent and principled.  New opportunities will present themselves that can benefit everyone.  My largest account is shrinking by 50%, but I have other Clients that are increasing demand.  I know that my company can’t effectively respond to these changing conditions without leadership at all levels, acting like leaders.

 

We are all leaders of something or someone in life.  Maybe it’s your children.  If you have the word “manager” in your work title, someone in an actual business, that participates in the actual economy, is looking to you for direction.  Step-up.  Engage.  Don’t indulge in fear and paranoia.  There will be no nationwide martial law, no FEMA concentration camps.  There will be no nationwide suspension of habeas corpus.  If the military does get deployed, it won’t be nationwide and it won’t be for long periods of time.  When it does happen, remember, THEY ARE AMERICANS AND THEY ARE THERE TO HELP.  Trust me, they’d much rather be in the US helping people than in a war zone. Look at what the National Guard is doing in NY State; building hospitals, distributing aid.  No one’s coming for your guns.  Governor Abbot just clarified his order that gun stores can remain open; god bless him.

 

There’s no place I’d rather be for this crisis.   Texas is a proud, strong state.  We pull together in times of crisis, not push apart.  We’ve seen it time and time again.  Every time a disaster happens, neighbors help neighbors.  We don’t pillage and loot.  We don’t take advantage of others.  Our Republican government is clearly focused on getting our economy restarted, above all else.  Economies don’t work when society is in a state of civil unrest.  No one wants that.  Everyone is pulling in the same direction; care for the sick and get the economy restarted.  In third-world countries ran by actual dictators, they’d simply round up all the sick and burn them to death.  Think about that and why it will never happen in the US.  We’re armed to the teeth.  There are more civilians than soldiers.  Eventually, it’s just a numbers game.  No pilot is going to fly a bombing campaign over their own people; it’s an illegal order, and pilots know that.  Finally, I highly doubt any service member would ever take up arms against fellow American citizens.  The government, the military, FEMA, everyone – it’s all us.  It’s you and me.  We all know (or were) someone in the military, someone that works for the city, county, or state, someone who is a police officer, etc.  In this particular crisis, we’re seeing state and local leaders step-up, at least as much as the federal government.  Democrats and Republicans may be bickering, but I believe that most are trying to do their best and protect the citizens under their jurisdiction or representation.  Both Democrats and Republicans are being forced to work together.  Our government may be slow, but we will eventually rise to the challenge.

 

Fellow Gen-Xers, I’m looking at you.  We are uniquely qualified to navigate this crisis.  We’ve lived through countless other crises.  Not much fazes us.  We have a duty to help those who are struggling to cope with this crisis.  This is our opportunity to step-up.  At best, this is just momentary blip at the midpoint in your life; at worst, decisions we make now will impact the remainder of our lives, and most likely the lives of others.  Consider this weight when acting.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 7

Seventh in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

 

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the seventh in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 7: Engage Stakeholders & Supporters

Once you have executive buy-in, you’re now ready to engage your supporters.  It’s imperative to get the right people on-board early on.  The Agile Champion requires a group of people around them that are dissatisfied with how work is currently performed and are willing to make a change.  Stakeholders and supporters fall into three (3) broad categories:

Executives: Executives will approve and / or sponsor the agile project.  You’ll want support from an executive that has a vested interest in the success of new projects.  If possible, try to find an influential executive, one that is seen as a leader amongst their peers, someone they trust to bring great vision and planning to the organization, and try to get him or her to sponsor your agile project.

Individual Contributors: Your Individual Contributors are the folks that will actually be carrying out the agile project.  These are the guys who will need the agile training to execute the agile work processes.  You’ll want good representation with this group of people.  If your organization has certain disciplines (application development, database, project management, etc.) or product lines, you’ll want though leaders representing these groups.

Middle Management: Every Individual Contributor on your team reports to someone.  You’ll want to figure out who those people are and talk to them.  After all, these people write the performance reviews of your Individual Contributors.  Even the strongest Individual Contributor still must do what their manager asks; that’s how they retain their position.  It’s extremely important to gain middle management buy-in because very often, middle management is directly responsible for executing the operation of the IT department and are unlikely to pose future, unforeseen process barriers if they are engaged early.

Once you’ve identified your stakeholders and supporters, schedule meetings to discuss the agile transformation initiative.  Educate them on what you’ve learned about agile and how it can meet their objectives.  Discuss your plan and key milestones in the agile transformation initiative.  These meetings are not the “one-and-done” type.  Expect to have multiple conversations as people learn more.  You must give people time to learn, to think through agile concepts and how they will impact their day-to-day.  Everyone learns at different speeds, so be prepared to be patient.  You will be doing ongoing research in order to answer everyone’s questions.  If you’re able to answer everyone’s questions and sell them on the benefits, they will follow your lead during the changes ahead.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 6

Sixth in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the sixth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 6: Gain Executive Buy-In

Executives have motivations and you must work to understand their nuanced agendas and how they are measured while getting them to agree on a specific course of action. You’re going to need a coalition of aligned executives if you wish to get your agile transformation effort off the ground. Discuss the problems that you are attempting to solve, help them understand why a change is required, and educate them on how you came to explore agile as a solution.

The first step of executive alignment is gaining consensus on the problem statement. If executives have differing opinions on what the problem is, they will naturally have differing opinions on the solution. Conversely, executive consensus on a problem statement makes it much easier to gain concurrence on the problem’s solution. You should be able to articulate the problem using actual results from previously completed projects. Empirical evidence such as budget, schedule, and quality data can be examined and used to justify the problem statement. If existing project intake and / or request management processes cannot keep up with demand, this can be further used as justification for change. Many of today’s software products are subscription based with regular updates included as part of the service. A traditional waterfall approach may not support the quick release cadence demanded by your customers. Whatever your justification may be, it’s important to not only cite the problem statement, but to also provide concrete, salient examples of the problem; incidents that everyone can point to and agree that they are actual examples of the problem statement.

Once you have executive alignment on the problem statement, next you must help executives understand how agile solves the problem. Reiterate the benefits of agile from lesson #3 as you map them to the problem statement. Solving the problem statement also involves addressing the, “what’s in it for me?” question. When having this discussion with executives, frame it in terms of cost, risk, and rewards.

The agile transformation can expect hard costs for training of the pilot team, and an agile coach, if you choose to use one. You can expect to encounter soft costs for staff transitioning to a new methodology and tools as their productivity temporarily slows until the new processes are institutionalized. You must do your homework to ensure these costs are accurate, complete, understood, and accepted.

In my opinion, there is more perceived risk than actual risk in an agile transformation. Fundamentally, we’re not changing the way software is written, we’re simply changing the way we organize the work of software development. Sure, if you don’t have a plan for how to get from point A to point B, you’re going to get lost, but if a plan (like the one outlined in these lessons) is followed, risks only materialize in a few areas. Risks should be logged and managed with a mitigation plan for each that is regularly reviewed with the executive team. Doing this builds trust that risks are being managed and confidence that the effort will succeed. The most common risk is insufficient buy-in from executives or team members. This can clearly be managed before an agile transformation initiative is undertaken by additional training and education. Healthy skepticism of a new process is welcome, but active sabotage will be detrimental to the effort so it’s important that the right people are on-board and all pulling in the same direction. Risk of business impact can be mitigated by executing a pilot agile project first, and then using the results of the pilot to further refine the rollout.

Everyone likes to look good to their boss and executives are no different. You’ll want to figure out each executive’s performance drivers, but like everyone else, executives want to be valuable and promotable. Like all leaders, they want to demonstrate their leadership skills, achieve faster product delivery, lower operating costs, and in increase profits. You’ll want to again re-emphasize the speed of product delivery reward expected from an agile transformation and highlight how their sponsorship and / or support of a major organizational shift, such as this one, will demonstrate their leadership abilities and increase the bottom line.

Advantages and Risks of Hit-and-Run Plays

Chad Greenslade is an established Dallas, TX-based IT project management executive who offers solutions-driven consulting services. Passionate about baseball, Chad Greenslade excelled in the sport in high school and continues to play in adult recreational baseball leagues.

One of the foundational offensive strategies with a man on first base is the hit-and-run, which involves the runner on first base breaking toward second as the pitch is delivered. At the same time, the batter swings at the ball and attempts to connect.

With one of the infielders needing to cover second base, an opening is created on the left or right side of the field which can allow a ground ball to pass through to the outfield for a hit. In addition, the chances of a ground out double play is reduced, as the runner has a jump on the action.

There are risks associated with the hit-and-run, including a high likelihood that the runner will be thrown out in cases where the batter fails to connect with the ball. This has to do with the runner not taking as large of a lead off from the base as when stealing.

In addition, the hitter is obligated to try to connect with the ball, even if it is well outside of the strike zone, to protect the runner. This can result in balls that are weakly hit, leading to easy outs.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 4

Fourth in a Fifteen Part Series
By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the fourth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 4: Understand Common Environmental Constraints

There are some common organizational environmental constraints that you will encounter when moving to an Agile delivery model.  Each of these must be considered and addressed for your Agile transformation effort to take root and flourish.  Each of these should be considered “difficult” to address and requires ongoing effort to engage key players in the organization and change their perspectives to align with transformation goals.

The first and most common constraint is simply the one of management “style”.  Management style can either be a hindrance or an enabler to the transformation.  If your organization is an older one, especially one that has been around since before the Agile manifesto was published in the early 2000’s, the management “style” is most likely a top-down, “command-and-control” model.  In this model, the methods by which lower-level employees carry out work are dictated by higher-level management personnel.  “Command-and-control” is also frequently used in smaller organizations that may have no knowledge of Agile principles or practices.   Agile requires collaboration.  Collaboration necessitates that decision-making occur at the level where the work is taking place.  Agile believes that the resources performing the work are best equipped to guide their own work and successfully navigate obstacles when they present themselves.  In simple terms, the folks doing the work must be empowered to make decisions about the work.  Since collaboration is a bed-rock principle of the Agile manifesto and “command-and-control” does not foster collaboration, the “command-and-control” management style must be regarded as detrimental to an agile transformation in that it stifles collaboration.  Shifting from a “command-and-control” model can be difficult, especially if the next three constraints are not adequately addressed.

The second constraint to overcome is your organization’s willingness to accept change.  In a “command-and-control” environment, the notion of, “we’ve always done it that way” may be prevalent.  Clearly this won’t work when attempting to institutionalize a culture shift.  In this type of environment, you’ll need to confront unwillingness to change head-on.  You’ll want to tout expected Agile benefits (Lesson 3) and reasons for moving to Agile (Lesson 2) and ensure they are well understood by key leaders, stakeholders, and resources.  You should be looking for the, “let’s give it a try” response to your transformation proposal.  When you lay out the case for Agile and start small, you will be able to build confidence on your successes and get more folks on-board with your vision as your experiment progresses.

A major environmental constraint that exists in many organizations is a “process-heavy” culture.  Process-heavy organizations are those with rigid activities that must be completed in order to progress an effort.  This typically manifests itself with paperwork, and lots of it.  Agile requires lightweight processes.  This means that unnecessary or “non-value add” steps are skipped.  Agile is focused on just enough process to get people what they need to complete the work at exactly the right time.  If you’re in a process-heavy culture, you’ll need to reset management’s expectations relative to the process rigor that will be employed.  It’s not that no process will be used; it’s simply that required process will be employed.  For example, if there’s a process that must be followed to introduce new changes to the production environment, you’ll most likely want to follow it.  However, if the traditional waterfall process dictates that a full-blown detailed technical design be completed before any actual coding begins, this can be problematic and antithetical to Agile’s tenets.  You’ll want to thoughtfully analyze existing process and have a meaningful, collaborative discussion with oversight bodies to gain agreement on exactly which processes will be followed and which will not.  When having these discussions, stress the benefits of “speed-to-market” and reduced costs associated with an Agile effort.  You may also find yourself in the position of re-writing the “rules of the road”, specifically for Agile initiatives.

The last key environmental constraint that you must address is trust.  Trust is an absolutely essential component to Agile.  A key item to keep in mind is that trust is earned over time.  When trust does not exist, management tends to micro-manage the engaged resources.  When trust exists, management will get out of the way and let the workers carry out the work.  Trust is required to start an Agile pilot project, and management, including the Scrum Master, must trust the folks carrying out the Agile project to get the job done with quality.  By starting small and demonstrating value delivery, trust will be gained and increased over time.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 3

Third in a Fifteen Part Series
By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the third in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 3: Understand Expected Agile Benefits

Agile implementations produce benefits for both the team members executing agile and the managers of agile teams.  These benefits, however, can only be realized when company management commits to making the changes necessary to realize them.  Further lessons will expand upon the changes and buy-in required, but for now, understand that teams that adopt agile practices must move away from traditional “command-and-control” and “wishful-thinking” (a.k.a. “predictive”) management philosophies.  Agile can appear to be simple, but key concepts such as self-organization and continual inspection and adaptation have subtle implications that require a change to management’s status-quo approach.

Industry studies show that approximately half of software features developed are never used.  These studies indicate that required features can be developed in half the time by avoiding unnecessary work and waste.  Via continuous prioritization of development requests, agile teams avoid building features that will never be used and focus only on delivering those with the highest business value.  Prioritization is further extended to impediments (a.k.a. “roadblocks”) that surface during daily meetings.  Discovered roadblocks are prioritized and removed resulting in a further increase in quality and productivity.

Agile is known to improve the quality of life for the team members executing it through elimination of the pressures inflicted on the team by management personnel.  A sense of autonomy is instilled when teams are allowed to select their own work and then self-organize around the best way to complete the work.  This fosters the development of innovation within the team, produces higher team productivity, and delivers higher customer and team satisfaction levels.  Allowing the team to deliver a functional and effective product that achieves the market and financial goals of the company produces team spirit, ownership, and results in increased employee retention.

Finally, agile is known to improve the profitability of the company by affecting components of the profit margin.  These include customer retention, innovation, timely and accurate delivery, and workforce motivation.  Customers are retained when they are cared for and provide critical referrals necessary to grow the business.  Accurate and timely delivery of exactly what customers need, when they need it, enhances customer satisfaction and revenue streams.  Innovation ensures synchronization with market trends and anticipation of future customer requirements.  A motivated workforce is a productive workforce and one that provides an edge over the competition.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 2

Second in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

 

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the second in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

 

Lesson 2: Understand Common Reasons for Moving to Agile

 

I believe there are three (3) common reasons for moving to an agile delivery methodology. These reasons have nothing to do with IT specifically, but rather align themselves more generally with the common goals of product delivery. These are timely delivery, resolving quality deficiencies, and speed to market.

 

In the traditional waterfall model, an IT project could have a duration of several months or years and not produce anything of value for the business, if it produces anything at all. A common stakeholder complaint is that they rarely, if ever, know when anything will be delivered. Sponsors and stakeholders become reluctant to allow the project to continue when there is no end date or discernible deliverables in sight. An obvious and common risk is that a new opportunity or project will present itself resulting in the original project being cancelled, ending the work before anything of value is delivered. An agile delivery methodology alleviates concerns related to timely delivery by producing incremental product units on a pre-defined timescale.

 

Today’s business environment is constantly changing. Whether it’s new products being developed, old products being retired, competitors being acquired, divestitures, market expansions, new legislation or regulations, the only constant is change. This has an overwhelming and obvious effect on the information needs of the organization required to make accurate business decisions. Furthermore, a business is often willing to invest in building a solution to meet these information needs before all of the needs are fully known or understood. The traditional waterfall model is not conducive to the ebbs and flows of today’s business environment. It creates a situation in which a project team attempts to collect all requirements at the beginning of the software development effort, even though they may be unknown at the time of collection. The project team then takes the requirements as defined (or undefined) and attempts to build the solution over the course of months or years while discouraging changes to the requirements during the development process. This invariably breeds an environment in which the product delivered not only fails to meet the initial requirements, but also fails to address the changes in business conditions that occurred since the original requirements were collected. Stakeholders regard these as quality deficiencies even though the system may be coded exactly as the requirements specified. An agile delivery methodology alleviates quality concerns by continuously engaging the consumers of the information system throughout the development lifecycle and embracing the inherent changing requirements of today’s business environment.

 

A key theme of a successful business is continuous innovation. A common complaint from an executive whose business is failing to innovate could be, “our competitors are consistently beating us to market with new products or features.” An agile delivery methodology keeps the organization focused on product release milestones via the inherent cadence that accompanies the methodology. It also seeks to discontinue the use of non-value add activities such as unnecessary documentation or process which further refines the focus of the product delivery team.