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 5

Fifth in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the fifth 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 5: Be Prepared to Address Difficult Questions & Refute Key Concerns

Moving to a completely new way of doing things can be scary, especially when the folks that will be carrying out the work have no advanced knowledge of how they will be carrying out the work.  To the uninformed, Agile can be synonymous with little or no process, tools, documentation, commitments, or planning.  The truth, however, is quite the contrary.  These concerns and misconceptions must be met head-on if they are to be overcome.  Below I discuss a few common questions & concerns that you’ll most likely encounter on your journey.

Question #1: Will we be trained in Agile?  Anyone who is unfamiliar with agile concepts but is asked to carry them out will immediately ask when they will receive the training required to execute the concepts. There’s nothing more intimidating than being asked to complete a project with a methodology that you don’t understand, and on which you’ve received no training.  Further, an organization’s commitment to change can be measured in its willingness to invest in the education necessary for their employees to successfully carry out the change.  As a leader in an organization’s agile transformation, you’ll need to immediately understand funding constraints relative to the agile training required for the team.  You’ll need to be able to explain to each and every team member, as quickly as possible, when and how they’ll be trained.  Open communication in this area will go a long way in allaying fears that arise from an uncertain path forward.

Question #2: Is the company hiring an agile coach to help us?  It’s important to understand advantages and disadvantages of using an agile coach before you decide to use one.  A coach will undoubtedly provide value to the initial teams tasked with carrying out an agile project.  Keep in mind that an agile coach is a temporary role, typically hired from outside the company, and is generally no longer required once a few agile teams are up and running and the organization has built some internal agile expertise.  Despite the temporary nature, you’ll still want someone who can establish rapport, build relationships, and motivate both agile team members and executive-level stakeholders to follow their lead.  Experience matters.  Be aware that due to the temporary nature of the role, some internal stakeholders may resist the coach’s direction based on their conclusion that the coach lacks standing to implement lasting change.  Conversely, a coach can be unencumbered by internal organization politics allowing them to deliver an honest assessment of the actions required to launch the agile initiative.  Whatever your reasons for or against a coach, be ready to explain them to the team.

Question #3: How is this different from our past attempts at change?  Most organizations have tried to implement a quality improvement program.  In many cases, there are employees in an organization who have been involved in a failed process improvement attempt.  It’s important to understand your organization’s past successes and failures and be able to compare and contrast them to the agile transformation at hand.  Be prepared to discuss the roadmap you’re following and the champions that you have on-board.  Ask for feedback to the plan.  Keep a list of the questions received and answers delivered.  This list will continue to grow as the transformation unfolds and keeping a readily distributable log of questions and answers will be a valuable time-saving resource as more persons become involved.

Concern #1: Agile teams don’t use any process or tools. While the first tenet of the Agile Manifesto is to value individuals and interactions over processes and tools, anyone with a cursory understanding of the methodology knows that Agile, in and of itself, is a process, and there are many tools on the market today to assist with facilitating and automating the agile processes. The bottom line is that Agile does contain processes and does promote the use of tools, however, the interactions amongst team members and the customer is more important than the use of any specific tool or process.

Concern #2: Agile teams do not produce documentation as the project progresses. The reality here is that a documentation-heavy, waterfall approach to writing software has been proven time and time again to be fraught with waste and rework. In today’s software development environment, it is much more valuable to begin with a high-level design approach and then refine this design as development unfolds. Agile teams will not spend hours attempting to document and control every single variable that they will encounter with on their development journey. Lightweight design tools will be employed including whiteboards and diagrams to produce just the right amount of design at just the right time such that development can begin and the design can be iterated. Agile teams will spend more time documenting the design of what’s been built versus attempting to fit development into a pre-engineered design. The effect is that design, development, and documentation happen at the same time.

Concern #3: Agile teams do not make customer commitments. In the old paradigm, the customer would deliver their requirements to the development team, the development team would provide an estimate, the customer would approve the estimate, and then the development team would commit to a release or implementation date. The customer would largely be absent throughout the design and development process, only to be re-engaged for user acceptance testing and release. In this process, the commitment is clearly visible and is part of the development methodology. The issue, however, is that a vast number of the commitments made by the development team were missed. Agile attempts to solve for this issue in a couple of different ways. First, Agile teams ask the customer to remain engaged throughout the design, development, and testing processes to ensure that constant feedback and collaboration occurs. This collaboration has the effect of ensuring that what is built actually solves the business problem and delivers the value requested. Second, Agile discards the big commitment made up-front in the old paradigm for a series of smaller commitments made incrementally towards the larger goal. The same rules still apply in that the overall project end-date cannot be determined until all customer requirements are defined and delivered upon. However, Agile realizes that in today’s software development environment, requirements evolve over time and are more conducive to a product development lifecycle versus a project lifecycle. Requirements don’t stop coming in once a software development project completes. Agile recognizes this and accounts for it via continuously updating roadmaps and release plans, which drive the lower, sprint-level commitments that are hallmark of the methodology.

Concern #4: Agile teams do not plan. As mentioned in Concern #3 above, you can clearly start to discern the tenets of Agile planning. The key difference between traditional Waterfall planning and Agile planning is that Agile embraces what is known as “horizon planning”. Horizon planning means that you can only plan, with any degree of accuracy, as far you can see. In other words, if you look at the horizon, you can make a plan for how to get to where you can see on that horizon, but you can’t plan with any degree of certainty for how to travel beyond that horizon. With each passing day, the horizon changes, and as such, your plans for how to get to the horizon should also change. Agile embraces the planning horizon and anticipates changing requirements by placing a top-down structure around the uncertainty. At the top level, a more high-level approach to planning is employed whereas at the bottom level a more realistic and time-bound commitment is made. The five levels are as follows:

  • Level 1: Product Vision. The product vision is a high-level narrative produced by the product owner. It can be high-level or very detailed depending on what is known, by the product owner, about the proposed product. In many cases it will contain a high level description of the product, the markets it will serve, the value to the organization, and a description of how the product will serve the market. The key outcome of the product vision is a general direction for the development team to embark upon when creating the product.

 

  • Level 2: Product Roadmap. The product vision is decomposed into a roadmap consisting of large work elements, known as “Features”, and high-level estimates for each, laid over time. The key concept here is that the estimates are high-level and the schedules are aspirational. The product roadmap is not meant to establish a product development end-date, but rather it is used to chart a path for product development, and attempt to start setting high-level expectations around when a minimally viable product can be delivered. The product roadmap, like most other Agile planning artifacts, is intended to be iterative and refined over time as the product vision evolves.

 

  • Level 3: Release Plan. Once the product’s features are defined in the product roadmap, a vertical slice of the features are taken for each quarter. This vertical slice becomes the release plan. For example, if your company’s product is a new website for ordering college textbooks, features could be “shopping cart”, “search”, “payment”, etc. In each release, you’ll want to include certain aspects of each feature in the release.

 

  • Level 4: Sprints. A sprint is probably one of the most widely known Agile concepts. A sprint is simply a time-box for completion of work. The most common sprint duration is two weeks; however, sprints can be as short as one week or as long as four weeks. It is not recommended to have a sprint duration longer than four weeks. Once the release plan is defined by quarter, the Agile team determines the number of sprints than can be accomplished in each quarter. User stories supporting each feature slice are written and selected by the team for completion in each sprint. The selection of a story to be completed in a sprint is a hard and fast commitment by the team to deliver a working piece of software within a certain timeframe. There is much that goes into the drafting, estimation, and selection of user stories for a given sprint. This guidance is outside the scope of this lesson.

 

  • Level 5: Daily Stand-Up. The daily stand-up is also a widely known Agile concept and fulfills the requirement of the team’s daily planning. It is probably the simplest Agile process. Its goal is to align the team, each day, around the current sprint’s objectives. It is a fifteen-minute meeting in which each person answers three questions relative to the deliverables in the current sprint; what did you do yesterday, what will you do today, and do you have any impediments (a.k.a. “roadblocks”). Typically the team’s Kanban board will be displayed to facilitate discussion. Problem solving is reserved for subsequent meetings to be scheduled by the Scrum Master.

 

In this lesson I’ve discussed some common concerns and how each of these is refuted. While it can take some time to persuade everyone to get on board, it’s clear that planning & process is not absent in Agile, simply better tailored to today’s software development environment.