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We Need Open Communication

Everyone sees it, so don’t ignore it


Fred Engel

Westerly Consulting

www.westerlyconsulting.com


The CEO brought me in to diagnose the problems the company was having in deploying Scrum.  I gave him 7 job functions I wanted to interview and he set up a 45 minute meeting with each of them.  The list included top engineering management as well as people in the trenches.  As always, by the third or fourth interview I could see the pattern that I have seen so many times before. The organization was in pain and not working well.  Each person had their list of grievances that had not been aired or discussed in a meaningful way.  A lot of back biting but not a lot of problem solving.  Nobody was talking to each other. Management was not giving up control.

Like many engineering organizations, the need to get things done was the only need addressed. The people issues were not dealt with.  The prevailing culture, established by the leaders, was one of doing anything that was needed to meet the arbitrary deadlines that came out of nowhere.  “Real engineers deliver on time” was the ethic.  Scrum was there to handle the quality issues, not the people issues.

Scrum, was not really Scrum. Yes, there were daily meetings and a Sprint.  But most people did not attend the daily meeting and the Sprints were redirected on a regular basis by “business priorities”.  The whole process was not treated with the seriousness it deserves.  Having the engineers feel like real professionals was not yet a reality. People did not feel like Scrum was for them, they felt it was something for the management team. Even then, some of the high-level managers were cynical about Sprints. They felt they should be able to set the priorities whenever they needed to.

In addition, there were multiple people who had overlapping responsibilities.  One VP told me all the people worked for him. Another one told me that all of those same people reported to her. A third one told me she did not know the decision process.  They each felt under-appreciated and unsure of themselves.

I asked each person whom they had discussed their concerns with.  Some had “pals” in the organization and had gossiped with them. But nobody had gone to management with their problems. The managers had not discussed the problems with each other. The CEO had also not been approached, nor had any of the high-level managers.

The problem is that people are caught up in a web of interpersonal forces that they do not understand and that they lack the skill and will to correct. The perceived personal risk of saying something far outweighs the perceived gain that could occur. This is a rational conclusion because far too often the people in charge are lost themselves and do not know how to correct the situation. Most engineering organizations have dysfunctional interpersonal communication.

One obvious solution is to go find an environment that does not suffer from these problems - where the management really knows how to create an environment that allows people to succeed at the same time as the organization succeeds. Many people change jobs for this reason. A Google search shows it to be the #1 or #2 reason people change jobs. Unfortunately, they are often disappointed.

The Agile Manifesto expressly states that people come first.  The goal of moving to an Agile methodology is to empower the people that are doing the work. Agile/Lean methodologies have at their core the notion of empowering the brain power of the entire organization to start solving problems. While this has proven very successful, far too many managers are afraid of it.

Too many managers do not like giving up control to the people that make up the Sprint Team and thus they subvert the very process they brought in. They also do not have the skills to deal with that much perceived challenge to their authority. The challenge for the management and the Sprint Team is to begin a dialogue with the management team.

In my own consulting/coaching practice I am often able to cut through some of these issues because I am brought in by a high level person. I am being paid to communicate the unhappy truths that I see. I can lose the engagement if the manager does not want to hear these things, but that is less devastating than losing a full time job.  Sometimes management will fix the problem. Sometimes they will not. In my experience, many managers who think they want to fix the problems are reluctant to do so.  Getting them through this knothole can take time.

The goal of this note is to encourage all managers to engage their people in open communication about the issues at hand. These new Agile/Lean methodologies really do work and people really do rise to the challenge, but it takes time and effort to make that happen.

For many years now I have recommended two books that were written a long time ago but are still high on the Amazon business book list.  They do a great job of helping people get through many of the obstacles in engaging people when dealing with tough issues. There are also many training programs that can be used. An Agile coach can be useful.  These are solvable problems.

If you have a bad environment, Agile/Lean can help. If you want to a good team, be open and enter into dialogue with your people and your management.