Friday, February 5, 2010

Absentee Management

I heard the report “3 Weeks After Quake, Shelter A Main Concern in Haiti” on NPR recently.  It made me quite sad to hear about all the people that want to help (from inside and outside Haiti) and those that want to get started with rebuilding their lives, but are unable to do so with any sort of efficiency because of a lack of any sort of management direction (from the government of Haiti or the UN or anybody).

If you don’t have time to listen to the report (only about 4 minutes long), some of the phrases in there are:

  • Some feel that they “should be focused on a longer term solution”
  • Some reconstruction is taking place but “not under any sort of coordinated plan”
  • Some are working on their own but it “can be quite dangerous”
  • The government is “working toward a plan, discussions taking place”

“Discussions taking place”?  One of my favorite phrases lately has been “talk does not cook rice”.  In this case, talk does not save lives or rebuild a country.

So what does this have to do with software development?  In agile we often talk about “self-organizing teams”.  Often we talk about “getting out of the way of the team”.  This does not mean that management has no role in agile.  In fact I would argue that management’s role is even more important!  At the very least managers are responsible for:

  • giving parameters for the work to be done (may be in the form of backlog, a product vision),
  • providing necessary resources to the team (monetary or people) and
  • removing the team’s impediments (make sure the team isn’t stuck).

This means that they should be doing, not talking.  Mapping out a course, not just discussing it.  Figuring out which way to point the team next and getting them the resources to get there.  Otherwise the teams will start taking things into their own hands and that “can be quite dangerous.”  At the very least it will result in wasted effort. 

Even in an extreme case like Red Gate’s “Down Tools” experiment (which I’m curious to see what the results are) you can see these elements:

  • The only aim is to create something relevant to Red Gate that you wouldn’t have created otherwise.” – but there is a clearly stated aim and “The only rule is that you have to complete something by Thursday lunchtime.
  • Each team will have a discretionary budget of £500 for hardware / software / other stuff we don't already have in the building” – while this may not be enough for a super ambitious project, it should be more than enough for 4 days and it does set some parameters.  Most importantly it says “we’re behind this… with our pocketbook”

A team that is trying to self-organize without management’s direction and help is going to fail almost by definition as they won’t know what to look for in success.  Obviously the stakes for the people of Haiti is much higher, as in many cases we are talking about survival, not just another software project.  But just like the people of Haiti, if a development team has no direction, no resources and no help with impediments, the journey will continue to be bumpy.

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