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Soft Skills Are Paramount: A Report From Agile Boston Openspace

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Last week the Agile Boston user group held a full day OpenSpace conference.  One session that this reporter attended focused on affecting other groups in an organization that you and/or your team is dependent on.  The members of this session shared their contexts and problems and came up with several strategies in improving their situations, none of which were Agile practices.  Here are some of the contexts:

  • I'm working with multiple teams, one of which is using classic waterfall, another is Agile, and yet another is creating spreadsheets.  They are interdependent and frequently have problems because of their different ways of working.  And, oh yeah, they are distributed around the world.
  • Our team is doing just fine and have been practicing Agile for the last five years.  But there are other teams out there that we depend on and, frankly, aren't doing their jobs correctly.  For example, delivery is just fine, but sales keeps making promises that just don't make sense.
  • We have two teams that work on very related products.  We depend on their work.  They work in a waterfall-ish way and are very deliberate about how they do things.  We can't seem to work together effectively and the politics are hurting us.  How do I get them to be reasonable?

As these sessions go, we shared our problems and discussed possible solutions informally.  As each person told their story, the frustration could be felt, and a sense of "why can't these other groups just see reason?!" came up repeatedly.  What was surprising, is that we had many of the same problems, and they all came down to working with others because our success depends on them and they are holding us back.  Here are some common threads that came up:

  • Many teams are at odds don't have a shared goal.  They are able to claim success even if they are not helping the business.
  • There is a prevalent "us vs. them" mentality in almost all of these environments.
  • Trying to change others just doesn't work. 

Not surprisingly, most of the discussion around these problems did not involve TDD, or iterations, or even retrospectives, because the roadblocks were coming from outside the team.  Maybe a little more surprising was the lack of advice on "how to change/convince the others"; most of the attendees had tried that path and failed.  Here are some of the ideas that came from this meeting that we - the attendees - felt are more fundamental than Agile practices and can lead to success:

  • Discover what you can do instead of what others can do to change.  How can we change?  How can we learn more about the others and what they need from us?
  • Start conversations getting to shared goals.  Until we can create goals that are greater than each team where no team can succeed alone, we will get local optimizations.
  • See others as equals who deserve our respect, not 'us and them'.  We can all sense insincerity, and therefore behaviors that come from a 'we are going to fix you because you are an idiot' position rarely have positive effects.
  • Build trust with the other teams by making and keeping smaller agreements and building a history of trust.  Trust needs a) ability, b) history, and c) sincerity.

As a group, we felt that these issues are at the heart of our failures and no Agile practices can make up for personal growth (us changing), sincerity, trust, and a clear, common goal that needs all of us for success.

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