Systems Thinking, Binary Thinking, and Agile

Wikipedia defines “Systems Thinking as follows:

“Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organization “healthy” or “unhealthy”.”

Why is “Systems Thinking” important? It allows you to see things in an entirely different perspective:

  • You see the “whole” rather than the “pieces” and understand their relationship. In an agile implementation you see the business as a large ecosystem and see the development process as only one component of that ecosystem and you begin to better understand how the two are interrelated to each other.
  • Within an Agile development process, you begin to better understand how all the components of that process work together to make the overall process more effective and instead of following the process rigidly and mechanically, you see it as a much more dynamic process where each component of the process may need to be adjusted to fit the situation.

“Binary Thinking” is the antithesis of Systems Thinking. Instead of seeing the real complexity that is inherent in many situations, people who engage in binary thinking are sometimes looking for a simple, cause-effect explanation for something that isn’t really very simple at all. They:

  • Tend to see the Agile values and principles in “black-and-white” terms as absolute statements rather than relative statements that need to be interpreted in the context of the situation as they were intended to be.
  • See the relationship of Agile and more traditional plan-driven approaches as “either-or”, mutually exclusive choices (Either you’re Agile or you’re not) and they may see these approaches as competitive with each other rather than seeing them as potentially complementary.

That sort of narrow thinking has led to many stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions about what Agile is and also about what traditional Project Management is. We need to rethink what Agile is as well as rethink what traditional Project Management is to see them in a new light as potentially complementary rather than competitive approaches and “systems thinking” is the key to that. It is also the key to becoming a “learning organization”. Wikipedia defines a “learning organization as follows:

“A learning organization is the term given to a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself. Learning organizations develop as a result of the pressures facing modern organizations and enables them to remain competitive in the business environment. A learning organization has five main features; systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning. The Learning organization concept was coined through the work and research of Peter Senge and his colleagues (Senge, 1994). It encourages organizations to shift to a more interconnected way of thinking.”

Adopting a “systems thinking” approach and becoming a learning organization are two of the most important aspects of enterprise-level agility.

Agile Project Governance

Do the words “Project Governance” and “Agile” sound like they go together? On first glance, your answer might be “No” – the idea of superimposing a Project Governance Model on an Agile project sounds like mixing oil and vinegar, but I don’t believe that is necessarily the case especially when you attempt to scale an Agile project to large, complex enterprise-level projects.

Much of the wisdom about Agile has been about how to optimize the performance of an individual Agile team. There are hundreds of books about almost every aspect of optimizing Agile team performance that you can imagine but the idea of scaling Agile to enterprise-level projects is a road that is far less traveled and requires a lot of new thinking. In many cases, it requires blending together some plan-driven principles and practices with Agile principles and practices to create an overall governance model for large, complex programs consisting of multiple teams.

The predominant thinking in many cases seems to be that you have to shift the entire culture of a corporation to adapt it to an Agile development approach. My experience has been that is not necessarily the best approach in many situations. The culture of a company needs to be built around what makes sense for that company to be most successful in whatever business environment that it operates in and that is not always well-aligned with becoming totally Agile. An Agile culture works best in companies who are focused on product innovation such as companies who produce and sell software products like Intuit Quickbooks or where some form of product innovation is closely related to their primary business goals like Amazon.com.

In companies where product innovation is not the most important factor in the success of the business, it becomes a lot more difficult to convert a company to an Agile development approach because it may not make sense to force the company to adopt a culture that is totally Agile. Consider, for example, the following case studies from my new book:

  • Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare (HPHC) – HPHC’s business success is driven largely by customer satisfaction (they have been ranked number one in healthcare industry surveys for over nine years) and operational excellence (being able to process millions of healthcare transactions efficiently at a very low cost. They were faced with a requirement to do a massive redesign of all their operational systems that involved over 100 Agile teams over a five year period. Obviously, they can’t afford any disruption of customer service in that process and there are a lot of moving parts that need to be carefully coordinated to avoid any disruption of service to their customers.
  • General Dynamics, UK is a large defense contractor in Europe. Obviously, there business has to be geared around government contracting so there are limits on how Agile they can become, yet they were able to blend together some level of traditional plan-driven project/program management practices with an Agile development approach to achieve the right balance to fit their business.
  • Valpak is a very Agile company and fast-paced product innovation is much more critical to their business success. Valpak is the company that periodically sends you those blue envelopes stuffed with coupons. They have a huge processing facility in Tampa where paper comes in one end and millions of coupons stuffed in envelopes ready for mailing come out the other end and the whole operation is very highly automated. It is a very impressive operation and Valpak has been very successful in transforming their entire business using Dean Leffingwell’s Scaled Agile Framework.

The key point is that each of these three businesses is different and trying to use a “one size fits all” approach to force each business to adapt to a “textbook” agile development model would not have been the best solution. The right approach is to go in the other direction and fit the methodology (or combination of methodologies) to fit the business environment. It requires a lot more skill to do that but fortunately some frameworks and models are evolving to make that a lot easier to do. Dean Leffingwell’s Scaled Agile Framework
is only one example. My new book, Managed Agile Development – Making Agile Work for Your Business provides a lot more guidance on this topic.

The Role of a Business Analyst in an Agile Project

There is no defined role for a Business Analyst on an Agile project just as there is no defined role for a Project Manager on an Agile project. On small, simple Agile projects there may not be a need for either of these two roles but that is frequently not the case on large, complex enterprise-level uprojects.

The role of a BA is often neglected – it is assumed that the Product Owner plays that role but it can be difficult for a Product Owner to perform that role without some assistance on very large complex projects. I recently had to create a job description for hiring a BA on an agile project – here’s what I came up with as the primary skills needed:

  1. Analyzing a broadly-defined area and using functional decomposition to define high-level epics and stories to create a well-organized, value-driven framework to provide the required business value in the Product Backlog.

    If the stories and epics follow a logical functional hierarchy it provides a mechanism for better understanding the relationship of the stories and epics to each other and for satisfying overall business goals.

  2. Writing individual stories that are very clear and concise and are easy to understand and implement by the development team.

    Writing effective user stories is a skill that is often taken for granted. What is often overlooked in good stories is the “why” or the “so that” clause that expresses the business value the story is intended to provide. A good BA can provide that perspective that is difficult for a developer to provide.

  3. Identifying related user stories and epics, grouping them into themes as necessary and documenting the interrelationship and associated business process flows as necessary.

    The interrelationship of user stories and epics should be well-understood and the implementation of stories across different functional areas may require some planning and coordination so that they are consistently implemented. This overall framework can provide a mechanism for easily identifying any inconsistencies and/or missing functionality.

  4. On large projects, there may be a need to integrate the needs of related projects as well as the needs of a number of different stakeholders to produce an overall solution.

The Next Generation Project Manager

I worked in a number of roles in the quality management profession in the early 1990’s. At that time, the quality management profession was going through a significant shift in thinking from an emphasis on quality control to more modern approaches such as Six Sigma and TQM.

  • The old approach relied very heavily on inspection after a product had been built to find defects before the product shipped
  • The new approach involved going into the processes and improving the process as necessary to eliminate the source of the defects and preventing the defects from happening at all.

The benefits of the new approach were obvious:

  • It eliminates the costs of a lot of unnecessary inspectors to find defects if the products are inherently more reliable
  • It has a huge impact on reducing costs of reworking and scrapping defective products and obviously significantly improved customer satisfaction

That changed the very nature of the quality management profession and many people who had defined their whole careers around the old quality control approach couldn’t adapt to that change and found themselves out of work while others who learned the benefits of the new approach continued to thrive.

In my opinion, there is a similar change going on in the project management profession today that is equally significant and requires us to rethink some of the very basic tenets of project management that have been taken for granted for many years. An example is the “project management iron triangle” (also known as the “triple constraint”) which has been a fundamental concept in project management for a long time. The idea behind it is that all three of the legs of the “iron triangle” (time, cost, and scope) are interrelated and changing any one of them is going to effect one or more of the other legs of the triangle. For example, if you increase scope, it’s likely to have an impact on both the cost and schedule of the project.

A key measurement of Project Managers for a long time has been how well they managed these triple constraints to control costs and schedules associated with a project. A project was deemed successful if it met the requirements it was supposed to meet within the planned cost and schedule. To control costs and schedules, you obviously have to control the scope of the project and limit changes to the requirements once the project has started. These ideas have been so well-engrained into the way projects have been managed for so long that it has begun to define what project management is just as the image of quality control inspectors used to define what quality management was at one time.

What’s wrong with that picture?

  • It might work OK in some areas like the construction industry where it is more realistic to predict and control the requirements, cost, and schedule for a project – it doesn’t work well at all in other areas where the requirements are much more difficult to define and control and a more adaptive approach is needed such as most software development projects. In those areas, there are many projects that might meet their cost and schedule goals but fail to deliver significant business value because it can be so difficult to define all the requirements before the project starts.
  • The traditional “iron triangle” approach does not recognize the value produced by the project as a variable. It assumes that the requirements accurately define the value that the project must produce and those requirements can be defined before the project starts – in many areas today that just isn’t very realistic at all and a much more flexible and adaptive approach is needed.

So, what does that mean for the project management profession as we know it? Does that mean that traditional project managers will become extinct like dinosaurs? I don’t think so, but I think any project manager who only knows the traditional project management disciplines of managing costs and schedules and can’t take a more adaptive approach when required may be severely limited in his/her career options.

I’m proud to be a project manager and I am dedicated to doing whatever I can to contribute to the ongoing improvement of the project management profession, but I do understand that we need to adapt and change to embrace new ways of doing project management. I learned a long time ago that anyone who thinks that they can “rest on their laurels” and stop learning and growing makes themselves uncompetitive and may be out of a job.

I have a vision for what I call “The Next Generation Project Manager” that I’ve tried to articulate in my two books – it’s a project manager who is equally well-versed in all the traditional project management principles and practices as well as all the Agile principles and practices; but beyond that, he/she understands those principles and practices at a deeper level and knows how to blend them together as necessary to fit any given situation.

Does that sound like an ambitious goal? It certainly is, but it is no more ambitious than what other professions such as the quality management profession have gone through over the years. I hope that through the writing I’ve done that I’ve been able to help others in the project management profession recognize the magnitude of this change and successfully adapt to it.

Making Agile Work with Offshore Teams

One more excellent question I got at the Valpak presentation last night was “How do you make Agile work with offshore teams?” Here’s a brief response…There are a lot of difficulties and you have to be willing to accept a lot of compromises from an ideal Agile team. Here are a few examples:

  1. Commmunications is a major challenge. I was in a situation where the entire development team was in India and only the customer-facing people were in the US. In a normal Agile environment where the team is collocated and on the same time zone, a brief Daily Standup may be sufficient; but if that is the only (or primary) form of communications with the team throughout the day, it can be very difficult to limit the Daily Standup to just a brief 15 minute session. You have to learn to adapt the communication practices to the situation.
  2. Tools are essential to help close this communication gap and maintain coordination. Where you might be able to use “stickies” on a board with local, collocated teams; that just doesn’t work very well at all with distributed teams to keep everyone informed about what everyone else is doing.
  3. Cultural ChallengesThere are several significant cultural challenges:
    • There are a lot of good developers in India, but it can be very tough to find a lot of senior-level developers. In the Indian culture, someone may be perceived as a failure if they haven’t moved into a management position by some point in their career. For that reason, becoming a very senior-level developer who is not in a management position may not be regarded very highly. The impact of that is instead of having a team of peers who are self-organizing and all individually capable of self-directed work, you may have to compromise and select a few senior-level Team Leaders to provide direction to the rest of the team.
    • Indian people are also very polite and respectful and somewhat regimented (probably due to many years of British rule). In an ideal Agile team, that also works against being a totally self-directed team and you may find that more direction needs to be provided to the team.

Those are only a few of the more significant challenges, but the Indian people work very hard and are very committed to their work. If you go into it expecting that you’re going to be able to setup an ideal team as if they were collocated and from the same culture, you’ll probably get very frustrated; but if you learn to make the best of the situation and make a few compromises, you will find it to be a pleasure to work with the people in India – it just takes a bit of adaptation to make it work.

Tips and Tricks for “Selling” Agile

I visited with Stephanie Stewart and Tom Loftus at Valpak last night and gave a presentation on my new book to a Tampa Bay Agile Meetup. We had a great audience and they asked some great questions that stimulated me to do a couple of blog posts. The first question was “Do you have any tips and tricks for ‘selling’ Agile to management?” That’s a great question and I’ve certainly learned some lessons about that (the hard way) that I can share.

  1. First, you have to look at it from an overall business perspective , not from a more limited development process perspective. It’s very easy to get “tunnel vision” with Agile – we get so enthusiastic about the benefits of Agile from a development process perspective that we assume that what’s good for the development process must be good for the company as a whole and that’s not necessarily the case. Agile is most beneficial to companies whose success is driven heavily by product innovation (see my prior blog on corporate culture).

    But what if you work for McDonalds? How does becoming more Agile benefit the company? McDonalds is not known very much for leadership in introducing new products. They have improved in introducing new products in recent years (for example, their McCafe coffee has helped them take business away from Starbucks) but rapid product innovation still may not be the most important driver of their business. Rather than attempting to force-fit a company to an Agile approach; you may have to craft an approach that is more well-aligned with the primary success factors that drive the company’s business and becoming more Agile may or may not be the most important factor in the company’s overall business success.

  2. Second, you have to recognize that some companies are scared to death of Agile – they’re afraid of losing control and that fear is not totally unfounded if the Agile approach is not well-designed and managed. So, you may need to start off with more of a hybrid approach as an initial first step to demonstrate success rather than going full-bore into a complete corporate Agile transformation. You also need to recognize that an Agile transformation can take a long time and demands a lot of patience and perseverance.
  3. Finally, nothing sells better than results. Work on developing good results and that will sell itself.

I hope that helps some people avoid learning some of these lessons “the hard way” as I have.