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More on Context… Establishing Personas

Mike Cottmeyer
Reading: More on Context… Establishing Personas

Okay, this is a long post… I didn’t want to break it up because these next few paragraphs represent a complete thought. If you’ve been reading my blog for at least the last 6 months, you have seen some of this before. We are continuing to establish context by working through a couple of personas for the book. We have one for the target manager we are writing for and another for the company that he works with.

I have been sitting on this content for at least a week. Dennis and I are developing a story thread that may end up running side-by-side through the entire book. The idea is that there is a narrative around what is happening in the lives of these characters (not as well developed as Goldratt’s the Goal, but kinda the same idea) that helps explain the ideas we are talking about in the book. That said, the actual story may never make the text… but we’ll definitely use it to focus the book.
If we make enough progress on the story line this weekend, that might be the next thing I publish… we’ll just have to wait and see ;-)
More on Context

When you set out to tackle any problem as big as an enterprise wide agile transformation, establishing context is a critical part of figuring out how to move forward. This kind is not a one-size-fits-all strategy! To begin, we want to describe the person we hope will be reading this book. We want to explore the kinds of companies these people might work for and the types of organizational problems they are dealing with. We hope that by helping you understand context, how we understand and approach the problems you are trying to solve, you’ll be able to take these ideas back to your company to apply them in a situation specific way – a way that is tailored to work best for your particular organization. We’ll establish context by building a persona for both our ideal reader and the organizations where he or she might work. If you’re not familiar with the idea of a persona, they are a way of specifically representing different user types within a given demographic. They are a common way of helping software engineers understand how a user might interact or respond to a system they are building. Our personas are here to help you understand how a typical manager, or a typical company, might respond to the kinds of challenges they’ll face transforming their organizations. We’ll use these personas to explore the behavior patterns, goals, attitudes, and learning outcomes in a more realistic and concrete manner. Our personas are derived from dozens of people and dozens of companies we have worked with over the past 20 years. It is often surprising to us the universal nature of our human experience and how people and organizations tend to have the same challenges; no matter what the size of the company, the product it makes, or the market it serves. Our goal was to create a set of personas general enough to capture the breadth of our organizational experience, but specific enough that you might see yourself, and your company, in the examples. If nothing else, these personas will help personalize, and give concrete anchor points, for many of the ideas in this book. With that we’d like to introduce you to Frank Michaels, an up and coming development manager looking to make a difference in his organization, and StandardCorp, a mid-sized company in the midst of significant growth, and all the change that comes along with it. Frank Michaels Frank is 34 years old, married, and has two young children. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from his local state university. He has worked professionally for a little over 10 years and earns just below 120K per year. Frank joined his company four years ago as a senior developer. He is considered by his manager to have excellent technical skills and an open mind. Frank is a hard worker, likes to try new things, and has consistently demonstrated an ability to deliver tough projects. After only a year on the job, Frank was asked to serve as a team-lead. It wasn’t long afterwards that he his boss took a Director role and Frank was promoted to a manager. With this recent promotion, Frank now has several teams under his control and has to interact more directly with the other managers in his department. He coordinates with these other functional managers to drive work through the organization. Frank works with a team of project managers that coordinate delivery across several functional silos within the larger development organization. Frank is often frustrated by how long it takes to get projects delivered and how little control he has over business outcomes. He often questions his decision to become a manager. Frank spends way too much time in meetings and just isn’t interested in all the corporate politics and maneuvering. His company takes more than a year to bring new products releases to market and it isn’t getting any faster, if anything they seems to be getting slower. Project schedules are unpredictable and cost overruns are common. To make things worse, quality has been suffering as pressure to deliver has gone up. Frank’s Company, StandardCorp StandardCorp is a public company that has been in business for 20 years. They grew organically for the first 10 or 15 years by building software for the insurance industry. Several years ago the senior leadership team launched a strategy to grow through acquisition and branched into the financial services sector. StandardCorp is now about 5000 employees with most of their offices in North America, although they have a few sales offices in South America, Europe, and Southern Asia. The product development organization accounts for a third of their total headcount. As StandardCorp’s product lines became more diverse, they started looking for ways to leverage common infrastructure components and shared services as a way to reduce their overall cost of ownership. The product teams began looking for ways to combine product offerings to create competitive differentiators in the marketplace. Several initiatives were launched to standardize their diverse technology platforms, but these initiatives have been expensive, and success has been sporadic. In fact, these initiatives have slowed down time to market and made products harder and more complicated to deliver. Product Managers are frustrated because only a few years ago they had total ownership of their requirements. They had direct access to the technical teams they needed to deliver new features to market. As the organization has grown, there is more negotiation required across a larger and more diverse set of stakeholders. The delivery model has become more complex and it takes forever to get any product out the door. In frustration, the product teams specify larger and larger initiatives because they know it will be at least 18 months before they get another change to bring anything to market. StandardCorp is successful, but everyone understands something needs to change. They are investing heavily in CMMi, ITIL, and hiring PMP certified project managers. Because costs are going up and revenue is going down; StandardCorp is taking a large part of its development organization offshore. They have to increase profitability and recover market position or the company will likely be acquired. To the senior leadership team, it looks like the offshore approach is working. Management has asked the organization to move more of the core development to India and is looking to layoffs as a way to further reduce overall development costs. Thinking Past Our Personas Frank Michaels The fact that Frank is a married man with two kids not actually an essential element for our story. Frank could just as easily have been Francine, a single Mom with one daughter, or Franklin an older manager with no children getting ready for retirement. What is essential about Frank is that he has something to lose. Many people are working hard just to pay their bills and trying to get a little bit ahead. Helping to make things better, leading change if you will, is difficult and often puts your career at risk. “And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only the lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new. This lukewarm temper arises partly from the fear of adversaries who have the laws on their side and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who will never admit the merit of anything new, until they have seen it proved by the event.” Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince Frank’s position in the company puts him square on the first or second rung of the corporate ladder. He has influence over several teams, but not necessarily over his peers. He might be able to influence up the organizational hierarchy, but that influence is based solely on the strength of his relationships. Frank can influence his manager, and maybe his manager’s manager, but probably not much past that. Depending on how large and how deep StandardCorp becomes, significant decisions about process and methodology are happening at much higher places in the overall organization. StandardCorp StandardCorp is at that stage of corporate development when it becomes time to grow up and start putting real process in place. Many of us have worked in small companies that have lightweight governance and everyone works together toward common unifying goals. These companies don’t need much process and structure to get things done. As these companies get bigger, they start to hit the limits of their ability to self-organize and self-direct. Some decide to go down the path of increased specialization and greater process overhead and control. This doesn’t only happen to companies with 1000’s of developers, it happens in companies with as few as 50. Your StandardCorp might be that 50-person development shop. It might be a division of a 20,000-person company. You might be a smaller shop that just got acquired and is now expected to follow the parent company’s standard processes and procedures. The size of StandardCorp is not our essential element, nor is it the industry. What is important about StandardCorp is that they are big enough to encourage specialization. It is big enough that establishing better processes sounds like a reasonable and responsible approach to get better outcomes. StandardCorp is big enough that it has a larger, more diverse product offering and is now looking for ways to better leverage its assets. They have reached a point where there is distance between the people making decisions and the people doing the work. This distance blurs the direct mapping between day-to-day activities and the business outcomes that make the company successful. Management begins to operate at much higher level of abstraction and the impact of decisions on individuals becomes less visible, and therefore less important.

Okay… so that’s it for now. Let me know what you think!
Next The Agile PMP on InfoQ

LeadingAgile CEO and Founder, Mike Cottmeyer is passionate about solving the challenges associated with agile in larger, more complex enterprises. To that end, he and his team are dedicated to providing large-scale agile transformation services to help pragmatically, incrementally, and safely introduce Agile methods.

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