Agile Frameworks and Template Zombies
A while back, I had a notable conversation with our COO, Dennis Stevens. When not sharing war stories from the Marine Corps or trying to one-up each other on who has more scars, we have constructive conversations around the correlation between team delivery metrics and team level competencies we assess, change management, and other “work” stuff. This time, we were talking about Agile Frameworks and Templates.
A few weeks ago was Halloween. It reminded me about a book I wrote a few years ago titled Zombie Project Management. It was fun to poke fun at so many things we all take for granted and not really think about. On the one hand, you have the craft of Project Management. You have skilled professionals managing projects from start to finish. On the other hand, you have zombies. Zombies crave to eat living flesh though it will never satisfy their hunger. Zombies do things because they don’t know any better. They are compelled to do what they do. Sadly, Dennis and I see people act like zombies every day. Here are a few examples.
It doesn’t matter if you’re choosing an Agile development framework like SAFe or an Agile Transformation Framework like the LeadingAgile Basecamp model, the models and frameworks are incomplete, by design! They need to be adapted to meet your organizational goals. Do you think the Agile Manifesto would have lasted as long as it has, if it answered all of your questions in two pages? To that, if you think all of your questions are completely answered by a single “big picture” poster, you’re being naive. But, that’s exactly what we see happening. I hereby give you permission to mix and mash whatever you need, to make your organization operate better. Do you really think the Agile police are going to break down your door because you’re not following a framework as it was originally written? What happens if the author or creator changes it? Does that mean your business is now broken?
Don’t just follow the horde. Look for a framework that looks like a potential organizational end-state. Evaluate what your company values from a planning perspective. Next, evaluate what your customers value from a planning perspective. Pick a framework and then refine it (through structure, governance, and metrics/tools) to align with an ideal end-state.
I’ve seen one too many companies do TDD. Wait, don’t we want our clients to do TDD (Test Driven Development)? Yes, but what I see happening is Tool Driven Development. Tell me if this sounds familiar. Someone buys an expensive tool but they don’t know how to customize it to align with the organization. So, they change the processes to align with the tool. I’ve lost count of how many people call a user story a “JIRA”. I’ve also seen countless people do away with valuable activities that provide a shared understanding, merely because they weren’t trained how to leverage a tool or the tool is offline. Yes, tools can be critical when a company scales. But, if you’re sitting next to someone on your team and your Instant Messaging client goes down, do you not talk with them? Do you cancel the daily standup?
Templates (and Template Zombies)
The term template zombies comes from the book Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies: Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior by Tom DeMarco et al. (Dorset House).
The authors’ definition:
Template Zombie: The project team allows its work to be driven by templates instead of by the thought process necessary to deliver products.
Even outside the application development world, we use templates as a pattern for processes such as painting, cutting, or drilling. In the application development world, we use templates as a preset format for some kind of knowledge work so that something does not have to be created from scratch. I understand that we’re trying to save time and lower our rate of errors. But while we’re trying to save time, we sometimes turn into zombies. We forget that we need to provide context to what we’re working on and sometimes extend the template we started with. If I’m provided a single template and it doesn’t align with my vision, I’m either going to move beyond the template or I’m not going to use it at all. I’m not going to discount years of experience, just to follow a template someone else wrote.
Use your brains, trust your gut, and use some common sense. If the framework, tool, or template doesn’t look like it’s going to work for you, don’t sweat it. There are countless companies and people out there willing to solve the problem. It may not be cheap, but at least it will be correct.
Nice post, Derek – appreciate you sharing your wisdom with the broader community.
I would’ve enjoyed taking part in *that* conversation with you guys. Great stuff! You are correct – frameworks are *frameworks* … simple constructs where patterns and practices can be adopted, understood, adapted and mastered over time. BaseCamp, SAFe, Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS), Scaled Professional Scrum (SPS), OpenSpace Agility (OSA); or perhaps bits and pieces from each? In the end, what matters most is (1) an alignment with the Manifesto’s “4 and the 12”, (2) an organization’s willingness for embracing change (not just senior leaders, BTW), and (3) the expertise to thoughtfully guide toward a newly desired state using measures that don’t drive unintended behaviors.
BaseCamp is the one model I haven’t experienced directly (up to this point), but I’ve lived through the others (above) at varying levels in big company transformation. Out of all of them, the one that was most fascinating (and uncomfortable!) to me was OpenSpace Agility (OSA). Admittedly, I carry mixed views on an approach that’s guided exclusively by opt-in, invitation-based OpenSpace, but I think it’s possible to leverage the principles from OSA to guide a healthy and engagement-filled journey into BaseCamp, LeSS, SAFe, etc. This is an area that is very interesting to me.
Like all of us, I’m continuously learning and don’t have all of the answers, but I do find a lot of value by understanding these various approaches in-depth and experimenting with a principled blend in an organization where it makes sense (e.g., start a transformation with OpenSpace, use the proceedings to guide BaseCamp in an area where the interest & urgency are highest, run another OpenSpace after 90-120 days, etc.), etc.
To enrich the conversation, the one comment I might caution on is the use of “common sense” to guide decisions on complex organizational change. I have found this to be a challenged view for those who haven’t discovered the power of a Systems Thinking approach. Instead, they will make decisions using “common sense”, which in a complex and turbulent environment, are oftentimes sub-optimal decisions that make things worse rather than better. Just something to watch for…