Consent and Transformation

...Management in an Agile World 2

I raised three sons who attended college in the 21st century; I spent a lot of time with them when they were young teens discussing the concept and importance of ‘consent’ in their lives. The notion is important to me personally, and extends far beyond my romantic life (or that of my sons) – I wrote here about ‘Earning the Right to a Conversation’.

Our concept of consent in our personal lives has changed radically over my adulthood – for the better, I’ll assert. Now we need to deal with the notion in our professional lives.

I’ve encountered several agilists who believe strongly that without consent, there can – and should – be no transformation. So if that’s correct, the teams themselves must ask to go agile and management assent before a transformation can begin.

Ehhhhh. I’m not so sure about that, and I think my uncertainty highlights another place where we have agile models of the world rubbing up against managerial ones in ways that make us all a little uncomfortable – and so an opportunity to think and maybe extend our practices a bit.

I want to break my thinking here into two streams: first the overall question of “How an organization determines it is going agile?”; and then “As a coach, how do I navigate issues of consent?”

So first – how does an organization decide to go agile?

In my experience, in three ways.

  1. Start at the bottom – a team or team leader implements agility (often expensing training, etc.) at the team level. If they are successful, there may be a level of contagion, and other teams begin to adopt agile practices. At some point, this gets the attention of management, who either embrace it or quash it. If they embrace it, it may go to the next level:

  2. Start in the middle – a program or BU decides to go agile, typically with some level of consent from the PMO and executive leadership. Here we begin to have issues of scaling and intake as well as management interface. If they are successful, management may adopt and attempt to replicate the success. Most agile transformation ends at this level…but there are some that are successful enough to become:

  3. Start at the top – executive leadership decides that agility is an organizational imperative and begins a transformation plan that is intended to impact the entire organization. Most often, it involves everyone _except_ executive leadership, but the organization may use the momentum of this change to really reorganize in ways that break down barriers to outcomes and value.

These paths reflect the _span of control_ of decisionmakers at each level. One thing I advise is every agile transformation engagement (as a consultant) is to make sure that the ambitions of the specific customer in the organization are matched to their span of control. If you’re dealing with the #6 person in the PMO, it is unlikely that what’s on the table is a true organizational transformation.

That difference in power – that people at the C-level make decisions for the whole organization, Directors make decisions for programs/BU’s, and Managers make decisions for teams – is again baked into the notion of hierarchical management (like hiring, counseling, and firing). As agile practitioners, we need some way to deal with the tension between “agile is autonomy” and “who decided?”

Again, I have thoughts, but want to hold back a bit to see if I can trigger a wider discussion that may well change my mind.

Now I want to discuss the issue of consent as coaching.

I have always tried to have ‘coaching agreements’ with people I’ve coached. The basic model comes from first aid (as usual for me…):

“Hi, my name’s Marc, I’m a Wilderness First Responder so have training in first aid and some equipment – you look like you’re having a problem, would you like some help?”

All this ties to my notion of “earning the right” to challenging conversations, so let me pull some key points from that piece:

So how do we – as outsiders – earn the right to say the hard things?

Well, I’ll suggest there are three ways.

One is desperation. Remember this conversation in ‘Pulp Fiction’:

The Wolf: Jimmie, lead the way. Boys, get to work.

Vincent: A please would be nice.

The Wolf: Come again?

Vincent: I said a please would be nice.

The Wolf: Get it straight buster - I'm not here to say please, I'm here to tell you what to do and if self-preservation is an instinct you possess you'd better f*****g do it and do it quick. I'm here to help - if my help's not appreciated then lotsa luck, gentlemen.

Jules: No, Mr. Wolf, it ain't like that, your help is definitely appreciated.

Vincent: I don't mean any disrespect, I just don't like people barking orders at me.

The Wolf: If I'm curt with you it's because time is a factor. I think fast, I talk fast and I need you guys to act fast if you wanna get out of this. So, pretty please... with sugar on top. Clean the f******g car.

Given the circumstances – a headless dead body in the back of a car – that could work. And I know that I’m not the only coach who uses Mr. Wolf as an avatar…

But in day-to-day circumstances? Mmmm. Nope. We have to earn the right to the tough conversations.

We can do it by demonstrating necessary expertise and commitment. The first thing I do on the ground as a new coach is look for opportunities to gain credibility – to deliver measurable wins. I do that in large part because once I do, I can talk to the people differently, and they listen differently.

We can also do it by making ourselves part of their ‘team.’

In my model of coaching, we anchor on three activities:

  • We teach;

  • We advise;

  • We lead.

We teach specific things – how to write Epics or User stories; how to conduct PI Planning or retrospectives;

We advise around decisions and behaviors – how should I conduct myself? What decision should I make about who to put in what role?;

We lead – we stand in the front of the room and actually help write Epics, and help conduct ceremonies, we propose people for specific roles.

I’ll suggest that the standard of consent is different for each role.

For me, it’s very low for teaching. Someone has made a decision for your team, and I’m going to teach you team how to execute that decision.

For advising, the standard is very high. I need consent – ideally explicit consent – to sit alongside someone and talk to them about what they should do.

Finally, for leadership – I’d place it in between. I’d actually say that it’s as a leader that we develop the personal consent we need to advise, which is where the real change happens. But if a decision-maker has made a decision that your team is going to be agile – I’ll help lead it there.

Now are those right? The lynchpin question is really about whether a leader within an organization should be setting the working conditions for the people within their span of control – which essentially means ‘should they have a span of control at all’?

And there we come to the question which we need to answer.  What is the role of a manager in an agile organization, or one on the path to agility?