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How to avoid the local optimization problem when coaching at the team level

A recent Twitter discussion inspired me to re-think a few things about how to effect meaningful change at the organizational level and the team level. (Funny how Twitter seems to serve that sort of purpose, which may be above and beyond the usage pattern its creators envisioned initially. But I digress.)

During the first few years I worked in the general area of process improvement, I functioned mainly as an “agile” coach at the team level. Through those experiences I tried to understand how each method or practice worked mechanically as well as applying the “agile” values and principles on the cultural dimension, and started to learn how psychology and organizational sociology play into software development practices and delivery methods.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the way an individual development team goes about its work actually has relatively little impact on the effectiveness of the end-to-end delivery process. I continued to look for the key leverage points in organizations that might yield the greatest positive effect for process improvement. I often found myself venturing far afield from the teams I had been engaged to coach, because time and time again I discovered that the real problems with delivery lay well outside the team’s jurisdiction.

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Lack of fluency

A recent article by James Shore and Diana Larsen, Your Path through Agile Fluency: A Brief Guide to Success with Agile, has generated some buzz. I have tremendous respect for the authors, as well as for the people I’ve seen posting positive comments about the piece. To be honest, though, I’m having a lot of difficulty buying into it. I don’t want to offend any of those people. On the other hand, they might just dismiss me as stupid and not be offended at all. Either way, here goes.

The gist of the article appears to be that we can effect organizational improvement in a large company by driving change from the level of individual software development teams. The major problem with that idea, in my opinion, is the bottom-up approach. The authors suggest beginning the organizational transformation initiative from a single software development team and then extending the cultural change outward. They also want to tie together the various parts of the organization by reaching out from the team. I suspect this is because their own professional background is in the area of software development, as well as the fact that both of them have enjoyed a measure of success with the approach, at least up to the second "star." But the approach doesn’t address the core structural problems in companies; it only works around them somewhat.

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A recipe for software development

Garlic is widely considered to offer significant health benefits. It’s also a delicious and versatile ingredient in foods. Would tomato-based pasta sauce be pasta sauce at all if you omitted garlic? (Ignore American-style fast-food pasta sauce for the moment. Canadians, before you smirk, I have just two words for you: Pizza-Pizza.)

Chocolate, as well, brings a variety of health benefits. It, too, is delicious and a versatile ingredient in foods. What would a chocolate bar be if you omitted the chocolate? (Ignore "white chocolate" for the moment. Come to think of it, just ignore "white chocolate" altogether.)

Logically, then, it follows that chocolate-covered garlic cloves must surely be among the healthiest and most delicious foods one could hope for.

But why stop there? Glass is a wonderful material that adds much to our modern way of life. There is even a form of biocompatible glass that helps broken bones heal. Clearly, glass is good for the body.

Logically, then, it follows that chocolate-covered garlic cloves with tiny shards of glass embedded in them must surely be a super health food as well as a fabulously delicious snack. What an amazing rainbow of flavors and textures in the mouth! Ah, the sultry contralto notes of the chocolate, the lingering bite of the garlic, the metallic tang of the blood. And all of that still but a prelude to the inevitable conclusion.

The same logic applies to the task of selecting tools and methods for developing application software. I recall one project in particular that illustrates this approach quite well. The company wanted to maximize their chances of delivering a high-quality, well-aligned, usable product in a reasonable time. They went in search of the Best Practices Ever for delivering software, and identified three Good Ideas. Then came the flash of insight that set the stage for success: Combining all three Good Ideas on the same project could only result in three times the Goodness!

Well, in theory, anyway. In the immortal words of American philosopher Lawrence Peter Berra, "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."

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My personal agile journey

This is a sort of trip report. I started on a journey in 2002, and in the ensuing 10 years traversed a lot of territory, met many interesting people, and learned a great deal. The journey certainly changed me. Whether the change is for the better is still an open question. I’m talking about my journey with, alongside, around, and sometimes against the grain of the "agile" movement.

With the Agile 2012 conference just around the corner, I thought this might be an appropriate time for a personal retrospective. I’ve presented at the last five consecutive Agile conferences, and found them to be enriching experiences. This year’s event takes place about 2 miles from my former home near Dallas, Texas. It would be great to see the old familiar places and visit old friends in the area. It would be great, as well, to show some of the friends I’ve made on my "agile" journey around the town.

I won’t be there.

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