Saturday, February 11, 2012

The power of caring and smarts

Prog Just recently I have been thinking a lot about what really makes a good agile team member. The reason is that over the years I have seen some teams become incredibly successful in terms of delivering products, and other teams crash and burn even though they have the same superficial traits and abilities. I have also seen teams go from zeroes to heroes (and back again), while others remain at whichever end of that spectrum they started at and never change. There is obviously some "secret sauce" (as Jeff Sutherland calls it) that needs to be mixed in. 

Well, I think I have identified one piece of this particular puzzle that I had underestimated previously.

Recently, one of my tweets resonated with quite a few people:
"Realised that agile has one fatal flaw. It still requires motivated, smart people who care for it to succeed, same as its predecessors."
(actually I was fibbing slightly - I have suspected this for quite a while now. I haven't only just realised this)

I think these two are key ingredients for success, and not just "nice to have". They are the "secret sauce", not just for agile teams, but for software development in general.

You need people who are smart. By smart, I don't think I mean conventional intelligence and IQ, but something different. The best way I can describe it is a combination of problem solving ability and intuition. 

You also need people who care. Some people have a deep seated drive to do good work. To excel. To better themselves. To maintain their humanity and help others achieve too. You need people with a strong inner motivation who want to make things work.

When you combine these two, magic begins to happen. I believe that people who care and have exceptional problem solving abilities (who care about solving problems, maybe?) tend to have the right attributes for agile (and other) software development teams:

  • Able to communicate
  • Willing to learn 
  • Humility
  • Courage
  • Passionate about quality
  • Curiosity
  • Integrity
  • Initiative
  • Creativity
  • Imagination


But that is not all. I believe they will naturally obtain the basic technical skills to do their job as a side effect of the curiosity, the courage and...actually all of the above! Now imagine what an entire team of these self-motivated, capable people can achieve.

However, I should emphasise that creating a functional, high performing team is not as simple as simply hiring in the people with the Right Stuff. You also need to put them into an environment that will nurture them and allow them to grow. If you put caring, smart people into an environment that actively discourages the right behaviours and attitudes, whether by accidental cognitive dissonance or deliberate edict, then there will be trouble ahead. But getting the right people on the bus (and its corollary, getting the wrong people off the bus) is a good start to sorting out your delivery problems - "Lead them, follow them or get out of their way".

So it looks like agile has the same achilles heel that its predecessors - waterfall, DSDM, RUP etc - have. It does not do away with the need for good people working in a good environment. You cannot force anyone to do a job well if they do not want to. No matter how much you believe that agile provides a framework for building high performing teams, it cannot force people to inspect, adapt and learn if they do not want to. But it does provide one huge benefit. It fails fast. You find out if the project is progressing - or not - very quickly. The feedback it provides allows the rapid identification that something is going wrong, whether it is environment, design, policy or people. This has enormous implications for our industry in terms of how we need to handle hiring, team building and behaviours in the future. More on that soon.


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