Thursday, November 03, 2011

What's more important than retrospectives?

I was recently asked what I thought the most important thing was that a new team should focus on in their Scrum process. Was it the backlog? Or the sprint planning meeting? Or was it the retrospective? I thought about this for a little while and realised that these were all process-related. Yes they are important but they are still just tools. We should focus on the mechanic not her tools. People are the most important focus for a new team. As stated in the Agile Manifestos "People over Processes". Here's why:

First you need clear leadership. Not control or micro-management but leadership. The team (not to mention everyone else) has to have a clear understanding of the goals and they have to have committed to these. Commitment to some common set of goals is crucial. This commitment is, in my opinion, the single most important success factor - though I doubt if it's relevant to talk about single most important success factors for complex adaptive systems - so lets call it a critically important constraint instead. Unfortunately, this is also the one thing I see lacking most in most struggling organisations/projects. Without the inspirational leadership, necessary for forming commitment in the team, then people will only half-heartedly try to solve the problems, technical and otherwise, that will appear as time goes on. Without this leadership they will have also difficulty building/maintaining the second part necessary for commitment:

Motivation is critical for building commitment and is closely tied to leadership. But they are not the same, I have seen situations where there is a highly motivated team which totally lacks leadership. I am a great believer that people are naturally motivated to do a good job, but the presence of de-motivators can erode or even remove this intrinsic motivation. Lack of inspirational leadership erodes motivation. As does; unexplained or seemingly arbitrary decisions, poor working environments, a culture of blame, etc. etc. The list of de-motivators is long and most organisations have some of them. Luckily, often we can cope with one or two of these, it is when an organisations collects de-motivators like stamps that things begin to get ugly, and it takes far far longer to build back motivation again. I have seen two main results of demotivated teams: Either the team loses it's team spirit or, even worse, the team's loyalty to the organisation or stakeholders is lost. They begin to see themselves as somehow victims in a kind of internal organisational struggle.

Finally, if you have leadership and a motivated team, you probably have the third critically important constraint; trust. Trust is vital on a bunch of different levels; between team members, between the team and management, from management towards the team, etc. etc. Trust ensures open and honest communication, without which any project involving human beings will have a high risk of failure. Trust ensures that problems are raised, and therefore addressed, early on. Trust ensures that retrospectives are open and blameless, a prerequisite for successful retrospectives. Trust between team members is vital for the transition of a group to a team and the growth of team spirit. Trust toward management is vital in building commitment to the goals and, finally, trust from management - that the team will do their best and don't require micro-management or control, and that they should be allowed to solve their own problems - is vital in all Agile projects.

Regardless of your development method if you have these then your team will perform well. People will then have the commitment necessary to overcome obstacles and to solve problems as and when they occur. Then, and only then, it is worth investing time and energy in improving process related things such as retrospectives and planning meetings. If you don't have commitment built upon inspirational leadership, motivation and trust then no amount of trimming your Scrum meetings will make a huge difference to the success of your project.

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