Agile team without a purpose is a truck without fuel

Why do Agile teams fail and others are extremely successful? Why the rest of the world thinks Europe is a good thing and Europeans are blessed with so many achievements, and only 58% of Europeans call themselves Europeans? Why do you have trouble getting out of your bed and going to your work?

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There could be multiple reasons. For a team to be really successful we need craftsmanship, trust, fun, transparency, and a purpose. The things a Scrum Master or an Agile Coach does, has always to do with one of these aspects in some way.

Let’s be honest. Most self-named Agile teams are slightly more successful than teams working in waterfall projects. Hopefully, customer is very happy with some visible improvements: faster delivery, better quality, changing requirements is ok, and maybe few others. The tendency is to spend a lot of time on tuning and improving these aspects, which is good.

I’ve noticed that one thing is very often lacking, and it has a tremendous impact on other aspects and being successful. It is a clear purpose. The purpose is expressed in many different forms. One calls them vision statements, others mission statement or project goals, or even business value. Today, any project or team, Agile or not, has a statement representing a purpose. Unfortunately, most of them are worthless, defined by management and ridiculed by the teams.

One might say, who cares!? Let C-level people define vague statements for their own pleasure, while teams build the real thing. Unfortunately, the reason why you are having a hard time getting out of your bed and Europeans don’t like their Europe is this lack of purpose. Despite the amount of fun, craftsmanship, your large salary and so on, this all will also be affected if purpose is not embedded in everyone involved. I believe that lack of good purpose is one of the most important reasons for teams to fail, and one of the most neglected problems. I’ve seen problems and discussions not being solved simply because the root cause was lack of purpose: “Why are we building this?”….”Because the customer really wants this”… Applying the practice of asking ‘why’ question 5 times will often end up in annoyed customer or product owner. Team might finish the meeting as if everything is cleared up, but what really happened is acceptance of the wishes of the customer, while the ultimate purpose is still unknown or even wrong. The effect is lack of energy and involvement. In worst cases, teams are chasing the wrong goal. One of the most awful experiences as an IT professional is when you spend years chasing a goal, project is suddenly killed and the imaginary goal has simply vanished.

The following is a number of common mistakes when defining a purpose as a vision statement or whatever you want to call it.

#1 : The stated purpose is a misfit with a personal purpose

The reasoning why your team member gets out of his bed can be visualised as a tree. The roots are the personal reasons for living and not very visible to others. These might be very complicated and different from person to person, but the commonality is doing something meaningful for ourselves and even more for others. Doing something meaningful has different interpretations. One wants to get wealthy in order to support her family and chooses to work in banking business. Someone else, or the same person might change her interpretation during her life time, and gain new insight, like from getting wealthy into doing ethical banking – e.g. investing in renewable energy sources, and refusing to work for banks that support arms industry.

We tend to spend much more energy into something if it fits our interpretations of word meaningful. Unfortunately, this is often neglected when defining something like a vision statement. Leaders have egocentric tendencies where they feel that their purpose is or should be the same as purpose of everyone else.

I remember the moment I decided to leave a company when CEO was giving a speech where the main message was something like this: “We should be grateful that we are doing better than our competitors, but hard times are coming and we need to be careful with costs we are making. Even more important, every professional should be doing billable work. Also, as you can imagine there won’t be salary increase for anyone. We should be glad, because other companies are talking about lay-offs constantly”. The reason for me to leave was not the money, but complete lack of purpose I was somehow expecting at that moment.

In this case, CEO is actually doing his best to make a fit with the purpose of his workers, which is sense of security. For some this was a good and realistic speech, but most simply didn’t care about it at all. We are talking here about highly educated craftsmen / women with huge experience. They are unlikely to feel insecure. This was noticeable during diner after the speech. This kind of pointless statements and speeches usually end up in no reaction at all or sarcasme and ridicule. Effect on energy levels: they become even lower.

#2 : Vagueness and lack of distinctiveness

So many times I would read a vision statement for a software product and ask management why is it so vague and open to interpretations. The nr. 1 reason they state: “It is a compromise, and we want to have space to move in any direction we wish as needed.”. Ironically, they are not yet familiar with Agile software development, but it sounds like they are. If there is one thing that should not change, it is the purpose explained in the vision statement. Explicitly making sure the purpose behind a statement can change as needed, makes it worthless.

The main reason why companies choose to have vague vision statements is the lack of purpose. If the common purpose is there, it should not be difficult to write it down in more precise words.

On company level, by far the most vision or mission statements are talking about shareholders value and satisfying needs of the customer. The exact same statement can be used for almost any business. The statements like “Blabla company places customer at the center of our business” has a value only when explained further in the context of this specific company and its business. I hope I don’t have to explain why “shareholders value” is completely uninteresting to employees.

Another problem is that vision statement looks like a result of many loosely coupled fancy words. The thinking is: if we leave something out, it will be somehow overlooked later. For some reason, the goal becomes to be comprehensive instead of inspiring.

#3 : Disconnection from daily deliverables

Let’s say we have a really nice purpose, and everyone believes in it. We start delivering first features of a product. Suddenly, after few sprints, product owner was pushed by stakeholders to deliver something completely outside of the scope of the stated purpose. According to Scrum, Product Owner has the right to do this. Nevertheless, team is confused. “I thought we had this other goal which was more important than anything else?”. PO: “Yes, but this is an exception and I don’t have much of a choice. We have to do this”.

The reality of this example is usually much more subtle. Let’s say we have a nicely stated MVP (Minimal Viable Product) and speed of delivery is crucial – the sooner, the better. This drives any daily decisions team makes together with Product Owner. Any decision should be scrutinised by team if it fits within the stated goal. It is a responsibility of Product Owner to be very careful with any deviation from this goal even slightly. These deviations are not wise for two reasons. One: stakeholders are obviously not fully in agreement what the goal should be. Two: team becomes demotivated.

Conclusion

Although most vision and mission statements are ridiculed and seem completely useless, the real purpose for delivering a product is still extremely important to be truly successful. Lack of common purpose is a hidden impediment. It must be made visible and discussed openly. A team should be able to give feedback, or even better, formulate vision statement together with product owner and stakeholders. There are several practices that might be helpful in this process. One of them is The Product Vision Statement – from book Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey A. Moore.

I want you to ask your manager or product owner right now: “Why should I put my energy in making this product?” If his only answer is: “Because I pay you to do so!”, then you should be looking for some other challenge. Life is too short.

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