Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Getting political with Agile Sadism

I was on my way home from a medical appointment the other day and for some unknown reason decided that I needed to have a little talk radio background noise. After tuning into the local NPR station I was all set to disengage my thinking brain from my ears when I heard the interviewee say "Without common pain there is no chance to achieve real change in an organization."

Cue cinematic double-take record scratching sound.

Did I really just hear that? On an NPR talking heads program?

After a little research I discovered that the talking head in question making this point was no less than Mike Leavitt - former Governor of Utah (amongs many other positions I didn't bother to go look up) and the point he was making was in his new book entitled "Finding Allies, Building Alliances".

For those of you worried about being bored to death by a book report, fear not. I have yet to pick up the book. You'll just have to get by with being bored to death by my thoughts on what I learned from that interview.

If you haven't looked at the title of the blog recently, this would be a good time to do so. Go ahead - I'll give you a minute.

Done? Great. As you'd imagine, the fact that pain is an effective tool in the political arena isn't a huge surprise. What was a surprise was the fact that he acknowledged it as such. What was even a bigger surprise is that he went on to describe a situation where his approach failed.

See why I was surprised? Hearing a politician (or at least a former one) acknowledge not only the fact that he's applied "Machiavellian" techniques to get things done but actually admit that he experienced failure was the true eye-opener for me.

Sounds a lot like a reflection session, doesn't it?

What he "learned" from his failure was that not all of the stakeholders in a particular situation felt a common pain. As a result that same stakeholder ended up derailing the effort because they were better off maintaining the status quo.

Of course we'd never see such a thing in the software development industry, would we?

It is always instructional to see how similar problems are solved in different contexts. As this was the first time I've heard of a formalized approach to solving difficult problems in the political world I wanted to see what could be applied to my industry. Fortunately I was able to find the "Too Long; Didn't Read" book summary to get the big picture:

1. A Common Pain—a shared problem that motivates different people/groups to work together in ways that could otherwise seem counterintuitive. 

Absolutely. Of course no virtuous person would ever consider actually manufacturing these common pains to get things done, right?

2. A Convener of Stature—a respected and influential presence who can bring people to the table and, when necessary, keep them there.

If I were translating these points into the software domain (which of course I am) I'd say that this is the equivalent to the concept of an Executive Sponsor

3. Representatives of Substance—collaborative participants must bring the right mix of experience and expertise for legitimacy and have the authority to make decisions.

This was a good reminder to me that the twin characteristics of recognized experience and decision making authority are key for all participants.

4. Committed Leaders—individuals who possess the skill, creativity, dedication and tenacity to move an alliance forward even when it hits the inevitable rough patches.

Since problems within the software domain tend to be smaller in scope to the challenges government groups face, I'd say that we'd see this be the same group as with point

5. A Clearly Defined Purpose—a driving idea that keeps people on task rather than being sidetracked by complexity, ambiguity and other distraction.

Definitely an important point for our industry considering how common it is for our teams to have split responsibilities.

6. A Formal Charter—established rules that help resolve differences and avoid stalemates. 

I've decided I don't know how I feel about this one yet. My initial reaction is that establishing rules is counter-productive to solving a problem quickly, but as I thought about it more I realized that the teams that I'd point to as not needing rules were actually operating under a self-generated set of rules learned from prior experiences.

7. The Northbound Train—an intuitive confidence that an alliance will get to its destination, achieve something of unique value, and that those who aren’t on board will be disadvantaged.

This was probably my most valuable takeaway from this list. When you think about it, it is nothing more than a "pain" generated by the problem solving process. But it is also a particularly wide-reaching pain that if properly applied can increase the "rejection rate" of the solution across the wider organization.

8. A Common Information Base—keeps everyone in the loop and avoids divisive secrets and opaqueness.

This is not exactly news for our software world (Information Radiators, Sunshine, etc), but it is a good reminder for me as I have a tendency to not put as much effort into these tools/process as they deserve.

So I'm sure at some point I'll pick up the book and read it. It's probably worth your time to do the same, especially if you are (as I am) a student of seeing similar problems solved in different environments.

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