Whilst the energy surrounding the launch of an Agile Release Train is immense, there is an all-too-real risk that our new teams will be more facade than reality once the hype dies down.
Forming around the delivery of value, we draw a "kidney shape" that inevitably cuts across significant organisational boundaries. In so doing, we ask both line management and team members to take a major leap out of their comfort zone.
Whilst as agilists we love the mantra of "embracing uncertainty", it is far too easy to gloss over the human impact this creates.
For line management, it involves a significant amount of release. No longer will they determine the day to day priorities of those they manage. Much as we rail against traditional performance management, it does not disappear overnight. How will they address this in a matrixed world? How will they address their duty of care with respect to career progression? How do they deal with a situation where some of their people are embedded in a train and some not? What happens when they lose their "go-to" problem solvers to an agile team? Do they really understand what "dedicated team member" means?
For team members, the upheaval is even greater. No longer will they be surrounded by others with a similar skill-set and conversational language. In many cases, their new team-mates will be people they have literally thought of as "the enemy" for years.
There is a pattern I have been guilty of and heard from fellow coaches many times around the design of teams for a new train. Full of passion to create "self-organising teams", enable decentralisation, and change our language from "resources" to "people", we fill a room with leadership. Wanting to be agile, we bring lots of post-its. We put flip charts on the wall (one per team), put people's names on color-coded post-its (blue for devs, red for testers, green for BA's etc etc). Then we allocate them. Who goes where? How do we get a balanced team? Can we stick to "100% committed" and avoid "shared resources"? Full of our triumph at our "agile team selection process", the workshop concludes with a moment to form the "Comms plan" for announcing the new team structures.
Do the leaders in the room really understand what they're committing to? Do they feel safe to voice their concerns? Do we know the personalities and personal histories of the people we are teaming up? Are we discussing people or post-its?
Any hesitation in answering the questions above in the affirmative will likely undermine our train. But beyond that, doesn't this feel like a very management-centric approach to creating "autonomous self organising teams"?
I've felt for a long time that there has to be a better way. I've been reading for years about the power of self-selecting teams. I've loved it not just from the "team effectiveness" perspective but also when thinking about the psychology of change. Every Agile coach knows that people dislike having change forced upon them, we should be trying to create the conditions in which people can be part of choosing the change for themselves. But I just haven't been able to bring it to life.
Then last year I read a blog post by Sandy Mamoli of Nomad8 about "squadification", and I was in awe. She had convinced an entire IT department to throw their current structure into the air and hold a 1 day event which enabled all their people to organise themselves into new Agile teams (or squads). She had been generous enough to share her facilitation design, and as I read it light bulbs started going off in my head.
Her premise was that the job of leadership was to design the teams, their missions and the skill-sets they would need available to fulfil them. So far so good, this is what we're doing when we commence the design of a release train. Then, you hold an all-day facilitated event where candidate team members self-organise themselves into the teams whose shape you have defined. What a replacement for the "people as post-its" workshop!
I was fortunate recently to be coaching a train with a courageous leader. They had originally formed with component teams, were looking to re-organise into feature teams, and he shared my excitement about Sandy's thinking. In the spirit of servant leadership, he did not want to thrust it upon his leadership team but invited me to facilitate a series of workshops with them to explore it.
Three weeks and many nervous moments later, we embarked on a "Team Fair". He has shared the story on his blog, and I have to say the result was amazing. The vast majority of our "What if?" scenarios about things going wrong did not eventuate, and some very surprising and creative outcomes did. In designing it, we had the chance to explicitly redesign the role of line management in the new world and give them the time to walk their people through the upcoming change and involve them in the preparation. The fair itself became a symbolic moment as leadership "released" their people into the freedom they had designed.
With every train I help to launch, I take away some new learnings for the next one - backed by the conviction of experience to give me the courage. Facilitated team self-selection through a "team fair" is now firmly in the kitbag, with thanks to +Sandy Mamoli for the inspiration and +Andy Kelk and his team for the courage to experiment.