Agile fables

Agile fables: Penny goes to a management meeting

Penny didn’t used to think that testing and management had much to do with each other, but she was about to learn that the most testing people of all were the managers.

(If you have not caught up with Penny and her adventures yet then you can read on from here or you can start back at the beginning. Penny had recently become a manager, even though nobody had asked her is she wanted to be one. She was now off to her first management meeting and wasn’t even sure what she was supposed to talk about there).

Penny came into the meeting room and found that most of the seats were already taken. But Sue had saved her a seat so Penny went to sit with her.

All the managers gave updates and they all said things were going really well in their teams.

Eventually Sue gave her update and she introduced Penny. Sue explained that they had appointed Penny to spearhead the new agile support team.

‘”And how is the new team going?” Asked Steve Hammer, who was a senior executive.

“Extremely well,” Sue responded, which surprised Penny a little because she hadn’t had time to talk to Sue yet to actually let her know how it was going.

“How do you think things are going with the new team Penny?” Asked Steve.

“I’m not sure,” said Penny, “We are starting some new agile practices but we don’t really know what we are doing yet”.”

“Yes they do,” corrected Sue, “Things are going really well, we are already noticing a feeling of increased agility across the wider team, and people are really impressed with the early wins the new team is delivering.”

“Such as?” Asked Steve.

Sue looked at Penny hopefully.

“Well,” said Penny,” we are having standing around meetings every day and we have started to use pear shaped programming a bit.”

Most people listened with interest, but Sue was looking decidedly nervous.

“Are the new practices helping?” Asked Steve.

“Helping with what?” Asked Penny.

“Exactly,” said Steve.

Penny looked at him, not sure if he had really answered her question. Then after a moment Steve seemed happy with her response.

“Good,” he said,”So Penny is starting to understand the issues.”

Sue looked relieved and Steve looked like he was going to move onto the next update. But then Penny interrupted him and Sue nearly jumped out of her chair.

“What issues?” asked Penny.

“Exactly,” said Steve, “Exactly.”

“What does that mean?” Asked Penny

“Exactly,” said Steve and everybody nodded along with him.

“But that’s not really an answer,” said Penny.

“No,” said Steve, “I guess its not, at least not a useful one.”

The meeting continued while Penny sat there wondering if she had missed something.

Eventually everyone finished saying how well things were going and it looked like the meeting was about to end.

“Oh, one more thing,” said Steve, “I am quite interested in how your team is going Penny, do mind if I come to meet the team?”

“I think that might help,” said Penny, “We have a standing around meeting tomorrow and a practice meeting on Thursday.”

“Great,” said Steve, “Are there any key messages you want me to reiterate while I am there?”

“I guess you could tell the team what you want us to do.” said Penny

“The problem is though, that if a senior manager tells people what they want, then people never seem to listen. So its often better to not tell them.”

“But what’s the point of being a senior manager if you don’t tell people what to do?” Asked Penny.

Steve was about to answer when Penny realised he what he was going to say “And Don’t say Exactly” she quickly added.

“OK,” said Steve, “I will give you this one answer, but if I tell you too much then you won’t understand. So I will try to be as vague as I can be.”

“The job of senior management is to help regulate the distress everyone is feeling. If you can do that then you can pretty much let everything else take care of itself,” said Steve.

“I am sure you do more than just help people calm down if they are getting distressed, don’t you?” said Penny.

“Exactly,” said Steve with a smile, “You also have to help them become more distressed if they are too calm”.

“How does distressing people help them?” Asked Penny.

“Exactly,” Said Steve.

Penny was starting to think that inviting Steve to their standing around meeting might not be a very good idea if all he was going to do is go around distressing people.

“On second thought,” said Penny. “My team are actually feeling exactly distressed enough at the moment, so you can probably skip our meeting if you like.”

“That’s good work indeed if they are already just the right amount of distressed, but are they distressed enough about the right things or are they too stressed about the wrong thing?” Steve asked

“Exactly,” Said Penny, hoping that was the right answer.

“It sounds like they are a bit too distressed then. I better drop by after all,” Steve answered.

Penny looked distressed.

“I think I might be causing more distress than you need right now,” Steve said, “Most people don’t really understand the point of senior management but since you a pushing back on me, maybe I can help a little”.

“Only if you help me become less distressed rather than more,” Said Penny.

“OK, if you are sure,” Said Steve, and seeing Penny nod he continued:

“In the old days senior managers used to tell people what to do and people would do what they were told and that worked really well for a time. But it worked so well that companies got bigger and bigger.

But as they got bigger and bigger the senior managers started to know less and less about what people actually did in their jobs. So when people did what they were told, they were often doing the wrong things even though they knew a better approach themselves.

So eventually senior managers started to get out of the way and just let people do what they thought was the right thing to do. They made sure they gave them the tools they needed and then let them work out how best to do their jobs.

But then companies got into trouble because all the people were doing different things that made sense to themselves, but not to other people. And then they would get into arguments.

So managers started trying to calm everybody down so they could work together better. And that worked for a while but then some companies got into a lot of trouble because they were staying calm by ignoring big problems that they should have worried about a lot more.

So some managers would come and get upset when things went wrong and tell people not to make the same mistakes again. But people would become so worried that they would make new mistakes while trying not to make the old ones again. So everybody was getting too distressed.

Finally senior managers realised that it was no good getting people distressed or getting them to always be relaxed. Instead they had to make sure that people were only getting distressed about the right things, while not wasting time being distressed about everything else.

But if you actually tell them what to be distressed about, then they will do what you tell them to do. And since they know more about their job than you do then they will probably be focussing on all the wrong things. And even if they focus on the right things then it means that there are other things that they are not focusing on, which will soon become the things they get distressed about, but too late so it will become too distressing.

So instead of staying focused on something that was distressing the team, senior managers have to learn to be easilly distracted and to have a short attention span. That way they can always help to distress people about new things that they were not previously focusing on.

In essence you have to learn to help people stay distressed enough about the right things without telling them what to be distressed. It works much better that other things we have tried.

“But how do people know what to be distressed about if you don’t tell them?” asked Penny.

“Exactly,” said Steve, “that’s the question most new managers forget to ask, and that’s what I would be the most distressed about at the moment if I was you”.

“Is that why you sent an agile consultant to help us? So she can tell us the answer?” Asked Penny

“Zara is definately there to help and the good thing is that she thinks she knows the answer, but she is wrong. So she will keep being distressed about not being agile enough, which means you don’t have to be distressed about that, since its not really the answer at all,” replied Steve.

“But if she doesn’t know the answer then how can she help.  It sounds like she will just make us more distressed.” asked Penny

“Its like in the old story of ‘the consultant and the magic nails’ really,. As a consultant she doesn’t know the answer any better than you do, but she has a magic nail, which makes the team focus on solving the right problems. And then you can give the team the answer they need to solve the problems,” said Steve.

“But I don’t know the answer,” said Penny, “Can’t you or Sue just tell me?”

“But if we tell you then you won’t understand, thats the whole problem” said Steve, “ I can help by talking to the team to help you work it out if you like”.

Penny wasn’t sure whether she liked that idea or not. But there was nothing else for it so she agreed to let Steve come to the meeting after all.

“But if you start distressing the team too much then I will have to ask you to stop,” said Penny.

“Exactly – you really do understand management Penny,” said Steve, “And feel free to ask me to distress them more if you think I am making them too relaxed”.


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