Going live on agile projects – where is Machiavelli when you need him?

Niccolò Machiavelli is famous for saying things like:

“At this point one may note that men must be either pampered or annihilated. They avenge light offenses; they cannot avenge severe ones; hence, the harm one does to a man must be such as to obviate any fear of revenge”

I will let you be the judge of whether that is good advice for project managers, but he is certainly a source of inspiration if you want to set up your own crime gang or evil crew of super-heroes.

However, I do think some of the things that Machiavelli commented on are useful in modern projects.

One of his lesser know observations was on the difference between “Dukes and Courtiers”.

  • Each Prince, Machiavelli noted, is likely to have a bunch of Dukes and Courtiers reporting to him and these two roles are distinctly different.
  • Dukes run their own mini-fiefdom on behalf of the prince.  They make many day-to-day decisions and are in most ways mini-princes. In fact the duke will do well if he (or she I guess these days) sends in lots of taxes to the prince and generally maintains good order (and its probably best not to rebel or attack the Prince).
  • Courtiers hang out in the palace and join committees and according to the movies I have seen, they chat girls up and indulge in lots of politics. But they also provide direct advice to the prince and also work with him to run the complex day to day matters of the kingdom or principality. As far as I can tell they should be (less evil) versions or the characters in the TV series “The Tudors”.

So Machiavelli is probably a good source of inspiration for period pieces, but how does it apply to going live with an agile project?

Some meandering thoughts on Dukes and Courtiers

Well, according to my interpretation of Machiavelli, he advised the prince to manage them differently and look for different strengths and risks

  • Both Dukes and Courtiers were a source of potential assassination or rebellion, but I don’t think we need to worry too much about this risk in modern non-evil organisations
  • Dukes behaved very much like project managers.  They progressed their little kingdom, built their own courts and processes and were generally out of site of the Prince much of the time.
    • Predictably Machiavelli suggests staying close to what they are doing so they don’t lose site of the big picture.
    • Interestingly he also observes that they will typically not know the complex goings-on of the palace and may be seen by courtiers as cowboys or unsophisticated country bumpkins.
  • Courtiers behaved very much like “business as usual” line managers. They participate in weekly court session or meetings, compete for the right to manage royal charters (or departments) and so forth.  They are not as able to make simple decisions as Dukes because everything they do is interconnected with what other courtiers are doing. They are much closer to the daily activities and goals of the prince, being across all the crop reports from each area of the kingdom and so forth.
    • Machiavelli cautions against letting them become bureaucrats and says that the prince needs to make sure they are all working towards the same long term goals.
    • He also observes that they tend to be more participants in decisions rather than making their own decisions without lobbying others. Dukes will see these guys as time wasting flatterers.

So far so good.  But what happens when a Duke comes to court?  He is expected to behave like a courtier but is used to being rude and uncouth (according to the courtiers) or decisive and consistent (according to him).

And what happens when a courtier goes to run a duchy? He comes across as indecisive, too used to ceremony and meetings and potentially flighty (according to those used to the way a Duke behaves) or quick to make trivial decisions and more concerned with alignment to the greater needs of the kingdom (according to him).

So it is a struggle for a good Duke to work as an effective member of the court (just as a good PM may be shocked by the meetings and concerns of the line manager). And it is a shock for a courtier to run a small duchy, just as it is a shock for an experienced line manager to run a full-on project for the first time. 

Essentially, Machiavelli says to keep Dukes and Courtiers separate at all times.  Let Dukes run mini-kingdoms and Courtiers run the Greater kingdom as a whole.  Of course he also recommends playing them off against each other and generally crushing them under foot. 

But what happens when a project goes live.

When a project (particularly and agile one) goes live

When a project goes live it is kind of like the Duke coming back to court to integrate his small fiefdom into the greater whole. 

  • His entire DNA and experience is about how to act independently to get the project delivered and he suddenly finds himself caught up in all manner of PIRs, Net Promoter review meetings and other annoyances that stop him doing anything. 
  • But to the experienced line managers it is like the barbaric and uncouth Duke has come to court with very primitive approaches to everything – he lops the heads off villains with no trial process and he sneaks quick fixes into production without checking with others.

The whole process sounds a bit hard to me.  So it would be great if we could follow Machiavelli’s advice and never let a project manager near a production environment (nor a line manager near a project). But that doesn’t seem feasible when we need the project team to help hand the project over.

In the old world I think people did long and detailed handover documents (or committed to do them and then went live) and they had giant “ITIL” walls to protect the good citizens and courtiers from the dodgy and uncouth ways of Dukes and project managers.

But now I find that project managers need to be involved in sustaining what they deliver and many projects even have multiple handovers where the project is continuing and production systems are partially or wholly supported by the team.

I wish we could ask Machiavelli himself because he spent a lot of time pondering and reporting on these things, even if some of his views may not be entirely appropriate to a self-managed and non-evil workplace.

In his absence though, I think we can come up with some simple rules of thumb.  So here are my views of what to do when you go live.  Many will seem like pointless bureaucracy to Dukes and project managers and many probably seem completely ad-hoc and informal to experienced line managers.  But there they are – when you go live with your project:

  • Do a proper handover –even if it is to your own team. Even if the same team is looking after the same product after you go live, the world will be different and you will need to integrate into the ways of the Prince’s court. This link should be a minimum starting point.
  • Expect trouble.  Your project manager will be vexed by trivial ceremony and all the courtiers they need to deal with (without getting to behead them).  Your line managers will assume that the project manager and his/her team know how to behave at court.  But they won’t: they will come bumbling in like people from another culture as ignorant of “civilised and sophisticated behaviour” as the Duke is.  Maybe this is one reason why I keep seeing a “double dip” in morale and expectations as projects go live.
  • Spend some time arguing about how things should be done.  Sometimes the Dukes have better ways of doing things and sometimes the courtiers know about things that will get in the way if not dealt with properly.
  • Get your status updates under control.  You will need to systemise this to make it work for both Dukes, who need rapid decisions and low bureaucracy and line managers who thought they were lean but need some semblance of processes.
  • Don’t let your courtiers assign actions to the project or support team like minutes in a meeting. In court, the courtiers are used to hammering out solutions and then having their people implement them – which means they simply publish a warrant or proclamation and then report things as done. Project managers and Dukes need to go and do things themselves, or have their trusted lieutenants do them, so oddly it takes longer than line managers are used to.
  • Don’t let your Dukes and project managers over-ride all the “stupid impediments” that exist. Many of these are not actually stupid impediments, they are protection from the types of actions that previous project managers took, getting their own work done and causing problems elsewhere in the kingdom.
  • Go live early and often.  The longer you wait the more your Dukes and Courtiers will grow apart.  Projects will have time to imbed their own culture and processes and line management processes, KPIs and objectives will shift.  This will make the integration a lot harder as the gaps grow.
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