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Delegation, meet Agile

You might not expect to encounter the "delegation" concept in a blog post about agile software development.  After all, agile is all about the "self governing team."  But in the real world, if you are in a company which is transitioning to agile, and you are the project manager of a newly created agile team, you may well need to consider how to create a situation around your team that allows self-governance to emerge without making you completely crazy.  In real life, your first few weeks with your agile team can seem like your worst nightmare.  This is not because there is something wrong with you.  This is completely predictable.  Stop blaming yourself.

If your team is used to having you, as a project manager, take all the responsibility, and you suddenly stop telling people what to do, (along with not setting up their meetings, not taking their notes, and not getting them a projector every single time for every single meeting), you should not expect them to do what is needed, no matter what the Agile Founding Fathers say.  Instead, your team members, being humans, will go ahead and take advantage of you and do whatever they feel like doing.  And remember, they are under a bunch of stress themselves with this whole "agile transformation" thing, so you're not seeing them at their best.

As William Godwin argued more than 200 years ago in his anarchist treatise Political Justice, your team is inevitably the product of its enterprise environment--it took years to get them to be the way they are, and they aren't going to morph into self-governing team members in ten seconds.  You can't throw a group of micromanaged developers into a team room and expect them to divide into pairs and start offering to help the testers.
It is beyond all controversy that men who live in a state of equality, or that approaches equality, will be frank, ingenuous and intrepid in their carriage; while those who inhabit where a great disparity of ranks has prevailed will be distinguished by coldness, irresoluteness, timidity and caution.  (Chapter IV)
He has quite the way with words, doesn't he?  Anyway, the point is that the first steps of an agile transition may be experienced by a project manager as a time where people keep telling her to STOP DOING EVERYTHING HERSELF, and yet the work isn't getting done.  That's not the PM's fault, but the PM is in a position to gradually bring the team around, especially if they have a coach hanging around to help.

I realized this week that this "you need to let go" message isn't something new.  This is a special case of the age-old problem of "delegation."  New managers are always taken to task for "doing everything themselves" and not "delegating" as though you should just fecklessly throw your responsibilities out there and hope for the best.  That never made sense, and it doesn't make sense now that you're a newly minted agile project manager.  So what do you do?

I have had the privilege of participating in a leadership training program headed up by Brian McDonald at MOR and Associates, and during this program we addressed the issue of delegation head-on.  In this training, we distinguished between the end goal, which is indeed to have the people responsible for their own actions (or by extension, those of their team), and the MEANS to that end goal, which have a particular shape.  Here are the phases:

  1. Request a particular action and ask for a report:  If you are working with a brand-new agile team, decide as a group how you will be accomplishing tasks, and how you, as the person who will be communicating with your funding authority, will be able to confidently describe your team's status on a daily, weekly, iteration-level, and release-level basis.  Just because you're agile doesn't mean that you are no longer responsible for letting your customer or business user know the status of their investment.  At this stage, aided by a coach, you will negotiate team rules with the group which will keep the team safe:  a new team is not going to sign up for a daily stand-up, a release plan, a story backlog, an up-to-date card wall, or pairing.  Just as in the old days, these steps in your agile evolution are achieved through the age-old process of command-and-control orders followed by feedback that shows the orders are carried out.  This is fine.  This has to happen first in many, many teams.  Do not confuse the means with the end. 
  2. Ask the team to suggest improvements, while still giving you the information you need:  the retrospective is your friend.  You should certainly make sure you hold a team retrospective at the end of each iteration at minimum, but feel free to hold them more often if needed.  During these meetings, re-affirm that you, as project manager, have to report back to your funding authorities about how well you as a group are using their money.  But be open to suggestions from the team on better ways to get the team, you, and the funding authority to your goal.  You still hold the power to say that the team suggestion does or does not work for you, but you are now actively encouraging the team to take responsibility for getting you the information and transparency you need.
  3. Delegate to internal de-facto leaders:  as the team moves forward, you will see who you can trust to ensure things get done, and who seems to be less weight-bearing on the team.  Take the de facto leaders into your circle of trust, and ask these leaders to do what it takes to ensure that internal goals are met on time.  Assign "features" or "epics" to these leaders, and ask them to run them as they see fit, but let you know how they're getting on.  Keep measures like the daily stand-up and the up-to-date card wall in place, but stop being the only person who ensures that things are happening.  Spread and share that load with the first movers in the group.
  4. When it's possible, move to an "agile" concept of the self-governing team,  which may still very much mean that there is a lead BA, a lead developer, and a lead tester whom you as project manager work with to ensure things continue to move smoothly.  You are still responsible for making sure that the funding authorities are getting the best return on your investment, and for showing them that they are.  But you have now cultivated a situation in which the team, or at least a few logical leaders on the team, are taking responsibility for those goals themselves, and you are truly able to step back to a position of removing blockers for the team.  Congratulations!  You've created a self-governing team.
Like everything else in this world that has any value at all, a self-governing team is carefully cultivated and grown.  It cannot be created by fiat.  Your goal should be that you no longer have to supply all of the passion and all the accountability, but please don't blame yourself if the team isn't able to step up immediately the first time you try it.


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