The Agile Project Manager—Please Sir, May I have some help? part-2

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Some more Anti-Patterns

Continuing from the last post…

  • I’m the only one who knows that code or understands the domain and design—I’ve been here the longest and I’m the only one left with a clue about this code. Well…that will remain the situation unless you start letting others in to help you. How about mentoring your “replacement” so you can move onto other things?
  • Don’t bring me problems…bring me solutions—this age-old management speak was a façade to allow managers to disengage from their teams. It no longer applies. Anyone and I mean anyone, that can help a team advance…should be engaged to help.
  • It’s embarrassing, I don’t want to be the “weakest link” on our team—I actually believe that self-aware and team-centered individuals can find a place where there are no “weak links” on a team. A place where the team covers each other’s weaknesses and simply delivers on their combined strengths.
  • I’m trying to have a “can do” or positive attitude—I know, many engineers are infernally optimistic, but let’s also bring a healthy dose of realism and experience into play. Look at your history and be self-aware. Asking for help IS a positive response.
  • Everyone thinks I’m perfect—I hate to break this news to you, but no, they don’t. If anyone has worked with you for any length of time, they understand your strengths AND your weaknesses. Including your inability to ask for help…so ask.
  • I’ve already started, it will take longer to hand it off to someone else—this aligns nicely with 90% done syndrome. It’s counter-intuitive, but teams swarming around work get it done the quickest. So the push here should be to ask for help and engage others as soon as you can.

However, in the end, all of these are simply excuses for not asking for help. In a way, I think they are mostly ‘selfish’ in that you make them “about you”.

At least from an agile team and project perspective, it’s not about the individual. It’s about the team. Asking for help is an acknowledgement that your team is greater than the sum of its parts, and that you have a responsibility to identify challenges and face them as a team. When you’re unwilling to raise them early and often, you’re not seeing the big picture of collaborative team work towards a common goal.

The “Simplicity” of Agile & Coaching

One of the biggest challenges I find in my coaching is having agile teams ask for help. I can’t tell you how often I’ve found that teams get a brief sense of the agile methods and dive in before they truly know what they’re doing.

Part of the problem is the inherent simplicity of the methods themselves. On the surface, everything sounds so easy. All you need is:

  • A self-directed team
  • A customer
  • A project
  • A backlog (list)
  • A daily stand-up
  • A demo

And life is good…right? Now you’re agile and everything will sort itself out. You simply need to keep ‘sprinting’ and good things will result.

What these teams fail to grasp is that there is a big, no huge, difference in “Doing Agile” vs. “Being Agile”. They’re often focusing on the individual ceremonies or tactics and not truly grasping what it takes to evolve into a well-formed, mature agile team that aligns with the core principles of agility.

Incredibly often, these “doing agile” teams don’t even realize that they’re off track or need help. That is until it’s quite late—when they’ve got a great deal of dysfunction in place. Or when they realize that they’ve failed to deliver on the results that “being agile” teams can produce. Then they reach out for a helping hand, but usually only after a whole lot of waste. As an Agile Project Manager, don’t let your teams fall into this trap. Remind them that agility done well is a complex and continuous journey and that asking for help or getting a coach or guide is an incredibly mature and healthy step.

How to ask for help?

I thought I’d just share a few words of advice in how to think about asking for help. In many ways, it’s a mindset that you have to reframe from your existing perspectives to a new view—you and your team.

Just do it! Don’t think too much about it

Keep your release, sprint and team goals in mind, it’s not about you

It allows the team to solve their problems…not individuals

If you “feel” like you need help…you do

It’s a sign of strength, not weakness

Also, offer to help…whenever possible…and don’t always take “No” for an answer

Solve your problems together

Ask before it’s “too late”; time is the enemy

Craftsmen learn from each other; looking for alternative approaches

Pairing truly helps teams in asking for help; pair often

 

One wonderful place to explore your personal and your teams’ growth when it comes to asking for help and working together is the retrospective. It should be a ‘safe’ environment for any good team to reflect on their challenges and how they could have improved.

One important area to continuously explore in your retrospectives is the teams’ behaviors around collaborative trust and asking for and providing help. Try talking about how “help friendly” your team is in your retrospectives.

Both Directions

And help is a multi-directional element. Meaning you’ll often find yourself asking for help and providing help…often at the same time. I think the degree to which you offer to help and collaborate will improve your own abilities to ask for and receive help from team members. An easy way to “get better” is helping your own team members—asking probing questions surrounding team challenges and being real in exchanges around getting things done.

This is particularly important at a leadership level in setting an example where asking for help is construed as a positive and normal activity within the team. Where saying “I don’t know”, and “Can you help me with this?” and “What do you think I should do?” are all perceived as mature, healthy, and constructive events within your organization.

I remember reading a leadership book that talked about senior managers asking to be mentored by members of staff. The idea was that they would ask for help from folks who’d been there the longest. That they would show humility and teach-ability by asking for, listening to, and digesting the wisdom these folks could share. And in doing so they created a more collaborative and humble environment where showing vulnerability and asking for assistance was not only OK, but it was the norm.

Wrapping up

Wrapping this article up, I think Agile Project Managers foster an environment where asking for help is considered a strength and always well received. Where team members embrace and welcome the opportunity to help each other out. Where they look at providing two-way help as one of the strengths of their team and their organization

The best way to start this is to lead by example. To show vulnerability yourself and ask for help when it’s appropriate. To occasionally say—“I don’t know” when you’re dealing with daily challenges.  To ask questions of the team when folks appear to be struggling…teasing out who needs help as soon as possible.

So go ask your team to help you, help them, in asking for help…

Here are few follow-up references that I thought I’d share with you. You’ll notice that agile teams aren’t the only ones who struggle asking for help.

Stay agile my friends,

Bob.

Bob Galen

Bob Galen

Bob Galen is an Agile Methodologist, Practitioner & Coach based in Cary, NC. In this role he helps guide companies and teams in their pragmatic adoption and organizational shift towards Scrum and other agile methodologies and practices. Contact: [email protected]