Twice this month, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with companies who are just barely over a year into their transition to Agile. I asked the leaders from each business what Organizational Debt had surfaced since having stepped away from Waterfall. Both of them responded to my question with a question. In fact, each of these leaders within two different industries asked me the exact same question.”What is Organizational Debt?”
My assumption was that the disconnect was likely around the term itself. Perhaps there was a different choice of words each would have used to describe the concept of outdated practices and structures.This was not the case. As I broke into thesaurus mode and provided examples of previous client revelations, I learned that neither company had even considered the notion of Organizational Debt. The idea that this glorious disruption of lean delivery could and should extend beyond the development teams, was not something either had considered
The responses that followed reminded me of those perpetual pursuers of weight loss that have yet to find a successful model. We’ve all met at least one of these self-proclaimed health experts. Often times, they’ll explain how one model doesn’t work and why another one will. It doesn’t take long to realize that the flaw is not in any of the models, but instead, in the dieter’s ability to follow the model. More times than not, the dieter feels shorted as they’ve put forth a lot of time with the exercise plan but never changed what they were eating. After all, who wants to give up potato chips and ice cream? Isn’t it enough to complete a 45-minute high intensity workout?
Humans tend to resist change. The unfamiliarity is uncomfortable. We hold on to bits and pieces of what we know and what we’ve always done. Ironically, this is counterproductive to why the change was oftentimes initiated in the first place. When someone wants to lose weight, they must commit in more ways than one. They can’t silo what components they like and don’t like. It’s the same thing when it comes to an organization. We have to look at the big picture and reevaluate everything that is directly and indirectly related. One cannot choose to be narrow minded when vast gains are desired.
The day I heard my organization was transitioning to Rally was an exciting one. I couldn’t wait to retire what seemed like an antiquated method of managing the team backlogs. I talked it up. I started some serious trash talking about our current method of using Excel and insisted that this would change our world… and it did.
Do you remember being introduced to that sweet kid, Anakin Skywalker in Episode I? If you suspended your Star Wars knowledge of what was to come, you’d have had high hopes. Here was this incredible rising prodigy with an amazing tool at his disposal. This lovable 9-year-old underdog, living in the slums and still innovating beyond his years is met by Jedis who can help him master the force and use it for the good of the empire. Except that’s not what happens, is it? Watch a couple more episodes and we meet the jackwagon of all bottom-feeders, Darth Vadar.
I’m not suggesting that my teams became Darth Vadar. I am however proposing that some of their leadership did. Here, we had a talented group of individuals that were thriving and now exposed to a device that could help improve their day to day activities. This tool however, was used for the wrong reasons. The force was strong. And the force was more concerned with using this as a control mechanism vs. a planning tool. And so began a long and arduous journey of having to protect and serve my teams in a manner I had not anticipated.
It’s worth noting that there were definite wins with the new system. We certainly embraced the user-friendly interface and ability to manage and measure our workflow. These obvious benefits however became overshadowed by the dark side. At least once a day, we were asked why we didn’t have our task hours booked for 100% of the actual hours we would be at our desks during the 3-week iterations. There were also about 56 new metrics that were presented to us, oftentimes with zero context. To the credit of the distributors, they at least did us the favor of jazzing them up with some pretty yellow and red colors across the endless lines of data. The questions that arose were not bad. The pressures that came along with those questions however, impacted everyone. Fear became a driving force. With every action came a reaction and the bad practices bred even worse habits. It really hit home for me when I heard a teammate ask “Can we go back to the Excel Backlog?”
If we fast forward about 5-years, there’s a happy place with rainbows and butterflies. But we didn’t get there without our battle wounds. In retrospect, there were things we could have done differently to have avoided our own Star Wars episode. Failing to educate our leadership created chaos. Turmoil had engulfed our empire and the Jedis were just as much to blame as those who were misguiding the force that had been thrust upon them. Lucky for us, there was no revenge, but it took more to achieve an awakening than had we prevented the phantom from surfacing in the first place.