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The Agile Reality Show

The Agile Reality Show

Want to know how NOT to create a successful agile team? Rest assured, I have a proven formula for you. You need look no further than Dance Moms.

Over the holiday season, I spent more time at home than usual. In the spirit of the holidays, I indulged in the typical American past times: I drank eggnog, I lounged on my sofa, and—something I normally don’t often do—I watched TV.

It’s hard to channel-surf for more than a few minutes without coming upon the modern popular television craze – the reality show. Studio executives must have been thrilled the day they realized, “Hey, why compensate highly paid actors when we can get viewers to watch everyday people act ridiculous on camera for a fraction of the price?” During the holidays, I watched shows featuring real estate flippers, aspiring chefs, hoarders, fledgling professional dancers, and those simply “famous for being famous”.

Two thoughts struck me about these programs. First, even though they were about seemingly disparate topics, in truth they were all very much alike. Indeed, I realized that there is a formula to a successful reality show. Lots of screaming and yelling, interpersonal drama, and the occasional altercation with law enforcement professionals seem to be the recipe for a successful reality show.

But the other thought I had while watching these shows is how very different the interactions were from those you might find in a healthy organization—and, in particular, in a good agile team. I began to muse: could you create a set of guidelines for how an effective agile team should conduct itself, simply by identifying the rules of a good reality show, and doing the opposite?

I believe you can.

So, here are Angela’s Observed Rules for developing a good reality show. Do the exact opposite of this and, chances are, you’ll have a pretty good agile team on your hands.

Hire People with Marginal Personalities

A key element to any good reality show is getting the right mix of characters. No one wants to watch people speaking politely to each other and getting along for an hour. The goal is high drama, and for that, we need people who are barely mentally stable in even the best of situations. They become like dynamite, ready to blow when a tense situation or argument sets the spark.

Members of a good agile team will seem downright boring by comparison. They are level-headed, enjoy their jobs, and are generally a pleasure to work with. Team members are intrinsically motivated to do well and usually manage to do so with a minimum of fuss. In my book, 30 Days to Better Agile, I talk about the dangers of putting a “bad apple”—someone with a negative attitude—on an agile team. One of the worst kinds of bad apple is the “rock star”. This person, while often highly talented technically, is a pain to work with and has a long list of demands that must constantly be accommodated. While these divas might make for good television, their high-maintenance needs will poison your goal of agile transformation.

If You Can’t Find Drama, Manufacture It

Let’s face it: refurbishing old houses and cooking risotto is not all that exciting. Therefore, it is up to a good reality show producer to create drama where none exists. The best way to do this is with manufactured crisis. “Oh no! We’ve painted a wall green instead of beige!” “We’re running low on chicken stock! And these shallots are chopped totally wrong, you idiot!” These tempests in teapots help fill time—and draw interest—on the show. If they can suck viewers into believing that disaster is right around the corner, there is a collective sigh of relief at the end when—“Whew! We did have another case of chicken stock, after all.”

You want to discourage any propensity for drama that your agile team might have. For instance, technical people can sometimes get sucked into a hero-mentality. They believe that the way to show that you care about the project and you’re working hard for its success is to work long hours and burn the midnight oil. But having to scramble at the end of a project can only mean one thing–that someone did not do a good job of planning or making trade-offs earlier on. Truly agile organizations do not want, need, or reward hero behavior. They value consistent, predictable results and teams that make and meet commitments. Remembering this priority will keep an agile team and its customers free of harmful drama.

Negative Attention is the Best Publicity

There seem to be journalists whose entire careers are devoted to creating articles about how little they care about the Kardashians and how unimportant they are. It strikes me that, for not caring about this family and their goings-on, these writers certainly do generate volumes of copy on the topic. Indeed, the famous (or infamous) K-Krew has made full and complete use of the third tenant of good reality TV – generate criticism, and lots of it. Get the fans and haters alike talking about you. If you can create a flurry of speculation on how much plastic surgery you’ve had, whether or not you’re getting a divorce, and what substance abuse problems you may or may not have, it will ultimately draw in more viewers.

Your agile teams, on the other hand, most definitely do not benefit from critical scrutiny. Particularly when they are first getting started with agile practices, teams need protection from those in the organization that would use every misstep and setback to say “There – see! I told you that this agile thing wouldn’t work!” If there is a lot of hostility to agile practices in your organization, you might consider doing your first pilot project in stealth-mode. Use an agile practice like Scrum, where you have a Product Owner, ScrumMaster and team that knows they are using agile practices, but don’t tell anyone else. Get some experience and—importantly—successes under your belt, first. That way, with a good story to tell, you are not coming to the naysayers later with the message “Let’s try agile – it might work,” but instead, “Let’s try agile - we did a pilot, and it did work.”

The drama and antics associated with reality TV might make for compelling television programming, but agile teams that want a healthy work environment would be well-served to build their workgroups and practices in a way that discourages such wackiness. Of course, the downside is that developing this kind of high-functioning, productive team will likely crush any hopes you had of pitching to a major network on doing a reality show featuring your agile team, working well together and building great products. Sorry – that’s just too dull and, well, functional, for prime time. But that’s ok. I say keep your agile team, with its healthy work practices and predictable results. Leave the screaming arguments and tearful histrionics to Dance Moms.


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