On virtual Mexican waves, crossing invisible silos, the downside of agile backlogs and the benefits of traditional project management.
In a slight change to my usual routine I am not writing an internal week note this week. I’ll simply add a link to this post. Another tiny step towards working more openly and following in the footsteps of many other public sector workers (respecting social distancing, of course). Another slight change was visible in some of our virtual team meetings. We have the update to Microsoft Teams which means we can see up to nine other faces on video calls. I managed to get a few people to join in a virtual Mexican wave but it didn’t really live up to the stadium experience.
Here are some of the themes that have got me thinking hard this week.
Crossing invisible silos
Many of our systems are deeply entwined with our operational services. These range from our main Customer Relationship Management system which is used in our call centres through to specialised systems for critical services such as social care. There really is no space for the technology, people or ways of working to diverge. They can only work together as a unit and need to be managed that way. At the same time we need to grow our skills in technology, operations and change which means getting people together in specialist groups so that they can share, learn and develop together. It is hard to keep both these structures working well at the same time because it is hard for people to professionally and emotionally commit to several groups at the same time. Anyone working in a matrix organisation structure will experience the same challenge. I am working with several teams which are finding this difficult and I am using a combination of tactics to try to help.
- Recognise and acknowledge that everyone finds working across organisation boundaries difficult. I’ve got lots of stories from across the public and private sector to help people realise that everyone struggles with this.
- Help create an environment where people feel it is ok to confront the internal “politics” which sometimes means taking a risk and speaking up about it.
- Getting people with different views to talk through things together rather than let others pass messages or let confusing chains of emails proliferate.
- Allow some time to give people a chance to build relationships across teams or even set up activities and event with the explicit goal of helping a group develop as a team.
The downsides of agile backlogs
As an organisation we are getting more used to working with backlogs1 to make it easier to see what our teams are being asked to do and then focus on the most important things. We don’t want to put too many controls around our backlogs as we don’t want to put obstacles in the way of good ideas or critical needs but that means backlogs can grow without limit. Most of the time this is ok but it is giving us some challenges.
- People can think that getting something on a backlog means that our teams are actively working on it. The reality is we will only be working on the top few items at any point in time and many things on the backlog will never progress as new, more valuable items will keep going ahead of them.
- Items with relatively small benefits can keep getting pushed down the backlog. Sometimes this is the right thing to do but, if the item is relatively quick and easy to do, it could have a very high return on investment and we are missing out by not getting it done.
We are still working out what to do about this but other organisations have faced the same issues so we should be able to learn from their experience. I would prefer not to put controls around the backlogs and, instead, work harder on explaining what they mean and how our users and customers can work with us to focus on the most valuable items. There are some well established techniques we can use so small, valuable items do not get crowded out but they are not common sense2 and will also need great, clear communication if we introduce them.
The benefits of traditional project management
Some of my colleagues in the agile community can be very dismissive of traditional project management and the various techniques that go with it. Some of my colleagues in the project management community (yes, you can be both) can be very dismissive of Scrum and other agile techniques. What both communities are really commenting on is how they have seen these approachs applied in their workplaces, which are often not ideal. My view is project management, like agile, is just a tool and is excellent when applied with skill in the right circumstances. If you trace back to the source, they both have a lot in common.
I tend to use traditional project management language when talking about commercial management, finance and assurance. Agile approaches offer a great way to handle these topics but it often gets ignored or misunderstood. In the same way, traditional project management offers great ways to deal with user needs and responding to change but it is easy to miss them at first glance. Taking this stance is a pragmatic way of getting things done but it can also be misunderstood. Making use of traditional project management techniques does not mean there are no issues with the way we manage projects or that we don’t need to push on with our agile transformation.
A word about a good cause
Among other things I have been thinking about “mental load” or what some people call “emotional labour” this week. I fear most of my male readers will have no idea what this is. In the footnotes3 is a helpful link suggested by my daughter. The arcticle focuses on families with young children but I have to confess that this can still be an issue for families whose kids are in their 20’s and have already moved out. Yes, this could have been written about me.
We re-configured our household for the lockdown and so, for a change, I have picked up some of the “mental load” for a few weeks. Even now I have not picked up all of it. I don’t have to worry about feeding the kids but I have no idea how to feed the house plants! Emotional labour is also needed at work and I suspect it is also poorly recognised and unfairly allocated. Come on guys4, we need to do better than this.
I think Don Reinertsen’s explanations of Cost of Delay are excellent but many people struggle with the conclusions it produces and find it hard to put values on public sector outcomes like safety and well-being. ↩