I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about alignment recently. Over the years I have learnt that if we are not aligned, ideas fail no matter how good an idea is.
There was a time not that long ago where automated testing was not the norm. I was fortunate enough to work for several years in the mid-2000s on a system covered with a fully automated test suite that deployed to production every 2 weeks or less. It was, in retrospect, an incredible software development environment.
When I moved on from there, I joined a C# development company. I wrote tests with my code. I soon discovered that no one else in my team did. They were mildly amused with the idea. That was what manual testers were for. Over time, as they were not invested in tests, if they touched code that was tested, the tests would break, but they would not fix them as they didn’t even run them so never knew they were broken. We set up a CI server to compile and run the tests. Even then, the tests would still be broken by another developer and not fixed as the culture was not one that watched for red builds.
I learnt that if we are not aligned in our expectations we can waste a lot of time and still fail. This makes adopting testing hard if everyone is not aligned.
It could take just one person not to care about red builds and broken tests to break everything – unless the team or the organisation corrects that behaviour. In an aligned team that takes CI and testing seriously, hopefully that will not happen.
I’ve also seen a testing culture across multiple teams respond to new developers who did not test by showing them the way and giving strong feedback when they continued to avoid testing. I have experienced that when the alignment and culture is well embedded, self-correction will occur.
I worked in an organisation where I helped adopt Scrum to good effect. If people are aligned to try and adopt and to openly discuss the issues, then we can be successful. My experience in that case was that the most vocal sceptics became the most vocal advocates.
I moved at one point to another organisation which was kind of doing Scrum. No one was particularly worried about their process. They did it. That was all. I learnt if you are the only one who cares about trying to do something well, then there isn’t much point. If no one else is aligned with doing something well, then as soon as your energy drops, no one else will pick up the slack. (I wrote about this in The Same Things Do Not Always Work.)
I learnt that if we are not aligned in our expectations I can waste a lot of my time and still fail. This makes adopting Scrum and agile hard if everyone is not aligned.
It could take just one person to make Scrum very painful to adopt, particularly if that person is one with influence. The team or the organisation needs to correct the behaviour to allow success. In an aligned Scrum team that behaviour is harder to not confront, so hopefully one person is not able to do that. In an un-aligned Scrum team, it can become a mess.
I have worked in an organisation that was highly aligned on agile software development ideas. It was a pleasure to work there. The cultural expectation was “we do agile” and we argued about the nuances, not the should we do this thing at all. This alignment was not just in the way we built software but also the way we interacted and were managed / autonomous. This alignment made a huge difference to the quality of conversations around the problems we had to solve and how we worked. Our core values and principles came from approximately the same place so the practices we advocated were based in those.
Alignment was clearly beneficial to the success and enjoyment of working together.
I’ve been through different parts of the cycle of discovery, adoption and mainstreaming of these ideas in different organisations. I’ve been through where they have not worked, or they have not been personally worth it, and I’ve backed away and refocused. And I’ve also been at the end where this is how we work and have seen the clear benefit of the alignment.
As we try new ways of working we keep on going through this cycle. As we learn new product methodologies, new ways of managing / working with people, as we learn how much autonomy is a good thing for a given set of people, as we learn to experiment – and learn which things we need to learn and which things we know already (so why are we relearning them?), as we scale, we go through this cycle.
Sometimes an idea, principle or practice might be too soon for this group of people as no one else will help drive it, or sometimes it might be just the right time and we can make progress, or maybe it is the right time, but we are struggling as some might be disrupting.
Good pains or bad pains
Adopting new ideas often results in growing pains. Aligning to working through those pains is important. If not, we will likely fail. If we are all aligned in our values and principles, maybe this alignment will be easier to achieve.
A common comment is: if Scrum shows up problems, do we abandon Scrum? Or do we fix the problems that are shown up.
As we pick up new ideas, this pattern emerges again and again. Is the idea the problem or are we failing to solve the problems that are being exposed?
The more, the harder
It is far easier for a single team to be aligned. Alignment can always be helped through retrospectives. This assumes that you’re aligned that retrospectives are useful and that everyone is working together to make them work. Otherwise they might be potentially wasteful and negative. Potentially one person could make a retrospective useless.
As the number of people grows that need to be aligned, alignment becomes harder. As does the probability that there will be at least one person who might be disrupting – proving the exception to the alignment.
My current running hypothesis is that it can take just a few unaligned people to disrupt the adoption of any valuable idea – unless the team(s) or the organisation corrects the behaviour. Strong alignment comes with a strong capability of team(s) to self-correct individuals who are trying to disrupt that alignment.
As the number of people involved grows how do we keep aligning across teams at the right level? Could it be possible to structure things such that the number of people that need to align are fewer? Would this make alignment simpler? And what would it mean for the organisation at an even higher level?
Certainly it seems beneficial to build a robust, aligned culture that self corrects to stop the power of one from breaking it.
Alignment is hard. People are hard. But achieving alignment can be really worth it.