Pipe Dreams and Agile Teams
Last night I had a strange dream. I dreamt I was a newly-minted ScrumMaster on a dysfunctional team. We were not getting anything done, yet everyone was working long hours and feeling the pressure of an impending deadline. Struggling and frustrated, I did what any novice ScrumMaster would do: I went to see the Agile Coach in the PMO. (I said this was a dream, didn't I?)
I made my way down a spiral staircase to the basement and opened the door to his office. Peering in, I could see the room was sparsely decorated, with only an overstuffed chair and a leather sofa in the center of the room. A small plume of smoke was rising from the chair. I went over and sat down on the couch and looked up at the person in the chair. I recognized him immediately from a photo in my Psych 101 textbook in college . . . he was Carl Jung.
(That Carl Jung, psychological master of the dream world, is in one of my dreams has to say something about the skeletons in my closet, but I'm not going to go there in this article. I'll pay for that help separately.)
Jung greeted me cordially, shaking my hand and motioning me over to the couch. He said, "How can I help you?"
"Dr. Jung," I begged, "I need your help. My team's screwed up and I don't know what to do. We say we are agile, but I'm not feeling it. Let me give you some examples.
"Our team members don't talk to each other. Instead they communicate via e-mail and IM even though they sit just steps away from each other. They seem comfortable with their siloed work responsibilities and are happy with their blinders on and plugged into their iPods."
I was getting on a roll.
"The team created a process out of agile, and they've built elaborate workflows, endless hand-offs, and replaced the dialogue with a supposedly agile tool."
I was picking up speed.
"And the business is nowhere to be found! They fill out forms and create templates that get routed for signatures by people who don't read them -- all this effort just so we can pass budget approval gates. But does the business talk to the team? Nope -- they won't talk to the team and quite frankly, I can't blame them."
I was running on all cylinders.
"We are spending a lot of time and money, but nothing is getting accomplished. The team is caught in a meaningless and potentially destructive miasma of torpor. " (You would use words like this too if you were in a dream with Carl Jung.)
It was time to cut to the chase.
"Have you seen this before?" He nodded. "Then you've got to help me!"
Jung took a long draw on his pipe and leaned back. His suit blended into the fabric of the chair so well that he was nearly invisible. Peering at me over the top of his glasses, he said, "Ah, the miasma of torpor. I would have called it bull crap masquerading as value-added activity, but that makes no difference now. Young man, what you are describing about your team is a challenge faced by the vast majority of my patients." (Young man? Patients? Is he talking to me? This surely is a dream.)
He paused to take another draw from his pipe and continued. "In addition, I would like to point out to you that if you can set aside these signs of a hopelessly dysfunctional team and embrace this moment as an opportunity for growth, then your team can emerge more dynamic and stronger than ever." OK, I thought, so this is MY problem? The term "psycho-babble" came to mind, but I didn't interrupt him. After all, he is Carl Jung.)
"Think about it," he said. "Is not life itself a project? We simply progress through increasingly demanding situations, while overcoming progressively complicated roadblocks. From our earliest years we react to each of these challenges using coping mechanisms that serve their function at the moment they are needed. As we mature, these mechanisms solidify into habitual ways of responding (I call them complexes, you might call them methodologies) that eventually define who we are -- even to the point where we are no longer able to separate our own true identity from all these unconscious habits. And we think: I am a person who does this when that happens."
Jung leaned closer and said, "Geof, each of us inevitably reaches a point when the mechanisms that enabled us to cope with every possible situation are no longer adequate for coping with the totally new and unexpected situation we face today. When this occurs in middle-aged adults, we call it a mid-life crisis. We are brought low. The standard responses just don't work anymore. We feel small and destroyed. "
He walked over to his desk and refilled his pipe. "That, young man, is where I think your team is. "Now," he began very deliberately, "you can do what many adults who face a mid-life crisis are prone to do -- deny or sidestep the problem . . . buy a cheap toupee and an expensive convertible, turn up the music and drive around singing 'Born to be Wild.'" How could he possibly know I did that when I turned 50?
Jung continued. "In your team's case, a similar approach is to fall back on proscribed templates and tried-and-true methodologies that may make everyone feel better -- but that ultimately provide little value and will leave you and others feeling empty. Paralyzed by the realization of your own fragility in the face of the unknown, you could hunker down and choose actions that are contrary to the very spirit of agility."
He shrugged and said, "Or, you could choose a different course. I assure you that for anyone who has the courage to see it as such, this moment is not a crisis, it is a rare opportunity to progress to a new level -- a moment of what I sometimes call creative destruction. Rather than run from the tempest, it is a moment to jump headlong into it with the confidence that there will certainly be a breakthrough after three days in the belly of the whale. I believe the phrase is, 'The only way out is through.'"
Jung joined me on the sofa. "Geof, if I were to work with your team, I would urge you to begin with two broad actions that will help your team develop the courage they need to stay true to the agile approach.
"First, create an environment in which the team -- and individuals within the team -- can dream." I was puzzled, so he clarified, "I mean this both figuratively and literally. Dreams are moments when we are not controlled by our predefined response patterns to every situation. In dreams we unleash ourselves from the self-limiting complexes -- the templates and forms and work instructions -- that constrict us." He turned to look at me. "At the risk of sounding sappy, I'll just say that a team that can't dream can't be agile."
"The second action is to pay attention to the shadow -- that side of yourself that you are denying or ignoring because it does not fit the patterns you are used to. Ignoring it leaves your team less than whole, functionally at odds with itself. I would go so far as to guess that the team which constantly proclaims, 'We are agile!' too loudly is probably being controlled unconsciously by some very rigid thought patterns. Contrary to popular wisdom, what you don't know can hurt you -- and the most agile team can be sidelined by hardening of the corollaries."
We both chuckled at his clever wordplay. "Geof, ask yourself how does the team manage dissenting opinions? Who is marginalized, and why? Maybe those are voices of the shadow trying to be heard.
"Listen to them."
He stopped to light his pipe. "These actions would be just a beginning, of course, and this is probably enough for today's session. I believe these actions will rejuvenate your team's constant awareness and give them the courage that is necessary to remain truly agile and achieve the desired high performance they dream about."
He rested a hand on my shoulder. "My door is always open if you choose to return here. However, I would caution you that the coaching will be beneficial only if you are committed to the agile process and have the courage to step into the abyss. If that sounds too challenging, I can recommend a friend of mine. His name is Sigmund, and he has some skill in dealing with these matters. He will help you figure out whom from your history you can blame for your current problems. If that doesn't work for you, I can recommend a purveyor of hairpieces and Viagra." He laughed heartily and faded away, leaving only a faint wisp of smoke.
I've got to stop eating anchovy pizza right before bedtime.