The Fallacy of Control within Project and Programme Management

The most liberating day of my career was when I realised that, despite being responsible for the project I was running at the time, I actually controlled very little of what happened. That was the day I freed myself from the “fallacy of control”.

I can’t really control who does what. I can’t really control whether an individual does the work to an acceptable quality. I can’t control whether or not the product owner is going to change their mind about priorities. I can’t control whether the proposed technical solution turns out to be much harder than anticipated or just a dead end.

All I can really do is influence what happens in my programme/project. Spot issues quickly and react appropriately. Lean-Agile gives me the tools to do that.
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A Clear Vision is Essential for Agile Programme Management

Search the Lean-Agile literature and you’ll struggle to find much mention of vision. Agile is all about short planning horizons, releasing stuff early and often, and learning. And a vision doesn’t necessarily help with that.

My direction? Anywhere. Because one is always nearer by not keeping still

The quote is from Engleby by Sebastian Faulks (cited Good Reads) and pretty much sums up the Agile attitude. Movement is the key rather than the direction of movement. Most Agile initiatives (i.e. projects and product development) are simply about building high priority stuff now, so it is no wonder that the Lean-Agile methods are relatively silent about the future.

In contrast a programme is about organisation change and the vision helps define the future state and attract buy-in – it is a “Postcard from the future”. A clear vision is an essential mechanism for staying aligned with business strategy. Alignment is, of course, one of my three threads within Agile Programme Management. The vision should be stable; not static but broadly resistant to change. Despite Agilists desire to “Embrace Change” a radically changing vision suggests the programme is no longer aligned with strategy and hence raises the question of whether the programme should be shut down.
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Management on the Ground

You have to keep your feet on the ground when others want to put you on a pedestal. After a while on a pedestal, you stop hearing the truth. It’s filtered by the henchmen, and they read you so well, they know what you want to hear. You end up as the queen bee in the hive, with no relationship with the worker bees.

Bill Burns, CEO of Roche Pharmaceuticals
quoted in Goffee & Jones (2006), p. 43

One of my project managers recently mentioned that, despite being a programme manager, my own management style is quite "hands-on". In the sense of being on the ground with my team rather than in the technical sense although the two often come together. This approach has held me in good stead over the years.

Others, like Bill Burns quoted above, have realised dangers of being distant from the people doing the work and the corresponding benefits of being on the ground. I thought I’d take a quick look at some of these previous advocates of being on the ground:

  • Military Commanders on the ground
  • Management by Walking Around (MBWA)
  • Toyota, Lean and Genchi Genbutsu

I’ll wrap up by having a quick look at the Agile practices that help me be on the ground.
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Reinforcing Success in Products and Projects

A fundamental military axiom is to reinforce success.

Reinforcing success is a strategic concept used in many areas of decision making and management. Originally a military doctrine, the term is also used in theories related to parenting, business and other fields. It is essentially a selection criterion, or a prioritizing principle. A course of action is selected from various options on the basis of previous results of similar actions. The basic idea is: if it works, keep doing it; if it doesn’t, don’t invest more in something that’s failing.

Wikipedia: Reinforcing Success

I believe businesses should apply this principle to projects, products and product features. So not surprisingly I apply this as a guiding principle in my own work as an agile programme manager.
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Case Study: Motivating a team using Agile practices

A while ago I did some consultancy with an Israeli company that was kicking off a large, complicated and challenging project. They wanted advice on how to motivate the team so I looked in my toolkit – both Agile and general management – and suggested a few things.

It is worth emphasising that the company’s sole concern in this case, and the reason for my engagement, was "motivation" and not Agile per se.
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Managers v Leaders: Are Managers Plodders and Leaders Cool?

I consider myself a good manager and a passable leader. This should be okay but there is a certain anti-manager trend in the business world that is particularly prevalent in the Agile community. For example it has been common for Agilists to say "We don’t need no stinking managers " (Esther Derby: Rethinking Managers Relationship with Agile Teams).

It seems that leaders are somehow more cool than managers. Conventional wisdom says "Managers do things right; Leaders do the right things" (Buckingham & Coffman, 2001). And Jim Highsmith (2009), one of the Agile gurus, makes it clear that Leader = Agile and Manager = Non-Agile. Ouch.

Agile leaders lead teams, non-agile ones manage tasks.

Highsmith (2009) cited by Scrum Expert

All of which makes self-labelling as a "manager", particularly an "Agile manager", rather risky. But before I go off to find a job as a leader, for which I’m possibly under qualified, I thought I’d take a look at the differences between leaders and managers and assess whether common wisdom is, after all, very wise at all. To do that I’ll outline what a couple of other people say about managers and leaders and how that marries up with my own view.
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Declaration of Interdependence

In 2004 some people met to define what agile project management should mean. In February 2005 they published a statement called the “Declaration of Interdependence” (DOI). According to David Anderson (Kanban and the DOI), one of the signatories, the intent was to:

  • define a value system by which modern 21st Century project managers should live and
  • galvanise a community around general application of agile project management

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Using a Product Led Matrix in Lean-Agile

I’ve worked in a variety of organisational settings including matrixed and non-matrixed. Based on this experience I thought I’d write up a few observations about organisational structures.

Traditionally companies have been organised into functional teams. More recently, partly as a result of Scrum and Lean for Software Engineering, companies are moving to departments containing cross functional product teams. Some organisations have a mix, for example, design might be a functional department but other departments might contain product teams. Other companies try to combine function and product into a explicit matrix structure. This ensures both product and function are represented on the management team.
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