Do not get lost in agile ceremonies – Create continuous improvement teams and communities in parallel

Agile programs in organization start either in public or stealth mode.  They are either, all-teams-together or pilot-team-only agile programs. ‘Public agile initiative’ has team or organization announcing its agile initiative with a big organization wide fanfare. Stealth mode programs are executed with limited or no noise, with one or more specifically identified teams. Agile programs can also vary depending on the number and intensity with which different agile practices are adopted. Some agile programs may start with few agile practices, others may prefer wholesale process adoption for experiencing the synergy of practices done together. If the public-mode agile initiative is started as an enterprise scale program, the pressure of getting agile transition successful mounts on the stakeholders – the risks and impacts are higher for enterprise level transitions.

Agile programs start with adoption of few commonly known practices by teams. Scrum adoption will start with user stories backlog creation, sprint planning, user stories acceptance review, daily stand-ups, retrospection etc. Teams will receive their first few training lessons from agile coaches or practitioners; who will train them to get these practices adopted immediately. It is important to follow these practices consistently on each sprint because they provide the needed structure for iterative and incremental development. They are important for tracking, communicating and executing in agile iterations. They are our agile ceremonies!

Agile stakeholders, with short and limited vision, soon get lost in agile ceremonies. They think that the agile transition job is done, and results will follow once these practices are adopted. In reality, it’s just the beginning of an agile journey. Inexperienced leaders and managers review and enforce on-time execution of these celebrated events. The issue scope, time and speed control directives – ‘Sprint planning should be complete by Monday first half’ ,  “We would like to see all retrospection done by  Friday morning before the end-of-sprint”,  “How many story points got completed compared to other teams”,  “Can we increase number of user stories getting started or accepted in a sprint?”. They think, only work required to complete the agile transition is operationalizing these activities consistently without any failures.

Well, when we focus too much on these ceremonies and start using incorrect measures to judge the progress of agile initiative, soon the system gets skewed to reinforce activities which are not in interest of agile improvements. Management rejoices; they see their success in implementing practices as-planned. They are getting their reports on time; they know what is planned for each sprint deliverables, and who is working on what. They can hold the team responsible for not delivering on the planned items for each sprint, and they can do it more often in agile.

My advice to agile stakeholders is — ‘ground yourself’. You have just launched an agile rocket in space; you have big tasks ahead to get it into a right orbit, and then drive it into an unknown but continuously improving territory to reap real benefits endlessly. Agile leads need to initiate continuous improvements in practices, technology, tools, values, principles, competencies, collaboration, communication etc. within teams to drive agile efforts to next level.

Following are some of the questions agile leads can ask (in no specific order) to trigger continuous improvements within teams:

  1. What is the commitment level of team for agile (scrum)? Do they just comply or commit to agile? 
  2.  Have all teams adopted scrum?
  3. How teams feel about agile initiative and different way of working? Do they have objections or resistance to scrum? Have we provided teams the open environment to voice these objections?
  4. Do team member understand and embrace agile values and principle?
  5. What has improved? What is the improvement in quality, productivity, predictability and cycle time?
  6. Are scrum teams self-organized? 
  7. Is your product owner involved? 
  8. What is the status on emergent agile simple design, test automation and continuous integration?
  9. What are the continuous integration challenges?
  10. Are you  practicing more matured agile practices like Test-driven-development and Behavior-driven development? Are these XP development practices yielding noticeable results?
  11. Are your scrum masters trained? What other training are needed for the team?
  12. What is expertise of the team in user story driven development?
  13. Do you have a checklist for “Done-Done of user story” and “Ready-Ready for user story”?
  14. Has the code and design quality improved? How we can improve it – TDD, refactoring, reviews?
  15. Do your teams know how to create iterative, emergent design or you still do big-design-upfront within sprint?
  16. Are sprint retrospection leading to improvements? 
  17. What needs to be changed in your values, principles and culture for better agile adoption and continuous improvements? 
  18.  Do we need different measure for agile? 
  19. What are the impacts on external teams (facility, HR)? 
  20. What needs to be done to improve communication and knowledge sharing? 
  21. Are your practices supporting agile values?
  22. What are the challenges of distributed teams? Are we able to scale scrum?
  23. What are the wastes in our agile development and how we are eliminating them?
  24. Are we always working on most important items?
  25. Are we able to complete testing within each sprint? 
  26. Are we able to handle sprint interrupts?
  27. Are the teams adequately staffed with right skills sets?
  28. How are code reviews done? 
  29. What is the expertise level for each adopted practices?
  30. Are we using right tools for the agile practices?
Initiate continuous improvement programs to improve the agile journey. Identify, plan and solve problems which are hindering agility. Create a recognized ‘agile transition committee’ (ATC) responsible for identifying, creating, managing and supporting the improvement plan. This can be a team of key stakeholders responsible for agile transition with agile coaches, experts and enthusiasts.  The primary function of this team is to create a backlog(like a scrum product backlog) of actionable, improvement items, ensure that they are allocated for actions and all necessary support, resources, and guidance is provided.
ATC can facilitate creation of ‘Continuous improvement task teams’ (CITT) to work on specific improvement items. They can be full-time or part-time teams. CITT can be a formal or voluntary team. Voluntary teams have an advantage of commitment. They can build communities around the improvement items to re-enforce and build expertise for continuous improvements. They are committed to addressing cross-cutting concerns. CITT can also be one of the existing scrum teams including the tasks of improvement plan in their iteration backlog.

CITT can target one improvement at a time and research, observe, model, implement, promote and transfer that across scrum teams. CITT can run their scrums to work on a continuous improvement backlog items. ATC team should facilitate overall improvement program and prioritize the improvements for value added results.

Continuous improvement is the engine on which the agile initiative survives and grows. It’s the heart of agile. Without continuous improvement, the agile efforts will not succeed. Organization gravity will kill stagnant agile initiatives.

ATC team will work like a scrum team with an agile improvement backlog; delivering improvements every iteration. They will also act as a product owner for ensuring improvement backlog is prioritized, groomed and ready to be consumed by CITT.

Create and manage continuous improvements teams and communities within organization to fuel your agile initiatives.

Stop Micromanagement Epidemic – Lessons for Micromanagers

Micromanagement has severely impacted people and teams in the organizations. 
It’s the most ubiquitously prevailing management sickness in the organization. Micromanaged environment kills creativity and productivity, bringing down the organization capabilities to produce quality products. If your team is on the agile journey, it’s important for managers to be aware of the micromanagement activities. It’s not easy for managers to understand, recognize and take necessary actions to eliminate the micromanagement behavior. It gets into your management style like a virus, severely hurting your subordinates, team, colleagues and yourself. It is important, we identify micromanagement activities in the organization and plan for it’s remedial.

I have been compiling some thoughts on micromanagement for a while. It turned out to be a long article at the end.

I have divided this article into following sections:
1.    What is micromanagement?
2.    People and organization impacts of micromanagement: Big cost to the company.
3.    What do micromanagers do?
4.    How micromanagers justify their act?
5.    Why we do micromanagement?
6.    Why we let go micromanagement?
7.    How micromanagement affects micromanaged victim?
8.    Micromanagement cycle – The micromanagement trap
9.    What can organizations do about micromanagement?
10.What can you do if you are micromanaged?
11.What can you do if you are a micromanager?
12.Micromanagement vs. Effective Management

What is micromanagement?

Micromanagement is about “Excessive involvement by a manager with an employee in regards to his performance. In short, it is imposing work standards and behavior expectations that meet the personal needs of the manager, not the employee, or the organization. It is to control a person or a situation by paying extreme attention to small details“. Courtesy – Jim Rooney “From micromanagement to mentoring

Micromanagement is the inability to trust or relinquish control to others and is a manifestation of fear and insecurity. In micromanagement, the manager not only tells a subordinate what to do, but also dictates that the job be done a certain way, regardless of whether that way is the most effective or efficient one. Manager will engage in behavior that may be in-protective of their division’s interests, or their personal interests, but harms the organization as a whole.

People and organization impacts of micromanagement: Big cost to the company

1.    Poor quality of deliverable from team: This is a vicious circle, which leads to more micromanagement from micromanager to get more control.

2.    Low team morale: Individual heads are down due to daily fire-fighting. Team morale suffers as people are not engaged and feel low esteem.

3.    Impacts on other teams and employees: There are grape wine and dis-engagements talks all around. Other team members will avoid helping or joining micromanaged teams. It also leads to conflicts between individuals and teams.

4.    Absenteeism from work: Who would like to face a micromanaging boss every morning?

5.    Feeling of dis-empowerment: You are a puppet executing on the boss’s daily agenda. Are you building something significant or blindly executing on orders?

6.    Low confidence: People operate at low confidence due to fear of failure and resulting humiliation.

7.    Suppression of innovation and loss of creativity: Innovation thrives on conducive and creative environment. Micromanagement kills it!

8.    High employee attrition: Knowledge that goes straight to competitor. Remember, people leave their managers more often their companies.

9.    Loss of productivity:People who are micromanaged lose interest. It affects their productivity and effectiveness. Will you contribute if you know that the credit of your hard work goes to someone else?

10.  Loss of corporate knowledge: Organization knowledge system weakens with people leaving the company.

11.  Project failures:  High cost, delayed deliveries, poor quality and low productivity leads to project failures.

12.  Loss of trust between organization and employees: Here is this manager making your life hell every day. What is the organization leadership doing? Will you trust the organization supporting micromanagers?

13.  Delayed decision making: All approvals go through the micromanager. It is he who makes all decisions. You are supposed to wait for that trickle of important decisions flowing from micromanager’s office, blocking everything.

14.  Restricted information flow:  Communication structure and flows are important for team and organization decision making. Filtered and tempered information leads to delayed and ineffective decision making.

15.  Walls of functional silos: Departments, functions and groups lead by micromanager’s work in isolation; embracing ‘throw over the wall’ practices.

16.  Goals and objectives are forgotten: Individual goals are not aligned with team, function or organization goals. Satisfying the micromanager becomes the only primary goal for subordinates.

17.  It grows as an organization style: Virus!  – Micromanagers breed more micromanagers. You want to pass on your pains to others. 

What do micromanagers do?

Following are common acts of a micromanager:

1.    They exercise raw positional power, and use their positional authority to assert things.

     What subordinates hear from micromanager?

         “I am the manager here”
         “This is ‘My team’.
         “I will monitor”.
         “You report to me”
         “I will tell you how to do it”
         “I want this  …  by this date… “
         “I made it clear to you…”
         “Why it was not done the way I dictated”

2.    They dictate time for tasks to subordinates. They don’t trust people to assess their own work; so they impose priorities and timelines which no one understands.

                What subordinates hear from micromanager?

         ‘I want it by end of day today’
         ‘Work for 50% of your time on this today’
         ‘Give me the estimates now…’
         ‘I can finish it in few minutes. Why you want this much time…’
         ‘I do not see any progress today(even in last few hours)’
         ‘I have committed end of day Friday for delivery’. So do it!

3.    They control how work gets done.Work always needs to be done the way micromanager wants it. They do not care to develop standard practices and processes.

4.    They run their own system of processes and practices, completely misaligned with the project, functional and organizational practices. They call it ‘their long experience of doing right things in right way’.

5.    They always focus on ‘How to do a task?’ instead of ‘What to do in a task?’ They dictate the steps of the task rather than the form of the results.

6.    They require undue approvals. They allow no one to move forward without their approval even on routine or time-sensitive matters. Everything needs their approval.

7.    They ask for excessive status updates. They demand frequent, unnecessary reports. They require reports that focus on task activities over outcomes.

8.    They resist delegating,or delegate small un-important tasks or take back delegated tasks and re-assign often. Instead of letting subordinates solve problems and challenges at hand, some managers return those tasks to their own domain to exercise dominance. This brings discouragement to team members working on the tasks.

9.    Delegation without authority:If they delegate they watch every details- suffocating the team. Delegation without authority and accountability is a ‘Dirty delegation’.

10.  They create dis-empowered team. They do not encourage empowerment of team members, which means lack of control to them.

11.  They control information. They filter information for personal benefits from their subordinates or their bosses. They temper with organization communication structure and provide limited information for decision making

12.  They are always found around subordinate’s desk monitoring over the neck.

13.  Unwanted status checks:They drop unwanted emails to check progress. Example: Those, after lunch status check emails in your inbox.

14.  They discourage others from making decisionswithout consulting them. They get irritated when subordinate makes decisions.

15.  They blame others for failures. Their defensive routines are always at work. They take credit for positive results and shift the blame for negative results to their subordinates. The regularly criticize their subordinates.

16.  They create their own performance measuresfor project, tasks and individuals. These measures are not aligned to functional goals, objectives and responsibilities of subordinates. They surprise you with their measures.

17.  There is no transparency in how tasks are done and measured in micromanaged environment. Thriving in chaos protects their personal agenda.

18.  They assign tasks not responsibilities. 

How micromanagers justify their act?

Micromanager is blind to his micromanaging behavior, so he justifies whatever he does in his own way, re-enforcing his own improper behavior.

1.    They call it ‘Attention to details’.

2.    They say they are ‘Involved and hands-on managers’.

3.    They claim it as ‘Positive aggressive attitude’.

4.    They say, ‘they get results by micromanaging’.

5.    They interpret the result of micromanagement experimentation as proof that, without his constant intervention, his people will flounder or fail.

6.    They glorify short term results. ‘I made it working otherwise…’

7.    They say they are fixing inefficiencies of the system quickly and firmly.

8.    They say they are “structured”, “organized”, and “perfectionists”.

9.    They educate their subordinates to adopt their style and practices. 

10. They say they are recognized for their efforts.

Why we do micromanagement?

1.    Personal traits

·         Control-obsessed: Controlling subordinate behavior gives sadistic satisfaction.
·         Personality of manager
§  Shaped by her own experience with micromanagement from his mentor.
§  Obsessive–compulsive personality disorder.
§  Supreme leader disorder – self-proclaimed supreme team leaders experience extremely low self esteem, ever worsening inferiority complex, and zero respect for their teams.
         Inability to trust others.
         Emotional insecurity.
         Feeling of control and superiority: Hierarchical organizational systems, and power allocation with position, leads to the feeling of superiority for micromanagers.
         Tendency to create aggressive individual image for themselves in the organization.

2.    Lack of knowledge and skills

         Lack of competency and creative capabilities.
         Limited skills.
         Limited training.
         Lack of knowledge on organization and team’s behaviour.

3.    Organization culture and management

·         Organization culture: If the organization has a culture of micromanagement, it infects at all levels. It comes straight from top.
·         Style of management of senior, influential people impacts other management level.
·         Instability of managerial position. If the position or job is at risk, people tend to do micromanagement.
·         Peer competition can lead to getting into lot of task and project details leading to micromanagement.
·         Promotion and rewards based on experience rather than skills can lead to micromanagement. Experience people focus on exercising more control rather than building knowledge and learning.
·         Business and work environment
§  Misfit for the job – If the manager is not good fit for the assigned job and he cannot meet the demand of the situation, he will tend to control all tasks and work assignment to get visibility and control.
§  Time or performance pressure without right skills can lead to micromanagement.
·         Unplanned project schedules can also lead to micromanagement. Micromanager may not know the current capacities and capabilities of the team
·         Lack of capacity in teams results in more involvement of managers on tasks which can lead to more scrutinized work.
·         Skills of subordinates also lead to micromanagement by manager.
·         Lack of tools. If the team do not have right tools they tend to spend time doing repetitive tasks. Long delayed task get more attention.

Why we let go micromanagement?

1.    We are afraid of becoming the next target. Fear of job and insecurity leads to our submission to micromanagement.

2.    Conflict avoidance: We are all basically afraid of conflict, we’re endowed with a fight or flight response, and we just want it to go away. No one wants to get into the mess, so we avoid it.

3.    Lack of skills and knowledge to do better job. If people have limited skills to do their job, they avoid getting pointed out for productivity and effectiveness concerns.

4.    No access to higher management to discuss issues and concerns. If there are no channels to discuss the micromanagement issues at higher levels, people suffer.

5.    Selfish interest also leads you accepting micromanagement activities. May be you are due for promotion or rewards and you think it’s better to let the situation go as-it-is, rather than raising concerns.

6.    Lack of trust in organization capabilities to change things. If you believe that organization leaders will not act, you will not bring the concerns to their notice. 

How micromanagement affects micromanaged victim?

1.    People are publicly humiliated.

2.    The victim is shunned and punished for speaking out, and often ends up being forced out.

3.    People lose focus on work.

4.    They become disengaged.

5.    They lose confidence to execute work independently.

6.    Their performance and productivity suffers.

7.    They get frustrated with day to day micromanagement pains.

8.    They tend to get timid and tentative.

9.    They avoid taking responsibilities.

10.  They avoid making decisions and leave to micromanaging boss to decide for them.

11.  Their professional progress stops. 

Micromanagement cycle – The micromanagement trap

Micromanagers follow a pattern while exercising their micromanagement wills.

1.    Micromanagers target people mostly one at a time.

2.    They victimize them regularly.

3.    They force them out of the team and organization.

4.    Victims are replaced by incompetent people so micromanagers can exercise more control with no resistance.

5.    Micromanagement cycle continues.

6.    Micromanagers grow; Organizations suffer. 

What can organizations do about micromanagement?

1.    Identifying and recognize micromanagement in the organization.

         Spot it!
         Check for complaints. Encourage people to report micromanagement.
         Look for teams with high attrition, and low productivity; a micromanager might be at work.
         Study how teams work together; conduct a survey of their job satisfaction and begin tracking their productivity.
         Look on long term measures rather than short term results. Example: if the product releases are happening on time but leads to lot of technical debt, people are not involved or committed to quality and continuous improvements.

2.    To address the micromanagement issue, be decisive, and lay out a clear plan-of-action for micromanager with consequences for not following through.

3.    Once recognized, intervene, and act as early as possible (no matter how uncomfortable it is).

4.    Limit the authority of the micromanagers to reduce the micromanagement impacts.

5.    Institute a mentoring and leadership program that can re-align micromanagers with your organization’s values.

6.    Hire right competent people – people who can solve problems, not micromanage them.

7.    Institute right values and principles and continuously spend time in improving company culture. Lean and agile principles adoption can help in controlling micromanagement.

8.    Drive out fear. Encourage an open door policy which will enable your employees to work and communicate openly without fear of repercussions, and more importantly, leave no room for manipulations.

9.    Establish chain of responsibilities across the value chain. Ensure that the tasks is considered done when the next person in chain is able to consume the deliverables. This will lead to end to end responsibilities requiring inter-team communications and collaboration and less chances for micromanagement.

10.  Grow communication structure and channels for transparent and open communications in the organization.

11.  Encourage teams for self-organization with managers as mentors and coaches.

12.  Get help from external coaches and mentors to help the teams and micromanagers.

13.  Rotate work and team members.

What can you do if you are micromanaged?

1.    Find a new Job. Is it the only solution?

2.    Help your boss to delegate to you more effectively by prompting him to give you all the information you will need up front, and to set interim review points along the way.

3.    Volunteer to take on work or projects that you’re confident you’ll be good at. This will start to increase micromanager’s confidence in you.

4.    Make sure that you communicate progress to your boss regularly, to discourage him from seeking information just because he hasn’t had any for a while.

5.    Concentrate on helping your boss to change his one micromanagement habit at a time.

6.    Understand your manager’s role, responsibilities and information needs. Help him meet his goals.

7.    Develop skills and collect data to plan project schedules and project deliverables with higher confidence level. Avoid estimating tasks where there is no data or experience.                                                                    

8.    Forward books, articles, links to blogs on leadership and team management and other stuff to your boss.

9.    Don’t let your supreme team leaders get on your nerves. Don’t let them catch you off guard.

10.  Document everything!

11.  Exercise patience and resolution to change and improve.

12.  Identify other communication channels to talk and seek help on micromanagement. Don’t let it go.

13.  Work with your peers and create constructive plan to reduce micromanagement from your boss. 

       14. Empathize with you micromanager boss. Understand his job and offer help proactively.
       15. Identify patterns pointing to situations when the micromangement behavior activates. 
             Solve the problems in advance and help him.
        16. Earn respect and confidence and then communicate about the micromanagemnt aspects to him.

What can you do if you are a micromanager?

1.    Realization and recognition of micromanagement: Realize and recognize that your controlling-ways will probably hinder your own career. This is the first step to bring required changes for your micromanagement style.

2.    Realize that you are a micromanager and your style is affecting individual, teams and the organization.

3.    Understand the difference between involved-manager and a micromanager. Just because you are seeking fine details about tasks from the individuals does not mean you are ‘involved’. Involved-managers enable problem solving with just enough control. They are facilitators not dictators or directors.

4.    Do not ask for excessive status updates. While knowing the status of project and tasks is important, asking for constant updates on work status can limit productivity. Updates that are too frequent leave less time for true progress. Instead of over-managing each task of the project or assignment, it’s important to let employees spend time developing their own ideas and knowledge.

5.    Taking back delegated tasks after you’ve assigned it to team or individuals, or going back on your word can be a sign that you’re a micromanager. Let subordinates solve problems and challenges at hand; help them by providing support for problem solving. Do not move tasks back to you (without real reasons) after assignment.

6.    Forget that you can always do all tasks more quickly and in a better way yourself. Committed, skilled teams always deliver more than the individuals. Work on building team capabilities and competencies, and do value adding contributions to the work individual and teams are doing.

7.    Work hard on delegation skills. Delegate, and hold people accountable. Delegation without accountability is ‘dirty delegation’

8.    Enable individuals to make their own informed and evaluated decisions. Requiring others to ask your permission to perform tasks under their control is a way to inhibit progress. While being consulted on tasks is normal, do not make it mandatory to seek your approval on all tasks even when they are in employee’s realm of responsibilities. This controlling behaviour strips subordinates of decision-making power, even when the decisions made are within the sphere of the subordinate’s responsibility or authority.

9.    Never filter or control information. Enable free and transparent information flow by building right communication structure. Do not get involved in filtering or tampering information channels. Encourage information flow to subordinates – Keep them informed.

10.  Do not send unwanted emails seeking unnecessary status on tasks.

11.  Talk to your teamregularly on your management style. Get their feedback.

12.  Build relationship with subordinates. Good work relationship will build trust and reduce micromanagement.

13.  If you are not confident of the subordinates capabilities to deliver, focus on the ones with the most potential, and learn to delegate effectively to them.

14.  Encourage ownership by subordinates.

15.  Trust your team to develop and deliver.

16.  See long term benefits – The big picture. Do not exercise control to seek short term benefits. Spent time in building teams and capabilities.

17.  If you have identified your acts which might have caused problems to subordinates, apologize and change.

18.  Know when you need to get involved and when to get out of the way.

19.  Clarify the outcomes of the tasks to subordinates. Manage the outcomes not the process.

20.  Set the clear communication plan.

21.  Master the art of questioning and listening– Ask, not tell people.

22.  Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

Micromanagement vs. Effective Management

Click to view ‘Dave Crenshaw’ talk on differences between effective management and micromanagement.

Here is table differentiating a micromanager from an Effective-manager based on the above presentation
They are like less effective ‘activity directors’.
They are ‘effective leaders’.
They focus on how things are done and want the prescribed way to be followed.
They focus on results. They discuss the end results, constraints, issues, expectations, paths and then they give people flexibility to think and create.
They tell people ‘what to do’.
They tell people ‘why we are doing something’. They explain and discuss the reasons behind the task at hand.
They want everything now. They want to get all things done within the determined timelines. Often defined by them without much consideration of existing constraints.
They focus on ‘when’. They work with their team to define the timelines.
They want compliance against the policy, inflexible practices and procedures.
They focus on growth and continuous improvements.
They look their team members as subordinates.
They work in teams.
They are always hovering around their subordinates for status.
They hold people accountable and allow them the freedom to do what they think is correct.