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Agile Projects: Managing with a Light Touch

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This chapter introduces Light Touch management, a project management system that emphasizes the ability to manage agile teams with a style that allows team autonomy and flexibility and a customer value focus without sacrificing control.

Introduction by the Author

Agile methodologies continue to grow in popularity all over the world. eXtreme Programming (XP) and Scrum seem to have the largest mindshare, though the communities that devotedly practice Crystal, Feature Driven Development and other agile methodologies are also growing. As the agile phenomenon continues to spread and the number of agile projects grows, the need for Agile Project Management (APM) will become even more critical. As more managers adopt APM, they need underlying values to anchor their efforts and pragmatic practices to deliver their projects successfully. The Declaration of Inter-dependence (DOI) is a set of values identified as common to leaders on the APM forefront.

The DOI — A Foundational Framework for APM Practices

Similar to the Agile Manifesto meeting of 2001, a group of managers, authors, consultants and team members from different project and product domains met in Redmond, Washington in February 2005 to discover our common ground with respect to Agile and Adaptive Management. Six core values emerged from our collaboration. Together, they form what we have named The Declaration of Inter-dependence (DOI) for Agile and Adaptive Management:

  • We increase return on investment by making continuous flow of value our focus.
  • We deliver reliable results by engaging customers in frequent interactions and shared ownership.
  • We expect uncertainty and manage for it through iterations, anticipation and adaptation.
  • We unleash creativity and innovation by recognizing that individuals are the ultimate source of value, and creating an environment where they can make a difference.
  • We boost performance through group accountability for results and shared responsibility for team effectiveness.
  • We improve effectiveness and reliability through situationally specific strategies, processes and practices.

Copyright 2005 David Anderson, Sanjiv Augustine, Christopher Avery, Alistair Cockburn, Mike Cohn, Doug DeCarlo, Donna Fitzgerald, Jim Highsmith, Ole Jepsen, Lowell Lindstrom, Todd Little, Kent MacDonald, Polyanna Pixton, Preston Smith and Robert Wysocki

The DOI is a foundational framework for Agile and Adaptive Management and should be utilized by projects and teams operating in dynamic and complex environments. True to its agile origins, the DOI focuses on people, strategies based on specific situations, and continuous feedback. Importantly, the DOI calls for recognizing people as the ultimate source of value in an organization, and thus for managing them differently.

Light Touch — An APM Practice that Realizes the DOI

To realize the DOI, a "Light Touch" management style that carries the potential for unleashing creativity and innovation is in order. The following chapter details my Light Touch APM practice — it is one of the six APM practices that I espouse for managing agile projects and realizing the DOI: Organic Teams, Guiding Vision, Simple Rules, Open Information, Light Touch and Adaptive Leadership.

"Intelligent control appears as uncontrol or freedom.
And for that reason it is genuinely intelligent control.

Unintelligent control appears as external domination.
And for that reason it is really unintelligent control.

Intelligent control exerts influence without appearing to do so.
Unintelligent control tries to influence by making a show of force."

—Lao Tzu, Book of Ethics

Most project managers work in companies that have some form of hierarchical organization. Organizational hierarchies extend into our project teams as well, along with modern, subtle forms of command and control. For example, in many of our organizations, team members are still required to perform tasks specifically assigned to them by their project managers without advance consultation. In the more egalitarian of these organizations, team members may be consulted by the project manager; but in the end, the assignment of work still happens in a top-down fashion. In other organizations, the hierarchical control lies with someone other than the project manager—perhaps a line of business manager. In this case, the project manager's responsibilities are reduced to the administration of the project schedule and lots of coordination among multiple groups, but these responsibilities come with very little influence over the teams they are supposed to be managing. Top-down decisions are still made, but by the line of business manager, not the project manager or the team. In previous chapters, I contended that these structures are mechanistic ones that are constructed to optimize cost and control. Chapter 1, "Agile Project Management Defined," introduced the organic complex adaptive systems (CAS) model as the preferred alternative for agile teams with highly skilled members whose primary charter is to deliver customer value. Chapters 3, "Organic Teams—Part 1," and 4, "Organic Teams—Part 2," detail how to construct Organic Teams based on the organic CAS model. But the question of control remains unanswered—how are agile managers supposed to control their teams that are organized according to the organic CAS model?

The objective of the Light Touch practice is to manage agile teams with a style that allows team autonomy and flexibility and a customer value focus without sacrificing control. The activities associated with this practice carry the following implications for agile managers:

  • Establishing decentralized control that defers decision making for frequently occurring, less critical events to the team
  • Managing the flow of customer value from one creative stage to another
  • Recognizing team members as whole-persons and treating them accordingly
  • Focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses to leverage people's uniqueness

The rest of this chapter lays out the activities you need to conduct to achieve this objective. The activities are grouped into two categories: intelligent control and whole-person recognition, and they are covered next.

Activities

Table 8-1 shows the leadership and management responsibilities required to establish Light Touch management on an agile project team.

The activities shown in Table 8-1 are covered in detail in the rest of this chapter, beginning with those in the intelligent control category, covered next.

TABLE 8-1. Establishing Light Touch: The Agile Manager's Responsibilities

CATEGORY ACTIVITIES
Intelligent control

Management:

  • Decentralize control
  • Establish a pull task management system
  • Manage the flow

Use action sprints Leadership:

  • Fit your style to the situation
  • Support roving leadership
  • Learn to go with the flow

Whole-person recognition

Leadership:

  • Maintain quality of work life
  • Build on personal strengths
  • Manage commitments through personal interactions
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