Agile, Apathy, and Power

A young boy in a struggling family, Charlie was on the hunt for the last chocolate bar in town would contain the Golden Ticket that permitted exclusive access to the Wonka Chocolate Factory.  The more bars he unwrapped, the more his hope diminished that the Golden Ticket would never come to him.  The information about where the ticket could be would never be revealed.  How sweet, then, that the Golden Ticket ended up being in the last chocolate bar he gave away to Grandpa Joe.  Charlie tours the chocolate factory and saves the day.  Regretfully, software development stories are rarely so savory.

Scarcity feeds resentment, according to , who holds Harvard Business School‘s Arbuckle Professorship who both specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership, and is the author of SuperCorp: How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profits, Growth, and Social Good. (New York: Crown 2009).  Kanter is self-described on her blog as ‘The Changemaster.’  She is no one to be trifled with and certainly someone you want on your side.

Kanter compares information distribution amongst teams to animals fighting over the crumbs strewn about the ground by their master.  Powerlessness, she posits, is particularly apparent in the middle ranks–exactly where most software quality assurance teams are positioned.  Making matters worse is that QA organizations are the groups most belaboured with forms, procedures, documentation guidelines, and processes.  Even with Agile principles, which dictate proactivity, constant communication, and empowerment as tenets, is Agile truly powerless in the presence of information misers?

Perhaps not.  The power of Agile software development, and the effectiveness of an Agile QA team, is in its quiet persistence and discipline in following Agile methods.  No matter what information is withheld, you must continue to write bugs on stickies, questions and blocks on other stickies, and move them to the proper area of the Scrum board.  Get on your feet (get up and make it happen) many times per day.  Rather than get stuck on what you don’t know, make transparent what you do know–or what you do know you don’t know.  Kanter continues, “The powerless retaliate through subtle sabotage.  They slow things down by failing to take action–a form of pocket veto, in which a bill is killed simply because time runs out.  Negativity and low aspirations show up in behaviors psychologists call defense pessimism, learned helplessness, and passive agrression.  It doesn’t have to be that way.”  Agreed.

Know these strategies and seek to nip them in the bud as soon as you spot them in any of your business partners.  Everybody has a bad day, some people have a bad week, and let’s face it: some people just seem to have a bad life. (You have to wonder if they want it that way; I know some people who seem to almost go out of their way to be miserable.)

Kanter has hit the jackpot in terms of a veritable decoder ring for how to deal with the snails and naysayers of IT.  Software development teams are the heartbeat of application development, and QA is the monitoring system.  Fight back with quiet discipline and unwavering persistence in raising blocks, communicating status, and triaging bugs with the product and technical implementation leads.  Seek to escalate what you can’t control and handle what you can fit into your little skillet of influence for your iteration.

The show of unwavering discipline in the face of apathy can be powerful all by itself. It’s an effective use of non-violence.  Passive aggressiveness is a dangerous form of aggression because the aggressor can fool themselves into believing they are not the aggressor, but rather you are when you react to them.  Not only are you not reacting to implement power against those who would try to overpower you, but you are using their strategy against them.  You are doing exactly what they said they wanted in the first place–to do Agile Scrum (or Agile, or iterative development, or whatever it was they said they thought they wanted).

What’s more, the people who would slow the process down can’t stop the Scrum team from recognizing excellence within itself.  Give thanks in the standup, and give it so that people can overhear you.  In the commitment, give compliments.  In the retrospective, be rollicking with regalations of responsible rites.  Kanter concludes, “Giving associates opportunities to develop initiatives and be recognized for them can result in small wins that propel big changes.  Deep and wide involvement can spread power: tens of thousands in communication networks, thousands in brainstorming sessions, hundreds on problem-solving teams.  Great leaders build confidence in advance of victory.  When leaders consider new directions, their list should start with an organizational culture that grows the power pie.”

Not only can I not disagree with any argument referencing pie, but with QA being the organization that is always thinking of new angles to test their products, aren’t we the organization most naturally set up to step up and lead Agile software development?  When Agile seems powerless, QA has the real power.  It’s yours for the taking!

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