I was chatting with a coaching colleague, Emma, the other day about a challenge she’s been struggling with in a company she’s coaching.
First of all, she's engaging as an Enterprise-level coach. And as such, she spends most of her time coaching at the leadership level within the organization.
Cutting to the chase, here’s the problem she shared – looking for my advice & guidance:
Bob, I can’t seem to get all of the leaders at this organization aligned. Sure, they say they’re aligned with our agile principles and practices, but when it comes to holding their teams accountable to our agreements – some do and others don’t.
For example, our Sr. Director of QA places a strong emphasis on TDD and rigorous unit testing practices within the teams. And she reinforces this continuously with her testers who champion it within the individual teams.
However, each of the Directors of Software didn't echo her sentiments within their own teams. Sure, they talk about it. But not in the same fundamental terms as the QA Director. And, as a result, their team members don’t make it a priority and aren’t passionate about it.
Point being, there is misalignment around the priority, focus, and need for TDD. And that’s just one tactic where there is inconsistent alignment. There is almost no agile tactic where they (the leadership team) all agree.
And while this might sound like simple and healthy disagreement, the lack of alignment seems to be the root cause for our lack of progress in our transformation. As it leads to inconsistent leadership guidance and emphasis across all of our teams.
So, Bob, what should we do?
I was torn. I’d experienced this problem quite often in my own coaching. But I didn’t have a “silver bullet” tactic or approach to suggest.
Then we started to brainstorm together. How might a meeting be facilitated that would expose the misaligned leadership views and then work to better align them?
I had a weird thought.
I remembered the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza’s father explained the Festivus holiday he had made up to replace the Christmas holiday.
One of the aspects of celebrating Festivus was gathering your family and airing your grievances. It was a place where everyone aired issues that had occurred during the year, getting them out in the open.
I thought a similar approach might work in Emma's situation. What if she scheduled a meeting where:
- The team of leaders brainstormed the principles, tactics, etc. that they felt were misaligned.
- Then each leader would talk for 1-2 minutes explaining their view (posture, supporting position, etc.) on that tactic. In a round-table fashion.
- Once thru all of the views (perspectives), then the team would have 5 minutes to align towards a unified view. One that they could ALL support both within and without the meeting.
- This went on till all of the alignment disconnects were disposed of, discussed, and resolved. Clearing up the “grievances” if you will.
The exit criteria for the meeting would be alignment on any and all pertinent agile practices, tactics, and principles for that organization.
In fact, making a list of them, with everyone signing and agreeing to:
- Their understanding of it (including any subtle or unique nuance);
- Their support of it within their teams;
- Their support of it across the organization.
We became very excited about the approach and Emma became convinced to try it in her situation.
Afterwards, she alluded to the Festivus exercise as being very successful within her coaching context. Now the proof is in ongoing alignment, but I thought I’d share the exercise with you here because of how common this challenge is.
The Tactical Implementation
Emma made several tactical changes leading up to the Festivus. First, she gave a heads up to her leadership team to get everyone used to the fact that they were going to have to talk about their “feelings” with respect to their agile principles and tactics. She also gave them a couple of examples of the sorts of things that would be discussed.
Lastly, trying to find the right facilitator was an important factor. The challenge was this was all the senior leaders in the company and they did not want others to hear their dirty laundry. Emma thought of bringing in an internal agile coach, and external coach (me), and others. She finally decided to invite the CTO, who everyone reported to. While this was not her first choice, she knew the CTO well and felt he could handle the facilitation challenge.
Emma started the meeting with a fun video to lighten up the mood on what is a Festivus. Here is the link:
They also established the following set of ground rules:
- Vegas Rules
- State views and ask genuine questions
- Share all relevant information
- Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean
- Explain reasoning and intent
- Focus on interests, not positions
- Test assumptions and inferences
- Jointly design next steps
- Discuss the undiscussable issues
Everyone was given 5-10 minutes to write their “grievances” on sticky notes:
- Red items were the most serious areas of misalignment. They were high priority and needed to be resolved at the meeting.
- Yellow items where problematic and concerning, but not as troubling as the red, and
- Green items were things that were relatively trivial, but still of concern. Sort of focused towards letting everyone know.
Once everyone was done, the CTO reviewed the cards and started by reading a card.
The person who wrote it, spoke for 1-3 minutes, describing their position. Then individuals who had a different perspective would take 1-3 minutes to explain their positions. The discussion would then shift from explaining towards trying to gain alignment across the different perspectives.
Alignment was defined as:
When they left the room and each was asked about their thoughts on “principle x or tactic x” they would ALL have the same aligned and consistent response.
Once alignment was achieved, the aligned view was added to the note on the Festivus pole.
Emma’s leadership team had allotted 3-4 hours for this exercise and got through the red and yellow cards, but not the green. When everyone left they signed the pole. Emma told me a few days later that the event was a huge success.
However, one key thing that my colleague mentioned that really took the Festivus to another level, was directly after the Festivus ended, a team dinner scheduled at one of the co-worker’s house. This allowed the Festivus to continue throughout the night and really took this leadership team from a storming into a norming phase.
I want to truly thank Emma for sharing her notes from the session.
In my own coaching journey, I see a lack of leadership alignment in nearly every coaching engagement. Sure, everyone on the surface says they understand their agile approaches and claim to be aligned.
But just like in my colleague’s example, I see leaders not walking their talk within their teams and across their organizations.
In other words, their behavior doesn’t align with their words.
And this is not a slight problem. It undercuts the alignment of the entire organization as it seeps into each of the functional teams and creates unaligned team behavior.
I’ve always said that you can measure the alignment of a leadership team in how they would interact when confronted with a principle-based situation in the hallway. For example, using the TDD example above, will every leader emphasize the importance of TDD within their own teams, across teams, and across the organization when explaining and defending the practice? Even if they personally struggle with understanding it or believing in its effectiveness?
If the answer is yes, then you’re aligned.
If no, then perhaps celebrating a bit of Festivus might be the way to go. And please skip the feats of strength.
Stay agile my friends,