Why I don’t trust development managers

I’ve been doing software development professionally for the last 25 years, almost exclusively in the Cleveland-Akron area, mostly with medium-size to large companies, and over the past ten years mostly with .NET Microsoft shops. About two thirds of them are proud to proclaim they’re “Agile.”

All told, I’ve seen how about eighty different organizations approach development. Narrowing down a bit, I’d say I’ve done relatively long-term projects with about a dozen reasonably large companies with “Agile” shops (generally all Scrum-based) in the past ten years.

And you know what?

I don’t trust any of them. Neither should you.

At one recent gig, I was a bit confused as to why the team manager kept imposing a list of tasks—excuse me, stories—for every sprint. I said, “We’re supposed to meet with the customer, share story sizes, listen to their priorities, and then see what will fit into the sprint, right?” The manager said no, his manager already told him what the “phase one” features and stories were… and furthermore, that we had to finish them all in the next three sprints.

Sprint planning meetings became a formality, because the results were dictated by a person who wasn’t even there to argue with. Sprint demos didn’t even have a customer. And worst of all–here’s where the mistrust comes in–all the individual team members were evaluated based on whether they hit deadlines, er, I mean, on how well their story completion matched those (coerced) predictions.

The key here is accountability. When the team doesn’t own the scope of work, then they can’t own the result. Further, we can’t possibly fulfill customer requirements when we’re not anywhere near the customer.

This is an incredibly common scenario.

Each of those dozen shops has been organized in a similar way. The details are different:

  • In one place, the manager simply insisted on adding work during the sprint by creating “bucket” tasks in advance. You can’t own the result of a “to be determined” work item. But it did help the customer fit things in when there was time.
  • Another manager required everyone to “burn down” exactly eight hours per day, even if that meant distorting the burn chart by burning on tasks that we hadn’t touched to leave times for the ones we hadn’t finished yet. If we can’t give real feedback during the sprint, we can’t adjust expectations. But it did reassure upper management that we weren’t slacking.
  • And in one organization, aborting a failed sprint wasn’t even possible because all the teams shared a Jira site on which sprint durations were set throughout the enterprise. It literally wasn’t possible not to be in lock step, even if (for example) an unexpected production disaster pulled us all off sprint tasks and forced us to start over. If declaring “failure” isn’t an option, we don’t have a way to recover from it. But it does avoid the stigma of reporting that we missed a target.

I think I’ve seen one time a development team that was allowed to self-organize within a sprint. Once since about 2006. It’s not terribly common.

So why don’t I trust development managers?

Because their sense of responsibility is one way. They’re still committed (upward) to hitting imposed deadlines, and that’s what they get evaluated on. So they evaluate us in turn in the same fashion.

Agile isn’t about hitting deadlines. It’s about early and continuous delivery of valuable software! If your shop is deadline driven, and if you’re evaluating developers based on making those deadlines, then Agile artifacts (such as burn charts) and methodologies (such as Scrum) are illusory… and we don’t trust you with them.

Do you want trust and commitment from your team? Then understand that accountability has to work both upward and downward. Most of all, and first, stop evaluating team members by external deadlines and start evaluating based on contributions to the team.


How did we get into this mess?

I’m in the midst of an email conversation with a pretty well-known turnaround CEO adviser, the kind of person who can Make Your Company Not Suck. He’s way beyond me in terms of influence and reach, and he consults enterprise-wide for way bigger outfits, but for some reason he ended up asking me why so many projects still get in trouble even though all kinds of training and certification are available these days.

This is about what I wrote back.

Continue reading How did we get into this mess?