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Why political candidates can't do agile

David Taber | June 10, 2016
It’s voting season, and we all know how candidates for office act. They have to be light on their feet, but their behavior is anything but ’agile‘… and their habits would destroy any agile project. Once you’ve absorbed that idea, substitute the word ’executives‘ for ‘candidates.’

It’s no wonder that the popularity of Congress is below 10 percent: the things that made congresspeople attractive as candidates make them unable to achieve anything concrete in session.

Now, very few people reading this article want to become politicians, but quite a few would like to become effective at leading agile teams. The thing is, you need political savvy for project management success. Here are my top five lessons:

  • Agile projects are rarely able to flourish without significant political/managerial air cover. Agile isn’t inherently sexy, doesn’t fit well with politically charged environments and, if anything, veers to the nerd side of things. Without powerful championship, an agile project is doomed.
  • Agile projects succeed because they do less “make work” and deliver more of what really matters. So promises should be framed in the light of “we’re doing only what’s essential right now, and anything that is optional must get delayed to later phases.” You must deftly and consistently notify people that some of their favorite-but-silly-items won’t be done until there’s budget for it. Use this line of thinking to form alliances and support from the CFO.
  • A key success factor for agile projects is the ability for every team member to talk expectations down at every possible juncture. Agile should inherently involve frequent 1:1 contact with users: use that time to lower expectations! Without this habit, the inevitable scope creep and the impulse to believe “of course the system will do X for me” will get you.
  • A key success factor of an agile project is the project lead’s ability to move quickly, glomming on to whatever hot topic is going to be easy to sell to corporate leadership. Agile’s proclivity for producing demos can make it downright sizzle-icious. So make sure there’s a cool demo for each sprint.
  • Agile projects are most effective when the environment is changing quickly and a big-bang release — any big-bang release — will involve a lot of waste. Agile project teams should focus everyone’s attention on delivering quickly and incrementally, and any impulse toward perfectionism or a slower release cycle must be firmly resisted.

It’s true that agile was conceived of as a way of bypassing bureaucracy and internal politics. But without the right kind of political reflexes, agile teams have a seriously uphill battle.


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