Where is the greatest friction?

Posted by Doc
Aug 03 2011

Between coaching and training, I’ve dealt with a number of organizations that are trying – in one way or another – to adopt Agile principles, practices, and methodologies.

I’m frequently asked “What is the hardest part? Is it the engineering practices? The predictability (or lack thereof)? Staffing?”

None of the above (you probably guessed that).

Boundary friction. Yup, that’s it. Boundary friction.

Train TracksImagine two trains. They’re running on tracks that sometimes run parallel, and sometimes diverge and come back together. When they get close enough, they actually touch.

Got it? Got the image of two trains racing or plodding along, coming closer and moving farther away, and sometimes coming into contact? Can you hear the train whistles and the sound of the wind and the wheels?  Feel the vibration?

If they’re both moving at the same speed, what happens when they come together?

Nothing. Smooth, easy, no friction.

What if they’re moving at different speeds? Faster versus slower is not better or worse, just different. So what happens?

Friction. Things heat up, maybe metal gets bent or crunched or marred. It is not smooth and easy, is it?

When organizations are implementing agile (or any systemic change, really), without considering the whole organization, friction is inevitable. Let’s say that Business Operations is used to doing things one way, and isn’t ready to change (yet). Along comes this project team that’s doing Agile. Again, I’m not arguing that “agile is faster/better”, I’m just saying that it’s like they’re moving at different speeds. Where they come together, there will be more or less friction depending on how close to parallel and how close to the same speed they are.

In this case, it means that if both organizations are not embracing the change in similar ways, there will be more friction.

You can’t impose a change on part of the organization without affecting the rest of the organization. That’s ostrich behavior.

The trick, the secret (it’s actually neither a trick nor a secret, though) is to figure out how to get them to truly come together.

That doesn’t mean telling Business Operations (or Sales or Product Management or…) “For this to work, you have to adopt Agile principles and practices and methodologies. Now. Today.”

No, it means figuring out how to evolve together, taking smaller or larger steps when they’re appropriate. Like embracing the Last Responsible Moment principle. Like the Simple Design principle.

Implement as much change as you can readily absorb, in order to get you a bit further along. Then inspect and adapt. Don’t rush.

Organizations are organisms, and the organs and skeletal structure are all part of the same organism.

Or trains. Yeah, they’re trains. 😉

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