Watermelons Exploding with Fear

We tried to cancel a sprint for a release, but were told that failing was unacceptable. We failed the sprint, and the release.The agile community is currently abuzz with talk of teal organisations, inspired by Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux. I’ve been considering the organisation I’m currently helping through transformation, and where on the colour spectrum we sit. Given that we’re transforming we have two personalities. The message to the world is that we’re agile, we empower our teams, and therefore are a green organisation. Under the surface though, we find ourselves deep within a red organisation. And so just like our developers see watermelons in their unit tests, we agilists see watermelons in our organisations.

I’m frequently caught out by how hard transformation is and how long previous approaches or thought patterns persist. Sometimes that means organisations turn sprints into gantt charts. These can be useful during a transformation, but the important thing is to make sure that you are communicating with everyone so that there are no surprises. But we have the power of agile on our side, right? So even if the worst does happen, we have the ability to deal with it.

Currently my organisation is working on  a monthly release cycle. During the sprint the team considers an item done when it’s finished going through the test environment and before going into pre-prod. In the run up to a release the team helps the work go through pre-prod, and then attempts to deploy after hours on a Friday. We knew that we would need to be on hand for this process, but we didn’t know that we were going to be doing the process. Nor did we know that there was a plan somewhere saying that we were going to have a week between sprints for it.

The start of the sprint before the release was like any other for my team. We aren’t fully scrum yet so there are some ceremonies we miss, one being sprint planning. If only we had done sprint planning we may have found out that we had a week between sprints planned so we could do the release. Over the next week, one by one, the team started to work on one problem or another to move the release forward. This was the first release the team had attempted in months, and as a result the complexity was high. After three days I realised that we were putting the current sprint at risk and putting an incredible amount of pressure on the team by asking them to do the two things at once, and so I decided that it was time to call time on this sprint.

I went to the PO, and explained the situation and advised him to cancel the sprint because we were not fulfilling our obligation to the team to enable them to deliver the work we want. He agreed, but wanted to speak to the PM (yes, we have a PM too) in the decision. Later he informed me that we didn’t need to cancel the sprint because we have contingency built in. I was confused to say the least…

Later that day another conversation happened between myself, my PO, and my PM. I reiterated our responsibilities to the team. The fear of failing was tangible in the room. We discussed what we needed to do, and left the room with an understanding that we would cancel the sprint and concentrate on the release.

Just before my last meeting of the day I sent an email to the department head informing him of our decision, and what we were planning to do instead of sprinting. He responded by inviting me to a meeting first thing the following day.

The next day the watermelon exploded. We didn’t cancel the sprint. We pressed on with the release, which was due to be that evening. One by one I had explained why we as responsible managers should do something to support the team through what was becoming a tricky release, but there was too much fear ringing in their ears to hear a lone voice saying that we should concentrate only on the high risk thing. I went home feeling demoralised, and dusted off my CV ready for what felt like the inevitable.

Over the weekend I saw emails about how the deployment had not been successful because another team had got in the way. During the following week we had two more attempts at going live, with the third attempt being successful. One of my team had to take a day off due to exhaustion. A few more days passed and so did the end of the sprint. No ticket made it through to done. The team was feeling tired and unloved.

The values of scrum aren’t just pretty words to stick on the wall. They are the rights of the team, and the responsibility of management to provide them. When we see them being broken we need to call it out and act upon it. This is a much more powerful time to take a stance as you can inform those affected by the change in circumstance ahead of time, allowing them to update their plans accordingly. Leaving expectations where they stand when you have information that contradicts is not only unfair to other people, it’s also setting yourself up for an even bigger fail.

Have courage, and remember that most people are reasonable at heart.

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