“Personifying Practices” – A theory of Agile teams, Part 1

My human-factors research on Agile software development teams is developing a theory about what is going on in their environment, specifically regarding the impact of management and leadership in large organisations.

  • Part 1 (This article) – introduces the core category of “Personifying Practices” as a way of explaining certain human interaction
  • Part 2 – constructs the theory in more detail and how it manifests in four types of relationships that emerge in different conditions

Inductive research starts with a broad premise, asks intentional research questions and then narrows towards the development of a theory which is backed up by data gathered in the study. I’m using a method called Grounded Theory which aims to produce a theoretical framework that is “grounded” in the data and explains “what is going on” in the minds of the participants when grappling with the problems related to the research questions. After interviewing 25 senior Agile practitioners from around the world over 2 years I developed over 1000 codes of relevant incidents in the data and grouped these in a thematic structure of the main factors affecting Agile teams.

While these factors describe the environment, I hope that my research will contribute a theory that also explains it and is useful for Agile teams and managers in similar situations. A grounded theory is usually held together by a “core category” which must account for the most variations in data while also enabling sub-categories of the data to integrate into it. Many Grounded Theory researchers actually title their work with the core category as it represents their contribution in a field of study. For example Mark Hinton studied construction tendering practices in New Zealand and developed a theoretical framework centred on the notion of “Convenient Immorality”. Steve Adolph also studied Agile teams to understand how the process of software development was managed in practice and he integrated his theory into a core category called “Reconciling perspectives”. A successful core category not only carries the weight of the research findings but is also novel in its meaning and message.

In my research a likely core category that brings together most of the key findings is “Personifying Practices”. Together with an underlying framework it will aim to describe how people make sense of their work processes through human proxies which they form relationship with – whether positive or negative. Grounded theorists often talk of a light-bulb moment, when they have been searching for suitable vocabulary that adequately incorporates all their main findings. The social aspects of this study kept leading me to words and phrases that describe relationships and human interaction, but it was only when I saw these ideas in the important context of how people are grappling with work processes that it made sense. The two broad groups of workers being studied are the team members (developers, testers, analysts) and the managers (project managers, line managers, functional managers). Each group have work practices; conventions for how they do their job. I have written previously about how management practices derive largely from transactional leadership, while the Agile principles are more closely aligned with servant leadership.

Management practices are often well established in large organisations while Agile work methods are usually being adopted or less than a few years in common usage. Practices (or processes) are introduced so that work can be managed, measured and improved to achieve efficiencies and business outcomes; this is the breakthrough of the industrial revolution and what has made large organisations predictable and successful. It is also somewhat at odds with the iterative and experimental nature of Agile principles; Steve Denning contrasts them as vertical (management) and horizontal (Agile). In his article “Why do managers hate Agile?” he describes them as two different worlds, operating on different principles and which are ultimately incompatible. While this might be true, the reality is that Agile and management often have to co-exist and my research found many examples when such an environment actually produced great results.

This is the core of my research; what is it about the successful projects that other teams and managers can learn from? What can we learn from the unsuccessful environments where management and Agile proved to be incompatabile? “Personifying Practices” is how the Agile team often see an individual manager as the proxy for management bureaucracy that frustrates them (“organisational inertia”, “deadlines don’t change”). A manager might incorrectly blame a developer for lack of progress in a stand-up without understanding the principles of Agile methods (“old ways of working”, “trade-offs”). In both examples the underlying practices are being personified which leads to the factors being observed. This occurs not only in the actual human performing them (practices cannot perform themselves) but also in the perception by someone else of how well (or not) they are doing this – and this perception is often according to the other person’s definition of success.

In part 2 of this theory I will look at four different types of relationships that emerge because people “Personify Practices”. This will also explain how people are “Personifying Practices” as they interact with eachother and try to deal with the theoretical incompatibility of the principles behind the way they do their work. “Personifying Practices” is also more nuanced than the sporting analogy of “playing the man not the ball” because in successful environments this personification actually works well and contributes to great results (even though it might not be an intentional, conscious mindset). The essence of these human interactions and their properties form the building blocks of the theoretical framework of this core category – the subject of Part 2.

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