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This post is from the CollabNet VersionOne blog and has not been updated since the original publish date.

Last Updated May 29, 2014 — Enterprise Agile Planning expert

Missing Scrum Value: Accountability

Enterprise Agile Planning

Guest post by Manny Segarra, Warrior ScrumMaster at Truven Health Analytics

How can WE all go forward if YOU won’t come?

Finger pointing, blame game, and throwing people under the bus are classic strategies for self-preservation. It’s just easier to shed responsibility then to explain our failures. The habit of not placing blame or responsibility where it belongs is pervasive.

For example, tobacco companies were sued because smokers got cancer. Bars get sued because their patrons were charged with DUIs. And fast-food chains get the blame for our health issues. Agile has the core value of commitment, but that is an outward-facing concept: commit to the sprint backlog, commit to your team, commit to delivering value to the customer. We must first look at ourselves and when you turn commitment inward, you have accountability.

There must be group accountability mindset where responsibility, reward and failure are shared by everyone. It would be ill-advised to continue the old mindset of “it’s not my job/customer/project/etc.” The satisfaction of the customer and delivering value to said customer is the responsibility of all. If we work for the same company, how can we ALL not be held accountable for failure?

Start at the bottom and work your way up, but… start with yourself

Some companies have not bought into the agile “fad.” Others fake agile well and some will never understand the intent. Regardless of your position, you cannot think one way and behave another. That’s hypocrisy (see Washington, DC). Accountability begins with a promise for you, to yourself!

Each of the 5 Scrum values can be drawn back to you and how you apply them. There is no shortcut. Accountability demands you honor your commitment to the team and demonstrate courage to speak up when team agreements are not honored. How can we respect each other if we do not hold each other accountable for wrong behaviors? If we take our focus off the sprint backlog and scrum value, how can we blame someone else? If we are not transparent in our words and deeds, where does that accountability fall?

3 levels for accountability

A new perspective on an old metaphor, the automobile. The driver is the strategic level of the company, deciding on direction. Management will be the tactical level, represented by the engine. The operational level (the development teams) will be the tires, where the ‘rubber hits the road.’ Let’s start at the bottom and see how accountability works its way up.

Operational accountability

Companies want the performance of Pirelli tires from their teams. High-performance tires cost a lot but are worth it in the long run. For teams to be like Pirellis, they must be trained on the technology stacks with which they work, be given time to gel, work through some projects together – both good and bad, have the environment to thrive (team rooms, colocation, dedicated product owner and ScrumMaster), in a culture of learning. These things empower teams to perform like Pirellis, to produce the quality everyone deserves and customers demand.

What kind of performance can we expect from tires? Tires are accountable for the following: a smooth ride, handling well in tight corners and traction on tough road conditions. That translates to predictable delivery, quality-tested code (high-quality tests AND code), and the ability to respond to obstacles (roadblocks!). No one faults the tires when the direction constantly changes (too many projects). Tires can be blamed for not handling a sharp turn, unless too much speed is applied (scope creep)!

Accountability for the teams means making sure the team responds to the inputs from the engine and the driver to ensure that the car arrives safely to its destination, which is the end of the sprint. Teams must be sure to adhere to the rules of the road (team agreements), honor the speed limit (established velocity) and, if possible, avoid blowouts (not honoring the sprint commit!). All of these things are within our control and we must be accountable for them. Of course, a tire can perform better with…

Tactical accountability

How does the engine affect the performance of the tires? Well, when was the last time you took a hairpin turn, at night, in the rain, jerking the wheel hard to the left, while accelerating through the turn?! I do not believe even Pirellis can guarantee your safety in that scenario! But is that not how we drive our scrum teams… changing direction while demanding more velocity?

Management is the engine, responding to the needs of the driver, but not at the expense of the tires. In NASCAR, there is a piece of the engine that DOES exert influence and control of the driver. It is called a ‘restrictor plate.’ It limits the amount of gas that’s delivered to the engine, not allowing the car to go beyond a certain speed. This is what’s needed to control or hold to account the actions of the driver so that the whole car can perform, within limits, to finish the race.

The engine must be tuned and provided with replacement parts when necessary. How does this translate to accountability? Management must be accountable for throttling the power (number the projects) which teams are working on. The tuning of the engine is performed through portfolio management, agile coaching and training, to ensure all the parts of the engine are working in harmony.

Accountability is represented by emulating a well-oiled machine, meaning setting the example of high performance; a smooth hum of operation (consistent messaging), delivering torque to the tires (empowerment) and not allowing the driver to exceed speed limit (the velocity/capacity of teams).

The engine also provides feedback to the driver through the dashboard instruments. Temperature can be represented by morale, the speedometer (obvious!), gas consumption (steady pace), etc. The engine is the interface between the Driver and the Tires and should be accountable for the smooth transfer of inputs and outputs, between the two elements. Management is also in the unenviable position of responding to both levels, please keep this in mind and be kind!

Strategic accountability

Finally, the direction of the car is set by the driver. The driver turns the wheel and the car responds. When a car leaves Point A and travels to Point B, its common knowledge that a straight line is the shortest distance between these points. When “Speed-to-market” is the goal, why does the driver not hold the wheel straight? Why does the driver steer the car through an obstacle course, swerving to do Project B, around the cones to accommodate Project C all the while, expecting to arrive on time, with Project A?

Strategic accountability is set with clear direction and goals for the company. The driver is responsible for selecting which destinations are most important and keeping distractions (more projects!) to a minimum. Too many stops along the way (delays in decision making, delivery of equipment, not replacing a blown tire!) slow the trip. Focus on the destination keeps the car straight. A roadmap may help but try to know where you are going so you don’t have to read the map while you’re driving!

Look in the (rear-view) mirror

When you look in the rear-view mirror, it helps to see where you’ve been and what might be coming up behind you, but it does not assist in going forward. Accountability can take the form of a map! A map is a plan, at the sprint, release or portfolio levels. The key here is that everyone gets to look at the map and determine where best they can make the trip faster and easier. The way to help everyone is to share the map and make the destination transparent.

Looking into the mirror is another way of saying that you are accountable to yourself and every other part of the car that is depending on your efforts and desire to make the trip safely, on time, and arrive at the chosen destination.

What to do

If we step out of the automobile analogy and back into reality, how can we apply accountability in your company? This time let’s start at the top. Accountability for organizing the portfolio of projects lies at the strategic level. Poor planning will roll downhill and affect the tactical level with too much demand, without the proper capacity to match it. Management will have no choice but to schedule competing priorities, with many projects labeled as “most important.”

The operational level will be tasked to “work smarter, not harder” and that usually means overtime! Accountability at the strategic level is selecting business value and clearly communicating expectations and providing space for adjustments based on input from teams, clients, data driven decisions and other stakeholders. The best map in the world does not guarantee your safe arrival at your chosen destination, so be prepared for detours!

Accountability at the tactical level involves coordination between the plan and the teams, getting the operational level to see the map through the eyes of the strategic level. Adjustments to the plan are communicated down but management must be able to adjust plans upwards as well. Remember, you cannot always follow the map, as the map does not show construction projects, road closures or recently added roadways; we must have the ability to steer the plan according to conditions on the ground. Accountability applies to management by modeling the change in behavior they wish to see take root in the company. This allows the “social safe space” that’s needed for the operational changes to have lasting impact.

Finally, accountability at the operational level relies on teamwork:

Each member of the team is responsible for modifying behavior, collaborating between teams and management, right-sizing the work, adhering to coding standards, delivering on time, holding quality and morale high, addressing bad behaviors, molding their own mindsets, lending a hand to unblock problems, and adjusting to changes on the fly!

Quite the load of accountability here! When teams are overwhelmed with these responsibilities, revisiting the Scrum values, the roadmap, and applying their share of accountability can enable our arrival at the chosen destination!

Drive safe!


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