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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 27, 2014 — Enterprise Agile Planning expert

Transparency in Agile Projects, Not Emperor’s Clothing

Enterprise Agile Planning

Transparency is the Fabric of Agility

Apparently insecurity about expressing truth and transparency is not a new problem.  Published back in 1837 by Hans Christian Andersen, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” accurately describes a phenomenon alive and well today.  In a nutshell, weavers (con men) convince an arrogant ruler who only cared for appearances, that their wonderful new fabric is invisible to those who are stupid or unfit for their position.  The ruler purchases clothes made of this fabric from the weavers so that he can expose those around him who are unfit.  The fear of being viewed as unfit leads the emperor and all those around him to openly admire the new clothes, reinforcing the illusion of widespread support.  It takes an innocent child with no agenda to point out the obvious truth – the emperor is not wearing any clothes.

Yes this analogy has been drawn many times.  We laugh at the story, but do we still fail to see the parallels in our own behaviors?

Cat in a Box

In business projects, the phenomenon looks something like this… The manager brings forth the plan and everybody readily agrees with it despite individually realizing there is little chance of success.  Regularly they parade to status meetings and with great pomp and circumstance, proceed to report how all is good and they will get it done (somehow).  Secretly, nobody including the customer believes this is likely, yet nobody dares to speak of this out of fear of looking incompetent.  Secretly, and then only with their deepest confidants, some will laugh at how clueless others are to actually believe this is workable.  Heck, even the manager doubts it, but won’t admit it either, also for fear of looking unfit.  Much effort goes into maintaining the grand illusion.  This goes on to the point that it is essentially woven into the fabric of the culture as they actually become to believe in false realities. Communal reinforcement becomes the norm.

Emperor New Clothes

Why does this paradigm persist so prominently still?  Why indeed is curious because the results are not good….

Customers lose faith.  Reality is that they rarely get what they really need, when it was promised or for the budget they agreed.

Project teams lose motivation.  They do not want to fail.  Quality suffers in an effort to get something delivered and they suffer burn-out through endless pressure to find a way.  They begin to feel hopeless and overcome by technical debt.  Productivity and morale suffer.

Managers desperately seek to hold it all together and their stress level rises as well.

Curious indeed – why would competent individuals run a business this way?  Reality always wins eventually, though some are good at maintaining the fantasy a long time.  So, why do some individuals enforce such a norm when actually each would prefer the truth?

Well I am not a psychologist.  But logically the behavior seems rooted in an inner insecurity and fear.  Humans are social wanting acceptance from others. Sometimes we assume that others are smarter and thus must be correct, leading us to doubt what we really know.

The larger the group, the harder it is to speak against the perceived majority position. The more challenging the project, the more likely we are to look to others for confirmation and question our own knowledge.  And when a person of recognized authority is setting the tone, the less likely their position will be openly challenged.

We won’t realize the benefits of agile until we face some of the human psychological barriers that inhibit change, even good change.  Logically we can see how agile works.  Yet, it still does not work well in many organizations or at least to its fullest potential.

Real change requires someone to come forward and simply tell the truth about reality.  That simple act alone can start a domino reaction of healthy change in cultural norms.  False realities are fragile and not sustainable long term.  Mere facts, data, and simple truth are their downfall.  Likely most others are not wanting to promote the false norm either, but do not realize that there are others like them.  So, one brave soul really can change everything.

Now ask yourself, is your organization truly transparent?  Are you really sure?  Does the culture promote openness?  Can project members be candid without fear of reprisals?  Cultural barriers to openness and transparency are significant impediments in truly becoming agile.

First clearly reinforce that transparency and openness are core values of your organization.  Set the standard, demonstrate it, and live by it.   Accept nothing less at all levels.  Remove any appearance of negative consequence for openness.  If you find candid response lacking, explore why without condemnation.  Organize people into small project teams as it is easier to be open within a small group (like agile framework promotes).

Maybe your organization just does not have the means to objectively assess true project status without emotional basis?

There is a simple solution and it takes the whole communal reinforcement problem out of play – use an agile project management system to objectively capture real-time project status automatically providing total transparency.  Review project status data pulled in real-time.  Burn-down charts and project dashboards provide immediate real status.  Make sure your teams are committed to accurate tracking and then trust what the data is telling you.  Real data communicates reality.  In Scrum, velocity enables forecasting based on proven performance.  Let measured velocity forecast project results with objective data.  Now nobody feels pressured to provide what they perceive somebody wants as an answer.  Let the facts speak.  Learn to trust the power of velocity.

Let transparency unlock real project team engagement and improve your business agility.

Is project transparency a problem?  Have you seen these behaviors?  Why does it persist?  How did you succeed in changing it?  Please share your comments and observations.

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