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The Agile Project Manager – You Can’t Handle the Truth!


One of my favorite movies of all time is A Few Good Men with Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise. I can picture that highly charged confrontation at the end clearly in my mind. You know the one.

Tom Cruise says—I want the Truth…
And Jack Nicholson leans forward, with that classic look, and says—
You Can’t Handle the Truth!

What a climax to the film. I get chills every time I watch that scene.

I’ve been thinking more and more in my coaching about why leaders and managers often wait too long to ask for agile coaching help. I think it’s a general phenomenon in agile (and non-Agile) teams and organizations, but for the purposes of this article, I want to focus upward—on “them”.

The THEM in this case includes:

  • C-level leadership
  • Vice Presidents
  • Directors
  • Managers
  • And even Project Managers

So, I hear you asking. What does the movie A Few Good Men have to do with leadership recognizing their weaknesses when it comes to agile transformation and asking for help? Well, I’m glad you asked. That’s where we’re going next.

Wise words from Ken

I received my CSM (Certified Scrum Master) certification in 2004. Incredibly that’s nearly 10 years ago and I was practicing Scrum for several years before that. I feel like a dinosaur sometimes when it comes to my agile experience (no comments from the peanut gallery please).

I specifically took my class with Ken Schwaber. I remember being underwhelmed at the time with the class, because I had so much experience. But over time, there have been snippets I remember that were quite profound and useful. I’ll share one of them now.

I remember Ken saying that:

Scrum doesn’t cause problems…any problems. It’s simply an Agile Project Management “wrapper” or framework. So, it doesn’t create issues or impediments or problems.
However, what it does do is this. It surfaces those things IF you have them. And it does something more. It surfaces them every day that they’re impacting your projects, progress, team, quality, commitments, etc. I.e., you can’t ignore them.
Or if you try to, they’ll just keep being raised until you resolve or remove them.

Or, and he didn’t say this, until you stop using Scrum or other agile approaches. That’s another way to handle these issues.

After more than 10 years of actively using Scrum and other agile approaches, I wholeheartedly agree with Ken. And as a leader, having held mostly Sr. Manager, VP, and Directors level roles during this time, I even more vehemently agree. If there’s an issue, impediment, risk, problem, fault, nuclear explosion, or whatever potential challenge facing your teams, then you better get ready as a leader, because you may be called on to…gulp…LEAD.

The Truth Is…

I believe many traditional leaders really struggle with “going Agile”. Sure, the speed and quality aspects seem attractive, as does the increase in delivering customer value. But the trade-off is what’s not that palatable. That whole thing of becoming a servant leader and engaging the team can seem daunting. As can the notion of trusting and supporting their teams—empowering them (the team) to tell truth in their estimation and commitments and trusting their judgment.

You have to be on top of your game as an effective leader and be willing to remove issues, impediments and challenges that quite often are system, organization, or political. It’s often risky and it requires courage on the part of the leader. Many of whom struggle to “Handle the Truth”.

Avoiding the Truth

I think there are many ways that leadership tries to avoid the truth. Many of these patterns have their genesis in Waterfall, where deferring or denial can be an effective short term response in projects. Here are a few patterns that you might have seen before:

  1. I don’t see the problem in exactly the same way you do. Please wrap up your problem statement, analysis, and resolution options in an email and send it to me. I’ll study your recommendation(s) and see what I think we should do next.
    1. Sometimes known as: simply buying time or opening the door to – analysis paralysis
  2. Don’t bring me problems…bring me solutions; no matter what the challenge!
    1. Sometimes known as: not facing reality, pushing ALL problems down towards the team and not wanting to engage with the team. Not being part of the solution.
  3. I really don’t agree that this issue is “Red” and impacting the viability of our delivering on time. I’d rather call it a “Mellow Yellow”, while everyone needs to work harder mitigating the issue.
    1. Sometimes known as: I’ve scheduled a vacation and I don’t want this to interrupt my Greek beach experience. My boss doesn’t need to know about it yet.
  4. I know we’re in trouble, but we must add these two additional features to the release. The CEO demanded them and I agreed that we could squeeze them in.
    1. Sometimes known as: we have no choice. Our customer is a tyrant and we have to do whatever they say. More often indicative of – I’m afraid of pushing back, trading off, or negotiation. We must say yes.
  5. Everyone, you committed to this project plan in the beginning and I expect you to work as hard and as long as necessary to meet your commitments. No matter what you “discover”. So, let’s get to it!
    1. Teams commit to early plans at the point where they know the least. Holding them to every line of code is unfair, unrealistic and cruel. Often there is the “hanging threat” of negative ramifications—project failure, company failure, loss of $$$, loss of job, etc. Truly the “stick” coming into play.
  6. Every Project Manager – I want you to work with the team to scrub the project plan looking for “optimization opportunities”. We’ve got to be able to improve this plan so that the results are doable!
    1. Sometimes known as: sick the Project Managers on the team. By looking at the minutia, they will eventually find a way for the project to be achievable (or recovered) on paper. Then it’s the teams’ responsibility to deliver. The devil is in the details…right?
  7. I hear all of your assumptions and contingencies, etc. But we’re going to commit to this plan and deliver 100% of what our customer wants, no matter what…right?
    1. Sometimes known as: Since I’m not doing the work, I don’t understand why you can’t make “magic” happen. Or as, this is simply whining to me. Stop whining, and start doing!
  8. If this project team cannot deliver on time, you’ll be forcing me to go to our offshore partners and fund/staff the project there. Those folks know how to suck it up and deliver the goods…
    1. This is another popular recent trend—getting teams to compete for work. Fear and threat being the primary strategy here. And it’s rarely the case that the offshore folks can do better, they just don’t complain until the very last moment.
  9. I find the team to be too pessimistic; all I hear is can’t, can’t, can’t. You need to be more “can do” and optimistic. I know you’re bright and capable, so figure out a way to get this done in time.
    1. Sometimes not delivering 100% or negotiating or saying no are not negative reactions. They’re realistic and mature reactions. They’re based on the reality of the situation. And solid leaders need to be ready to hear “Bad News” and then react effectively.
  10. I’m simply too busy to get involved in the details of this project. You’re all professionals, and you are paid very well, figure it out and deliver the good. Let me know when you’re done and we’ll deliver it to the customer together.
    1. The ultimate irony that I’ve never understood. Why do leaders disengage from really important projects that are struggling when their teams need them the most? Not micromanaging, nor remaining aloof, but truly helping the team negotiate and deliver an acceptable set of features.

These are simply 10 common diversions I’ve experienced with leaders trying to avoid the truth in one way or the other. Have you had similar experiences? Or care to share other examples of ways to deflect or avoid leading under adverse conditions? I’d love to hear more examples.

My Hope

My hope is that by making some of these reactions transparent, it will influence the “good leaders” out there to improve their reactions. So they start thinking about this pattern and trying to avoid it whenever possible. And start engaging their teams more and partnering with them on challenges, even when the going is tough or the answers aren’t what they wanted to hear.

That instead of avoidance, they’ll truly find the courage to effectively lead their agile projects and teams.

One final avoidance pattern, on the part of leadership, is often an inability to admit you’re in trouble, or over your head, and that you need help. Why is it so difficult to ask for help?

Perhaps it’s a bit of denial or inability to handle the truth? I also think there’s a bit of ego and hubris involved. Surely they’re in a position that requires them to “have all of the answers”. Well another part of solid servant leadership is showing humility, admitting when you’re wrong, showing some vulnerability, and…gulp…asking for help.

Please don’t shy away from these reactions as well. I truly think it’s a sign of strength in your leadership and not a weakness. And it will set a great example for your teams as well.

Wrapping Up

I hope this article hasn’t been too over the top or unkind to leadership. I’ve been in these same situations incredibly often over the years and I empathize with why leaders can find themselves in this denial and avoidance trap. Often they’re part of a dysfunctional organization or they’re a “lone voice” that nobody wants to hear. Or they’re personal lives and situation don’t support the notion (and ramifications) of “saying no”.

I get that.

But putting things off till later has never worked as a strategy for me. Things have always gotten worse. The best strategy that I’ve found for successful projects is engaging reality and your teams; then moving forward.

As always, thanks for listening,

By the way, if you haven’t seen A Few Good Men or if you’ve forgotten about the scene, click here for a snippet

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

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