Wednesday, December 04, 2013

La Russa Agile (and Beyond) Innovation #7 of 17: When You're Going To Get Hammered Anyway, Just Do the Right Thing  

People managing Agile/Lean initiatives are too often reporting to the functionally naive executives who believe, or claim to believe, one can do "More With Less", a dying but still too-common cult-like belief. And those cultists will use any excuse to thrash or torment the operational manager whenever something doesn't work out. Hard to believe, but in some significant ways, that buys the manager some efficiency in decisionmaking...because if you're doomed to aggressive criticism not matter what you do, you are free to do the right thing, not the politick thing

This freedom extends beyond Agile projects. This liberating cognate would have been a perfect salve for the beleagered management of the team that rolled out the not-agile Healthcare.Gov project. More than a month before the delivery deadline for the web-based exchange registration system, an executive announced the team would need to stop working on the site's construction and delivery because funds were running low (┬┐remember the sequester?). He needed time to try to gather funds from related agencies to pay for the last lap.

That meant for at least days and maybe more time than that, work on the project was stalled while the deadline was not, a universal, almost-guaranteed formula for quality shortfalls. Since the site appeared on time in the state it was at that moment, it seems highly probable that either the team cut testing corners, or tried to do "more with less", kless time that is, again an almost guaranteed formula for either quality shortfalls, budget overruns, or both.

I was not a fly on the wall, but I'm lived through enough of this type of donnybrook before to share an educated guess you probably already know. Someone(s) up the chain of command had politick reasons (not utilitarian ones) to deliver on the deadline promise. Maybe that someone(s) also had pledged the budget ceiling would not be broken. So the team leader/scrum master/ stigmata-collector had to suck it up, knowing full well SOMEthing would break: either the budget, the testing protocol, or the deliverable or some squalid puu-puu platter of those.

But that human pin-cushion of a team leader was going to be frelled no matter which of those almost-guaranteed failures happened. Because the combination of (the total visibility that any human services government project has) .and. (the politickal opposition's determination to flay the team even if nothing had gone wrong) guaranteed not only a poor functional outcome, but a career- limiting outcome for the team and its leader.

In that case, the team leaders were liberated. They were going to be "moving on to pursue other interests" NO MATTER WHAT. So instead of trying to please their many critics or non-operational management, they could have done the functionally right things.

The way this works is best explained by Tony La Russa, one of the inventors of Agile management techniques and the now-retired manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.

He describes a decision that is guaranteed to cascade throughout the game he's managing. This is not just any game, but a very critical game, the 3rd game of a best-o'-seven World Series. ( Baseball managers make more decisions for each game than the average C-level exec makes in a month). His starting pitcher is Kyle Lohse, a team member who has had a high-quality comeback season, but is, as the season is wearing on, starting to struggle earlier and earlier in games. And it's a given in Baseball that a team wants the starting pitcher go finish 6+ innings because that protects the team from having the weaker members of the bullpen appear more.

It's early in the World Series (not so early either team can finesse a loss, but early enough that any decision to use or not use team members has sharp consequences for the rest of the short, zero-sum tussles). As La Russa writes in his book, (pages 348-350):

The first time through the order, Kyle Lohse has his usual arm action that produced good velocity and movement as well as deception on his off-speed stuff, but in the span of six pitches in the bottom of the fourth he gave up three runs. We could see he wasn't the same pitcher we'd seen those first three innings, and when he gave up another hit, it was time for (key, usually reserved for late innings, not a weaker relief pitcher, Fernando) Salas.

This was an unorthodox way to try to get a win but this was the World Series and our evaluation was based on who had the most quality pitches to give. I didn't worry about what would be said about it, or (what would have been said) if I hadn't made the move. That's the immunity I talked about -- just do what you think is best -- if it doesn't work out you're going to get hammered either way.

There are, sadly, no shortage of these situations. Corporate life, fortunately for people who work in that realm, has less visibility as Baseball or government, but we've all faced key initiatives with strong advocates and "opponents" (rival executives) who would love to capitalize on glitches or failures for their own personal aggrandizement, regardless of what the cost would be to the organization.

It's costly in time, careers and stress. Think how much stress you could avoid or deflect if you could channel La Russa and Baseball's way of doing it: When a hammering is inevitable either way, do the right thing.

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