The Agile Project Manager—Listen to your Spider Sense

The Agile Project Manager—Listen to your Spider Sense

I was working with an organization a few weeks ago on a coaching assignment. They’ve been experiencing quite a bit of attrition within their technology teams and the discussion inevitably went to root causes. Several leaders at the client were confused about the drivers behind it.

One of them said that they had sat down with several developers before they left and everything seemed fine. They talked about the developers concerns and tried to address every one. They felt that there were “tuned into” the team and were trusted. They just couldn’t understand why folks were leaving without giving them an earlier warning…and more importantly, a chance to address their concerns.

Here’s another interesting ‘twist’ to the plot.

They had recently run an employee survey and the entire technology team seemed happy with their salary levels—generally feeling as if they were competitively compensated. So, everyone within the general management structure of the company took that “off the table”.

However and here’s the “Spider Sense” part, the technology leadership team at the company knew the following:

  • Local hiring for software talent was ‘hot’ and the company was an attractive target because of the talent of their engineers. The company was viewed as a high-growth startup.
  • Several key ex-employees had poached multiple engineers to their new organizations. This had been significantly on the increase over the past year.
  • In all cases when departures were made, it was heard through the ‘grapevine’ that money was a significant factor.  And the staff, while fairly paid, were not paid at a “premium rate” sufficient to compete in the hot local compensation market.

So as not to belabor it, the teams were telling leadership that compensation was not an issue. Yet, team members were leaving for significant compensation increases. Was compensation an issue?

From a raw, surface level data perspective, no.

From a an astute technical leader reading the landscape and their local environment perspective, leveraging their observations, knowing their teams, and finally…using their spider sense, the answer is a resounding YES!

The company will continue to lose people until it does something about their lack of compensation competitiveness—amongst probably other adjustments. It may not be the only challenge they face, but it’s certainly one of the “root causes” related to attrition.

Where was I going with this?

So what’s the point and how is it relevant to the Agile Project Manager?

Many naïve and inexperienced agile project managers react to the surface data that they are exposed to in their projects and teams. There’s usually plenty of it going on and it usually keeps their day filled with escalations, follow-ups, actions, and goals. It often is hectic and ‘feels’ as if you’re well-supporting your team & project.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. However, what if the “surface data” isn’t telling you the whole story or the truth. What if there are other undercurrents that you should be paying attention to.  And what if those undercurrents are the “root cause” of your team & project challenges and success barriers? Or they are the very things standing between your team’s ultimate improvement, execution excellence, and delivery success?

I liken this sensitized listening to project undercurrents as developing your spider sense. It requires you to read the landscape, listen to the pulse of your team and project, and ultimately putting the pieces together based on your experience and judgment. It requires you to hear the unspoken and see the invisible and sense danger wherever it lurks.

It requires boldness and courage, because often the data isn’t supporting your investigations—so you’re often going it alone on your instincts. So, what are some of the things you can do to develop your own spider sense? I’ll explore a few areas here, but surely the list isn’t intended to be exhaustive.

Listen to what’s NOT being said…

Your team is working incredibly well together. Everyone gets along and is quite nice to one another. During every sprint the team struggles, but within each retrospective nothing crucial comes out for improvement. From the teams’ perspective and from the immediate surroundings, nothing strikes anyone as needing adjustment or repair.

Yet you get the sense that folks are unsettled. Team members are often frustrated with each other and have a general lack of attention to quality or detail across the team. In meetings, only parts of the team engage—usually only 1-2 of the loudest individuals. Everyone else is simply along for the ride. The team also doesn’t seem appreciative of one another—never thanking each other for help or their efforts.

In this case, the team probably lacks the trust and courage to confront their own performance and hold each other accountable.  So what’s not being said is—congruent feedback and passionate debate. As an agile project manager, you’ll need to look for ways to improve the teams trust and engagement—perhaps levering your retrospectives as the place for crucial conversations.

Lack of Continuous Improvement

It’s a strong potential anti-pattern in many agile teams that they stop improving. Sure, when they’re just beginning or converting to agile they often show significant improvement and results. But over time, they flatten out and simply start mailing in their results.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re still a very high performing team that is delivering on their promises. But they’re not improving, nor are they ‘stretching’ in their sprints or taking risks. Often these teams show very little quality, execution, throughput, or innovation improvement over time.  But they’re not regressing either.

So you need to look for complacent teams and try to look under the covers to see what might be the root cause. Often I see leadership mucking things up in teams—subtly taking away some of their empowerment. Burnout is another frequent cause and yes, you can burn out agile teams!  Another factor might be the product organization not providing inspiration aligning the teams work towards business goals. Regardless, you spider sense is tingling and you need to explore further and devise adjustments.

Product Organization Dysfunction

Too often organizations expect teams to simply “suck it up” and give it their all for a paycheck and for the company. Today’s brilliant technologist and engineers are not motivated solely by the money. They want to work on compelling products that delight their customers. They are attracted to product visionaries that are inclusive of their teams. They want to work on great products and they want to be part of the organizations overall success. In a word, they want to work on things that…matter.

In this case your spider sense should focus on how compelling the business is within your teams. If they’re treating your teams like commodities, then you must challenge this complacency and pull someone in to inspire the team by explaining why what they’re doing is important.

One aspect of this sense is looking inside yourself as the measure. Are you excited about your projects, the potential, the meaning, and the impact they will make within your company? Are you excited about the difference they will make to you customers? Do you find yourself jumping out of bed in the morning and impatient to get to work? If your answers to these questions are less than stellar, then use your own feelings as a guide on what needs to be done.

Management Dysfunction or They’re not listening…

One of the more insidious patterns that I’ve seen in teams is that leadership is not effectively listening to the team nor taking action. It is perfectly feasible in my entry example, that team members early on shared their compensation concerns with management.  But what did management do with that information? If they didn’t respond quickly enough or significantly enough, then the teams would feel that “leadership” wasn’t taking their concerns seriously.

You see, it’s not just about effective listening. Nor is it about taking small actions or providing excuses. It’s really about those and then taking “appropriate action – fast, timely, well-apportioned, and impactful” that tells your teams that you are truly listening to their concerns AND that it’s worthwhile top them taking the risk to communicate them.

So you’ll want to pay attention to how leadership ‘listens’ to your teams and across the organization. Do they truly listen deeply? Do they plan actions to address impediments and concerns with the team? And do their actions, by and large, align with the needs of the team? Meaning they’re appropriately significant.

I’m not implying that every team-raised issue needs to be attended to. But by and large, your teams need to feel as if the organization cares and is listening—or they will simply stop telling you the truth.

Trust your “Gut” & your “Common Sense”

These final two areas are my guiding light when it comes to my spider sense.

I often go with my gut feelings in decision-making. They’re based on my experience and pattern matching abilities to team and project dynamics that I’ve seen before. They often focus what I’ve been observing and condense it into a singular sense or feeling.

For example, I’ve made three catastrophic hiring decisions in my career. And in all three cases, my ‘gut’ was telling me no, but my head was caught up in bringing them aboard to ease my burden. In all three cases, I ignored my gut feelings. I’ve never done that again.

And then there’s common sense.

There’s an expression in the southern United States regarding pigs. I’ll paraphrase it—if it looks like, sounds like, and smells like a pig…it’s probably a pig. Too often we complicate things. We try to gather too much data and create a too complex landscape. The company I alluded to in my opening was doing that. When they analyzed their attrition, they thought they had between 10-15 factors that were driving it. And that the factors were independent or unrelated.

But when you peeled through the data and got to an honest root cause, there were only 3 primary factors that were driving attrition—money, the technical challenge of the work, and the company’s product vision. And I strongly suspect their common sense and gut feelings aligned with those three areas.

Wrapping Up

As an agile project manager, I want you to start leveraging your instincts, experience and skill in gathering the ‘smells’ within your teams. Just because they’re self-directed, it doesn’t mean they don’t need your experience and help in guiding them through challenges.

Quite often you’re in a unique position to see the forest for the trees and sort of pull things together.

But as I alluded to earlier, it will often be risky and take courage. Everyone will be off barking in the direction of obvious challenges, while you’re guiding them to look in another direction. But don’t be deterred. As that old “Web Slinger” learned long ago…you need to trust your Spider Sense!

Thanks for listening,


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