Agile antipattern: Target fixation

Have you ever been so focused on something that the rest of the world seemed to disappear for a while?  This can be great under certain circumstances, but in other cases it can be extremely harmful.  When someone focuses on a target and doesn’t see anything but the target we call it “target fixation.”  This can have dire negative effects!  For example, a fighter pilot can become so fixated on a target that they forget to avoid the target and run right into it.  The same can happen as we go through a curve in a moving vehicle.

Unfortunately, a variation of this can also occur to agile teams!  When it starts happening to agile teams it can be very difficult to detect and correct because everyone thinks they are doing the right thing.  It isn’t until much later when most teams finally determine this was the problem.Let me start by giving a few things I think happen when agile teams are too fixated on the target:

  1. It becomes vital to “hit the date” or “hit the story point goal” or whatever other goal is laid out.  While this is not inherently bad, when combined with some of the other items below it may be indicative of a problem.
  2. The team starts to cut corners on quality in order to hit the goal.  This is done subconciously in most cases.  Teams simply write fewer and fewer tests.  Especially automated tests.
  3. Risks and impediments are no longer raised in meetings.  After all, dealing with them may cause the team to miss the goal.
  4. Team members work more overtime hours – all in the interest of getting to the goal “just this once.”  If it happens more than once it is time to take notice.
  5. Team members start to silo rather than collaborate and communicate openly.  “If I can just stay heads down I can finish this” becomes a pervasive attitude.
  6. The team starts to think about dropping the daily stand-up meeting so they have more time to reach the goal.
  7. Retrospectives turn into blamestorming sessions.
  8. The team starts to miss obvious problems until it is too late in the iteration to do anything about them.

If your team is starting to suffer from more than a couple of these items you should take a step back and see if the goal has become more important than doing the right thing.  I tell my classes “Do the right thing and trust that the right things will happen as a result.”  Starting to do the wrong thing will not magically make the right results appear – except as a mirage.  Sacrificing something good will always lead to an issue further downstream.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can get away with it!

If a team is starting to overly focus on “the goal” to the detriment of doing the right thing then someone needs to step up and say it!  This is where the Scrum value of having courage comes into play.  If someone doesn’t have the courage to stand up and say it is broken then nothing will ever get fixed.  Teams can spin in this cycle for a long time if no one notices the problem.  On occasion a team in this mode will make all of their iteration commitments along the way and then have massive rework to do at the end.  No one ever traces it back to making the goal more important than doing the right thing.

Focus on doing the right thing, inspecting the results and adapting.  This is the only way to improve and reach real goals in realistic timeframes.  Some good reference blog entries to read would be:

Hopefully your team isn’t overly fixated on the target, but if they are, get it fixed ASAP!

Until next time I’ll be Making Agile a Reality® by pointing out to teams when they are too concerned about the wrong things (which all too often seem like the right things)!

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