Does Your Culture Require Your Demise? Pig & Chicken 3 [Agile Safari]


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Pig & Chicken Part 3 is about the bigger picture. It is about the culture of your organization and about memes that exist within that culture. Beyond just delivering a ranked list of “stuff”, can you commit to being your best self each day?  What does it mean for YOU to commit to the organization? What is expected of you? What do you expect from each other? I’m not just talking tangibly… what does expectation feel like where you work? Is it sustainable?

Recap: Pig & Chicken Part 1 is about letting teams focus and figure out how to do the work. Pig & Chicken Part 1 (the ‘classic’) the pigs are supposed to represent the team and the chickens are supposed to be “everyone else.” In the past, some people compared the chickens to management, and it led to people saying “we have to keep the chickens out” (and much worse). Pig & Chicken Part 2 is about being all in as an organization, so everyone is in sync with the top priorities of learning and delivering value. In Pig & Chicken Part 2, we are either all in this thing together or we aren’t — make a choice and decide what organizational commitment means. 

We Commit All the Time

Commitment is a big word in agile and life in general. We commit in personal relationships. We commit to family and friends. We commit at work. We commit all the time, frequently without thinking about it much. When we commit at work, it frequently happens without thinking about it.

  • We have “official” commitments where people commit to getting a bunch of work done by a date.
  • We have estimates about when features will be done, which become commitments in many cases.
  • We commit to each other all the time both formally and informally.
  • In agile we are supposed to commit to things (yes, even if you say forecast).

Take 30 seconds and think of one or two commitments that you have made. Are you all just marching to the beat of some meme that has been there “forever?” Are you committed in an irresponsible way? Do you and others even realize it? Are there memes or currents that are pulling you away from shore?

What Does Commitment Mean at Amazon?

The pile of articles and discussions about Amazon in August of 2015 (this cartoon was originally published on September, 2015) caught my attention and while this article is not intended to be about Amazon, there were a lot of tie-ins. For those of you who were not been sucked into this story, I see a lot of relevance with this idea of culture and memes. I’ll point you to some articles, in case you want more info, but here is my short version…

  1. It “started” with the article (by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld) in the NY Times titled “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” Among other ideas (e.g. toil long and late, sabotage each other, etc.), the one that Amazon just cuts the bottom ranked performers each year seemed odd, at least to me. This reminded me of the old GE approach of cutting the bottom 10%. The premise was that if everyone is ranked on a bell curve and you have some so called A players and some so called F players, you cut the F players and you are in better shape. It seems logical. However, this is heavily dependent on how people are ranked and on ranking people individually. It also presumes that some portion of your people suck. So IF you hire awesome people, are you okay firing the least awesome percentage of them? It can also create a system where individuals are competing against each other, at the expense of effectiveness. Finally, it does not seem to jive with Amazon’s principle No. 5: “Hire and Develop the Best.” If you are just cutting the so-called bottom and they are awesome, that seems like you have issues with your leadership. If people are not “the best” yet, don’t you have to also look at your leadership, since they are not helping people develop? Obviously, I don’t work there, so maybe this is going on, but reading story after story (and there are thousands of comments on these and other articles), at a minimum, leadership has some responsibility!
  2. So was the story true? An Amazon employee posted an article on LinkedIn refuting it (in his experience). The NY Times responded to him and other criticism with a clear, and to the point assessment of the article. Ultimately, the initial story seems to hold up.
  3. In yet another article (by David Streitfeld and Jodi Kantor) titled “Jeff Bezos and Amazon Employees Join Debate Over Its Culture,” They include some excerpts from Mr. Bezos to employees, where he told workers “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t either.” I read that as ‘this is not the culture I know at Amazon.’ And, in a letter to employees, Bezos states that Amazon would not tolerate the “shockingly callous management practices” described in the article. He urged any employees who knew of “stories like those reported” to contact him directly. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.” {my emphasis}  This last sentence really struck me. This does not appear to be a guy who is playing around. This does not appear to be someone ducking the issue.
  4. Finally, in “Work Policies May Be Kinder, But Brutal Competition Isn’t” Noam Scheiber points out that “The account appeared to put Amazon at odds with recent workplace trends, but the reality experts say, is not nearly so neat: Grueling competition remains perhaps the defining feature of the upper echelon in today’s white-collar workplace.

Amazon is a large company, with 180,000 employees. There does not seem to be a belief that these stories are false. So how does it come to be that this kind of thing can happen in an organization like Amazon. I can understand it at a company with a CEO who would never ever consider making some of the statements that Mr. Bezos does (e.g. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.”) But for a company that has a CEO like him, how did it get that far?

When Did Commitment Have to Mean Your Demise?

If you work at an organization where the culture is leading to your demise, at what point do you have to make a choice? Or are you just trapped there? If you are a manager at one of those organizations – what is it like for you? Are you okay with that type of organization? Even everyone is in agreement (like in the second panel of the cartoon), does that make it right? Part of this is the culture of “being busy.” Does that actually work? We know that working 70 hours a week does not produce better results (“The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies). I’ve personally been struggling to write. I realized that I need a lot of slack for my brain to reach that point where writing flows. A lot more than I thought. When I’m traveling a lot, I am just not in that space where the ideas flow and connect in a way that I’m happy with. I can certainly blast out a few pages of thoughts, but it does meet my quality standards!

Y’all are so busy being busy you aren’t getting anything done!” — Peter Saddington

Bring in the Hero!

Talking with Allison Pollard on this topic, she pointed out the craziness of needing a hero or heroics in every sprint (or project). Do you want to be a hero? Is the whole team heroes? Do you wear costumes like these people?

I’ve been the hero.  I’ve saved the day. I’ve worked on major holidays. I’ve stayed up all night to fix problems in a code base or with down data lines. I’ve watched a lot of others do it as well. I HAD TO! Who else could do it? Or at least that was the story I told myself. I’ve gotten exhausted by it. I’ve watched others burn out or worse destroy their health or their personal lives. And sure, there are situations where that is required (the late nights). They are real and at least some of the ones I’ve experienced were like that.  “Yes I’ll work all night so that the stores can open on time and help the customers.”  But it is a very slippery slope.

This bullshit about constantly saying “well… we just have to get through this one thing“, is absurd!

Sustainable Pace

The cartoon points out the insanity of how often we fall into a culture or a meme where we will sacrifice almost anything and often ourselves. Sure, I have not heard anyone actually say “team, we are going to put so much into this effort that we are literally not going to be around for the results.” But, in practice I see people doing this all the time. This is not a sustainable pace. I’ll say it again, this is not a sustainable pace!

How is serving yourself up on a plate sustainable?!?

Perhaps you should consider some changes if you are effectively destroying yourself to deliver. How does “Deliver Once” make any sense???! It’s sad. And it’s not helpful in the medium or long term… Likely not even in the short term!

What culture do you actually have? There is the one you want and the one that exists. There are memes within that culture. How are you staying aware and engaged enough to know? If your organization’s plan is to thrive or survive by ‘taking out’ it’s employees one project, weekend, or evening at a time — It may be time to get some help and make some changes!!

What do to?

  • Engage in conversations!
    • Ask for help from people and teams. If you are not hearing anything, you might try asking people what they have heard, rather than their direct opinion. I don’t love this approach, but if it opens the door to the conversation, I’d rather use this than not hear from them.
    • Ask yourself how often you say or hear “we just have to get through this one thing”, again and again and again. Ask others in the organization how often they say or hear it?
    • Agree on ways to reflect on this with the people throughout the organization.
  • Interested in training to create an environment where you are helping teams and people engage? Want to understand how to lead teams to high performance? Take a look at Agile Leadership, an advanced training course for leaders, managers, and agile coaches. Tackle the real problems on the teams using tools, techniques, and concepts from brain-based training, professional coaching, facilitation and much more!

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  1. Jake – great stuff! Sometimes the only way management gets the message is when some of the best people leave, and articulate their reasons clearly in the exit review. Finding a new job can be a drag, and being really honest on exit might not be common. So either folks just stay and tough it out, or leave & don’t specify the reason. The axiom that people leave their supervisor, not the job or the company, does tend to be true. Treat your biggest asset (your people) well, or suffer the consequences!

  2. Paul, yes, I agree. I find so often people simply just miss the fact that people are not satisfied OR don’t see any other option to creating a better environment (there are almost always more options!). I also find that, as in the cartoon, sometimes everyone seems to be on board with the insanity because “that is just the way it is.” Certainly people might enjoy a high-speed pace (or even being the hero!), but if the business model is based on that, even IF everyone is on board with it, you have start to question the viability of the model.

Jake Calabrese

Jake Calabrese is a coach, trainer, and coach-consultant working to help organizations meet the promise of agile by going beyond agile practices to address culture challenges and help teams and leaders reach and maintain high performance. He has unique expertise as an Organization & Relationship Systems Certified Coach (ORSCC), a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC), and Professional Certified Coach (PCC), and as a trainer and coach for Agile Companies (helping non-software organizations use agile). Jake created the AgileSafari cartoon series to introduce humor into the more challenging issues we have to tackle. Jake uses ideas from various areas of thinking such as: Lean, professional coaching, neuroscience, psychology, facilitation, brain-based training, improvisation, agile, kanban, and scrum. Jake regularly speaks at local and national conferences including Mile High Agile, Scrum Gathering, and Agile Alliance Agile20xx conferences.

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