The Teddy Bear and the Shark

I’ve noticed that how I discuss Agile concepts varies depending on my audience. When I coach teams, I tend to focus on what I’ll call Teddy Bear Agile: wonderful things like trust, teamwork, empowerment, communication, sustainability, humans over the machine, etc.  But when I talk to “the business”–product managers, account managers, executives–, I focus on Shark Agile: competitive advantage, getting ahead, ruthless prioritization, doing just enough to get the job done well, etc.  I truly believe it is both, but I am starting to think there is something wrong about the way I am talking about it.

My stance starts with belief in the Teddy Bear: people shouldn’t be miserable at work, and we as a world can and should commit to people being treated well.  I also believe that the Shark benefits are partly the result of following the Teddy Bear values (think self-determination theory).  I think the mistake I’ve been making lies in failing to acknowledge that this causality is only partial.  You don’t magically get all competitive benefits just by being a fun place to work; you must intentionally strive to be both the Teddy Bear and the Shark.

For example, if I only talk about the Teddy Bear with the team, then there is a risk that we forget that the company’s existence is contingent on successful competition by its products.  We could end up looking down on any talk of profits and competition as mercenary, and we might indulge human tendencies like perfectionism that drive us toward scope creep.  On the other hand, if I tell management that they get Shark benefits as a result of the team living in a Teddy Bear world, I risk pushing management toward a laissez faire attitude: They live in fear of the team, tentatively asking them for work and just hoping that it happens.

When things are good, you can afford to be imbalanced, ignoring the Shark, even if that’s wasteful.  Everyone is happy because of the Teddy Bear, and there is enough money rolling in to allow the Shark to be a little slow.  But when times get tough, you need to get the Shark into shape to ensure that the organization is lean and competitive enough to survive. Worse, if you’ve been leaning too far toward the Teddy Bear, when you hit the rough patch, people might say, “See, Agile doesn’t work”, when in fact you’ve been only half following Agile values/principles all along.  Management might suddenly go Full Shark and dump the Teddy Bear, resulting in an even less sustainable imbalance.

Because of the traditional dominance of the Shark-over-Teddy-Bear model, I believe there is often an over-correction. Running so fast away from the Shark, you can fall into the imbalance I have.  So: be the Teddy Bear and be the Shark.  Find your balance.  Here are some guidelines I plan to follow in an attempt to restore my particular imbalance:

  • Coach teams to keep the Teddy Bear, but add the Shark.  Don’t be afraid to remind them that “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.”  Keep that focus razor-sharp.
  • Coach management to explain why we are doing work and to steer clear of constrictive laundry lists.  This keeps team focus clear while allowing them the latitude to find the leanest alternative.
  • Drive for simplicity.  Stories and acceptance criteria tend to specify the minimum, but little keeps teams from flying right past that.  Don’t cut corners recklessly, but when things are good enough call them done and move on immediately.  Building this habit requires partnered discipline by people building products (“I’ve reached the goal, no need to build that extra little shiny thing”) and customer proxies like Product Owners, who can help by accepting work the instant a goal is reached and moving to the next focus without expending any additional time.
  • Above all: do not pander to audiences by focusing only on the face of Agile that is most attractive to them.

Have you found yourself similarly skewed in your focus?  Has your organization leaned too far one way or the other?  Can you look around you and point out people who are clearly Sharks or Teddy Bears, but not a happy balance of both?  I’d love to hear any approaches you’ve tried to fixing it.