Management Myth 33: We Need a Quick Fix or a Silver Bullet


A new approach to projects or a new tool is not a quick fix or a silver bullet. Too often, you have ingrained, systemic problems that require a cultural change. That doesn’t mean a new approach or a new tool won’t help. It can. But you also need to adjust the environment that caused the problems in the first place.

Dave, the VP, gathered his directors. "We need to go agile. Our profits are down. We can't release anything fast enough. Our customers are angry. We need to make money. We need to go agile."

Sherry, the development director, looked around. She said, "We need to be able to release more often. That's true. Agile might give us that. But I suspect you've got ‘silver bullet’ thinking. Agile is a cultural change. Are you willing to change our culture?"

"Absolutely!" Dave responded.

"So you'll rank our projects and manage our project portfolio for at least a month at a time. You'll stop moving people around teams. We'll pay off some of our technical debt. You'll stop hiring onesies and twosies of people all over the world and hire feature teams if you really need to hire people off campus,” Sherry said. “All of us have lists a mile long that we want to address."

Everyone nodded. Terry, the QA director, said, "My list might be two miles long." Some people laughed at that.

Sherry continued, "I'm all for going agile. But agile is a long-term commitment to change. Are you sure you want that? It's not a short-term fix. What business results do you really want?" Sherry looked at Dave.

Dave looked at his directors. They looked at him. There was not a smile in the room.

“I want some predictability in my projects,” he said. “I want to be able to release. I want to know that when I say to my peers that the software is ready to ship, it is ready to ship. I’m tired of not knowing anything.”

“We can help you do that,” Sherry said. “We can do all of that. We can do it with agile. We can do it with waterfall, but it would be more difficult. We can do it any way you want it. But you need to do your part.

“We didn’t get this way in a month or three months. We have ‘emergencies’ up the wazoo. You hire people all over the world, which could be a good thing, but the way you do it makes no sense for the teams we have. Right now, the way you hire people makes everything takes longer.

“You only tell us once it’s done, and we have to integrate these people into our work. We’re the ones who have to get up at four a.m. or stay late until seven or eight p.m. to make the time zone differences work. You tell us there’s no money for travel to bring these people up to speed, but you don’t hire people with the skills we need. It’s nuts.

“You, the management team, and the PMO can’t decide from week to week what the top-priority project is, and yet you want us to budget yearly. We have to multitask to get anything done. What we do makes no sense at all.”

Sherry took a deep breath.

“We have really talented people working here. We have ingrained problems that arise from years of ignoring them. We have tons of technical debt—we’re running just to stay in place on that. I don’t know what to tell you. We can do anything you want, but we aren’t going to turn this organization around in a month or two just because you want us to. Agile is not a quick fix. It’s not a silver bullet. We don’t have anything resembling an agile culture. Have you tried to get a purchase order for something we need? It takes months, and there’s no transparency.

“I’m not trying to complain.” Sherry held up her hand as Dave started to speak. “I’m not. I’m explaining where we are.

“What project do you want to release first? Maybe that’s the best place to start. If we release that, maybe we can get some breathing room.”

A New Process or Tools Is Not a Silver Bullet

Maybe you’ve had a conversation like this, or you’ve been subject to an agile transition or a tool transition where people thought it would cure all the ills of your organization.

The problem is that an approach to projects or a new tool is not a quick fix or a silver bullet. Too often, you have ingrained, systemic problems that require a cultural change. That doesn’t mean a new approach or a new tool won’t help. It can. The problem is that a new approach or a new tool isn’t enough.

Along with a new approach or a new tool, you need support and management change. You need to adjust the environment that caused the problems in the first place.

Know Your Business Reason for Your Change

I see too many managers want to transition to agile because “agile has crossed the chasm” or because “it’s the right thing to do” or because “everyone else has.” Well, I have my doubts about whether agile has actually crossed the chasm. Agile has jumped the shark. But have more than half of the agile transitions truly changed their culture and not fallen prey to bounce-back?

I’ve seen transition problems when a top manager leaves. The agile transition goes awry. I’ve seen agile blamed when a project doesn’t deliver. That’s an opportunity for a retrospective to see what went wrong. Maybe the project wasn’t to blame. Maybe it was something else in the environment.

As with every potential change, you need to know why you want to change. Do the business reasons support the changes you want to make? Is the organization ready to support the change? If not, what does the organization have to do to be ready to make that change?

Know Your Change Will Take Time

The bigger the change, the more time the change might take—especially if your organization hasn’t made changes in a while.

If you want change, try changing something you do first, rather than asking someone else to change first. You’ll lead the change and see how difficult it is to change something.

In the case of agile, you might try working in short timeboxes or visualizing your workflow first. You might try working in cross-functional teams, or try continuous integration. Try something you don’t already do that will move you closer to releasing the product faster. Experiment, and then retrospect on that experiment.

Who knows what you will learn?

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