At the Agile2013 conference wrapping up today in Nashville, Tim Lister, principal at the Atlantic Systems Guild (ASG), a consulting firm, delivered a keynote titled, “Forty years of trying to play well with others.” Lister told conference attendees about how team dynamics have changed over the years and how these new dynamics bring new challenges to workplace collaboration.
In an interview with SD Times, Lister said that he and Tom DeMarco, his partner at ASG, had written a book called Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams back in 1997. The fundamental thesis of the book was that the most important issues of enterprise collaboration are more sociological in nature than technological. “Peopleware resonated with the agile folks a lot because one of the major tenets of agile is, we care more about people than process,” Lister said.
Lister and DeMarco wrote another book called Waltzing with Bears: Managing Risk on Software Projects. Lister said if you look at agile’s methods, they are also about managing risk for typical software project problems. “Agile projects are highly iterative where you have evidence of forward motion,” he said. “It’s a matter of percent done, delivering every few weeks, building the system up, visibility and things like that.”
Lister spoke about how everybody—especially young people—get all excited in business, expecting things to change right away but it never works that way. “We’re all swimming in this great river of time,” he said, “and it really takes generations to have really major changes happen, at least sociologically.”
One major change that’s occurring now is social computing, giving workers the ability to collaborate as never before. Lister said agile puts a big plus on discussions and steering a project as it goes. There’s a constant interaction where people are allowed and encouraged to change their minds as the product emerges. “It’s basically, the project as conversation, ongoing conversation and work,” he explained. “One of the things that’s interesting in agile is, what are the roles of certain kinds of people? What is the role of the traditional project manager, of the product owner or the sponsor who’s funding this project? How do you deal with the CFO who wants to know how much you’re going to need for the project next year?”
Lister described the differences between static, dynamic and complex. “Static is, you know where you are, and you know where you want to go to, what you want to build, and you know how you want to do it. Dynamic is where you say, I know where I want to go, but I’m not sure how to get there. I don’t know how we’re going to get to the end state that I know what the target is. And so we’re going to have to try things like prototyping and different kinds of experimenting to find our way, to get to the Promised Land or the delivered product.”
In agile, Lister said there’s complex, “which means I’m not even sure I know where I’m going, let alone how to get there. I’ve got this idea, but it’s not well articulated, the customers or the investors are dealing out this notion of what they have, this idea of the Promised Land. So, if we don’t know where we’re going, how we’re getting there is also a question mark.”
Lister said he thinks one of the great things that the agile community did is, “They said, ‘Hey guys, let’s wake up. It’s not working.’ Whether you’re a government project and you’ve got all these rules or whatever you are, this doesn’t work for many situations, and it just causes frustration and loss of time and money and disappointment. So let’s find a better way.”
Over the years, Lister said he and DeMarco looked at lots of projects that ended up getting cancelled and millions of dollars were lost. He said there wasn’t a technological obstacle that the teams couldn’t beat, but rather, a sociological one. “Basically, the evolution of the team has changed from the kind of the heads-down to what I would call dynamic leadership,” he said. “If you watch a team, depending on what they’re talking about, different people are the leaders based on their skills and their expertise. 
“And it’s become a very interesting collaboration where no one can say I’ve got all the skills to succeed. Rather, I need to rely on my colleagues and my cohorts—which makes the team wonderful. Together we’re going to do something none of us could do by ourselves. Even if given infinite time, we probably couldn’t do this. But we’re going to do it together because we’ve got a skills marriage here and we can make this work.”
Lister said things have come full circle, that interesting things are happening now in terms of people talking about iteration, about continuous delivery now. “People are starting to say things like, should we even have set hard dates for sprints and things like that?” he said. “Why a four-week sprint? Why don’t we size up the piece of work and do it and it takes us whatever time it takes us. And we’ll try to continually deliver the product out. This is actually a lot of the buzz here at the conference that I’m hearing this year.”