Principles Part 3 - Service Agreement

When we left our hypothetical team last post, they had the first 4 of my principles applied -

  • They are built around small, self-organising teams

  • The team has a clear vision of what they are doing and where they fit into the bigger picture

  • The team has a well defined backlog of work

  • There is a content authority responsible for making sure decisions are made quickly

They have their powerful delivery engine (the team), they have their destination in mind (the vision), they have their route planned (the backlog) and they have someone looking head and changing the route (and even the destination) if things change (the content authority). Is that all they need?

No (otherwise I would only have 4 principles not 7). The team is going to need some support from the organisation. Management support to help remove roadblocks, release funding appropriately, make sure the team has the right resources and so on. At the same time, the organisation needs to know that the team is going to get to its destination in a reasonable time and at a reasonable cost. After all, this isn't a casual road trip; the purpose is clear - to deliver business value, and the organisation needs to know that the team is doing that.

This is where principle 5 comes in -

  • There is a clear bidirectional service agreement between the team and the rest of the organisation

In traditional organisations there is a clear service agreement but it only runs one way - the team is tasked with doing a job within certain constraints. The organisation puts expectations on the team which the team agrees to. The organisation can hold the team to account for its performance.

While that is necessary, it's only doing half the job. A one way agreement like this is dysfunctional. The team also needs things from the organisation, but there is usually no way to hold the organisation to account for its performance. If the team needs support from management and that support is not forthcoming, what do they do? They can't meet their goals, and will be held to account for that but with no clear agreement on what management support means (other than a few token words in a mission statement about support and empowerment) they can't show that management isn't doing its job. They will end up carrying the can for management's lack of support.

This is why the service agreement has to be two way. The organisation needs to have a clear agreement in place with the team over what their expectations are for the team and the team needs a clear agreement in place with the organisation over what its expectations are for the organisation. If we return to our car trip analogy, this is like a two way hire car agreement. The organisation gives the team a car to drive and the team signs an agreement to drive carefully, not get into accidents, travel to the destination, obey all road rues and so on. But on page 2 of the agreement, the organisation agrees to provide fuel money, give the team a meal allowance, make sure the roads are open, make sure the car is well maintained and so on.

The organisation knows what to expect from the team and the teams knows what support it can expect from the organisation. Both sides can be held to account. Both sides are providing a service to the other and there is a service agreement in place to define the terms of that service.

This is really important. When only one side can be held to account, it can lead to bullying behaviour. One side holds all the power in the relationship. When both sides are held to account, the relationship is much more equal. The conversation is no longer "what are you doing for me?" but "how can I help you do what I need you to do?". We no longer have a master/servant relationship but an equal partnership. This is the heart of agile leadership.

We call this servant leadership. Management is there to provide support, not to dictate direction. In many organisations this is hard to achieve. The organisation expects managers to manage. The relationship is built on control rather than collaboration. This all comes down to trust. The organisation seeks control because they don't trust the teams to deliver. In order to enable trust and build partnerships, both sides need clear agreements so that they can show that they are upholding their side. If you see someone doing what they agreed to do, you will trust them to do so in future. But this needs to be a two way thing. A one way agreement just leads to more control and less trust as the team struggles to deliver because of factors outside their control.

Trust is always a two way thing.

So, where are we now? We have our team, we have our vision, we have our backlog and content authority. We now have a clear agreement between the team and organisation in which both sides are accountable. Is that everything? Initially yes, but we know things will change. The team's needs will change, the organisation's needs will change, the team will need to indicate new ways of working in order to overcome obstacles. What they need is a feedback mechanism to enable change. It's time for principle 6 -

  • There is a fast feedback loop that allows the team and organisation to optimise both the process and the product.

We will look at that next time.