AGILE crisis management explained – part 1

30 May, 2013
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Imagine this; a project does scrum but somehow it doesn’t work. Yes they sort of work in “teams”. Yes they sort of have a backlog. Yes they sort of use timeboxes. All these “sort of-s” combined however result in sort of a big huge friggin’ mess.
Now imagine yourself coming into such a project. Where would you start to get it back on track? Wouldn’t it be cool if we would have some basic pattern for overcoming any agile crisis thrown at us in a project delivery setting?
This blog-post describes a model to do just that: get to grips with any mess in derailed project or program “sort of” using agile/scrum.

You look around, try to talk to the right people and get a mental image in your head of the current situation.
This mental image is very important. It helps you to manage your thoughts and brings order to the chaos you will experience in your first week on a derailed project. To have a clear mental image of your observations will also enable you to communicate your thoughts easier, i.e. more effectively, to others. Most ideally the mental image can be shaped in an explicit model, that’s reproducible and shareable.
In the next section, I will illustrate the model I use when starting a new agile crisis management mission. It’s a reflection of my ongoing quest to find a simple way for a very complicated task; i.e. to create a fast but useful insight in the current crisis situation that will help me to consolidate all the different inputs into a combined and useful image of what’s going on. The model contains elements from the great work of Christopher Avery, Deborah Rowland, Malcolm Higgs and others.
This model helps me to build up a clear mental model of the situation at hand. I use it to structure and prioritize the thousands of pieces of new information that I need to process in order to get a good picture of what I’m dealing with.
I’m convinced this model can also be useful to you. Hence this blog.
agile crisismodel
figure 1: burms agile crisis management temple
PART I: SOLID GROUND – Engaged project members
As shown, the model is built up in a temple-like shape. You can only build a temple on solid ground. The ground represents the people on your program and the level of their engagement towards the program and improving it.
Sometimes you need to enrich the ground to be able to build upon it. If you find the soil to be unsuitable for building purposes at the moment, you can choose to enrich the soil in various ways to increase the engagement level.
To build up my mental image of whether the soil is solid ground – in other words; whether you need to improve engagement, I look for the following elements. (inspired by  the change model by Deborah Rowland and Malcolm Higgs):
Edge and tension:

  • This means creating knowledge and atmosphere that the people’s platform is burning and we need to do something about it. The purpose should be to communicate a sense of urgency in a way that motivates people but not push them over the edge.
  • Example question: could a random person on the project team tell you what would be the consequences of not delivering a successful project?

Magnetic Attraction:

  • Why should people do something, what’s the common goal that lies beyond the mountains at the end of our rainbow? Why should this goal excite people? Where lies the motivation?
  • Example question: what was the last time the goal of the project got communicated to the entire project team?


  • Giving people just enough and the right rules, boundaries and guidelines to behave in an effective manner (given the circumstances and the specific needs at the moment). Also tell them what not to do.
  • Example question: Do you know what’s expected from you?  Do you feel there’s room for initiative?

Transforming space:

  • Change stuff in the then and there. Sometimes events in a project happen that need attention or can be changed immediately, in stead of planning and preparing for a large solution
  • Example question: What could we do right now to improve the fun factor?

These 4 elements bring great insight in how people behave. ‘Edge and tension’ as well as ‘Transforming space’ bring disturbance and movement within the group. ‘Containing’ and ‘Attracting’ on the other hand create structure and order in the right direction.
Both movement and structure need to be well balanced in order to engage the people on the project
Another must have condition for success is leadership and responsibility.
This has to do with picking up personal leadership and responsibility through all layers of the program up to the program steering committee. Christopher Avery shows us a great model for looking at personal responsibility.
Ask yourself again; what behavior do I see. Look at influencers and deciders and describe their behavior. Probability is high that others will follow the behavior of this group.  Use these questions to create your image on leadership;

  • Are problems being ignored?
  • Do people blame each other?
  • Do you hear a lot of excuses to explain why the situation is what it is?
  • Or people feeling guilty? Or ashamed?
  • Are most people listening to what their boss wants them to do?
  • Who’s giving up?
  • Who looks like he’s really having fun, doing what he wants to do and loving it?

From there look at how to break the impasse of non-responsible behavior with these people.
This concludes the first part of Burms Temple.
A strong temple is built upon solid ground and a strong foundation; likewise a successful project is built upon engaged project members and clear responsibility.
When you want to assess a project, start with investigating engagement and responsibility.  To do this, look at two things

  • Are ‘change’ and ‘structure’ well balanced? So people have the opportunity to express their engagement.
  • Is leadership and responsibility effectively implemented? So people operate in their strength and feel free to do what seems right?

Use the questions above to assess the fundamentals of a solution to any crisis.
A second blog will elaborate on the rest of the model. Keep your eyes open. It will come next week.
I would like to thank Geert Bossuyt for being my editor on this idea/ blog. Thanks a lot Geert!


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