I have years of fond memories of Thanksgiving Dinner. As a child growing up outside of Buffalo, NY, we’d play downstairs while the parents prepared the meal. When the time came, we helped set the table, schlepping food up and down the stairs. Following some words of thanks, the entire family would eat, and then the adults would return upstairs, doing… well, adult stuff. That adult stuff wasn’t our concern, because us kids went back to goofing around, often outside if it wasn’t too cold.

As a father of four establishing new traditions with my family and friends, I now know that they adults were doing the dishes, putting away leftovers, talking and celebrating (usually) with a glass of wine, eventually rewarding everyone with dessert.

Little did I realize that these memories would so presciently predict one of the dominant dynamic in companies, programs, and teams across the Agile community.

“Kid” Work (fun) vs “Adult” Work (enabling)

I’m writing this post three days before Thanksgiving… and already my wife has been hard at work. She’s purchased a pumpkin (because she really does bake the pie from scratch). A turkey is defrosting in the garage refrigerator and she’s already planning the menu that we’ll have on Thursday – and Friday – and part of Saturday. Last night she briefed me on the plans for tomorrow.

For the most part, the kids are blissfully unaware of what’s happening. Oh sure, they know that Thanksgiving is coming and they’re already talking about the food they’ll eat (“Mom, are you going to make…”). But actually determining what we’re eating, when we’re going to eat it and what happenswhen we’re done is outside of their concern. And, to be honest, while I’m more aware of what’s happening to make Thanksgiving fantastic, the reality is that my wife just does what needs to be done so that we can enjoy our holiday.

And that’s just fine. My kids are great kids. When the time comes, even though we don’t have a basement here in the heart of Silicon Valley, they’ll set the table and clean up the dishes. I’ve tasted their cooking and I’m pretty confident that you’d agree that you’d also rather have my wife cooking the meals. And she’d rather have the kids playing outside until she’s ready for them to help . For my part, I’ll join the family, helping out my wife when needed and maybe even the kids, if they ask nicely.

Agile Teams are Downstairs

When you read much of the writing in the Agile community, you get the sense that most Agile teams want to be the kids at Thanksgiving dinner. They want to focus on the “fun”, convinced that all that is needed is for “management” to give them resources (food) and let them alone. They’ll consume the resources and somehow produce great results.

They needn’t concern themselves with those pesky problems or challenging questions like how much the food costs, what we should purchase, when dinner should be served or what should happen after Thanksgiving is over.

Nope. Just a good old Agile / Scrum teams having fun getting stuff done.

Portfolio Teams are Upstairs

Portfolio teams are the upstairs equivalent of the adults at Thanksgiving dinner. They are given the task of selecting value streams, epics and initiatives to fund; to what degree, along with choices about systems lifecycles and the allocation of resources: which teams should be working on what projects, and why. They also are tasked with the clean-up afterwards for the failed experiments and products that are struggling to perform (or performing poorly from technical debt?).

Done well, this is enabling work: The portfolio team doing their job well ensures that the turkey is defrosted and properly prepared. The portfolio team who abdicates their job makes the frantic call to the thanksgiving hotline to ask how they can defrost and cook a Turkey in 5 hours. 

Unlike the adults at Thanksgiving dinner who are thanked by children whose parents demand modest displays of manners, the adults on the portfolio team are not only not thanked, they are vilified! They’re told that the hard decisions they make are “command and control”, as if every idea from every Agile team should be fully funded without such pesky, and decidedly “un-fun” things like a Lean Business Case.

We Should Have Fun!

I’ve said in the past that “You’re not doing Scrum/Agile if you’re not having fun”. But in this case, the meaning of fun isn’t “silly”. Instead, it is about engagement, accomplishment and making a difference. It is about the “fun” we experience when we get to “Done, Done” at the end of the Sprint, when we move the epic in our portfolio Kanban from “Implementing” to “Done, when we know that NPS scores that we’ve have produced a product that really does help our customers accomplish their goals.

And yeah, that earns dessert or a round on the foosball table.

Climbing the Stairs

I’d like to think that we can do better. Even though as a child I didn’t fully comprehend how much work the adults were doing to prepare Thanksgiving dinner, the reality is that Agile teams are not staffed by children and that portfolio teams are not staffed by managers channeling their innermost Napoleonic desires.

Agile teams can realize that portfolio management is necessary and needed function of a healthy company. They can, shockingly, even do more than just consume the resources they’re given and stop complaining when cherry pie, instead of pumpkin pie, is served for dessert. For example, they can embrace as partners the estimation process, realizing that reasonable estimates of work are needed so that the portfolio team can balance complex and typically competing demands. And they can stop complaining when their “pet project” is cancelled because of larger portfolio concerns.

Portfolio teams can also do their job better. Instead of abdicating their jobs in an Agile transformation and letting the teams try to figure things out, they can instead embrace their role as enablers of both the work that is to be done and how that work is done.

Portfolio teams can adopt more agile and inclusive approaches to their work, replacing projects with value streams and Portfolio Kanbans. They can stop treating Agile teams like children and involve them in the decision-making processes through Participatory Budgeting. They can share the guardrails and investment horizons they’ve developed to create a sustainable business.

And together they can switch their focus from serving Thanksgiving dinner to serving products and services that better meet customer needs.

About the Author

Luke Hohmann is the Founder and CEO of Conteneo (previously known as The Innovation Games® Company). The author of three books, Luke’s playfully diverse background of life experiences has uniquely prepared him to design and produce serious games. Luke graduated magna cum laude with a B.S.E. in computer engineering and an M.S.E. in computer science and engineering from the University of Michigan. In addition to data structures and artificial intelligence, he studied cognitive psychology and organizational behavior. He is also a former National Junior Pairs Figure Skating Champion, as well as a certified aerobics instructor. In his spare time, Luke likes roughhousing with his four kids and his wife’s cooking. He also enjoys long runs in the Santa Cruz mountains to burn off his wife’s cooking.

Luke’s a bit of an old school Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Instead of building a company to flip, he’s building a company to change the world. You can join him by playing games at Weave or Every Voice Engaged.