The Corn Maze Strategy

October 10, 2016


Today was our annual family visit to the pumpkin patch. We go to a local farm that is a sort of pumpkin theme park. In addition to the fields of U-pick pumpkins, they have a petting zoo, pumpkin launchers, halloween themed play structures, hay rides, and a corn maze. It was a beautiful early October afternoon, and the kids roamed through all the usual activities. Finally we got around to the corn maze.

Now you should know that as these things go, this corn maze is pretty decent. I have no idea how large it really is, but my fitbit tells me that it’s at least a few thousand steps or so. I would guess it’s a walk of a mile or two to get through it. You should also understand that it’s relatively robustly built. You really can’t see any nearby landmarks, and the paths are kept far enough apart that you can’t see other adventurers in the maze. So it’s really quite easy to get good and lost.

So I followed the family in and tagged along behind as we made our way through the maze. I was tired, so I was perfectly happy to let the kids make all the decisions and accept the consequences. The pattern usually went something like this: We would come to an intersection and pause. We would look for clues on the ground. Was one path better travelled than another? Did the curve of the path look like it might actually form a loop? Did the path head in a direction that we thought might be the correct destination? We would ponder these questions and consult as a family before moving onward. So some sort of consensus was arrived at as we reached each intersection.

As I stumbled through the maze following my family, lost in my own thoughts, I started to observe how we were making decisions as a team. At each intersection there was usually some sort of debate. Arguments were made for and against different options. The group would informally arrive at a decision. We had the advantage of multiple brains rather than just one, so you would expect some sort of multiplier effect from using those additional noggins. But it really didn’t feel that way.

Instead we were bouncing around the maze, wandering into loops and blind alleys, and as far as I could perceive, we were not much more successful than someone walking the maze and flipping a coin to decide which direction to go. It was quickly becoming apparent that our success rate was hard to discern from a completely random performance. In fact, at some point I joked that we should be using a 20 sided dice to determine our next move. Geek family.

As we came around a bend I saw another family just standing at an intersection expectantly looking down the path like they were waiting for something. The father came running into view from further down the path and I heard him say rather breathlessly, “There’s nothing down that way guys.” We moved on and I couldn’t help but wonder about that approach. That family was using an interesting strategy. They were obviously making an effort to collect some information about the maze before moving on. That seemed to be one level of effectiveness beyond what we were doing. They were trying to look ahead and gather some intelligence that they could use to help make a better decision about the direction to go in the maze.

We continued to ramble about, but it was soon apparent that the kids were starting to get tired. My wife indicated that it was time for us to bring the adventure to a close before we had a riot on our hands. Dad, stop being such a slacker, it’s time for you to make a few decisions! So that’s when I had an idea.

At the next intersection, I sent a child down each avenue with the instruction to continue until they come to another split in the path and then to report back to me. Off they went. I figured I had two children, so I could afford to lose one with this experiment and still call myself a parent.

At the first junction, the kids came back and one reported a dead end, and the other reported yet another junction. Well that made the decision easy, so off we went. At the next junction however, both kids reported the same thing – there was another junction, but no indication beyond that. So it appears that my look ahead strategy had it’s limitations. There was only so far we could see ahead in the maze using my one intersection strategy. So we flipped a coin and moved on.

At the next intersection, we had a choice between an intersection and an obvious milestone, so we continued toward the milestone. A few more choices like that and we found the end of the maze.

As we celebrated and headed back to the car, it occurred to me that wandering through a corn maze is not all that different from the way that we work on projects as teams.
A project has a lot in common with a corn maze. In principle we all know how they work, but the path from start to finish isn’t all that clear when you start (oh you may THINK it is clear, but let’s face it, there are a lot of unknowns). So you kick off your project and get started and before too long you have to make some decisions. All too often when we make decisions as teams, we do it on the spur of the moment, using only the information that is immediately in front of us. Just like me and the family in the corn maze. We are only using the information that is immediately at hand. Decisions are made quickly with a minimum of information. It’s little better than a coin toss. But there is an alternative.

We can be gathering information to help us make better decisions. There are various names for this kind of look ahead strategy, personally I’m thinking of “set based decision making.“ In set based decision making you explore multiple alternatives. You look down multiple paths, but you don’t go too far. You are gathering just enough information to help you make a good decision now before you proceed onward. Just like with the kids running forward reconnaissance in the maze. This is how you improve the information you use for decision making, and this is how you give yourself a chance to make better decisions.
You see projects have many important decisions to be made. You bump into them daily. Go the right direction and you are increasing your project’s likelihood of success, go the wrong direction and the project is that much closer to failure. These are high stakes decisions with lots of money on the line. So using the corn maze escape strategy is a good one. A small qualification is probably in order here: The look ahead doesn’t give you a crystal ball or a guarantee of success.

The point is that we might benefit from a conscious strategy to acquire knowledge that can inform our decisions. It doesn’t have to be very much additional information in order for there to be a substantial benefit. So the next time you find yourself on a complex project where you have to make tough decisions, remember the corn maze. The strategy you choose can make your journey a whole lot easier.

Going Viral

August 15, 2016


“An inefficient virus kills its host. A clever virus stays with it.” -James Lovelock

I was talking with a friend the other day about that magical time you experience when you first start with a company. You know, it’s that honeymoon period where you feel like everything you do is effective. People are nice to you, things are easy, the company feels like someplace you can make a difference. You are on top of the world. Things just work.

Of course it doesn’t last. After a while, for some reason it gets harder and harder to create change – to do something new. People don’t think those ideas sound all that novel anymore. Getting things done starts to feel slow and laborious. Soon you are just another one of the gang. Part of the status quo.

If you are a consultant, perhaps it’s time to declare victory and move on. After all, the average consulting contract isn’t that long. Perhaps only 6 months. You introduce some change and then leave before things get too tough. That’s a good thing too, because before long, they’re on to you.

So what is happening here? I have a theory. It’s a little whacky, but hear me out: I think that a workplace is a living system and that when a new person joins it’s kind of like introducing a virus. The system, the corporate entity, doesn’t know how to handle it. It doesn’t recognize it. It doesn’t know how to react. So the virus…er…person, simply by their very existence, provokes a reaction in the system. Of course living systems adapt. Slowly sometimes, but they do adapt. After six months or so, you are no longer an unknown virus. The antibodies in the system have learned to react to your novel behavior. You are no longer novel to the system. You are part of the system. That is good and bad. It’s not all bad being part of the system. But you may find that its now really hard to get the same level of response to ideas for change. After all, they’ve heard it before. You are now a known quantity.

So what do you do? Move on? What if you aren’t a consultant? Well we know the system reacts to a novel inputs. You are no longer novel, so…you have to make yourself into something novel if you expect to create a similar impact to when you first joined. You must make yourself into something new and different that the system doesn’t expect.

You must change.

If you want to change the system you need to change yourself. Otherwise the system will recognize you and will fail to react. You need to change your behavior, so that the system has to adapt to your new behavior. You don’t ask others to change. You change yourself and the system will change to adapt to you.

Maybe its time to give the organization a virus.

Open Agile Management 2016

August 12, 2016


This September 16th we are going to hold a brand new conference in Seattle. It’s a conference dedicated to Agile Management. It’s for managers, executives, coaches, consultants and leaders (lots of folks!) who use agile practices and techniques to help organizations find a better way of working. If you read this blog, that’s probably you. This conference is intended to create a place to have conversations with leading agile practitioners, share stories, and explore new ideas.

The Vision

When you arrive, the first thing that strikes you is the sense of history in the building. The next thing that stands out is the circle of chairs. They’re right in the middle of the space and they seem to draw you in.

People start to filter in, some grabbing a cup of coffee and a pastry. Some chatting and exploring the space. Soon, everyone gathers at the chairs and grabs a seat. Things get kicked off with a short keynote from Ray Arell. It’s really just a story. A fireside chat. Sharing an experience – sharing the theme for the day.

Shortly afterward, the open space bulletin board opens and people add their topics. The marketplace opens and the conference starts in earnest.

The marketplace wall is the focal point for a series of conversations. It starts off in the morning being completely blank. They started off with a set of proposed ideas – each idea written on a colored thought bubble. The thought bubbles were taped to the wall. Throughout the day, people connect the bubbles using yarn. Or they add new bubbles. Runners keep the wall up to date, moving back and forth from ongoing conversations.

At the end of the day there is a synthesis. The participants use a single sheet of flip chart paper to summarize their favorite ideas. Working groups form, emails are shared, agendas proposed, and meeting times set.

In the evening, there is a closing, a retrospective, and appetizers and drinks.

That’s not a bad vision, but all of that just captures the superficial stuff. The stuff that we can control. The rest? Well, that’s the “open” part of open space. I don’t know what people will bring. What I do know is it works. I never fail to be surprised.

Event Overview

When is it?

Friday September 16th, 2016 8:30 AM to 7:00 PM

Where is it?

AXIS Pioneer Square, Seattle

Where Can I Find Out More?

The Open Agile Management Website



August 10, 2016


I discovered an amazing new concept the other day. A radical re-combination of things I thought were fixed and immutable. Two ideas that I loved by themselves, things complete without any addition. Things so familiar to me that I never dreamt of change. Frankly, I never saw the need. These ideas when put together created something greater than the sum of the two. Something so shocking that my first reaction was blank incomprehension. That’s right, I’m talking about: Fried Chicken and Waffles

I’ll give you a minute to sit down and let it sink in. Dinner and breakfast in the same meal! Two memes that complement each other so completely they create a larger meme! Sweet and savory, fried and…baked? Fried? Oh I don’t care. I love them both. So finding a restaurant that serves two of my favorite foods on the same plate, well, that’s pretty special.

That’s the way it is sometimes. Ideas that by themselves are great, but that are somehow magnified when combined with another idea. Somehow by repackaging them together we create something greater. Something that works much better as a whole. Of course there are plenty of culinary examples: french fries and poutine, caramel and salt, bacon and…um…well…anything.

Of course we have similar concepts in the software world. There are folks that maintain that the combination of some development practices yields disproportionate benefits as well. For example, combining agile and DevOps. Rapid development techniques and tightly integrated operations. The two make a potent one-two punch that provides powerful benefits to companies bold enough to adopt them. It’s like fried chicken and waffles.

Agile2016 Wrap-up

August 8, 2016


Well Agile2016 is in the bag.

This years conference was the largest one yet. There were nearly 2500 attendees. That’s double what it was a few years ago. Day-to-day at the conference, there definitely felt like there were a lot more bodies. Of course that could have been the location too. This was the first conference in while that wasn’t held at a Gaylord “biodome” monster hotel. Instead it was held at the Atlanta Hyatt which is considerably smaller.

Getting into talks was a real hassle this year. Often the rooms were too small and filled up more than half an hour before the talk. People were queueing up outside the door more than an hour beforehand. It was kind of nuts. Other talks were in monster halls that were barely a quarter full. There were a lot of frustrated people.

There weren’t a lot of options for getting around the hotel either. There was a bank of elevators in the lobby that was regularly overwhelmed by the thousands of people trying to get to and from their rooms. It was kind of a mess. The rooms themselves were small and quite dark. All things considered, people were not very happy with the location for this year’s event.

As quickly became apparent, there is no lack of newbies on the bootcamp track this year. The room for my talk on impediments was packed. I heard the same for other bootcamp speakers. So the number of folks who are new to Agile is still strong. That’s encouraging.

I heard all the usual grumbling about how the various “scaling” efforts were boilerplate solutions that only enable the status quo. In the meantime, one of the most popular sessions I attended focused on creating a roadmap for transformation. In my opinion, the scaling conversation is a natural evolution of the adoption of Agile as it moves into the mainstream. It’s just not trusted by established Agile practitioners who’ve only seen healthy agile in smaller contexts (true). But that doesn’t change the fact that the big guys are feeling pain and want to get there. So like it or not, I think scaling frameworks are here to stay. And I for one, welcome our new corporate overlords…

I participated in one of the memorials to Jean Tabaka. It was very moving and it was apparent how many lives she had touched both directly and indirectly. I was there largely to support my colleagues who had worked directly with her. I found myself reflecting on what it means to be the kind of person who can share themselves that authentically with others. It’s not something that comes naturally to me. I found it instructive to ask myself how to be more genuine and authentic with people as I moved through the conference. I found myself doing battle with my natural tendency toward introversion – it takes a lot energy for me to put myself forward, to take an interest in others and try to engage.

The Impediments talk was a complete riot! I had a blast. The crowd was fun and the material, much to my surprise, continues to evolve in interesting ways that I never would have anticipated. More on that to come.

The self-experimentation talk was very challenging. Overall, it went pretty well, but I was challenged with doing a very interactive workshop in a gigantic space, I was also challenged with some of the ideas from folks who participated (thank you!), and I was challenged to consider if there are better ways to talk about experimentation. This was arguably the session where I learned the most as the presenter.

Strategies for Managing Interruptions…for Reluctant Scrum Teams

August 3, 2016


Stop me if you have heard this before. No, really, please stop me. So there I am working to get a team launched using Scrum. They’re good folks, but frankly, they’re just doing what the boss said.

“We’re using Scrum. Tom is going to show you the ropes and get you started.”
“Right boss.”
“Training room down the hall on the right. 9:00AM sharp.”
“Got it boss.”

And so a rather wary-eyed crew shows up the next morning. As they sidle into the room we eye each other cautiously from across the conference table. I’ll admit it: I’m not feeling so hot. Combine all the glories of travel with a night in a Motel 6 and it makes a mean recipe for a mean trainer. I’m trying to guess if they are feeling as lousy as I am. Hard to tell. Maybe they always breathe through their mouths like that. I can already tell this is going to be a challenge.

So this is the part of the morning where I introduce them to ‘Satan’. No, it’s not what you think. Satan is what I call my trusty 300 page powerpoint deck that I use to break the will of my students and introduce them to the glories of Agile development. Here, have some pipe cleaners to play with while I’m talking. You can make a tiny little gun out of them and try to blow your own brains out before I finish these slides. Don’t say I don’t know how to have a good time in a meeting. Now where were we? Oh yes, here we go, slide 1…

Fifty shaky, sweaty minutes later (Dammit, where’s the coffee?), and the room full of 9 adult men is starting to look like something out of Glen Gary Glen Ross: The best thing these guys are going to get is a set of steak knives. The mood is getting ugly. We’ve just gotten to the part where I tell them that they are now part of a committed team. I can see their eyebrows shoot toward their hairlines when I say it. That’s right Judith, you only work for THIS team now. Nobody else.

The place immediately lit up like someone spitting cheap vodka on a campfire. In hindsight, I really should have seen this coming: a lot of these guys are from the operations team (for those of you new to software, operations is the software equivalent of the galley where we keep our slaves). Those guys work hard. Like breaking rocks hard. They’re interrupted so frequently, they’ll eventually get a new variety of Attention Deficit Disorder named after them. It’s merciless. If you don’t like it, no problem, we’ll find a replacement just like you.

So there I was telling them they have nothing to worry about, just tell the old boss that they’re Agile now. Yeah, tell ‘em Tom sent you. Agile teams are dedicated and can’t be pulled apart just for firefighting. Here I was, telling them that the nightmare was going to end. You’d think they’d thank me! Perhaps it was the hangover, but I just wasn’t picking up on the mood in the room with my usually alacrity. Note to self: next time stick with tequila.

So I was told, in no uncertain terms, that they fully expected to get pulled off of their work during the sprint for any number of unanticipated reasons. That was just the way things worked at this company. Managers felt perfectly entitled to pull you off a team any time they liked (after all, you were still “theirs”). This was the status quo here. It wasn’t unusual to have people who were over allocated by several hundred percent!

That’s right, it’s not just my poor alcohol addled recollection failing. These folks were expected to work simultaneously on 5 or more projects at any given time. Ouch! As I tried to tell them that was crazy, I could hear an all-too-familiar edge of hysteria creeping into their voices. Right then, it hit me like a pole axe between the eyes: I was explaining this to the wrong people! Finally sensing the disaster I was in danger of perpetuating, I did the only the only sensible thing one can do in a situation like this and beat a hasty retreat. That’s right, I needed to run away. Time for a distraction.

“Hey! I Know what to do! Let’s play a game!”
You see, when you need to distract a class and bail yourself out of a tight spot, nothing works quite as well as a game. As the team struggled to comprehend the arcane rules I’d just arbitrarily made up (I swear to God there was a beer game just like this in college) I racked my brains for ways to help these poor bastards out.

I was only confident of two things:

1) Talking to the managers would serve little or no useful purpose. Besides, I’d done that already. Just between you, me, and Machiavelli: it’s a total waste of breath. Most managers (and I speak here from experience) are normal, perfectly well meaning people, who have had the learning centers of their brains completely erased by the non-stop firefighting, infighting, and general chaos of their jobs. The average manager’s brain is like the surface of a cheap George Foreman grill: nothing sticks. But don’t despair quite yet, because there is a ray of hope…

2) Managers can be trained. I know: I used to train rats.

You see if they won’t willingly change their behavior, you can always change your own behavior. This is key to understanding change and cultures. Something has to change if you are going successfully introduce a new process (wow, that’s so utterly obvious I just got a sharp pain between the eyes). The bad news is change is hard – wicked hard. I think need a drink just contemplating change sometimes (I guess that makes me either a change agent or an alcoholic). But rather than obsessing on how to change the other guy, focus on changing yourself. Then you let them figure out how to react.

Re-energized, I finished the “Intro to Satan” for the day, kicked them out of the office, and went to do some thinking. I needed some inspiration.

Fortunately the bar wasn’t far away. Using that little epiphany as a starting point, I sat down and started writing a list of all the things that the team could do to help deal with their interrupting managers on the back of a beer coaster. It went a little bit like this (I started with the hardest one first):

  1. Say ‘No’: Yeah, I can’t say it either. It takes some practice. Repeat after me: NNNNnnn…uh,nnnuhhhhh, Nuuh, Nuuuoooo, Noo! Come on now, I know you can do it!
  2. Use Buffers: Use a time honored way of protecting schedules and buffer the heck out of yours. As soon as they figure out what you are doing, they’ll leave you alone. Well, if they are smart they will. Your mileage may vary.
  3. Use your Sheepdog: You have this wonderful creature armed with a mouthful of sharp teeth that lives to protect you from outside influence: the scrum master. Use ‘em.
  4. Cover your Buddies: If your team mate is in danger of getting nabbed, stick up for them! A chorus of “No!” is much more powerful than a piteous lone ‘no…’
  5. Escalate: Hey, use the bureaucracy for what its really good for: aggravating others.
  6. Abnormal Sprint Termination: this is a curious bit of scrum geekery that you don’t see very often, but it could work. Threaten sprint termination. Better yet, let the scrum master do it. They LOVE that kind of thing. Makes their whole day.
  7. Automate, Automate, Automate: Did I mention automate?
  8. “Tom said…” That’s right – blame it on me! It’s my fault. I admit it. I told you to say “No.” So go ahead, fire me.
  9. Working Agreement: OK, admittedly this is the most tepid offering of the bunch. But it could work, right? Put together some sort of working agreement with the managers in question. Of course that would involve communication and cooperation, and I hate the idea already. But it might work.
  10. illegible…note to self: never rest your beer on your work.

So here’s the bottom line:
Sometimes if your managers won’t change their behavior (and frankly, why should they?) then you may need to change your own behavior. You’ve got to give ‘em a reason to change. That’s what these suggestions provide – small changes in your behavior that will require changes in the organizational response.

Agile2016 is Coming!

July 9, 2016


“This is where the Agile tribes meet.”

Agile2016 is swiftly approaching. I’ll be there in Atlanta doing a couple of talks this year. If you are going to be there you should definitely come check them out:

The Self-experimentation workshop is something that I originally developed a few years ago for XP2013. It is very hands-on, each attendee contributing their own experience to the workshop. To date it has been very popular. Some attendees have described it as one of the most invigorating talks they have ever attended. That’s pretty high praise – it’s probably my all-time favorite workshop.

If you are interested in getting a bit of a sneak preview of what this self experimentation stuff is all about, you can check out the experiments that I have run on the onestandardman blog. There is also background material here and here.

On the impediments front, there is a lot of material that you will find right here in this blog. For example there is this, and this and this. And then of course there is The Little Book of Impediments. There will be copies of the book at the bookstore for purchase at the conference. Catch me and I’ll be happy to sign one.

There will also be an Agile Management Conference meetup that will be held in the Open Jam area (time & date at the conference is TBD – check the Open Jam Board) so please join us for that if you are interested.