Be Vewy, Vewy, Quiet…

December 10, 2019

As a young man my father would take me deer hunting from time to time. Both of us tend to be walkers. We cover a lot of ground when we are hunting. It means walking for miles and miles every day in hopes of catching a glimpse of a deer. Usually it’s a glimpse of the animal’s hind end as it was running away. The funny thing is, my dad used to share an observation, “Some of the best hunters I ever met would find a stump, sit down next to it, and take a nap.”

To an energetic young man like myself, while I could understand the point of this observation intellectually, it did nothing to dissuade me from walking every hill, valley and river in a 10 mile radius. Call it a restless personality, or perhaps a compelling drive, but regardless I was out there walking.

Of course as I traipsed along, gun on one shoulder, I couldn’t help but notice that I made quite a racket as I crashed through the brush. It’s hard to be sneaky when you are wearing a big fat pair of vibram-soled hiking boots. Add to that the many layers of clothing to protect from the winter weather, and I loudly swished my way through forest like an industrial street sweeper.

In hindsight, it was no wonder that as I moved through the forest, everything around me would cry out in alarm and go silent. I really should have been wearing a sandwich board that read, “Predator” as I blundered haplessly through the undergrowth. It would have been honest, if not helping me any.

So it should come as no surprise at this point in the story if I reveal that I didn’t see deer very often while on these long hikes. I was telegraphing my presence five miles out, so any deer that might have been around were long gone by the time that I got there. I was scaring them off a long time before I ever had a chance to see them.

To put it in the terms of my friend Willem Larsen, my zone of disruption was much larger than my zone of perception. As I stumbled, tripped, crunched and sometimes stank my way across the outdoor landscape I was creating a zone of disruption that was traveling around me in a bubble. The diameter of that bubble was probably the distance that a typical sound would carry in the woods – perhaps a couple hundred yards or more. Unfortunately, my zone of perception is quite a bit smaller. In the woods, and depending on the cover, I’m likely to only be able to see things that are 25 to 50 yards away – on a good day. And let’s forget about other perceptions like hearing, because I’m already making such a racket myself that I can’t hear a damn thing.

Now I’m making fun of myself a little bit. But try tiptoeing through that fall pile of leaves in the front yard and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. It’s nearly impossible to do quietly – at least for most of us. So there is some real wisdom in that idea of sitting down next to a stump for a little snooze.

Now if you spend some time outdoors violating the personal space of animals like I do, then you might begin to see some patterns. There is the solo town crier who announces your appearance on the scene (Usually a Blue Jay in my case – they hate me). There might be a whole family of quail that starts to chatter off to one side in a semi-circle, peering at me like gophers from the brush. I think I’ve seen them all. They’ve certainly seen me – that much is for certain.

It may surprise you to learn that I’ve seen many of the same patterns in the office as a consultant. When I show up at the office for the first time, the flock often starts tweeting. As the new guy, the agile consultant, I initially cast quite a large zone of disruption. I also tend to walk a lot when consulting – meeting new people and getting the lay of the land. I see many of the predatory patterns that you might find in the wild, also present in the corporate office.

Just watch what happens when an executive travels through the cubicle farm. Often there is a noticeable tunnel of silence that surrounds them as they move through the cubes. The manager is the predator, and the subordinates are the prey – trying to avoid notice.

Have you ever been in a meeting where someone you are talking to suddenly goes silent and looks over your shoulder in alarm? Unfortunately I have (I really should have shut up). That’s the collective group reacting to the zone of disruption that is cast by a significant stakeholder. The CEO is in the building. The alerts have been raised. Cover up that ESPN hi-light reel, quick!

If I were just mocking executives and managers, this would be fun, but the implications are broader than that. Far broader. One of the founding principles of the lean movement has been to “Go to the Gemba” or “Go and See.” All too often managers end up being relatively isolated in their offices and lose sight of the actual work going on the shop floor (where ever that may be). The cure for that problem is to get them out of their offices and take them to see the action on the shop floor. The problem of course is that pesky zone of disruption.

You see, we would like to observe the worker in their native environment as if we weren’t there. We are looking for an honest view of how the work is going. Unfortunately, as soon as they perceive you, the gig is up and their behavior will change. Call it the zone of disruption, or observation bias, the end result is the same – your presence distorts the work being done.

The key is to find constructive ways for us to extend the zone of our perception beyond the zone of our disturbance. This is where I go back to what my father suggested, “Some of the best hunters I ever met would find a stump and sit down next to it and take a nap.”

I’ve noticed a phenomenon that happens to me when whenever I go on a hunting trip (or anyplace in the wild). When I leave my home in suburbia and adventure out into the wilderness, I have a hard time seeing animals. That’s probably because at least initially, I’m finely attuned to the threats and elements in my environment. In my “city boy” case, I recognize cars, pedestrians, and stop signs quite adeptly. I’m highly tuned to see such things every day. It’s part of surviving in my city environment. So I guess it should come as no surprise that I struggle to see new patterns (animals on a hillside) during my first few days on a trip into the wilderness. The good news is that I adapt very quickly. I’ve noticed by about the third day out, it’s like the animals suddenly pop out of the landscape. They were always there of course, I just needed to adjust my patterns to see them. I don’t really do anything, but my brain adapts in way or another.

This pattern matching that I’m describing is a means of effectively expanding my zone of perception. As I adapt, I can see and hear more. One important conclusion here is that we may have to allow some time to elapse when we go into a new environment. We need to give ourselves the time to begin seeing the new patterns. Once again, my father’s wisdom comes into play. A couple of days sitting next to a stump does remarkable things to improve my perspicacity.

If we take this back to the office, what we find is a similar set of patterns at play. Whenever I come into a new office environment as a consultant I’m often bombarded with unfamiliar acronyms and phrases. Initially, most of them go right over my head. Until I become familiar with the language I’m lost in a sea of unfamiliar terminology. Movement patterns are alien to me because I don’t know where people are coming from or going to. I don’t know the terrain. I’m operating with a set of patterns that don’t fit in my new environment.

So how do I adapt to this new environment. First, as I mentioned before, it takes time. I can’t rush it. I need to learn the acronyms and start to get the “lay of the land.” I also have to focus on fostering a lot of curiosity within myself. What is that word? What did they just say? Did what that person just said make any sense? It takes a strong sense of peripheral awareness to absorb all of these inputs and filter through them. I find it exhausting.

Did I mention naps? Maybe I’m getting old, but I think I’m serious. Worst case, you get a little much needed rest. Best case, they forget you are there and continue with their work. Truly worst case scenario: you wake up with a sharpie mustache painted on your face. The point is, you minimize your zone of disruption so that your zone of perception can extend beyond it. So just sit there and don’t move. Relax, it’s going to take a while. And wait for something to happen. This is how you can see how things really work on the floor.

Show up for your nap a couple of days in a row and you really might start to get a real sense for how things work. This is a rich source of information about how things really work in your organization, and it can serve as the starting point for meaningful improvement based on how things really are. The Japanese have a phrase for it: they call it going to the Gemba.


Things I Love about Agile Management Northwest

August 21, 2019
Maybe it’s all the sticky notes and the heady odor of sharpies…

The People – We attract an incredibly diverse audience. I’m not really sure why, but I love it. Lawyers, software geeks, musicians, managers, agilists, and executives. There are a wide range of people with very different interests that find this conference invigorating.

The Sophistication – People are often surprised at the esoteric topics that come up. There is a very high standard of quality to the conversations that take place. Previous attendees have often remarked that the topics were sophisticated and remarkably accessible. I guess that when you have the right people, good things happen.

The Format – Open space enables people to have the conversations that they need to have. Perhaps that explains why people are so satisfied with the Agile Management Northwest experience. If you haven’t tried it before you owe it to yourself to join us and give it a spin.

Interested? Find out more at https//:agilemanagmentnw.com

Or join us! Register here


Mix-in Constraints

August 20, 2019

I just got done introducing another group to the the idea of agile mix-ins. The conversation was a lot of fun. There were a few takeaways for me that I think made the conversation particularly interesting: When it comes to applying mix-ins, you control how much or how little you do, and you also work within the context of the organization.

Let me back that up a little bit. First, before you try and apply mix-ins, I think it’s important to have established a baseline of working practices. This means that if you have just rolled out SAFe, for example, you should probably give yourself a PI or two to really establish a baseline of performance before trying to muck with the system. Otherwise, you just run the risk of creating a never-ending storm of change. That won’t serve you well. So allow yourself to establish a baseline before introducing a lot of new changes.

Second, Scale the change to the level of of organizational permission or tolerance that you believe exists. In other words, if the management team isn’t really on board with the change, then you probably won’t be able to introduce it much farther than the team itself. On the other hand, if the management team does buy in, then you can apply more global change at the program or portfolio levels. It’s a judgement call. Scale your efforts accordingly.


Risk and Compliance

July 29, 2019

What if you were asked to put risk into some sort of framework in a scaled agile system? How would that work? Well, in many cases, you might start with an existing framework. let’s take SAFe for example, the answer might be that we do roaming in PI planning. So as far as most folks are concerned, all risk is taken care of there. That’s it. That’s all we do for risk. The problem is that in many organizations that are audited for risk management that doesn’t even come close to what an auditor is looking for. 

Why is that? Well, if we look at the rules that many large companies have to operate under, they were written on stone tablets with a chisel sometime back in the 1980’s. Those rules typically specify that an organization should use risk management practices that were originally defined by project management practices at the time, long before agile was commonly accepted. 

Now there’s nothing wrong with risk management per se. It’s really just a fact of life. All projects and products have risk. The question is, are the risk management practices managed in a lightweight and iterative fashion? Those risk management methods from the 1980s are typically heavyweight, if not outright overweight, and require a great deal of overhead and centralized management which I’m not sure anyone wants to do. So if you’re going to provide a system of risk management for a company that has to deal with compliance and that has to deal with auditors, then you’re going to have to put together a system that manages risk, tracks risk, and insure that risk is not idly disposed of, thrown away, or magically disappears. Risk needs to be taken seriously as a first-class artifact and a first-class citizen in these contexts. If you are a smaller company, if you don’t have to deal with audit and compliance, then there’s no reason we would ever do these sorts of things. However, if you are in a financially regulated or government regulated business like healthcare or financial services, then it’s very likely at some point that you will find yourself in a situation where you are asked to show a structured set of risk management practices that are used and have controls so that they can be validated within your organization. The question is, what do you do then?


Where Do You Keep Your Risks?

June 12, 2019

I’ve got a question: Where do you keep your risks? If you’re doing a project of any significance you have risks, right? That just comes with the territory. Anything that is significantly challenging or meaningful has very likely got some risk associated with it. And let’s also clarify that we’re asking about agile teams. Because we all know that traditional waterfall teams would have some sort of risk register. Risk is just built-in to the waterfall model, so we don’t need to bother those folks.

But if you are an agile team, where do you keep your risks? I’m not trying to be deep about this. Simply put, if I asked, could you show me your current risks? Yes or no? Most agile teams that I ask this question say “No.” Some tell me that they ROAM their risks once a quarter. That’s nice, but looking at risk for 30 minutes every quarter hardly qualifies as effective risk management. And then guess what I ask? Where do you keep those risks you ROAMed in your last PI planning? Uh…we didn’t.

So where are your risks? Now this is the point where some people might get defensive and say that risk management is build into the agile process (insert your flavor here). To which my answer is, if risk management is built in to your process then it should be trivial to show them to me. To that, they answer that risks are always resolved immediately rather than waiting in large batches. OK, there are certainly some risks that are trivial to resolve, but there are many risks that are long term and require more than a little effort to manage. What about those risks? Can you show me those risks? No? Huh.

So what do you do with your risks? If you own them how do you know it? If I asked you what risks do you have today, could you show me?


Building Up and Tearing Down

May 27, 2019

Recently I put on a public Leading SAFe training. This wasn’t your typical training, however. In collaboration with Ron Quartel, we tacked on an extra day to discuss FAST Agile. Now if SAFe is an example of a scaling framework, FAST Agile is perhaps a good example of what you might call a de-scaling framework. FAST uses an open space style of organization to provide only the most bare bones structure and guidance. It’s really quite elegant in its simplicity. 

Ron and I had both been inspired by the ideas of mix-ins – processes and practices that we can mix and match together. So, it was with that in mind that we thought putting on a combined training class would be interesting. First teach SAFe, then turn around and teach a competing framework. Then compare and contrast. Well, as it turns out, the combination was quite brilliant.

As I taught the two days of Leading SAFe training, the class built up the framework from teams, to programs, to solutions, to portfolios. Learning the roles and processes of each. By the end of the second day, I was exhausted but happy (as usual). Then Ron stepped in and proceeded to teach FAST Agile on day 3. In essence, he took everything I had taught them and tore it all down. The focus was on simplicity and self-organization. The class was totally into it – questions flew fast and furious. Everyone was fully engaged. 

The contrast between the two frameworks was stark, and it raised many questions for both Ron and I. You see, I wasn’t there to sell anyone on SAFe. Don’t get me wrong, I like the framework, and I enjoy the training a lot, but I don’t give a damn whether or not you decide to adopt it. What I really care about is that you make an informed decision based on what I hope is the deepest possible understanding of the options. If you understand the values, principles and practices deeply, then you will choose to implement what is best for you and your organization. There is a tremendous amount of nuance and subtlety to the art of organizational change (that’s probably why I like it so much), so I believe that the ability to not only adopt ideas, but also to be critical of them is important. 

The act of building up the framework and subsequently tearing it down again felt like a very powerful learning experience. It went beyond rote learning. Not only do we ask, “Why would you adopt this?” We also ask, “Why wouldn’t you adopt this?” That requires us to understand the ideas from different perspectives. People stayed after class each day debating the ideas for over an hour each evening. That’s when you know you’ve really got them thinking. I’m looking forward to doing it again.


Why Mixins?

May 8, 2019

“Some say that I should settle down, go slower and not push so hard, so quickly for such transformational change. To them, I say that you misunderstand the size of the problems we face, the strength of the status quo and the urgency of the people’s desire for change.”

– Eliot Spitzer

The Challenge

According to the latest VersionOne State of Agile survey 2018, the most prevalent scaled agile framework in use today is SAFe. Note that I didn’t say it was the most popular framework. I’m not sure that most people love SAFe, but I can say that most people use it. Why don’t people love it? Well, I’m sure there are lots of good reasons:

  • The framework is very prescriptive, often specifying “best practices” without much discussion of alternatives
  • The framework is overly dense, incorporating nearly every agile practice ever invented
  • The framework is designed as a first step for large organizations on their agile journey, but often it is also the last step
  • Implementations tend to be cookie cutter and not make allowance or provide guidance for change

I’m sure there are many more very good critiques of SAFe. It’s not my purpose to condemn the framework, but rather to highlight some weaknesses that I believe can be easily addressed. My goal is to consider how we can make SAFe, and frankly, many other scaling frameworks, better.

So how can we accomplish that? What can we do to improve this very full, relatively rigid, and somewhat context-free framework? My answer is fairly simple: swap in practices and processes that complement the framework and may provide a better “fit” for our transformation customers. Essentially, I’m arguing for the application of a little creativity. All of the frameworks have a planning process. But there are a lot of ways to do planning. We can vary the estimation practices like story points, WSJF, or #noestimates. We can vary how we prepare for the planning event by using extensive top down review, bottom up conversation, or LeanUX related practices.

The truth is, that we have a whole constellation of different practices that we can swap out within our scaling frameworks depending on the need. This gives us incredible flexibility to help our customers find the “right fit” for where they are at in the moment. This has some important consequences:

  • For engagements that begin with a very prescriptive bent (which often makes sense when teams are learning something new, think shu-ha-ri), using mixins is a great way to begin down the path of experimentation and continuous improvement
  • We even have the discretion, once we have learned how the framework works, to try our hand at de-scaling – that is, to remove processes that seem too heavyweight
  • Mixins give us the creative potential to continue to evolve our scaling frameworks far beyond what their creators may have originally envisioned
  • Using mixins during a transformation rollout can help us to avoid the cookie cutter implementation phenomenon

All of the practices that I propose as mixins are novel and innovative. Most have proven their value on their own in the agile community. It is the recombination of these ideas with Scaled Agile Frameworks like SAFe that I find so interesting. It feels like something very new. It’s an exciting challenge, are you up for it?