The Agile Experience and The 5 Rules of Accelerated Learning

October 4, 2013

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How do you experience Agile?

I’m not talking about the process, the rituals, or the artifacts. I’m certainly not asking you to regurgitate any of the usual Agile jargon. I’m talking about how it makes you feel. It usually starts with a question like, “Are you using Agile?” and I catch myself saying things like, “Yes, we do scrum.” Answers like that probably miss the point on a very fundamental level. What I think some people are really asking is, “What does it feel like to work at your company.” What is the experience like?

All too often, that’s as far as the conversation goes. I find myself frustrated by that. You see, I want people who come to work with me to have an experience that is different from the traditional corporate environment. I want them to feel differently. I want them to interact differently. You see, I think a different experience was behind much of the promise of agile methods. Agile provides this groovy toolbox of collaborative methods in order to help change the way working together feels. It promises to change the experience of work.

Just using Agile methods won’t necessarily generate a different experience. You can just go through the motions and not change the feeling of the experience at all. A planning meeting where everyone is seated at a conference table falling asleep in front of some task board on a projector feels a whole lot different from a planning meeting with everyone standing up talking and trading sticky notes back and forth. Its a visceral difference in the experience. You can call them both agile planning meetings, but one feels very different from the other. I see this all the time in daily stand up meetings. Poorly handled stand up meetings usually have all the life and energy of a funeral.

How do we change that experience?

That’s where Willem and Diana Larsen have some interesting ideas. They are working on a book enigmatically entitled, Name This Book that among other things introduces the Five Rules of Accelerated Learning. These rules offer a foundation for techniques that we can use with our teams to enrich the kind learning they have to do every day. These are ideas for improving the learning experience along 5 different dimensions: Alive, Fluency, Signal, Focus, Setting. Each of these dimensions interacts to contribute to the power and effectiveness of the learning experience.

Willem puts it best “I always recommend thinking of the Five Rules as two Values (Alive and Fluency) and three Principles /Tools (Signal, Focus, Setting), and listing them in a consistent order for that purpose (Alive, Fluency, Signal, Focus, Setting). This also makes them easier to recall for new folks”

They also have a smaller 99 cent book that just gives a summary of the Five Rules that you can find here: https://leanpub.com/fiverules. If you are just looking for a quick intro, this is where you could start.

In brief, here are the rules:

Alive

This is about the feeling of energy in an experience. As Willem and Diana put it, this is that feeling of having a peak experience. That moment of total engagement or achieving flow. There is an element of playfulness to it. We want to maximize this feeling in order to enhance  learning.

Fluency

This is the assessment of our skill at actually doing something. In order to provide the right learning experience, we need to assess the fluency of the learners, and perhaps more importantly, create simulations that challenge and allow them to exercise or experience that skill.

Signal

Changing the signal is about amplifying the message so that the learner is most likely to receive it. This can involve reducing distractions, increasing repetition, upping the emotion – using every tool at your disposal to get their attention.

Focus

Keeping learning going requires steadily adjusting the focus so that you accomodate the varying attention levels of your audience. This involves changing the pace, breaking things up and adjusting based on the overall energy level (see aliveness).

Setting

Altering the setting is creating the environment that promotes learning. It’s all about an environment that enhances or amplifies the learning that takes place.

Putting the 5 Rules to Use

First, if you are interested in this sort of stuff,  you should check out their book. They do a fabulous job of laying out all of the rules and putting them in context. Second, if you have a chance, you should definitely catch a presentation on the topic by either Willem or Diana. They are two very engaging speakers and I’ve heard them speak on this subject – it’s worth it. Finally, even if you don’t do any of the above, it’s interesting to note that Willem has put all of this theory into action with Language Hunters – a learning group dedicated to using these techniques to help with teaching and learning rare languages. Check them out.

So obviously, I’m a big fan of their work. The question is: how can you and I apply it? Here are a few places I’ve tried:

Teaching (training, workshops, presentations)

So, I had an experience not very long ago where I saw these ideas in action. It just happened that I was delivering a very interactive workshop at XP2013. I asked everyone in the room to help me generate what I like to think of as an idea cloud at the beginning of the workshop. The experience was like this: as soon as you entered the room, I was there saying hello and inviting you to help me add ideas on note cards to a wall. My goal was to convey a feeling of “Come play with me!” Soon we had a large crowd of people all standing in front of a wall adding ideas. I was jumping in and out of the group, collecting ideas, offering new ones, handing out note cards and generally dancing like a madman (it all felt a bit maniacal). I had music playing, people were talking and the room got pretty noisy pretty quickly. They were competing for space at the wall, helping me facilitate, and generally helping to contribute to a wonderful atmosphere of barely controlled chaos. Folks seemed to be pretty deeply engaged. They were showing me ideas I had never seen before, and I even managed to toss a few originals into the mix. We were teaching each other.

I remember turning around at a key moment to talk to the group. I had my back to the wall and I was surrounded by about 40 people all standing about two feet away and looking right at me. Staring into this sea of expectant faces, I had a moment of panic (it was a little intimidating). I put up my hands and almost reflexively said, “OK everybody, let’s sit down.”

Immediately I realized I’d just made a huge mistake.

matador

All at once I could feel the energy drain out of the crowd. There was almost a palpable sense of disappointment as people searched for a chair. I could almost feel the energy in the room go “Poof!” and disappear. It took me another 10 minutes to get everyone back up on their feet and fully engaged again. The rest of the workshop went great, but that moment where everyone sat down made a huge impression on me. I realized that I had created a critical element of aliveness and engagement that felt almost magical (people told me afterward that they thought it was one of the most energizing workshops they had attended). I think I had managed, for a brief time, to create that alive learning experience in a group of people. Referring back to the 5 Rules, perhaps I had a combination of focus, aliveness, and setting (3 of the 5 rules!) working for the group.

Interviewing

I wrote about an experience with interviewing recently in Bob the Naked Agilist. In that interview I introduced a drawing and asked the participants in the interview to help me clothe a hypothetical Agilist with the things that they would need to survive out in the corporate jungle. It swiftly turned into a very engaging and dynamic dialog where we were generating ideas together and asking each other spontaneous questions about the things we thought were important for our work. For me, it felt like the conversation opened up.

Compared to the traditional interview where we all sit around the table in combative postures and quiz each other, this felt like we were collaborating on building something together. The energy was completely different (and honestly, quite refreshing compared to the usual drudgery of an interview). All I did was walk up to a white board and start drawing pictures. Next time, I’m going to get everyone up at that white board drawing too. I want people to experience interviews differently.

Dear God I must be nuts.

Fire Writing

So I managed to use the aliveness, focus and signal rules to improve the interview. Now that I think of it, an interview is a very intense learning experience for everyone. It makes a lot of sense to try to improve them.

Meetings

One of the things that I think we have done particularly well in the Agile community is rethinking the way meetings are run. For instance, I believe that when I’m doing a meeting well, there are rarely any projectors or PPTs. The walls are usually completely covered with sticky notes, diagrams and all in a bewildering array of handwriting. That’s because everyone in the room has been contributing. Chairs are kicked out of the way against the wall. Tables are piled high with collaboration tools: sticky notes, sharpies, and stickers. None of this is particularly new or extraordinary – these are all the attributes of what I have come to expect from any experienced facilitator when they are dealing with an Agile team. It could be a retrospective, or a planning meeting – it really doesn’t matter. Why is this important? Because we have a body of techniques that makes our meetings feel distinctly different from the usual meeting. The experience is manifestly different.

Coaching

Recently I was working with a team and just happened to be observing one of their stand up meetings. As a coach I was watching and waiting to see how the team dynamic would play out. As I stood there quietly, it occurred to me that I could use the 5 rules to help me asses the outward experience of the team as an outsider. I quickly jotted the 5 rules down in my notebook, and then asked myself some questions: Does this meeting feel Alive? Joe over there is bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet over there. There’s a lot of energy pent up there. Either he has to go to the bathroom or he has something he really wants to say. Nobody else is moving. What’s up with that? Are these people alive or in zombie mode?

Then I switched to the next rule: signal. What message is this person trying to send. Is it clear enough that I can understand it as an outsider or is it encoded in jargon. How are others receiving his message? Is he mumbling? Why?

For each rule I discovered a lot of interesting questions that were open for me to ask. After the team finished I pulled them together for a quick huddle and shared the 5 rules model with them. As I did so, I offered a few questions that I felt would offer seed opportunities for further exploration or introspection. With the judicious use of a few funny examples from my own past, I set the hook. What would you change to increase the liveliness of the meeting? How would you change the environment to improve the learning that takes place? What could you do to improve focus?

So the 5 rules served both as a source for assessment as well as a roadmap for improvement.

Where next?

These days I ask myself, does this feel different? Is this the experience I was hoping to create? Sometimes the answer is no. When that happens, I feel like what Willem and Diana have given us in the Five Rules of Accelerated Learning is a set of strategies I can use to create that new experience.


Bob The Naked Agilist

August 25, 2013

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Have I ever mentioned how much I hate interviews? I absolutely despise them. The average interview is like the worst kind of corporate speed dating. You know how it goes: What are your job qualifications? I like long walks on the beach, Scrum, and listening to Barry Manilow LPs. Seriously, the whole process only serves to dehumanize the participants, both the interviewers and the candidates. The interviewers, utterly devoid of any real information, struggle to obtain some small sliver of insight. The candidates struggle to make themselves as attractive as possible, similarly unaware of any real idea of what the company culture is like. It’s ridiculous.

So there I was in an interview. Things were going as usual. Just sort of stumbling along as they often do. I’m staring at a whiteboard while someone else is asking questions…or somebody is answering one…I can’t remember. Suddenly it occurs to me that we need a visit from Bob the Naked Agilist. So I get up and wander over to the whiteboard and draw this figure:

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I call him Bob. Bob the Naked Agilist. No, don’t tell HR. Right now it’s just poor Bob there with no clothes. Just a poor unprotected scrum master with no tools to make his way in the world. The question is: what tools would you give Bob in order to make him a great scrum master? Maybe you’d give him a big pair of boots. You know, something to keep his feet firmly planted in reality. These are going to have to be some big shoes to provide a stable platform not only for him, but for his team as well. So let’s give him a pair right now:

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What else would we give Bob? A telescope, so that he can see risks coming? Maybe a broom for sweeping obstacles out of the team’s path? How about a Japanese Katana for cutting the occasional Gordian Knot? Fireproof asbestos pants for taking the heat from project stakeholders right in the shorts? Let’s do it!

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Now Bob is starting to look a little bit more interesting. The interview candidate is fully engaged, dressing up their proverbial project manager doll. Me? I’m doodling. And I’m thinking. I’m thinking it’s interesting what people come up with. I’m thinking that I’m learning a lot more than usual from an interview. I’m thinking I’m starting to enjoy myself a little (I love doodling). So after 10 minutes of back and forth play we have arrived at this version of Bob:

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He’s quite a handsome devil now! Dashing! Adventurous! Bold! I’m thinking I kind of admire Bob. I’d like to be like Bob. And now I have just finished engaging in a playful game with the person who has come to us looking for a job. Now I have a wealth of information. Now I feel like I have come much closer to full engagement with this person.

I’m swiftly coming to the realization that there are a whole host of things I would rather do than use the traditional interview format (what I kindly refer to as “corporate water boarding”). Games seem like a good start in the right direction. Rather than trying to come up with a masterful set of interrogation questions, perhaps seeking engagement through a short game is a more productive tactic (and more enjoyable for all parties involved). I want an interview that feels alive, that engages people deeply, and that leaves people wanting more.

I know they can’t all be like that, but perhaps we can get closer. Try using Bob. Starting an interview with a naked guy certainly makes them more engaging.


Developing Games Fosters an Experimental Mindset

January 21, 2012

So, for the past week or so, I’ve been developing the Impediments Game. You can see some of my efforts: interation 1, iteration 2, Interlude, and Iteration 3. Now I have no experience or expertise designing games, so as you might imagine, there has been a great deal of trial and error involved in this process. Whenever you add a new element or change an existing rule or component of the game play you are doing it with some sort of hypothesis in mind. For example, If I add “Accelerator cards” it will give the players a way to overcome the negative impact of impediments. That’s the kind of hypothesis I’m talking about. How do we actually run an experiment to test the hypothesis? We play the game!

Game play gives us the tangible feedback that we need to validate our hypothesis. Playing the game gives us both subjective and objective data. How does the game play feel? Was it fun? How long did the game take? How many cards did you use? Which strategy won out?

What I’m experiencing as I play the game is a lot of different questions – questions that can form the foundation for the next experiment:

  • How would the game work without cards (I could try using points…story points? The person with the most story points wins?)
  • What could I add to the game to promote teamwork? Would there be some sort of benefit accrued by helping your opponent?
  • Should elements like risks, impediments, and accelerators have a limited lifespan?

Of course the real joy of games is that you can run your simulations over and over and tweak things until you are happy with them. That’s what I mean by an experimental mindset. I see all too many teams that seem unable to come up with meaningful experiments to try and modify their performance. They have a hard time coming up with the “What if…” part of the mindset. Perhaps they should be playing, or even better, making their own games.


Developing the Impediments Game – Part 4

January 20, 2012

So today was a day to make a few changes and take stock of where things are at. The first change I wanted to make was to double the length of the game from 20 spaces to 40:

Changing the board like this actually raised a few interesting questions about the game for me. First, what does each space on the board represent? It could be:

  1. A square, just like on the sidewalk, just a position to advance to…
  2. It could represent a unit of time, like a day, or a sprint
  3. It could represent a position in a queue or a backlog

In this case, for right now I’m going to just keep it simple. I haven’t assigned any particular meaning to the spaces (although the astute observer might notice that they are now arranged in rows of ten, just like some sprints…). All I really want to do right now is insure that the game is sufficiently long enough that I can guarantee that whatever strategies each player of the game uses has a chance to fully play itself out in the duration of the game. In the first iteration of the game, with only 20 spaces, the game could play itself out in 4 rolls of the dice. That seemed too short, so I’ve switched to 40 spaces.

The other thing I felt it was important to do was to spend some time just playing the game and question the value that I was getting out of it. So I played this longer version, but just with the impediments, not with the risks. I learned that if I played two players with equal strategies – in other words both doing the best they could to win given the circumstances of each roll of the dice, the game felt a little frustrating. You spent your time trying to move toward the finish and were constantly being assaulted with impediments. It felt pretty tedious.

That brings up an important point: in most board games there are both positive and negative things that can happen to a player, even if they all just occur by chance. The classic “CandyLand” is like that. Playing with just impediments is kind of depressing. Especially when you can’t do anything other than pay their price. That’s where adding an element like risks to the game allows you to start doing something to proactively avoid impediments. Integrating risks into the game makes it feel much more interesting. Apparently dealing with impediments doesn’t feel nearly so bad when you have a strategy to deal with them. I think there might be some keen observations on learned helplessness lurking under that observation someplace.

What else can I do to give the player ways to deal with impediments? How about some Accelerator cards?

What would accelerators be? Here are some examples:
  1. TDD
  2. Pair programming
  3. Continuous Integration
  4. Continuous Deployment
  5. Automated testing
  6. Retrospectives

Each one of these things are the types of activity that a team can use to mitigate the impact, or even completely avoid some kinds of impediments. Time for more cards! I’m going to have to hit the office supply store soon!


Developing the Impediments Game – An Interlude

January 18, 2012

I know what you’re probably thinking by now: MORE on this silly game? Well, yes (I’m so embarrassed). You see, it just gets more interesting as I continue to play with it. Today I decided that I needed to improve the impediments cards in the game. In previous iterations, the cards had the word impediment printed on one side and the impact or cost of the impediment was printed on the other side. I thought it would make the impediments much more interesting if I used some real world examples. So, using the list of 100 impediments that was compiled by William Wake, I added an impediment description to each card. Now they look something like this:

What I like about having actual examples of impediments on each card is that players now get familiarized with different kinds of impediments while they play the game. Players actually might learn about different kinds of impediments! That’s kind of a nifty idea.

You see I have a confession to make: so far the game has been a way for me to try and model my own hypothesis about how impediments and risks impact teams. For example:

Hypothesis: A team that deals with impediments will have a higher velocity than at team that doesn’t address their impediments.

Hypothesis: A team that deals with Risks will have fewer impediments to deal with and subsequently higher velocity.

I confess that these are not complicated hypothesis, but they pose the kinds of assertions that I would like to validate. It turns out that constructing a game with rules that define the boundaries of the problem is a really fun and engaging way to test the validity of those assertions. But as I build out the game further, I’m starting to realize that games can also have learning objectives as well. Perhaps I ought to define some of those. For example:

  • People who play this game will learn about different kinds of impediments – some that they may not have ever considered before

Well, that sounds like a pretty good thing to me!

So now I’m thinking about the game a little differently. I’m looking at the games not only validating my own hypothesis about how impediments and the way we manage them (or fail to) impacts teams, but also providing a tool for teaching others about what impediments are and how they work. I think more people should create games!