Testing the Agile MBA

March 27, 2016

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“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

-Zora Neale Hurston

So as I thought about my earlier post on the idea of an Agile MBA, I realized that there is a whole lot that goes into putting together something like that. So before heading down that path, a guy might be well advised to check and see if there is any real interest in the idea before wasting a lot of energy on pursuing it further. So with that thought in mind, I created openagilemba.com.

The idea is simple, taken from the lean startup world. If you have an idea, put it out there and test whether or not there is a market for it. So I’m doing exactly that. Go check it out. I named it the “Open” Agile MBA because I’m not trying to sell anyone anything. What I have in mind is more of an open source MBA model. If we can assemble the resources, then anyone can use them. That’s kind of an exciting idea. It’s not new, there’s a NoPay MBA out there that is really cool and does something similar for a standard MBA.

So I’m starting with small, agile steps. Simply put up a web page and ask people if they are interested. If I get a few responses (feedback!), then I pursue it further, if it’s just crickets, then perhaps I tweak the idea and try again. I can’t wait to find out!

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The Agile Gymnasium

January 12, 2016

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I used to be a weightlifter. All through college, and for much of my adult life I have been in gyms exercising in one form or another. I’ve had some modest success. The experience of joining a gym goes along some standard lines. You’ve probably done it yourself. You show up and they take you around the facility and orient you to the equipment. They may even go so far as to give you some very basic training. You get an introduction to circuit training and then they slap you on the butt and tell you to “go be awesome!” You can record your exercise sessions on this little card over here…

That’s pretty much it.

As you might imagine, the success rate with that sort of system is fairly low. A lot of people never come back (although many continue to pay their monthly dues). Those who do come back typically have no idea what modern exercise programming looks like and simply go through the motions: they ride the stair master, do a few sit-ups, and maybe do some curls. That sort of exercise has some marginal utility – you get some small amount of aerobic benefit, but it’s a far cry from exercising a meaningful percentage of most people’s potential.

Most people stop there, but there are a few who have a more ambitious goal in mind. They may be trying to improve their tennis game with better conditioning. They may be looking to build massive pectoral muscles (like most teenage boys). They may be trying to maintain their conditioning in the off season of their sport, perhaps like cycling in the winter. In other words, the purpose of their exercise is to improve their performance in some sort of real world scenario.

I’d like to pause for a moment here. I was listening to a discussion with some folks who owned their own gym and they had an interesting model. It had three tiers to it:

  1. Gym Work: Work in the gym is not like the real world at all. It is where you go to prepare for the real world. The gym is a safe place to work to the point of failure (that’s important) and to learn.
  2. Expeditions: Expeditions are adventures in the real world that are guided by a coach. So it is real world experience, but with someone there to guide you and help if you fail.
  3. The Real World: This is where it all comes together. Ultimately, this is where the training in the Gym and the experience in the expeditions pays off in terms of improved performance.

As a model for the role of training for high performance, I thought this made a lot of sense. There was one more thing that they added to this: They were capturing data on the entire group’s performance and analyzing it in order to provide better training for individuals in the future!

So when you join the gym, you use a training program that is similar to what others in the gym are using. Your performance of that program is measured and metrics across the entire population training in the gym are measured. Then experimental changes are made to the training program and their benefit (or lack thereof) is measured across the group. Gradually their training program improves over time. But the training isn’t just tested in the gym. They also track the performance of their members when they go on expeditions. This measures the effectiveness of their training program in the real world.

OK, enough about this gym. What if we could use the same metaphor for the way we train our development teams? Training would be a weekly thing. Something where you go in for training on a periodic basis to firm up your skills. There might be repetitions (pair programming, mob programming, etc.) and there might be coaching (coaching circles, etc.) and there might be someone who is coordinating the training program and measuring the performance across the entire group of trainees.

There could be expeditions from time to time. Hackathons where people get to try out what they have learned in the gym out in the real world. You know: build a real project, maybe deliver something over a weekend. Test out your mastery of your skills in the real world – with a coach there if you need it.

Then there is game day – the real world. You take what you have learned and join a team. You get to flex your massive coding and collaboration muscles and help build something challenging – something amazing. What a great model for development! But I’m not done yet…

Let’s take this model, we’ll call it the “gymnasium model”, and apply it to something like Certified Scrum Master Training. Right now, there is two days of class time and exercises and then they slap the CSM on you and send the newly minted CSM out into the world. It’s a hauntingly similar scenario to the average person’s experience at the Gym: welcome to scrum, now “go be awesome!” Maybe you do a few sprints, do a few standups and off you go. That’s about as agile as most people get. Seriously. You get some marginal benefit, but that’s about it. It could be so much more.

But what if we did things differently? What if instead of signing up for a 2 day class, you were to join an Agile gym. Maybe twice each week you go into the gym to “work out”. A coach would give you a workout, perhaps something like this:

1. Dysfunctional Standup
2. 3 Reps in the coaching dojo
3. 2 Sets of mob programming
4. 2 reps of code katas
5. 1 cool down with a retrospective

That’s just a sample workout. The Agile Gym is a safe place to try out new skills and to push ourselves. The coach would be responsible for measuring the effectiveness of the workout and modifying it over time. Experimenting with new techniques and combinations of methods and evaluating the outcomes. Of course, this is just training in the gym. From time to time we are going to need to test our our competence in the real world. The coach would provide some guided expeditions (perhaps twice a month). For example:

1. Participating in a Hackathon
2. Participating in a Startup Weekend
3. Participating in a Maker Fair

These are events in the real world that are important places to evaluate the effectiveness of our training in the gym. If our coding skills have improved, then we should do well at these events and build confidence in our ability to use our newfound skills in the real world. Speaking of the real world, hopefully now we would see the agile behaviors that we have practiced being manifested in useful ways in the actual projects that we are running from day to day. Our collaboration skills should be tight, our planning impeccable, our retrospectives revealing. And if we find any weak areas, then it is back to the gym for more training.

In this model, the gym is always open. You actually practice your skills and see improvement. What an amazing way to learn about agile!

It’s not a bad model really. Actually, it’s a really darn good one. Who wants to start a gym?


Driving Self-Organization

July 8, 2015

Bangalore Traffic

“Too bad the only people who know how to run the country are busy driving cabs and cutting hair.”

-George Burns

I learned to drive in Southern California. I’ve always been kind of proud of that fact. Driving in the southern land of pavement and potholes requires a special kind of aggressive driving in order to survive the freeway melee. You have to learn to barge into a lane when there isn’t any room, to turn left on a light after it turns red, to tailgate in order to keep others from cutting you off. That’s quite a litany of questionable driving practices. All in a typical day of driving in Cali. Don’t mess with me, I’m an expert.

That’s what I thought before I went to India.

Driving in a taxi in India was an eye opening experience. Silly little conventions like lanes are completely ignored. The entire road, from sidewalk to sidewalk, is your vehicular playground. Driving the wrong way into oncoming traffic is a matter of habit – how else would you get where you are going? I tried to count the number of times I was nearly in a head on collision, but I gave up – partly because I lost count, and (maybe) because I was distracted by my own screaming.

Don’t get me wrong: I was in complete and utter admiration. The level of self-organization and complexity was breathtaking! With what appeared to be a complete absence of rules, people managed to get to and from work every day amidst what appeared to be complete chaos. I very quickly resolved to never lecture anyone on the merits of self-organization ever again! Why? Because apparently I’m an amateur. If you want a lesson in professional level self-organization, don’t talk to me. Talk to a taxi driver in Bangalore.

Someone asked me if I thought I could drive in that traffic. My answer was yes, but not because I think I’m good. Quite the opposite in fact. The Indian driving system appeared to be remarkably tolerant of incompetence. The traffic ebbed and flowed around complete bumbling dolts with apparent ease. Contrast that with where I live in Seattle: one idiot in the left lane can shut down an entire freeway for hours.

Each day in India, I took a one hour commute to and from the office through complete chaos. We circumvented obstacles that would have shut down a US freeway for hours. The creativity on display was dazzling. And as an added bonus, I was thankful to be alive when I arrived at my destination!

Compare that to my commute in the US. Everyone lines up uniformly. We stay in our lanes. Creativity is discouraged. It’s not very exciting. My commute at home also takes an hour. It made me wonder: which system is more efficient?

Under what conditions is a system with fewer rules faster than a system with relatively rigid rules? It was tempting to look at the Bangalore traffic and speculate that perhaps it was faster in some ways. It was certainly more exciting (especially after a few beers late at night in an auto-rickshaw). However, a certain level of orderliness also has its benefits.

I find myself on my own humble commute now, cars stacked up in nice, orderly lines behind an endless parade of red tail lights – and I wonder, “What if we had fewer rules?”


Time After Time

October 20, 2014

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Last year I led an effort to implement time tracking for our teams. A quick warning is probably in order here:

Never, ever, be the person who introduces time tracking at a company. You will be reviled before the gods and your name shall be stricken from the roles of the Agile. People will avoid you at parties, your kids will spurn you, and your pets will pee in your shoes. On the bright side, that Darth Vader helmet you have sitting in the closet will suddenly seem like a good thing to wear around the office.

So, now that we have that out of the way, back to our story. So I was leading this effort to introduce time tracking to all of the developers in our little corner of the company. The idea that had lead to this little misadventure was simple enough: if we used a time tracking tool we will get more detailed information about where time is being spent on projects than if we just make some educated guesses using excel spreadsheets (our existing mechanism). This will give us higher quality information and we will enable us to automatically handle things like capitalization easily.

That was the idea. If we ask people to report their time daily, they will give us a more accurate picture of the time that they are spending on the work. Simple enough. Our old system of excel spreadsheets made a lot of assumptions that probably weren’t true. For example:

  • Everyone works an 8 hour day
  • Everyone on a team works on a given project at the same time
  • Team membership doesn’t change during the sprint

If you use those rules then you can come up with some rough estimates for how many hours the team put into any given project on a sprint by sprint basis. You have to assume that any errors or mistakes will just be averaged out over time. That makes the time tracking very simple to do, but it makes the finance guys twitchy. They get anxious because you are making a lot of assumptions about things that we all know probably aren’t true. And they really don’t like that “It all kinda works out on average” bit either.

So we decided to go down the path of detailed time tracking. Give up all hope ye who enter here. Detailed time tracking doesn’t assume much: every hour of the day must be accounted for. However there is one hidden assumption:

  • Everyone will bother to take the time to accurately report their time for every day.

And there’s the rub. Very few people actually report their time accurately. First, you have to understand that they are ticked off that they are even asked to enter time. Second, they are very likely already entering their time in other places, like agile project management tools, HR vacation tracking tools, contractor management tools, etc. A single person might have to enter their time in 4 different systems! All you have done is add one more tool to the list and it is definitely not welcome.

So how do they use it? They either book all 8 hours of their day to the project and copy and paste every day, or they take one example day and copy and paste that. You aren’t going to get the real data, because the people using the system don’t really want to give it to you. At the end of a long day, nobody wants to have to sit down and try and figure out how much of their day was wasted in all those godawful meetings. They just don’t.

Oh, I suppose you could try policing it better – good luck with that.

You might come away from this little diatribe with the impression that I dislike time tracking. That’s not true. I realize there is a legitimate need for it in our business. However implementing it is much tougher than I realized and it’s very easy to find that the benefits really aren’t that clear at the end of it all.


Continuous Improvement vs. Continuous Change

October 14, 2014

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I’m a little down on the notion of continuous improvement these days. It’s not that it doesn’t happen – it does…sometimes. I simply fear that it promises too much. I think part of it is the terminology. You see in the real world continuous improvement is neither truly continuous or necessarily an improvement.

To begin with, I’ve critiqued the notion of continuously improving before from the point of view that keeping any process happening full time is ludicrous. Certainly once every sprint is nowhere near continuous. I guess maybe it is continuous when you compare it to other more plan driven methods, but that’s far from continuous in my book.

No, the part that I find most objectionable is the improving part. You see, it’s misleading. It suggests to me that every change is an improvement. That every effort is a step forward, not back. And that is simply not how it works. It would be better labelled periodic experimentation, or punctuated mutation. You see, in the real world, when we change something, we never really know if it’s going to work out or not. There are 50/50 odds that the change will actually make things worse! 

Of course that’s a good thing. We learn a little either way. Hopefully.

The problem I have with continuous improvement is that it sets up an unreasonable expectation in those we sell it to. To restate the sales pitch: every change will be an improvement and they happen all the time.

If every change were really an improvement, I would be worried that I had been transported to an alternative universe. That I was being monitored by aliens. That there was a black helicopter hovering over my house. I’d be making a tin foil bunny suit. Fortunately I know what universe I’m in, that there aren’t any black helicopters over my house, and tin foil tends to chafe in the damnedest places. Not too sure about the aliens…

Fortunately, many of my efforts at improvement fail. And that’s the way it should be.


Poor Uses for Transparency

October 13, 2014

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In the Agile world we do a lot of things to try and create transparency within our organizations. We put up information radiators like burn down charts, task boards, and cumulative flow diagrams. We put information up on the walls with sticky notes everywhere you turn. We have team synchronization meetings every day. There’s a lot of information flowing around, so is it even possible that transparency can be misused? Is it possible for transparency to go wrong?

In most cases, I think my default answer to this question would be “no” – in general, I’ll take transparency anytime. However I have run across a few situations with transparency that have made me tear my hair out. There are three different cases that I’m thinking of: Frequency of request, Lack of Decisions, and Missing the point: value.

Updating status information on a regular, even frequent, basis can be useful – especially if the work is high priority. However, there is an upper limit beyond which frequent reporting becomes counter productive. It’s one thing to update status once a week, but when it becomes once a day, something has gone wrong. I’m not really sure that there is a discrete boundary beyond which the reporting becomes too much. All I can say is that you know it when you cross it. The problem is, it ends up creating more churn than productive action.

Transparency isn’t all that useful if it doesn’t lead to meaningful action. A lack of decisions is usually an indicator that there is dysfunction that the transparency is not helping to address. In fact, what you are probably finding is that you are only getting superficial transparency. The question is, why aren’t the decisions getting made?

Finally, transparency is only effective if it helps to understand how the organization delivers value. Often times transparency focuses on things that don’t reflect business value. This is missing the point of transparency. It needs to remain focused on the business value.


Building Glass Houses: Creating the Transparent Organization

October 11, 2014

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Visual management occurs at many levels. There is personal transparency: the ability for people to see what you are working on within the team. Then there is team transparency: the ability for stakeholders and other teams to see what the team is working on. Finally, there is organizational transparency: the ability for people within and outside the organization to see what the organization is working on. Ideally, we have all three levels of transparency fully developed in an Agile organization.

Individual transparency consists of the ways in which we communicate the state of our work to the team. We can use both active and passive mechanisms to achieve this. Active mechanisms are things like using one-way broadcast like yammer, or just shouting out when you need help, achieve victory, or otherwise want to share with the team. Then there is two-way broadcast like the status in the daily standup, one-on-one communication, working meetings like the planning and demo. Passive mechanisms include updating things like task boards, wiki pages, and status reports. All of this information is primarily directed at the team.

At the team level there are active and passive mechanisms for communication. There are burn down charts, task boards, calendars, which are all passive. Then there is the active communication that takes place at the scrum of scrums and other larger forums where multiple teams and stakeholders meet. I’ve often seen teams struggle to get information out at this level. They tend to do really well at the individual level, but at the team level it is not uncommon to find that teams aren’t getting enough information out beyond their own boundaries.

Finally at the organizational level there are active and passive mechanisms for communication as well. There are passive communication mechanisms like annual reports, company web pages, intranets, and billboards in the coffee room. There is also active communication at company meetings, and…often not much else. This is an area where as Agilists we need the most improvement. It seems as though the communication demands get more challenging the higher up the organization that you go.