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!


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.


Team Genetics

September 28, 2014

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Today I was listing to “The Splendid Table”, a great cooking show on NPR. They were talking about variation in growing heirloom tomatoes. Somehow, that got me thinking about agile teams (probably time to see the therapist again). It occurred to me that ideas like Agile are memes.

Richard Dawkins defined a meme as “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” and Agile certainly fits that definition. Agile has spread from obscurity to worldwide acceptance within 20 years. In another 20 years I fully expect that waterfall, plan driven methods will be nothing but a footnote in the history books. Despite some early prognostications to the contrary, Agile has grown at a very healthy rate over the last several years.

“Richard Dawkins invented the term ‘memes’ to stand for items that are reproduced by imitation rather than reproduced genetically.”

While much of the credit belongs to the teams that actually do the hard work of making a new process work, there is also the business that has arisen around evangelizing and introducing Agile to companies that deserves a great deal of the credit. Agile training and consulting has done a remarkable job of spreading the meme throughout the software development world.

I think there are characteristics of Agile training that have made Agile “sticky” as a meme. Much of the Scrum certification is based on plenty of hands-on exercises. Training and certification has yielded a decent business. I’m not sure if anyone has the numbers, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a multi-million dollar enterprise worldwide. Strangely enough, much of that spreading has been through imitation. There is no shared agenda for the training, much of it is simply imitated from trainer to trainer.

When trainers and others spread the meme they are like Johnny Appleseed sowing Agile ideas across fertile corporate soil.

Genes change with each generation, and so do ideas. They go through a mixing and blending each time they are shared. Parts of the idea are forgotten, other new ideas are grafted on. Soon the original idea is unrecognizable. I think that’s kind of what has happened with XP. Extreme Programming originally contained a collection of ideas that were very potent. Things like pair programming, continuous integration and others all served as core ideas within XP. Over time, those ideas have been co-opted and found their main expression in Scrum. Today, almost no one trains teams in XP, Scrum is the dominant process that is trained and introduced to teams.

“Memes do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influence a meme’s reproductive success.”

So too does Agile. In recent years methods like Kanban and ideas like No Estimates have arisen and are becoming a meaningful part of the software development landscape. These are evolutions of the Agile meme. Agile is evolving, I wonder where it will go next…


Killing the Buddha

September 10, 2014

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“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

This is a popular saying derived from an old Zen koan. When it comes to working with Agile projects I find this saying very appropriate. People who do Agile transformations typically talk about finding the Way (the road) and often speak with almost religious fervor regarding Agile processes.

In fact, Agile is really just one short step away from organized religion. You have daily meetings, attend retrospectives where we examine our patterns of behavior deeply, we worship idols with bizarre names like “Kanban” and “Scrum” and fight (flame) wars over them. We anoint our priests as guardians of that process (yes, I’m talking about you, Scrum Masters), and agonize endlessly over whether we and others are following the right path.

Wow, maybe Agile actually is a religion. That’s pretty scary. I’ve got to go sit down now.

OK, I’m back. What were we talking about? Oh yeah, killing the Buddha. So, given my little digression above, it would be pretty easy to rewrite that old Zen saying like this:

“If you meet an Agile Guru while on your journey (to excellence, improvement, whatever), kill him!”

Now aside from sounding terribly violent, what the heck do I mean by that? It turns out, that having an Agile guru around is pretty limiting when it comes to learning and continuing to grow. Whenever we have a guru like that, what do we do? We defer to his expertise. We wait for him to provide the answer and we stall our own learning journey. Having an Agile guru around can freeze an organization’s development. You end up limited to whatever level the guru is at.

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Many organizations have these characters lurking in their midst. Heck, I was one once. I still have a business card with a title of “Though Leader” emblazoned on it around somewhere. I’m here to tell you it can happen to anybody. One day you are a perfectly decent, self-respecting developer and then WHAM! you become an Agile Coach, or a Thought Leader, or a Lean Sensei, or any number of other wacky guru code names.

You become, THAT guy.

And trust me, you don’t want to be that guy. You know the one, the Agile guy? The guy who simply must render an Agile judgment every time he opens his mouth. The guy who everyone defers to when it comes to do all things Agile. To paraphrase the old Life cereal commercial “Is it Agile? Hey, let’s get Mikey. He’ll judge anything!”

…oh brother, I think I just dated myself straight back to the stone age.

So what do you do when you have an Agile guru? You get rid of him! What if YOU are the Agile guru? Now that’s awkward. Well, your mission is to eliminate that perception. How do you do that?

  1. Keep your mouth shut
  2. Stop telling people what’s Agile (see #1). Use pantomime or something instead.
  3. Bring in, find, unearth or otherwise manufacture someone who has more expertise than you do. Understand that by doing this, you will run the very real risk of learning something. Sorry.
  4. Rinse and repeat until nobody mentions Agile in your presence. Ever.

So if you find yourself or someone you love has become an Agile guru, take heart! There is a cure! The best thing you can do to avoid stifling (and annoying) everyone in your organization trying to get work done is kill the Buddha.


The Fractal Beauty of Process

May 2, 2011

There is something about a well designed process that I find mesmerizing. It really doesn’t matter if it’s XP, Scrum, Lean, or Kanban the end result is the same: for some brief period I find myself seeing the patterns of the process everywhere I look. For example, a few months ago I finished reading yet another book on Lean (Poppendieck’s latest or something like that). There I was in the kitchen washing the dishes after dinner and wondering…

…why I always did the dishes in such large batches?

…and what would happen to our dish throughput if everyone washed their own dishes? Is that one piece flow?

…and would my family understand the benefits that would accrue from such a change? Would an experiment back this up?

…should I use a kanban board to reflect my weekly dishwashing progress?’

And so it goes. Sometimes it’s like a fever. Process Geekitus. I guess for some folks a process has the allure of helping to explain how the world should work. That’s a pretty seductive proposition when you stop and think about it. What’s wrong with being passionate about your work? Nothing! I can think of some great examples:

  1. Personal Kanban
  2. GTD (Getting things Done)
These are examples of processes that people have incorporated into their day to day lives. They’ve managed to take a process that works for groups and make it work for individuals or vice versa. I’ve seen it done both ways and I find it equally compelling. Patterns within patterns. It’s really rather lovely.

How Others See Us Is Important Too

April 24, 2011

I was having a conversation once with an executive sponsor who was frustrated by friction between competing organizational silos. One silo adopted Agile, the other stuck with more traditional plan driven development. Each side mocked the other’s “head in the clouds” or “lost in the past” approach to projects.

When I was asked what I thought about the situation I found myself saying something along these lines,

“We (the Agile teams) have become very good at being open and collaborative with each other. We have created these marvelous cross-functional teams and have done a great job of breaking down the walls that used to exist between team members. From an insiders perspective on any given team we have made dramatic improvements to the way we work.”

“However, from the outside we don’t look that much different. In fact from the outside, we still react with hostility when provoked and we don’t offer much transparency into our work beyond using a handful of project tracking tools. It’s just not enough. I have high expectations of an Agile development team. I believe that an outsider who works with an Agile development team should come away from the experience feeling like they were welcomed, informed, and energized. I want a team using plan-driven methods to welcome an Agile team, because they will be that much more likely to succeed. The experience will be one of openness and a general willingness to work together.”

“But that’s not often what we get. Instead we get fear, hostility and resentment on both sides. Some of that is human nature. Some of that is silos. And some of that is because we focus too much on the process. I think we should leave the process out of it. Working on a project is a chance to make friends and meet new people.”

“What I need are people who are friendly, open and honest. People who smile when I walk into the room. People I can crack jokes with. If I lead with friendship, I can make more ground than if I lecture them on Agile practices. People should feel at ease when they work with my teams. They should know that they are safe.”

At this point in the conversation I was:

  1. out of my chair
  2. pacing the room
  3. and gesticulating wildly

The first two meant I was feeling emotional, the last one meant I was talking. I was surprised at the heat of my own passion on the topic. In writing it down, it even sounds naive. But here’s the thing: I’ve worked with enough Agile teams to know that they can be real jerks to outsiders…and that is a shame. I would have hoped that all of that vaunted openness and transparency would make that go away, but it doesn’t.

If Agile in whatever form is ultimately to be successful, then both people inside and outside the team need to feel safe and respected. If you are starting a new team, please realize that getting things working smoothly within the team is critical, but don’t forget to look at how your team interacts with others to – in many ways it’s just as important to the success of your team – perhaps even more so.


Silo Busting Strategy #2: Attend, Befriend, Defend

January 8, 2011

There is a simple slogan that we can use when trying to approach groups in silos: attend, befriend, and defend. The idea works like this:

Attend

The first thing that we need to do is make ourselves available to the group as much as we can. We need to show up for the team meetings or events. In lean terms, you might think of it as going to the gemba. You need to be where the action is. This may involve getting yourself invited to meetings, usually the most boring and uninteresting meetings. You take anything you can get. Then you have to be there all the time, religiously. They have to come to believe that you are genuinely interested and part of their process.

Befriend

Once you have the attendance part down, then it is time to make a few friends. You need to be that smiling face in the room that is ready and willing to help with even the most inconsequential problems. In fact, beginning with the small problems is probably the best way to start. We need to be there to offer help, and then when the offer is accepted, deliver. This is really all about building up trust with the new group. It is just trust with only you, but you have to start somewhere. You do everything you can to build that relationship. Go out for a beer, Invite them to your team meetings, join the softball team. Do whatever it takes.

Defend

Finally, it is inevitable that they are facing challenges; this is where you can really make a difference. When the opportunity arises, be there to defend the group. Make sure that you radiate the fact that you trust and support the work the group does. Not only does this serve to cement the trust you are trying to build within the group, but it also informs the rest of the organization that you are working together and share common goals.