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…


Slowing Down

February 12, 2013

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Last week I led a session at Agile Open Northwest called, “Slowing Down”. The idea for this session was inspired by my own struggles with becoming quite over-committed to a variety of things (my job, my hobbies, etc.) and the resulting stress and crisis it has created for me. You see, the funny thing about it all was that even though I was perfectly aware of what I was doing by over-committing like crazy, I couldn’t seem to stop.

The Introduction

So I came to this session, not as an expert selling a solution, but rather as a novice seeking help. Since I really didn’t know where things were going to go, I simply started with the session title. I wrote “Slowing Down” on the whiteboard and introduced myself to the small group of people who had joined me for the session. I started with a story of my own. It was a bit like what I imagine an Alcholics Anonymous conversation starts like, “Hi, my name is Tom and I can’t slow down…”

Fortunately for me, many in the audience had a similar story. Since we are a bunch of software development types, it didn’t take long for the concept of sustainable pace to be mentioned. Of course we all knew full well what sustainable pace means. It is a term that I originally encountered in Xtreme Programming. I could ramble on for hours about the importance of keeping the pace and duration of your work under control so that you can sustain your creative energy and not burn out. Easy. But I can’t seem to do it worth a damn. That’s the interesting bit. Why? Why is it that, even knowing the importance of maintaining a sustainable pace, I and others like me seem to struggle so hard with it?

Why?

A few interesting ideas for why we get sucked into this dynamic were suggested during the session:

its-mine

Ownership – Feelings of ownership can make it hard for people to let go of tasks and delegate them to others. For example, it is very easy for project leaders to feel a very strong sense of ownership and commitment to the success of projects that they are working on. This can be quite normal – often our organization want this kind of commitment from us. However, like many things, this can go too far. The undesired dynamic plays out as a feeling that you and only you are personally responsible for the success or failure of the project (what happened to the team?). When challenged, people who struggle with ownership issues will often look with incomprehension when asked to give up some part of a project, “If I don’t do it, who will?” I think that in some cases this inability to give up ownership can also manifest as heroism (ownership + adrenaline junkie). Perhaps at its heart, ownership issues are tightly tied to ego. They seem to manifest as a very selfish view of project success or failure.

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Bad Habit

Habit – We form all sorts of bad habits that contribute to the stress in our lives. For example, I’ve gotten into the habit of checking my email compulsively throughout the day. Often even when at home. Habits like this that tether us to the office and constant communication serve to raise our overall stress levels. Other examples include habitually taking home the laptop with you every night and carrying the work phone with you wherever you go.

Culture – One major reason for difficulty with slowing down is the work culture you live in. People shared many different stories of how the expectations at work made it hard or almost impossible for them to escape the pressures of the office. Everything from evil bosses that demand attendance over performance to co-workers who make snide comments when a colleague dares to leave the office at 5:00. Some places even provide rewards for those who make decisions that put work above any other activity. Examples of these sorts of influences in the workplace abound.

All of these influences are very common reasons why people find it hard to slow down. It is no wonder that there are many who struggle to maintain a sustainable pace of work at the office. Understanding why you are feeling that pressure is critical to understanding what strategies to use to manage the problem. The strategies where where we ended up going next.

Strategies

As we moved along in our discussion, people identified strategies that could be used to deal with slowing down and establishing a more sustainable pace. We captured and expanded upon those strategies as we wove the narrative of slowing down.

Setting Boundaries

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The first strategy that came up was setting boundaries. Setting boundaries is fundamental to establishing control over your own schedule and pace. Fail to do this and all the rest really doesn’t matter. People told many stories about how they managed to establish meaningful boundaries in their work lives that helped them to keep a meaningful sustainable pace. Some made their 9 to 5 work hours non-negotiable. They never offered the longer hours that many fall into. You get me for 8 hours a day, and the rest of my life is not for sale. It was remarkable to hear the strength of some of these voices. Others refused to take work home or turned off the cell phone after 5.

Basically, what I heard were people establishing a service level agreement for their participation. One benefit that I noticed from this sort of boundary was that it made visible to everyone just what they could and could not expect from you. Visibility is a strongly held value in the agile community and it struck me that making my boundaries more visible would be a uniquely agile way of dealing with the issue (I’m closing the door now…). Another way of making my boundaries and limits visible would be to use a personal task board mechanism like personal kanban in order to not only make my existing commitments visible, but also to review them myself and keep tabs on how the work load is balanced (or not).

Reflections

Diana Larsen did a great session last year at Agile2012 on personal retrospectives. As team facilitators, we are pretty well versed in running team retrospectives, however I never do them by myself. That is exactly what Diana proposed: do self-retrospectives on a periodic basis in order to reflect on your progress toward your goals, and where you want to go next. I think this would be a useful tool for many, whether it is only at the end of the year or much more frequently. I know that my own responsibilities feel like they have changed quite dramatically in the last year. Stopping to assess those changes might just give you the opportunity to recognize stressful trends and start to do something about it. You can start to do it now, or wait until a crisis imposes that reflection. Your call.

This is just my summary of what I saw and heard during our talk. Looking at the sheer number of topics that we covered it’s quite apparent to me that we covered a broad number of subjects. Many of them are worthy of deep investigation. Perhaps, as the mind map suggests, we have created a map of the terrain of the topic of slowing down. Others may have different take aways. I certainly hope so. I appreciated everything that the group brought to the conversation and I hope that I was able to serve as a reasonable scribe for what was said.


XP2011 Day 4

May 13, 2011

Sessions

Silo Busting w/Tom Perry and Lourdes Vidueira

Yeah, that’s me. It was our big session. And just for the record, we rocked the house. In fact, the people attending our session made so much noise that people in sessions in the rooms adjacent to us complained about all the noise. What did I think? I think that means I’m doing a good job as a facilitator. Especially given the fact that there were only 10 people in the session. It was awesome! The feedback we received was nothing short of phenomenal. I’m extremely grateful to those who participated.

I was pretty exhausted after running the session. 4 hours seems like the equivalent of running a 220 yard dash. It’s not a sprint and it’s not a marathon. You have to keep things moving fast and you can’t lose your focus. We went out on the town afterward in Madrid and had a grand celebration. I had seafood that would give Louisiana a run for its money, and the people were just as friendly, if not more so.

The conference has been a good one. I’m probably too tired to do a decent recap of everything that happened today, but I’ll give it a shot tomorrow. Signing off from Madrid.


XP2011 Day 3

May 12, 2011

Conversations

What can I say? The restaurant open bar last night was epic. Actually I wasn’t saying very much at all to anyone this morning…

Sessions

Keynote: What Forms of Work and Life Make Sense for Us? w/Brian Marick

As usual Brian’s keynote was eccentric, enlightening, and above all else, unique. At about the halfway point he actually had the entire room stand up and he gave a tango lesson (which was no surprise, he had been talking about it on twitter for weeks). Still, there were a lot of European men arm-in-arm dancing with each other. Perhaps not so unusual. The talk itself covered some interesting subjects.

First he talked about gift economies vs. money economies. The way I understood it, he described the agile team as using a gift economy. Favors are exchanged freely with no exchange of money. However outside the team and especially within the corporation at large, it is a money economy. I think the point was to suggest that we need to be conscious of the different economies at work and adjust our expectations and behavior accordingly.

He also talked about the influence of context on behavior, basically debunking using assessments like Myers-Briggs for any predictive purpose. Instead, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that context matters much more when it comes to predicting people’s behavior. So, my take away from that is that we need to create the right environments for people to be successful.

Grumpy Old Agile Coaches w/Rachel Davies

This was a fun session with Olav Lewitz, JB Rainsberger, Kati Vikki, Mike Hill all sitting on park benches and Rachel Davies acting as moderator. While the conversation was good, I have to agree with some of the participants, that the grumpy old agile coaches looked pretty happy for a bunch of grumps! I was interested to hear about the lonely-coaches-sodality google group which I definitely want to check out.

Agile at Scale

Apparently this was another fishbowl – I enjoyed it and jumped right in with the big fish. It was fun to bounce some of my thoughts off the group and get their perspective. Mary Poppendieck was a hoot and provided some lively conterpoint and tough questions of her own. Jutta Eckstein was the moderator and did a great job.

After Hours

It’s a quiet evening for me. I have to give my Silo Busting tutorial tomorrow morning, so it’s early to bed.


XP2011 Day 2

May 11, 2011

First a brief note on the important things:

  1. The breakfasts: While I don’t think anyone is going to beat last year’s xp2010 hotel in Trondheim for its extravagant breakfast buffet, it’s hard not to love having a churro and coffee for breakfast. Mmmm…churros!
  2. The timing: Just for the record – having your presentation take place on the last day of the conference sucks. I know, somebody has to draw the short straw, but I hate all the waiting. I just can’t relax and enjoy myself until I get it done.

Conversations

Met some of my favorite coaches again – you know who you are…and Nils I owe you a beer…

Sessions

Keynote: Still no Silver Bullets – Esther Derby

In multiple sessions this conference Esther has been talking about a model for finding and managing polarizing behaviors in organizations. It seems to be a way of visualizing and identifying ways of managing based on a systems thinking approach (a la Peter Senge). One of the failure modes that she identifies is the oscillation between polar behaviors or states in the system. This oscillation can disrupt the flow of value through the system. The solution seems to be to put in feedback mechanisms that serve to mitigate the oscillation. That’s really a lot of four syllable words to toss around (which is usually an indication that I don’t understand something well). I think I like the model she uses, but I need to try and put it into practice and see how it plays for me. Then maybe I can explain it using one or two syllable words…

One other model that I took away from her talk was that there are two kinds of knowledge that need to be shared in an organization: Contextual Knowledge – the kind of knowledge that CEOs and management have, and Day to Day knowledge – the kind of knowledge that teams have. I think there is a lot of focus on making the knowledge that the team have transparent, however I think there needs to be an equal focus on making the contextual knowledge that executives have transparent too. I’ve realized that I may have been focusing on only one half of the equation. Thank you Esther!

No Silver Bullets. Now What?

This session seemed to be an effort to explore different polarities and examine how to put appropriate feedback mechanisms in place for them. I didn’t feel like it went very well though. I personally found it hard to identify polarities. Furthermore, I wasn’t really all that familiar with the model, so I felt like I was having difficulty making a contribution to the discussion. Still a little thrashing can go a long way toward understanding, so perhaps it was useful in the end.

The Purpose of Leadership and Governance – Jurgen Appelo

Wow! I’d heard good things about Jurgen’s book and I’m here to tell you that they are all true…

Decision Making (Lightning talks)

Man, leave it to xp2011 to make even lightning talks boring. Congrats guys…

After Hours

Conference Dinner

I saw things no sane man should see. After I describe what I saw I will promise to poke my own eyes out with broaches. Or at least have a beer before getting on the plane…One or the other. Right now I’m leaning toward the broaches. Send me email if you feel differently…


XP2011 Day 1

May 10, 2011

The first day of XP2011 got off to a good start today. As your roaming reporter I think I will break down my experience of day one into the following categories: Conversations, Tutorials, & After hours.

Conversations

Starting your own conference – Beer in hand, I stumbled into a conversation about holding a future XP conference in Vienna. What a fabulous idea! I’m currently playing a small role in helping with site selection for a conference in the pacific northwest, so I’m particularly interested in this topic. Setting up a conference is a very complicated affair. It involves many different factors that I’m only now coming to appreciate: site location, catering, services (wifi, etc.) atmosphere, organization type, and the list goes on. The more I get to know people who take on this challenging task, the more I respect them and the work that they do.

On a related note, I see small conferences as a critical part of the overall conference ecosystem and a vital source of originality for the overall conference system. I see ideas get introduced and developed (0r killed) in small conferences that then evolve into the new ideas that pop up in the larger conferences. So I think we need to encourage more small conferences.

ALE Network – Those crazy Europeans are at it again! Being an American I didn’t participate, but I really like the energy that I feel behind this movement. I wasn’t in the super secret meeting, but I wholeheartedly support whatever those wacky Europeans come up with! Apparently they are going to take over the world with LEGOs. Let’s see if this movement has momentum. I know my kids are on board.

Vegetarians starve in Madrid – Yes, this is my exclusive scoop for the conference. I spoke with a few vegetarians tonight. Apparently there are no vegetables in Madrid. None. The poor bastards are starving. It’s quite sad. A moment of silence for the vegetarians please. The good news for the rest of us carnivores: vegetarians are really very tasty.

Tutorials

Agile Software Development with Distributed Teams w/Jutta Eckstein

This topic isn’t a new one for me. In fact, this session was one of those where you come to realize that you know quite a lot on the subject. Then the hard part is to balance letting the speaker talk with your own desire to contribute your own point of view. I also felt like there were some key points that I really needed to explore in much more detail, but perhaps that wasn’t as relevant to others in the room. I think Jutta did a great job in presenting a comprehensive overview of many of the key issues to address in working with distributed/dispersed teams. She obviously has a lot of experience in the domain and has written two books on the topic.

However…this topic is insanely complex and I think it deserves even more attention than it currently gets. The real questions that I encounter with distributed teams are wicked hard and they don’t give way to simple, stock agile answers. Strangely enough, when she addressed trust the conversation started to sound a lot like the introduction to my Silo Busting tutorial – so I invited her to come! I think trust is a very important and under appreciated topic for inter team communication.

The Other Session

I have a confession to make. I saw myself in the second session today and I felt more than a little uncomfortable. The speaker was skilled – he really had a talent for speaking to a crowd, but you could see that the ideas were still being worked out. I saw a bit of myself in that speaker today and quite frankly, it made me feel awkward. I will not criticize – to do so would only be to criticize myself. But at the same time I wanted so badly to jump up and help out. Sometimes the hardest sessions to attend are those where the potential of the speaker and the subject are the most obvious. I’m still processing my feelings on this one. Perhaps this is more about me and less about the speaker. Hmmm…food for thought.

So I took a nap.

After Hours

Welcome Reception

Well, after the obligatory speeches from boring people you’d rather not listen too, the beer poured freely and the tapas kept coming. It was a relatively small crowd as these things go, but it kept going for a good three hours. It was nice to drift in and out of some very engaging conversations. I talked about everything from basketball, to ice hockey, to Madrid weather, to sessions held today, to the future of the Agile Manifesto (I think we agreed that after 10 years those particular stone tablets should be smashed). All in all, not a bad way to spend an evening with a drink in each hand.


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.