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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.