We held the second Agile Management Northwest Conference yesterday. We had a small, but diverse group of people attending. Of course, there were managers from various software and non-software disciplines. But there was also a district attorney, A dance teacher, a Gregorian chant singer, and a few consultants for good measure. As I opened the space as the facilitator, I was thinking to myself, “Prepare to be surprised.”
I wasn’t disappointed. Linda Merrick hosted the first session of the morning. The topic was “Organizing for Scale” and she used a lean coffee format to structure our conversation. We discussed customer value streams, shared services, tribes, and the fear of restructuring. The topics were wide-ranging and everyone was engaged.
After that, I joined a session hosted by Brent Barton. Brent shared his recent experience as part of a jury in a large civil construction lawsuit. He spent months sitting through this trial learning more than he ever wanted to know about the legal system and the intricacies of construction contracts. However, he also came away with some interesting parallels and insights into the similarities of the practices we preach in agile and the work done in construction. Where we often use (or misuse) construction metaphors as classic waterfall examples of fixed planning, Brent offered that there were ideas like Value Engineering, and Fast Track Construction that were rather agile in their intent and orientation. I came away with the sense that construction is far more uncertain than most people give it credit for.
This conversation also left me with my first surprising insight for the day – having teams evaluated by a “jury of their peers” as part of promoting a form of self-organizing governance for large programs. Rather than having managers externally assessing performance and handing down changes (or punishment), the teams should appoint individuals to a group responsible for self-assessment of the program and capable of levying changes to teams that are performing poorly. It’s a pretty good idea and something that deserves a little further consideration.
Then we had lunch. Folks gathered around the fireplace in the common room to eat together. It was a typical cold, rainy northwest day outside, and sitting by a fire was a cozy way to hang out and share a lunch. I absolutely loved the space we had for the conference. The Brightwater Center building has wooden floors, a fireplace, a pretty stained glass-style window, big bay windows that look out over a nature preserve, and breakout rooms. With plenty of natural light and room to expand as we saw fit, it was a truly delightful place to hold a conference.
After lunch we jumped into our next session. I attended a session called, “What does Music-Making Teach us about Team Dynamics?” Joe Alexander, who has rich experience with singing Gregorian chants, led the discussion. And that’s exactly what he asked us to do! Chant. Our small group stood up, and he led us through a series of exercises, each adding subtly to the next, where we sang a chant together as a group. It was a little challenging, but the group sounded surprisingly good. And Joe used the singing to give everyone a visceral feel for what chanting together can do to create a feeling of alignment and focus. It was a pretty intense session. I’m not sure how I will use that experience in practice, but it led to my second surprise of the day – I never would have dreamed I would be singing Gregorian chants at this conference.
After that, I hosted a session myself to share some of my recent ideas about using organizational batteries as a metaphor for understanding how work is stored and flows through organizations. I’m still playing with the ideas, and I got some good feedback from folks. It was interesting to see how they reacted to the ideas – it definitely makes folks a little uncomfortable. That’s probably a good sign.
Finally, the last session of the day was one that I co-hosted with Skip Angel. The subject was about “Team Toxins and Antidotes.” It was a lively conversation about the things that tend to poison teams and what we can do to remedy that.
After this, we wrapped up the conference with some appreciations and a quick retrospective. Everyone was pretty energized and happy with the outcome of the conference. They all agreed that they loved the space and the food. Some of the conversations had been pretty esoteric, but everyone felt like they were interesting and engaging. I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.