Building Up and Tearing Down

May 27, 2019

Recently I put on a public Leading SAFe training. This wasn’t your typical training, however. In collaboration with Ron Quartel, we tacked on an extra day to discuss FAST Agile. Now if SAFe is an example of a scaling framework, FAST Agile is perhaps a good example of what you might call a de-scaling framework. FAST uses an open space style of organization to provide only the most bare bones structure and guidance. It’s really quite elegant in its simplicity. 

Ron and I had both been inspired by the ideas of mix-ins – processes and practices that we can mix and match together. So, it was with that in mind that we thought putting on a combined training class would be interesting. First teach SAFe, then turn around and teach a competing framework. Then compare and contrast. Well, as it turns out, the combination was quite brilliant.

As I taught the two days of Leading SAFe training, the class built up the framework from teams, to programs, to solutions, to portfolios. Learning the roles and processes of each. By the end of the second day, I was exhausted but happy (as usual). Then Ron stepped in and proceeded to teach FAST Agile on day 3. In essence, he took everything I had taught them and tore it all down. The focus was on simplicity and self-organization. The class was totally into it – questions flew fast and furious. Everyone was fully engaged. 

The contrast between the two frameworks was stark, and it raised many questions for both Ron and I. You see, I wasn’t there to sell anyone on SAFe. Don’t get me wrong, I like the framework, and I enjoy the training a lot, but I don’t give a damn whether or not you decide to adopt it. What I really care about is that you make an informed decision based on what I hope is the deepest possible understanding of the options. If you understand the values, principles and practices deeply, then you will choose to implement what is best for you and your organization. There is a tremendous amount of nuance and subtlety to the art of organizational change (that’s probably why I like it so much), so I believe that the ability to not only adopt ideas, but also to be critical of them is important. 

The act of building up the framework and subsequently tearing it down again felt like a very powerful learning experience. It went beyond rote learning. Not only do we ask, “Why would you adopt this?” We also ask, “Why wouldn’t you adopt this?” That requires us to understand the ideas from different perspectives. People stayed after class each day debating the ideas for over an hour each evening. That’s when you know you’ve really got them thinking. I’m looking forward to doing it again.


Environments for Swarming

October 5, 2014

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What kind of environment would best suit a swarming team? I just stumbled across something called the SOLE toolkit while researching this topic. SOLE stands for Self-Organized Learning Environment. It’s designed for children (start ’em young) and provides instructions for setting up this special learning environment. The kit recommends the following:

  • One computer per 4 kids
  • A whiteboard
  • Paper and Pens
  • A name tag

I love this! So our self organizing work environment is configured to encourage shared learning on a single machine (pairing anyone?),  plenty of whiteboards (Yes! information radiators), Paper and pens (do stickies and sharpies count?), and a name tag (team identification perhaps?). These very simple environmental constraints are all that are needed to create a self-organizing learning environment (oh yeah, don’t forget the kids).

These sorts of rules are already pretty common on some Agile teams. The pairing, many whiteboards, and lots of notes are hallmarks of enriched learning environments. So this is a great starting point for creating an environment for swarming too. If you haven’t seen the TED talk and the SOLE Toolkit, you should definitely check it out.

 


Disappearing Radiators

October 2, 2014

SONY DSC

A little while ago I wrote an article sharing all the amazing information radiators that you can find in a 1st grade classroom. It’s been a while since that eye opening experience and I found myself at “curriculum night” at her middle school. As I wandered from class to class, listening to teachers drone on about their teaching philosophy, I found myself once again staring at the walls, and yet again they seemed to be telling me a story.

In my first article I was astonished by the richness and variety of information radiators that you find in the typical elementary school classroom. Nary a square inch of wall space is wasted. Middle school, as it turns out, is somewhat different. In middle school there was still information on the walls, but it was more subdued and there was less of it. You can actually find bare stretches of wall space. Not many, but definitely more than what you see in elementary school.

As I sat there in those dreadful little plastic chairs, I wondered, “Do we put less information up on the walls as we get older?” What will I find in the classrooms when my daughter is in high school? In college? I remember the classrooms in my college well, and there were often entire rooms with nothing at all on the walls. Why is that?

So here I am today, living like a nomad in that information radiator desert we call a corporation. Simply asking people to put a task board up on the wall is a revolutionary idea. What happened to us? Do we stop learning? Do we not require as much information?

I don’t think so. Working in technology, all we do is learning: about our customers, about technology, about the business domain. If anything, we are required to learn at what feels like an ever faster rate with each passing year. For instance, I know C/C++, which qualifies me as a Jurassic techno-dinosaur. I know Java too, which probably brings me up to the Cretaceous period (Woolly Mammoth?). These days there are functional languages that just completely leave me in the dust. The lizard brain just can’t keep up. We live in a world now where our ability to learn is being constantly tested. With each new silicon valley startup, the pressure increases.

So, why on earth do we leave all those wonderful, rich, learning environments behind? Do our inner worlds become so abundant and complex that we no longer benefit from the additional input from the external world? I doubt it. I feel like I need to start a campaign to bring back the information radiator. Agile task boards are a good start, but there is so much more we could be doing.

 


The Agile Experience and The 5 Rules of Accelerated Learning

October 4, 2013

Five_rings

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:

Alive

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.

Fluency

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.

Signal

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.

Focus

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).

Setting

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.

matador

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.

Interviewing

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.

Fire Writing

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.

Meetings

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.

Coaching

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.

Where next?

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.


Needle and Thread

August 26, 2011

“The teacher is the needle and the disciple is the thread. One must practice ceaselessly”

–  Miyamoto Musashi
The Book of Five Rings

This is a lovely metaphor for coaching and consulting. The master guides the disciple, setting direction, helping to weave them into the fabric of the organization, helping them to become part of something beautiful, part of an emergent whole that is hopefully greater than the sum of its parts. However just as the needle is not part of the finished product, so too the
master is not necessarily part of the organization that the disciple is now inseparable from. Eventually the master moves on. The needle finds a new thread.

As coaches, as consultants, we may become part of many organizations, but nevertheless we remain outsiders. We provide our coaching, our guidance, our direction, adapting to the organizational culture and trying to help create something great. If we are successful, we have provided the kind of guidance that helps to create the kind of great and lasting social fabric that holds great organizations together. And then we move on.


Problem Solving 101

December 21, 2009

I have a confession to make: problem solving tools and techniques are probably the weakest part of my product development skill set. I don’t think I’m alone on that score. As I watch other teams work, I see them jumping to solutions without even entertaining the idea of understanding a problem well. It seems like a knee jerk response for many teams. It’s peculiar that it should be that way. After all, product development could be defined as nothing but a series of problems and challenges that stand between us and the successful delivery of a product. How we solve each problem has a direct impact on the eventual success of our products.

So when I stumbled across “Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People“, by Ken Watanabe, I was looking for a guide that might help me remedy my problem solving deficiencies. There were a few things that attracted me to this book:

  1. It’s short – 111 pages
  2. It’s written for Japanese school children – If they can do it, then I just might have a chance too
  3. It has lots of pictures

Each of the problem solving tools that is introduced is illustrated by a story. This helped to keep my extremely short MTV attention span locked in just long enough to absorb a thing or two. That and I suppose I relate well to the problems typical of the average 12 year old. That’s my wife’s theory anyway.

Moving on, Watanabe outlines the framework for a problem solving process (p.14):

  1. Understand the situation
  2. Identify the root cause of the problem
  3. Develop an effective action plan
  4. Execute and modify, until the problem is solved

of course this reminds me of another 4 step problem solving cycle, the Shewhart Cycle:

  1. Plan
  2. Do
  3. Check
  4. Act

They’re not quite the same, but they both contain many of the same elements. The PDCA cycle is at the heart of lean continuous improvement or Kaizen. Some argue that PDCA is also built into some agile methodologies like Scrum, where in each iteration you Plan (sprint planning), Do (sprint), Check (retrospective), and Act (incorporate changes into the next sprint). So you could argue that the bones of a problem solving framework are built into some of these agile methodologies. However, I would contend that PDCA is not enough. It’s the problem solving toolbox that Watanabe describes where we get the real problem solving power. And the last time I checked, aside from some examples in lean development, you won’t find techniques like these anywhere else in agile development.

Watanabe introduces logic trees as a tool for problem analysis. They are a handy way for breaking down a problem into smaller pieces (slicing the elephant, so to speak) so that you can better identify the root causes of a problem. Then he introduces what he calls a “Problem Solving Design Plan” which is basically a matrix of the identified problems, and the proposed solutions and outcomes for each one. This tool is useful for really starting to think deeply about a problem. Understanding the problem well, creating a hypothesis, and proposing multiple solutions for a given problem are all part of the problem solving design plan.

Another strategy he describes is doing Gap analysis. I’ve heard of it before, but to be honest, I’d never really seen an example. Not in my PMP training, not in my Scrum training, I don’t even think I was introduced to this technique in college. Nope, I found this one in a book for Japanese grade school kids. Yikes!

Now, I don’t want to sound like the most clueless guy on the planet (too late!), but if a guy like me can go through primary, secondary, and college education without even the simplest problem solving skills under his belt, isn’t that a little alarming? I can solve a math problem just fine, but if it’s anything more abstract than that, I don’t know that many of us have a structured set of tools that we can use for problem solving. That’s where this book comes in handy.

I was part of a project recently where a solution was proposed to the team without even allowing any discussion of the underlying problem. It was probably one of the most dysfunctional meetings I have ever witnessed (and let me tell you, when it comes to bad meetings I put the “fun” in dysfunctional). The people proposing the solution were so defensive that they couldn’t tolerate the idea that they might have got it wrong. Of course, as things played out, the project was a complete failure. The inability to ask questions and examine the problem undermined the team’s morale and guaranteed that viable alternative solutions were never discussed.

Understanding the problem is part of what developer’s need to do. It’s what they’re supposed to be good at. Any attempt to stifle this impulse is almost guaranteed to end badly. Rather than do that, a good leader should be able to act as sherpa for the team, and help guide them through the analysis process. That means doing good root cause analysis, and being open to wide range of solutions. If you are one of those leaders, do yourself a favor and read “Problem Solving 101”.


Learning Games

June 22, 2009

What’s up with the cupcakes? So there was this wacky little session at Agile Roots 2009 that I really enjoyed that was put on by Chris Sims. It was called “Agile Learning Games”. It was one of those sessions where everyone gets to try out the games as a participant and get a feel for the kind of learning that takes place. I loved the games that he chose to demonstrate, and he was kind enough to provide some references for places that you could look for more learning games – one of which was called, “TastyCupcakes.com”.

I think these learning games are very useful because they allow teams/groups to experience or play with an idea rather than having it preached to them by some sort of expert. I find that I learn things much better when I can participate in a hands on fashion. So as a facilitator and coach, I find these kinds of exercises to be especially powerful when working with teams.

These games can form an important part of any facilitator’s toolkit. I’ve been collecting a list of sites that catalog these learning games for a little while. Here are some references that you might find useful:

http://blog.tastycupcakes.com/

http://uoleadership.uoregon.edu/exercises/energizers

http://www.businessballs.com/teambuildinggames.htm#leadership%20management%20exercise%20for%20teams

http://www.squarewheels.com/scottswriting/mission.html

http://www.nasaga.org/

http://industriallogic.com/games/

http://www.funandgames.org/Games_icebreakers.html#2TruthsAndLie

http://www.isnare.com/?aid=193973&ca=Business+Management

The tastycupcakes site has games that are most relevant to Agile Development, so I would start there first. This list is by no means comprehensive, but if you are looking for some games that might help you get an idea across, this list should get you started.