How do you teach Agile?

A topic that comes back as a boomerang is how to teach Agile. Specifically, how do you strike the balance of teaching the mindset (starting with the manifesto and principles) versus the practices (most often Scrum).

Leading with the former, runs the risk of coming on as a “hippie” (think of the children people) and runs the risk of alienating your audience. Especially if said audience is a group of experienced engineers, who have little patience with mandatory training or new ways of doing things (because the old ones are so successful).

But focusing on the practices leads to “at-best” cargo cult adoption of practices (again – most often Scrum) that either go on forever “the way they were taught” or decline into a mess of anti-patterns, where the best outcome is probably abandoning the adoption.

If my training, I try to follow the fairly popular image that starts with Agile being a mindset and produces a funnel ending with a myriad of practices. But until my last session (an almost impromptu introduction in a 1:1 setting), I’ve always failed to do one thing – circle back from practices to values and principles. I always knew that those aligned, but only by stating this outright did I grok it. Almost shameful to admit that it took me so long.

So how do you approach teaching Agile? How do you balance the mechanics versus Principles and Values?


Command Master Chief

Command Master Chief
USS Midway

On a recent visit to San Diego I had the pleasure of touring the USS Midway – a retired 70-year old aircraft carrier that served up to the First Gulf War. The self-guided tour is a great look at not only the hardware, but more importantly the life on board this great vessel.

What really spoke to me was the role of the Command Master Chief. As a petty officer, the hail from the ranks of the enlisted. As such, they seem better equipped to understand the troubles and toils of the enlisted men and women serving. They are a more natural site as they tour the various stations – in comparison to officers that may be feared or mistrusted. t the same time, their experience and rank means they have little qualms about passing on their and the lower grades’s concerns up the chain of command.

USS Midway - flight deck
USS Midway

I see many comparisons with the role of people in roles such as Scrum Master or Agile Coach. Those of use that have come up from the ranks of engineers, software developers, etc. have the “street cred” and typically not being part of management can be more effective in getting honest feedback from the team members. And in parallel – since the management is the ones that brought us in – they’re likely to listen to us.

It’s also interesting that the CMC uses a form of Gemba to collect this information.

If the US Navy has been practicing this, since the Vietnam War, shouldn’t companies also take heed?

Use Your Own People

Recently I finished reading Louis J. Prosperi’s book “The Imagineering Pyramid: Using Disney Theme Park Design Principles to Develop and Promote Your Creativity Ideas”. I won’t go much into the book as the title is pretty self-descriptive.

I did want to share one thought that really struck a chord:

When Walt Disney first began planning for Disneyland, he approached his friend and noted Los Angeles architect Welton Becket about working on the project. (…) Becket told Walt that he should use his own people, because they understood the type of storytelling he was looking for with Disneyland.

I’ve seen many situations, where company leadership will forgo listening to their employees – people they apparently hired, because of their skills / knowledge / experience and trust (?) – instead relying on consultants to tell them what to do. As a former consultant, I know that the greatest value-add we provided was listening to the people and echoing their comments / ides / solutions to management for broader adoption. Yes, sometimes we mixed in best practices from other engagements, but most of the work could be done easily, because management didn’t listen to their own people (and we did).

This is also true in the world of Agile coaching. When I’m in that role, I listen to the team’s problems and work with them on devising experiments to resolve the problems or improve the team. In a role of an employee, I’d like the same courtesy from my superiors – listen to what I have to say and use my expertise. If I didn’t want to apply it here, I’d go looking for a different job.


New Trends in Program Management – Conference Report

After a busy week and a fantastic five-day weekend, I finally sat down to write my thoughts on the New Trends in Program Management conference I attended last week in my hometown of Gdańsk.

It’s interesting to see that a conference run by PMI would contain mostly presentations on Agile. Is it a permanent change or a fad?

I gave a presentation on my team’s implementation of a LeSS-like structure. You can find the slides online and I can talk about some aspects in future posts. Here’s a rundown of the interesting presentations I attended.


Opening Keynote: Embedding a Culture of Happiness in Program Management (Mohamed Khalifa, Muhammad Ilyas)

I had to check my badge to verify I was at a Program Management conference! But seriously, it gladdens me that more and more people are realizing that happy employees are productive ones – and it doesn’t matter if your motives are selfish or altruistic – your organization will prosper.

A nice touch of the keynote was a survey handed out to participants, where you could rate your work happiness. I verified I was happy (which wasn’t a given), but also realized why.
SAFe – they love, they hate it (Michael Bad Coach.jpgKacprzak)

Looking at the program, one of my goals was to listen to more people practicing SAFe. I’m very skeptical of this methodology – and I wanted to open myself to arguments that could sway me.

Strangely enough, this presentation strayed far from SAFe, but was an interesting look into the life of an independent Agile coach/consultant. There is an interesting tension in having to make a living and declining engagement – either that the organization does not need you or are not ready for you.

Soapbox: Both are a failure of leadership. In the first case, leaders ignore that they have talented people in their organization that know what to do (which is strange, since hey hired them!) – or as I like to quote “you can’t be a prophet in your own land”. The other is, when leadership only pays “lip service” to an adoption or transformation (they want things to change, but don’t want to change), they select methods without being clear on goals (adopt Agile [i.e. Scrum] or else!). 

The letter to Santa Program Manager (Bartosz Rożan)

This was an elementary step through various anti-patterns in day-to-day Scrum with an accent on problems around the roles of Product Owner and Program Managers. While a lot was basic stuff, I think it was well-geared to most of the audience – looking at how traditional Program Management can benefit from agility.

Does SAFe always work? (Konrad Świstelnicki, Astrid Kleinau-Kleffe)

I had more luck in the afternoon, when I to listen to an actual adoption of a SAFe-like structure. I’m appending the “-like”, because this, like every other example I heard of, applied pieces of SAFe that made sense in their context, but not the methodology as a whole – which is how it keeps getting pitched. I also like the presenters take on distributed team planning:


Keynote: Authorization Tiers: A Framework for Project Empowerment (April Mills)

Disclaimer: April is a close colleague of mine and she showed me this frameworks weeks before the presentation.

April take the works of David Marquet and extends them from 1:1 situations to provide a framework for project sponsors and project execution teams to optimize for the ability to perform and adapt – taking out the frustration on both sides the equation. I’m not sure, she’s posted the slides for this, but you can check her blog and get in contact.

Oxford Debate: Control is the best form of trust

While no breakthroughs occurred, this was the funniest event at the conference. I urge the organizers to repeat this next year, but right after lunch – as an energizer!

How engineers learned to meet all deadlines (Niels Malotaux)

Niels will deny and protest, but while he vehemently denies his methods are Agile, I believe they are 100% (OK, 92.67%). In a great case study, Niels presented how even in a company who’s culture and restrictions required following a lot of daunting processes, you could achieve deadlines and have a great product by shortening feedback loops, eliminating waste, and focusing on delivering value. Or as I like to say – Agile.

At this point I had to leave due to other obligations and couldn’t catch the second afternoon events. Apparently I would’ve won a prize in the raffle at the end, but wasn’t present to claim it 😦 Next time, please don’t let me know 😉

I enjoyed myself at the NTPM conference so much, that I regretted skipping it last year. I hope not to make the same mistake next year. I listened to some great presentations, had some great chats over coffee and lunch, a great evening over beers and pierogi with April and Niels.

Thank you to the organizers for a great event and for inviting me to speak.

Low Stakes

Over the past year I had the opportunity to present at three external conferences:

  • Agile by Example 2016
  • Konferencja PM
  • New Trends in Program Management

The presentation at ABE16… did not go that well. I managed to cover what I wanted, but my hand-drawn slides were a big miss and my voice faltered throughout the presentation. The former was risk I took and failed. The latter I attribute partially to the environment (ABE takes place in a movie theater and when you glance up at a rows of seats with the lights of over the audience – well, it’s a bit frightening), but also lack of experience and a wanting to do a good job in front of my Agile peers.

Konferencja PM was a a different story. Although I was nervous, the presentation was done in a well-lit auditorium, I had taken part in a panel a few hours earlier and I worked my presentation topic into the flow of the other speakers. I was loosened up, bantered with the audience, and had their attention. This time the hand-drawn slides were a hit.

At NTPM the setting was again different – this time a smaller conference room, which gave the semblance of a classroom – and I do teach a number of classes at work. There was more detailed Q&A with the attendees. No hand-drawn slides this time (I chickened out after receiving the feedback from ABE, which came in time to create other slides for this presentation).

So what changed? Well, there is a spoiler in the title of the post – it was the stake level. At ABE I really wanted to recognition that I was on par with the many great speakers they host there. OK, I wasn’t going to be close to Jurgen or Henrik, but maybe I could at least fall above the median. That plus the ambiance completely wrecked my confidence.

Konferencja PM was hosted at the local University, but a student association and while it was attended by both students as well as professors and maybe some industry people, it didn’t feel as important. For one thing, I didn’t feel like I had anything to prove to the attendees – worst case, they won’t invite me again. The other thing was that I felt that I was speaking to novices rather than peers, so I didn’t have to prove my knowledge or experience that hard. With the stakes low, there was no pressure, so it went really well.

This helped going in the NTPM conference. I had just proven that I could deliver a good presentation. I prepared more “professional slides” (the hand written ones worked well in a academic setting). I also felt more comfortable with the room. So even thought the stakes were raised, I had a good baseline to work from and my confidence was better.

So look for opportunities to try your skills at the low stakes table and build up from there.

Kudos to Marcin Brodziak for mentally seeding this topic in his ABE16 presentation “Social skills for introverts”.

Konferencja PM

This week I had the honor and pleasure of being a speaker at the University of Gdańsk’s conference on program management.

It is interesting to see how Agile has started to dominate (in the positive sense) the discipline of Program Management bringing in (or back?) the paradigms of focusing on team, removing impediments, and delivering value (vs. following a long-term plan).

I won’t recap the various speakers’ presentations as the subject matter focused on introductory topics. Which is not to say that the presentations were bad or out of place! Actually they were a great way to introduce concepts of Agile (but also program management or networking) to audience.

My talk was on how to succeed as a member of a self-organizing team. I’ll post my slides and give a recap in a future post.

I would like to thank the organizers, attendees, and my fellow speakers for a well spent day.