Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Agile Leadership and learning by doing

One of the groups I am working with is adopting Dean Leffingwell’s Scaled Agile Framework – better known by them as the Agile Release Train.  For various reasons (not the least being that I’m not as compelling as Dean), they’re employing a gradual transition rather than an “all-in and no turning back quick-start”.

The group began by establishing program and portfolio backlogs and the kanban systems to support them as a process layer superimposed over the existing agile teams and their backlogs.  Once the initial dust settled, a virtual team was formed from the senior leadership group to plan and prepare for the first 2-day PSI Planning session.   During the first visioning workshop, a futurespective was used to create the plan.  It began with the following question
“What will it look like at the start of the first day when we walk into the room with over a hundred team members and stakeholders and how do we ensure success?” 
 From there, it moved back a week at a time as the topics of lead times, logistics, invitations, communications, funding and so forth were covered.   A “PSI Planning” backlog was created in Rally, cards went up on a kanban wall and the group was set to roll with 4 2-week sprints before the train left the station.

At the end of the first sprint, velocity was 0.  Most planned stories were unstarted, and nothing was finished.  What emerged, of course, was that all involved were busy managers with a “day job” and the time just didn’t exist in the day to make this happen as well.  So, a new 1 week “Sprint 0” was agreed where the only goal was for every member of the team to find things they could stop doing and/or delegate to make some capacity available.  Conveniently, I spent that week in the States getting lots of fresh tips and tricks from Dean in his certification class. 

Sprint 0 was reasonably successful, and the team recommenced a revised sprint 1.  I’d come back armed with lots of new insights from Dean, and the team had agreed there would be a scaled down internal-only “PSI Zero” planning which brought the goal down to something less scary and easier to grasp whilst raising the urgency.

Sprint 1 just concluded, and it’s fair to say the journey is still very convoluted and the velocity was still near zero in “accepted stories”.  But the reason I sat down to write this tonight is the retrospective that happened this afternoon.  One of our most creative scrum masters turned “What worked/What didn’t” into “Freaking Awesome/Shambolic Malaise”, and the insights were fascinating – following are a few that stood out.

Freaking Awesome
  • Established a shared vision
  • Common purpose across organisational teams
  • It's become "our Release Train" rather than Dean's
  • We've sharpened the focus, we know what "really has to happen" and we're not worrying about the rest because we know it will change as we learn
  • Short term targets, adjusting the plan pragmatically and being able to let go as circumstances change
  • Creating a common kanban wall
  • We're learning from safe failure

Shambolic Malaise
  • Poorly defined stories
  • Lack of agreed acceptance criteria
  • Stories were too big
  • Too many different interpretations of what stories were meant to be
  • Too many priorities
  • Who was the product owner?

Key Action
Immediately introduce “program unity” time to bring the whole program together for a brief visioning session to kick off each sprint planning morning.

So why write all this, it’s all old hat?

When we teach Agile, we teach the reasons for visualising WIP, writing good stories, running short sprints, running retrospectives, and all those other good Agile things.  And we know that it’s not until people go back into their teams and start using the tools that they’ll really start learning.  It's also commonly held that it’ll usually take 2-3 sprints before it all starts to come together.

But we take the senior and middle managers, and we usually give them abbreviated training courses with a simulated experience.   Then we send them back into the office saying “lead Agile” but they never get the time using the tools to really “learn by doing”. 

This afternoon’s group have by and large been in senior leadership positions on an Agile delivery program for a year.  The retrospective and re-planning that accompanied it convinced me they’ve learnt more about applying Agile and continuous improvement from 3 sprints as a part-time virtual team than in the entire preceding year.

A seasoned program manager, the team leader came up to me later and said “I’ve crossed the line.  Not that I was necessarily a cynic before, but I really understand how this stuff is meant to be applied now and I believe”.

The challenge it leaves me with is this:
“How do I start by giving the leadership group a taste of ‘life on a learning team’ next time instead of waiting months?”  

PS Retrospective sanctity was not harmed by this post, the team concerned loved the writeup and were keen to share their journey :)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Senior Management in the Fishbowl

One of the courses I regularly facilitate is “Agile Leadership”, a one day course for senior management and executives which aims to impart both fundamental understanding of practices and a sense of servant leadership at senior levels.  It is my favourite course and by far the most challenging.  I like it because it’s light on structure and gives the freedom to make it unique for each group, but that freedom also makes it a little like riding a wild horse (or a herd of them in some cases).

I’m always on the lookout for new facilitation ideas, but find that with some of the best you read the book and think “wow, that sounds great but could I really do it with a room full of senior management”.  One of the best things about good conferences is getting the chance to see other people put what you’ve read about into practice, and I find Jean Tabaka in particular fills me with inspiration every time I come into contact with her.

At the recent RallyOn conference, Jean facilitated a “fishbowl” to kick off the final day open space.    If you haven’t seen one, the purpose is to create intimate, deep and involving conversation with a large group of people.  5-6 chairs are place in a circle in the middle of the group and all but one of the chairs are seeded with people to start the conversation.  If you’re in the audience and want to join the conversation, you walk up and sit in the empty chair and someone else has to “vote themselves off the island” and vacate their chair.

When it started, there were 200 or so in the audience, and the 5 starting voices in the chairs were all serious thoughtleaders (Jean Tabaka, Christopher Avery, George Kembel, John Kembel and Ryan Martens).  I looked at it and thought “who on earth is going to take that empty chair knowing they have to displace people of that calibre”.  Jean seeded a conversation starter and sure enough, for 3-4 minutes it was just a bouncing conversation in the middle – but then the first brave voice joined it.  From then on it was almost surreal.  The conversation flowed, it was intimate, people joined and left every few minutes and the audience hung on every word.

So, of course I came home and started thinking about where I could use it.  In the leadership course, the afternoon is structured as a series of small group discussions.  An “agile dilemma” such as disempowered product owners is displayed, and the groups have 15 minutes or so to discuss how they would respond as senior leaders followed by a “debrief with a servant leadership topup”.  Sometimes the discussions are superb, and sometimes they’re far from it.  In some cases one of the tables just has the wrong dynamic to explore it fruitfully and sits silently after 5 minutes while other tables continue, in others people struggle with being asked to explore soft-skills when they’re expecting a recipe on how to manage agile programs. 

Normally, groups are small but I knew at the time I had a couple of large groups coming through and had been quite concerned over how to ensure a good afternoon of breakout discussions.  So I decided to try the fishbowl, and I loved it.  In the first course, it generated the richest conversation I had yet seen.  The focus in the room was intense as people concentrated on hearing the discussion, the discussion itself was intimate and engaged, the dynamic was great as people moved in and out of the conversation and I stood at the back of the room in awe.  What I loved most was that I had to add very little agile influence in the summary for each topic, the groups had drawn it out themselves.

So the second time I tried it, I decided I’d cheated by adding a debrief myself.  I made myself a participant just like everyone else in the class.  If I wanted to add something,  I moved into a chair.  When I was in the chair,  I added by questioning rather than by answering and exited as fast as I could.  In essence, I spent most of the afternoon where my only contribution as a facilitator rather than as part of the group was to pick the next scenario to discuss.  The result was so rich I was blown away. 

I spent the next few days trying to think through why it was so powerful.  Some answers were obvious.  Those with the most to contribute were able to speak to the whole room rather than just their table, but also to do it without “public speaking” or “presenting” – just naturally in conversation.  But the aspect I feel was most powerful was that the message did not come from “the agile guy at the front of the room”, it came from within.  Insights that would have been difficult to accept from me were far easier to accept from their own management group. 

All I did was provide a place, a time and an atmosphere for the right conversation to happen.  Thanks Jean for yet another inspiration.

Monday, June 4, 2012


I’d like to thank Johanna Rothmann for providing the final nudge I needed to move from “thinking about blogging” to “starting a blog”.  We were at the final morning of the recent Rally On conference, and she had come over to offer some encouraging words after watching me somewhat nervously speak about servant leadership for executives on the preceding afternoon.   Much of the conversation revolved around why I didn’t blog or tweet, and 10 minutes later I’d run out of excuses.

Some background perspective

After spending my formative agile years in the traditional “small, innovative team” side of Agile, a period back in the large waterfall program world ignited my passion for understanding how to apply agile at scale, and since my return to agile it has been the focus of my endeavours. 

Between research, sharing with other agilistas and learning from my students and clients I have come to the belief that it boils down to two things:
  • Establishing agile culture at the executive and middle management levels
  • Pragmatic and situational adaptation of agile practices to find the right balance between the formality and process required at scale and the innovation enabled by self-organisation.

Through this blog, my hope is to share insights gleaned from the application of this belief and put a little back into a community that has taught me so much over the 12 years of my Agile journey.