A Question of Questions

Some years ago Lyssa Adkins and Mike Vizdos were facilitating my CSM class. In one exercise Lyssa asked that we be able to deliver an elevator speech on Scrum. To prove how hard having such a speech available on demand was, she challenged me to talk about hard boiled eggs, expecting me to quickly fail. Some two minutes in just as I was getting warmed up, Lyssa interrupted the exercise I had inadvertently ruined with a question. “Have you ever done Improv?”. Of course, the answer was no, but a worm burrowed into my mind. Continue reading

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Mother, I’m an bit of a Agile Addict

Dearest Mother,
You wanted me to describe my new job as an Agile Coach. Well, it’s a little hard to explain without explaining how I got here as that journey helped shape how I do what it is I do. The story starts with who I was when I left to go to America. I was a young introverted electrical engineer, who enjoyed his eclectic music and as your correctly summarized “didn’t suffer fools easily”. I left Australia on what was supposed to be a six-month contract with my company. I was to work on a steel mill automation project, destined for Russia, then return home via England visiting family. The plan never happened as plans seldom do.
The Australian company didn’t stay in the US for much longer and so I was out of a job. I had to find something else besides electrical engineering to support my new family. I had to start becoming a bit more outgoing. I convinced a company to take me on the gamble that I would work out as a systems admin. This is someone who maintains computers and their operation rather than programming them. It worked out but that tiny medical billing company got sold.
I had to start being a bit more flexible. I was able to convince the railway that I could be a software developer. They took a gamble and I was able to develop an application to help customers submit shipping information via a modem (that same device I used to endlessly take over the home phone line for). That expansion into commercial software development started to ground my technical abilities in something beyond the tools of an electrical engineer.
As the projects I worked on grew, I had to become a bit more open to working with other developers. As software teams grow to handle more complex applications you need more people with different skills. I found I was able to help teams form and find ways they could learn to play well together. I could listen and mediate. Less to do with technology and more to do with people. I still needed to understand the technology to be taken seriously by the “the techno tribe”.
As the projects grew even larger, I started to manage the installation of our system at remote rail loading facilities. I had to be a bit more used to reaching to the people I came in contact with and making a connection. Like the time a yard manager at the St Louis rail terminal spent an entire week trying to harass me into losing my temper. I had to learn to b a bit more patient of the fools I had to suffer. Eventually, he admitted he couldn’t get me to bite and we began to trust each other. He went about helping me do everything I needed to do. Collaboration through patience.
To move up in the organization I thought I would need to be a bit more of a manager. The company gave me a semi-manager role. They told me a need to tell this new team to do what the company wanted to them to do. I didn’t like that one bit. When I tried for a manager role I was passed over for some nice chap who fit their command and control mold.
I needed to get out of comfort zone a bit. I thought around the year 2000 that with the burgeoning telecommunications field of the Dot.Com boom, I would have not problem. Little did I know I was looking while it was collapsing. I had to be a bit to be a little less selective but still was able to get a manager role at a company making bowling equipment in Richmond. I managed their electronics development group. I managed away. I didn’t like how managers had to be like parents. I didn’t like people working for me and expecting me to direct their work lives. I much preferred working with people and collaborating. Sharing and learning from each other. It was at this time I started to hear another way of developing software that aimed to connect software development teams more to their customers while making it a more collaborative experience for the folks to doing the development. I started bringing in these ideas of “Agile Software Development” into how we worked. Pity the company when into receivership before I could do much with it. I was let go. Dark times.
Richmond was more of financial services town than an electrical engineer’s heaven. I had to reinvent myself a bit. I canceled a trip to visit you and put the money towards a Project Management Professional certification. That seemed to be the close match to what my resume spoke to. After six months out of work, I found a financial software company willing to take a gamble on me as a project manager. It was a small company but fully engaged in doing Agile software development. Agile combines the small teams of developers, testers and people who know what they want in the software product. Instead of working to a long term plan, they work in short spurts of maybe a week or two. They focus on producing high-quality working software, a few features at a time. At the end of these spurts, they expect to have a new version of the software that they could offer their customers. It is very different from what project managers typically do. They work on long projects that produce nothing until near the very end. These long projects work on big chunks of software, laboriously documenting what it should do, developing all the code in one lump, then rushing to test it before the delivery date. They call this Waterfall software development, from the analogy of large buckets of software flowing from one stage (gather the needs, developer the code, test like crazy) to the next. Late into a project of maybe several months to a few years, you often find the product no longer meets the customer’s needs. You rush to finish what they no longer want and end up leaving defects that make the product less usable.
By developing a bit at a time on one of these Agile teams you have time to course correct and deliver something valuable sooner. By making it all less rushed you can focus on making sure you don’t leave defects in as you go from spurt to spurt, or iteration as we call it. There are even tools that help developers automate lots of boring tasks so they can focus on making more and learning more. This making more and continually learning more skills makes the whole thing seem more like a guild than a software factory. Developers and folks who test the software work closely together. They learn each other’s trades. They learn more about their own.
You would think companies would love this approach. However, it does require a company lets go of the teams they previously kept under their thumb. Not many companies can embrace this Agile software development without changing their culture. They have to change their culture bit by bit. Those that can benefit from having more of a community feel, anchored by these guild-like teams. The leadership has to convert from being one based on command and control of people through a fixed hierarchy to one based on servant-leadership. That is, first meeting the needs of teams rather than directing them. Every bit of me wanted to do a lot more of this. It felt more like being on a team, much like my soccer days, than managing a team.
Around this time I was also coaching my kids on their soccer teams. Rec league soccer consisted of the unpaid coaches and the kids. Some of the kids wanted to be there and some didn’t. Some were at a stage that they could play a physically demanding game and some were still developing. I had to become a bit more of a teacher and realized that coaching was more about helping kids find better ways to play together rather than to win. That started with me becoming a bit more playful. I called myself Coach Goose. I was assisted by some really great coaches with their own unique styles. Coach O’Mallard was a saint with my oldest’s team. Coach Loon was willing to be silly along with me, with the younger ones. I probably had the worst record of any coach but it was not about winning a season but how the kids enjoyed themselves and being with each other. In that light, we won every season we played.
On the professional front, the financial software company took a bit of a tumble during the financial crisis of 2008. I moved onto consulting. Consulting was the first time that I experienced being measured by the hours I worked rather than what I bought to the table. It’s a bit like being a cow hooked up to a milking machine. Your billable hours are measured by the buckets they fill rather than the creaminess of their taste. You have clients. Your herds of developers are guests on their farm. You serve your time and then are dispatched. I worked hard to protect the herd. I could not do the sort of Agile software development I wanted to. I could not make it a great experience for the folks on the team. Learning was as limited as we could not experiment on the client’s dime.
Experimentation is a big part of Agile teams. They take the time to “sharpen the saw” and improve how they work. Just like guilds. On the last consulting job I worked, it was less like a dairy farm and more like a slaughterhouse. No sense of team. Despite the increasing misery, I learned a lot about how people quietly suffer at work, in an endless drama of conflict, suffering a less visible form of violence. Agile is a bit fragile. It can easily be co-opted by management wanting a fancy title to their form of command and control. That is what consulting became for me and I was a bit sick of it. I did, however, get to experience teaching and mentoring teams on how to adopt these Agile practices and I wanted to be able to do more of that.
I had to have a bit more faith in myself. I have found a company that does have faith in me. I’m rolling the good and the bad of this journey into my version of an Agile Coach:
I teach and mentor teams how to do Agile software development.
If they don’t want to play the “Agile game” I don’t force them.
I am not their manager. I don’t tell them what to do.
I coach them how they can make their software a bit at a time, with higher quality and deliver it sooner so they can delight their customers.
I show them different ways of playing together as a team.  I help the stronger players to work with the weaker players. They don’t hold each other accountable, a catch phrase hiding command and control thinking, but hold each other up.
I take an interest in the person I’m working with. What else on going on them. I’m not their therapist but it helps to know something about therapeutic techniques.
I listen a lot. I ask questions. Sometimes to learn more and sometimes to prod at their thinking. Continue reading

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Mother, I’m a bit of an Agile Addict

Dearest Mother,
You wanted me to describe my new job as an Agile Coach. Well, it’s a little hard to explain without explaining how I got here as that journey helped shape how I do what it is I do. The story starts with who I was when I left to go to America. I was a young introverted electrical engineer, who enjoyed his eclectic music and as your correctly summarized “didn’t suffer fools easily”. I left Australia on what was supposed to be a six-month contract with my company. I was to work on a steel mill automation project, destined for Russia, then return home via England visiting family. The plan never happened as plans seldom do but oh what a journey it turned out to be. Continue reading

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Drunk Tank Pink Organizations

I went to visit the Virginia Holocaust Museum to witness the Tibetan Monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery finish their mandala. The mandala is a spiritual and ritual symbol.
The result of four days of intense focus, placing vibrantly colored sand in ornate patterns. Each grain falls exactly where it needs to be for the effect. The picture builds out from the center. Each mon20160814_111428k working in concert. The table has basic guidelines but there is no telling what the final mandala will look like.

A book I have yet to read seems to be the latest fad in organizational transformation. Labeling organizations by Frederic Laloux’s palette of colors and an associated metaphor. Once you create an aspirational categorization, it can become a competition to immediately demonstrate your organization is at the target teal state. Some companies want to skip the journey altogether by buying and installing a framework . Continue reading

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LEGO Serious Play with Washington Mandela Fellows at VCU



Hard at work on individual builds

I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to participate in a capstone event at VCU. The university had been hosting a group of young business leaders from Africa as part of the Mandela Washington Foundation. Four hundred fellows were hosted around the United States at different universities for six weeks over the summer. We wanted to build a LEGO® Serious Play session that brought together some of their experiences and set the fellows up for continued success on their return. Coming up with the guiding problem around which we would build the session was a challenge. Although part of the same program, the fellows had diverse business interests and came from all over sub-Saharan Africa. Some had their own businesses and others worked for organizations into which they were hoping to inject new ideas. Continue reading

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Anatomy of a P.I.R.A.T.E. Build Monitor

As I have blogged before, I have a slight obsession with build monitors. That obsession has probably peaked with the creation of the P.I.R.A.T.E. or the Peripheral for Information Radiation, Audio and Telemetry Enabled. What follows is a description of the main components. I’ll follow up with subsequent blogs on what I learned about group dynamics and some of negative the impacts of scaled Agile has on the individuals it is imposed upon. All very unscientific but it started me on a path of self-study into conflict in organizations and the project I was on. Sounds scary so let’s start with the more playful side of the P.I.R.A.T.E. Continue reading

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The Mathematics of Agile Dysfunction

“Who questions much, shall learn much, and retain much.” ~ Francis Bacon

In the movie Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio is a thief who steals corporate secrets by enter the a victim’s dreams. The plot follows his attempts at the inverse task of implanting an idea into the mind of a CEO. The problem with the technique is that the dreams can become so real that he no longer knows he is dreaming. His character uses a spinning top to know if he’s still in a dream state, or back in reality. If the top keeps spinning, Leo’s character is still dreaming. If it falls, he is awake. The top represents what Yuval Noah Harari refers to as part of an objective reality. It is something you can touch or feel or prove through mathematics in the case of the top’s physics. What is interesting is how much of human achievement is based on our imagination or subjective realities. Harari posits that what has allowed us to scale our collaboration globally is our unique ability as humans to create inter-subjective realities. Set of beliefs that are taken to be truths across entire communities of believers. Beliefs that can survive the comings and goings of individuals, sustained over time as well as distance. Working with clients using scaled Agile frameworks I find the same dynamics in play. What happens when you try and inject new scaled Agile memes into the existing corporate body of a culture? Will the body reject them, graft to them or be poisoned by them? Continue reading

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On Turtle Time

For the past three years we have vacationed at Emerald Isle in North Carolina. Each year we wander the sandy miles in search of turtle nests ready to hatch. We then spend a few hours each night in the company of patient turtle patrol volunteers hoping we will see the nest hatch. We have never seen one hatch but spending moonlit evenings with the waves washing their soothing sounds ashore has it benefits. You get to see another other species demonstrating that too long at the top of the chain leaves them devoid of an understanding of the objective realities of Nature. They are the vacationers quizzing volunteers on the schedule and status of the reptilian release. Each time the answer is the same, when the turtles are ready, but the answer is never enough. Continue reading

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Stitching Work and Play

“What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do” – John Ruskin

A trip through southwest England made with no expectations surprised me with a bridge between the Ages of Guilds and what remains of a culture of craftsmanship. The Arts and Crafts Movement was a response to the mass production and commoditization of design that came with the industrial revolution. The the decline of guilds as the backbone of manufacturing was not the end but maybe the beginnings of a new stage of design centered thinking. Its leading lights may be less well known now but the threads of their influence remained interwoven in the architecture, furniture design and jewelry making well into the 20th Century. Where is that joy of crafting in work now? Are we moving to further separate work from craft and play or are we seeing the first signs of their reintegration? Continue reading

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The Point of Play

Lap Pic

On our big crazy learning adventure of a government software project, we had returned so soon to plan a new release. Once again anointed to do a Fist of Five commitment exercise at the end, I had challenged myself to make it more playful than the last. After the flat out fun I was asked a pointed question: “What was the point of that exercise?”. Essentially, what was the point of play? The short answer may mean this is the last time I’m invited to invite others to play. There was no point. Continue reading

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