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Reflections on Agile Australia 2015

We are living in a complex, unpredictable, and ever changing world. We cannot sit still and do the same things that we’ve always done. Not even some of the Agile practices that we’ve learned. There are new techniques out there and there are new ways of thinking. And they are better!

This seemed to be the overarching theme of this year’s conference. We were introduced to the concept of using experimentation at the team level to understand how to be better teams. One talk looked at how Personas can live on beyond the initial user research phase and can be embedded into your Stories and Acceptance Criteria.

Another looked how using Concept Maps can help teams build a shared mental model together of their domain. How cool are some of these ideas? There were a lot of great talks. Far too many to cover all of them, so I’ll provide some of the highlights of 2015’s installment of Australia’s leading Agile conference.

Myths and patterns of organisational change

Linda Rising (@RisingLinda)

“You are not here to build software. You are here to change the world.” If ever you wanted an inspiring quote to open a Keynote, there is one. In saying that, Linda proceeded to lay some hard truths on us in the form of a number of myths in the context of organisational change.

Myth 1 – Smart people are rational

I’m sorry, but people are not rational. Yet we are very good at convincing ourselves that we are making rational decisions. And you know what else? Rational arguments alone are not going to change people’s thinking. In order for people to believe you, you need:

  • Passion
  • To be excited
  • To show people you actually believe what you believe
  • To take baby steps > Reflect > Celebrate small wins > Rinse and repeat with more baby steps

Myth 2 – If I just had enough power, I could change them

Threats and power plays are never going to win someone over. We are knowledge workers in the 21st century, not factory men in the 1920’s when Taylor was all the rage. We need to explain to the people that are impacted by change – “What’s in it for me?” The Agile community hasn’t done a good job of explaining that, yes, your job is going to change, but you know what? You are still important. People adopt change at different rates, but everyone is capable of changing. Be patient. Take the time to listen to them. Respect them.

Myth 3 – You are smart, therefore you don’t need help

Asking for help is actually the smart thing to do. I’m jumping ahead and inserting a snippet of Nigel Dalton and Adam Boas’ final talk of the conference. In their talk they stressed the fact that asking for help actually helps your survive in the 21st century. Software engineers survive in their incredibly fast paced, changing landscape by asking for help. They ask each  other constantly and constantly provide help. They attend meetups. They post on StackOverflow. There is a lot we can learn about this mindset of Software Engineers. They ask for help. Linda added, that whenever you receive help, say thank you. Recognise and appreciate that they provided help. Say it sincerely, timely, and provide details of what was the affect of what they did.

Three myths (well there were five but I didn’t have room for more) and patterns in the context of organisational change. Very applicable advice for Agile transformations.

Concrete experimentation in agile enterprises

Bernd Schiffer (@berndschiffer)

Whoever said that Germans are not funny got it wrong. Bernd delivered a very entertaining and informative talk that started with a story. Like any good German, Bernd and his wife, Victoria had a plan for their big move to Australia. If Australia is nice, they would get pregnant. If not, then move back to Germany and get pregnant. The reason for this story was that he explained that getting pregnant is complex. There are a lot of factors involved in whether a couple will get pregnant. Our teams and organisations are complex too. In order to deal with complexity when we don’t always know what will happen, it pays to hypothesise what will happen driven by an experiment rather than always following a plan.

So how do you go about performing an experiment to improve your team? By following CAT SHOE, SIC! Now you’ll be asking, what on earth do these acronyms mean? Let me explain:

  • Clear goals for your experiments – Know what you want to achieve.
  • Arranged – Have a short plan for how you will conduct the experiment.
  • Tracked through metrics/data – What happened before the experiment? Did the experiment lead to an improvement?
  • Small – The shorter the experiment is, the better. 1 week, 2 weeks, avoid more than a month.
  • Has a due date – When will the experiment finish? Be strict on this finishing date.
  • Out in the open – Make all of your experiments visible. You could use a Kanban board for this.
  • Evaluated through hypothesis – Hypothesise what you think will happen after the experiment. Hypothesise would you think will happen if you do nothing.
  • Safe to fail – Your experiments should have some level of risk, however, not so risky that the impact of failure will cause too much damage.
  • Impelled by Champions – Have 1-2 people champion this experiment. They make it their own. They care about the outcome.
  • Communicated before starting – You need to be open and transparent with the experiments. Ensure everyone is comfortable with the experiment before starting.

There you have it. CAT SHOE, SIC! Guidance on how to introduce experiments to your teams to deal with complexity. For more information, you can check out Bernd’s slides here.

7 habits of highly effective organisations

Erwin van der Koogh (@evanderkoogh)

What has Agile achieved? That’s a big opening statement for an Agile conference, yet Elabor8’s very own Erwin van der Koogh asked this of the audience. Has it been as great as we think it has? Nokia and Yahoo were the Agile poster childs of the 2000’s. Look at where they are now… There has to be more to a highly effective organisation than adopting Agile.

Erwin outlined 7 habits of highly effective organisations:

  1. Trust people
    • Are you allowed to work when you want? Where you want? Spend what you want? … why not?
    • Organisations that trust people allow them to make decisions. So much so that managers won’t tell you what to do. They will give direction though and objectives. Decisions are made with this direction in mind.
    • Valve software has a famous quote in their employee handbook – “Of all the people at this company who aren’t your boss, Gabe Newell is the MOST not your boss.” Gabe Newell is the CEO of Valve.
    • Erwin wrote a blog on this habit on the Elabor8 site – https://elabor8.com.au/the-first-habit-of-highly-effective-organisations/
  2. Tolerate Embrace failure
    • We shouldn’t just tolerate failure. We should embrace failure. But there’s a catch. We must learn from our failures.
    • Spotify is a prime example of embracing failure. After a failed incentive program, they realised it didn’t work and apologised with cake. They called if Fail Cake. This lead to the creation of their Fail Wall. A wall highlighting all of their failures and what they learnt from their failures. It is visible to anyone in the office.
  3. Be brutally honest
    • Sometimes we have to question what we are doing and be brutally honest – is what we’re doing going to continue to be successful in the future?
    • One company that didn’t do this was Kodak. Despite inventing the first digital camera in 1975, they weren’t brutally honest with themselves with their operating model and eventually went out of business.
  4. Create autonomy at all levels
    • Creating autonomy at all levels is something you don’t see often. It is a big shift to go from: “telling people what to do” vs. “what we want to achieve”.
    • Alignment enables autonomy. It provides a focus for everyone. Instead of thinking “I hope someone is working on the river problem.” or instead of saying “We need to cross the river. Build a bridge” we shift to saying: “We need to cross the river. Figure out how.”
    • Svenska Handelsbanken is one of the best banks in the world. They won best bank in Sweden 26 years in a row. Yet they have no budgets, no sales targets, no bonuses. They empower every branch to set their own direction. The bank is the branch. The words of their CEO.
  5. Think big, stay small
    • As organisations get bigger, it gets harder to know everyone. In fact, humans have a limit of the number of people they can have meaningful relationships with. The cap… 150 people.
    • Organisations that have realised this ensure that they identify ways cap the amount of people they work with.
    • W.L. Gore & Associates did this by limiting every department and office to 150 people. Yet they have over 10, 000 employees, are worth $3.2 billion, and are voted best company to work for in the U.S. 17 years in a row.
  6. Simplify all the things
    • Rules lead to complex behaviour. And sometimes poor behaviour. In some cases, less rules (and the right rules) will lead to better behaviour.
    • Despite implementing a complex set of rules for expenses, Statoil’s expenses were spiralling out of control. What do you do if all of these rules aren’t working? They got rid of all the rules! They stated, you can spend money on whatever you want, but it will all be posted on the company intranet. Expenses plummeted.
  7. Relentless customer focus
    • Company generally don’t do a good job of focusing on their real customers. The customers are the ones paying your company the money. Is the business your customers? No! They are internal stakeholders. We need to focus on our customers.
    • Zappos does this incredibly well. Not only do all employees work in their call centre as part of induction, there are no targets about call time length. They don’t care how long their call time is. They care about customer happiness. So much so that their longest call was 9 hours! Now that is customer focus.

7 habits of highly effective organisations. All of this summed up is a decentralised network of autonomous, cross-functional, self-organising teams, focused on the customer. Wait a minute… sound familiar? That’s Agile! And if we are all experts in Agile, then we are all experts in 21st century management. So go out and make a difference! For more information, you can check out Erwin’s slides here.

Wrapping up

There was a massive buzz from this year’s Agile Australia. Lots of great talks and lots of great conversations. If you had the chance to attend, then can I encourage you to not sit still? Implement some of the ideas that you got from the conference. If you didn’t attend, then I hope this blog has given you an idea or two. Or simply talk to someone that did attend and ask them for some great ideas. Remember. Nothing is constant; even Agile is changing. Go change the world!

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