Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Superhero Culture: Our Grown-Up Teenage Addiction

I know a little about smoking. My mother smoked her whole life. It eventually killed her. I never did understand the grip it had on my mother and those like her until I read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point.
Teenage smoking is one of the great, baffling phenomena of modern life. No one really knows how to fight it, ore even, for that matter, what it is.
Gladwell goes on to point out that education has not been effective. In fact, it is not that teenagers don't understand the dangers. In fact, they believe smoking to be more dangerous than it is.

Now what has this got to do with product development you might ask? Well, it seems as product development teams we have a similar addiction that affects our ability to deliver value and create a sustainable pace. Despite the best efforts of Covey and others to educate us we continue to multi-task, constantly change priorities and work our most valued contributors to the point of exhaustion. We know the hidden costs. It is not that we lack intelligence, in fact some of our most ambitious and driven companies seem to be where this culture is most pervasive. Why do we do it? Why do we continue to reinforce the superhero culture? Gladwell provides clues to the answer.

The significance of the smoking personality cannot be overstated, If you bundle all these extrovert's traits together you come up with an almost perfect definition of the kind of person many adolescents are drawn to. Maggie, Pam and Billy were all deeply cool people but they weren't cool because they smoked. They smoked because they were cool. Smoking was never cool. Smokers are cool.

We know the superhero culture is bad for us but it persists. It persists because we want to feel needed, we want to feel indispensable. We find it easier to be reactive than proactive. We love the sense of urgency and get a buzz from putting in the extra hours and saving the day. But most of all we persist the culture because the people we look up to and aspire to be got where they are through being superheroes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Real Star of the Show

In a 1990s version of the Chicken and Egg scenario we witnessed the spectacular rise in popularity of the video projector and Powerpoint.


Dilbert and others have done a lot to help us come to our senses and remind us that (as Garr Reynolds says):
Powerpoint slides are not the "star of the show" and that we shouldn’t let our message and our ability to tell a story get derailed by slides that are unnecessarily complicated, busy, or full of what Edward Tufte calls “chart junk"

So, we need to keep our slides simple. How simple? Garr suggests:
The best slides may have no text at all. This may sound insane given the dependency of text slides today, but the best PowerPoint slides will be virtually meaningless with out the narration. Slides are meant to support the narration of the speaker, not make the speaker superfluous.
If you’ve been to a Rally presentation or class you might have noticed we subscribe to the same philosophy. My colleague Ben Carey has taken this to the next level. Influenced by Dan Roam and Sunni Brown he has been experimenting with deckless training using butcher paper and a marker pen. You may not have the confidence in your drawing skills to do what Ben does but it does illustrate (excuse the pun) that we can succeed without Powerpoint.

Of course, the star of the show is not the presenter, as Garr points out, the real star of the show is the audience and in direct contrast to some of our established paradigms the less the presenter speaks the more the audience learns. As Sharon Bowman points out in her excellent book Training from the Back of the Room: 65 Ways to Step Aside and Let Them Learn:

If learning is your goal, that is, enabling learners to remember and use the information you give them, then listening to you won’t get them there. What will get them there is involvement and engagement during the entire training – high interest, content-related, physically active involvement – where they are teaching and learning from each other.

Sharon encourages trainers to get to the back of the room and not to talk for more than 10 minutes without some kind of learner activity. This approach dovetails perfectly with the games and exercises we in the agile community have always included in our training but are only perhaps now coming to value for the intangible benefits they bring.

Two excellent books on games are Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo and Luke Hohmann's Innovation Games.

Games enable us to get up on our feet, exercise our minds, relax and of course have fun. But games also help us learn to self-organize and work together and can spark innovation as they help us approach business challenges from different directions.

Are games childish? I hope so. I am always amazed at the openness of a childs mind, how easily they soak up new information and how eager they are to learn.

If you are considering attending one of our Rally training classes I look forward to seeing you soon as I do my level best to:
  • not read slides
  • train from the back of the room
  • encourage you all to be childish

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What's Your Point of View

As a Scotsman living in the US I take more than my fair share of trips through Heathrow airport. There are many things I enjoy about being back in the UK but Heathrow airport is certainly not one of them. For a while HSBC bank tried valiantly to cheer us up, as we trudged wearily from terminal to terminal, our journey made more colorful by the many posters from their What's Your Point of View campaign.

As an Agile Coach I am often confronted by different points of view.

If I am speaking to a group and criticize waterfall development there is a chance someone will feel I am disparaging their team or their efforts. Sometimes use of the word agile does not serve a good purpose. Many have negative perceptions of Agile and believe it to be chaotic, undisciplined and unpredictable.

As a coach it's not my job to fix negative perceptions of Agile. My passion is making teams and organizations successful. I like to steer away from the waterfall vs. agile discussion and instead focus on sharing what I see high performance teams and organizations doing.

  • Without knowing what value really is we can't reduce waste. A focus on customer valueanswers two key questions: a) who am I building this for; b) why am I building this. Once we have a keen sense of what value is we can then prioritize our work to deliver the highest value first.
  • By delivering early and often we give ourselves the best opportunity to beat the competition to market, realize revenue and discover insights that we can help us improve.
  • One of the biggest impediments to delivering early and often is the inability to reduce batch size and many teams struggle with this. This is a battle worth fighting.
  • Another impediment to delivering value is not pull testing forward. If we don't complete our work as we iterate then we are creating technical debt that will affect our ability to release.
  • Successful teams know it is best to take small incremental steps towards improvement and to establish a rhythm of continuous improvement. We don't try to define the perfect process, we don't set the bar too high and we continuously inspect and adapt.
  • As Émile Chartrier once said "nothing is more dangerous than an idea when you only have one". Successful teams and organizations know that to survive long-term they need to create a collaborative culture that fosters innovation and shared commitment.
Are these agile or lean principles. Some like to draw an ideological line between the two but like Wille Faler I don't believe that's a bottom-line discussion. Call them waterfall if you like so long as you're successful. You might not like the list and that's fine too. Make your own list but don't just pull it out of a book. Visit the gemba and come up with something visceral that your team can identify with.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Paper Clip Consulting

Remember this guy. He used to pop-up when you least expected him and offered up information about something you already knew.

I'm sometimes reminded of Clippy when I hear the rhetoric from some in our agile community.

We're at an inflection point right now. The pragmatists and the conservatives are realizing the fallacy of large upfront planning.

As teams from these later adopters are striving to become leaner and more agile they struggle with the inertia that is inherent in large organizations.

  • They know that co-located teams are more successful but they prefer an environment that extends the benefits of working from home.
  • They know that it is much more efficient to work on one task at a time but someone way above their pay grade won't let them have such a single minded focus. This is not a battle they can win right now.
  • They know that value can be delivered faster if testing can be pulled forward yet they don't have budget to buy the tools they need.
For such decisions Clippy always knows the right answers for everybody. But Clippy doesn’t have to walk in their shoes and it won’t be Clippy who gets fired for taking a risk.
Maybe Clippy needs to listen to Norm Kerth (from his book Project Retrospectives)

or as my colleague Julie Chickering says:

"I think we need to acknowledge that there are parts of organizations that will be less agile than others while moving from traditional to agile projects. That the big ole ship cant turn on a dime. To me this is part of being the trusted partner."

As you strive to become leaner, more agile, you don't need Paper Clip Consulting you need a trusted partner. You need someone that will begin with the end in mind yet not seek to get there immediately. A trusted partner will take the time to understand your environment, accept that there are always constraints and help you establish a cadence of continuous improvement.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

All For One, One For All

I was struck recently by the low energy of a daily stand-up that did not signal the end. Some people headed back to work, others started follow-on discussions, others were not sure if the meeting was over or not. The lack of a clear sign that the stand-up is over can lead to problems:
  • People feeling left out
  • Not having the right people there when decisions are made
  • Time wasted on interesting rather than useful discussions
  • People starting to question the merits of a daily stand-up that consumes a lot of team capacity

One way to avoid a never-ending stand-up is to have a clear signal at the end.

The ScrumMaster is the facilitator for the daily stand-up and they shouldn't assume the authority to close the meeting. I like a signal coming from anyone (not necessarily the ScrumMaster) followed by a response from all.

A friend of mine enjoys climbing. At the end of his daily stand-ups he would signal "On Belay?" and the rest of the team would respond "Belay On".

Sports teams are good at signaling the end of the huddle. One of my favorites is the team portrayed in the classic book by Alexandre Dumas. The Three Musketeers would end their stand-ups with a single cry of "All for one" which then be followed by the refrain "and one for all"

What are your favorite signals?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Chi Development: The Process Is The Goal

Last year I entered the Marine Corps Marathon. I'd never ran more than 10K in my whole life but I felt the urge to do a marathon just once. Of course I didn't want to just finish I had to get close to my friend Dave's time who did 3:17 in the Loch Ness Marathon. So I started an ambitious training program and as time progressed and I was not getting any faster I started training more. 4 weeks before the race I had to pull out with a stress fracture and slightly torn achilles tendon.

I failed to heed my own counsel. As an agile coach I tell my students that the number one cause for failure is scaling too fast and you need to start with baby steps.

This year I'm entered again but I'm going to take it easier with the training and not care how fast I go in the race.

Looking for a better way to train I was intrigued by Danny Driver's book Chi Running: A Revolutionary Approach To Effortless, Injury Free Running.

I was fascinated reading about the Chi Running Method and Mind-Set.

The optimal conditions for running and the fundamentals of the method:
  • Great posture
  • Relaxed limbs
  • Loose joints
  • Engaged core muscles
  • A focused mind
  • Good breathtaking technique
The benefits:
  • Great posture
  • Relaxed limbs
  • Loose joints
  • Engaged core muscles
  • A focused mind
  • Good breathtaking technique
  • More energy!
His point. The process is the goal.

Similarly with agile/lean teams the fundamentals:
  • Deliver highest value first
  • Release early and often
  • Shared vision
  • Empowered collaborative decision making
  • Engaged customer proxy
  • Sustainable pace
The benefits:
  • Deliver highest value first
  • Release early and often
  • Shared vision
  • Empowered collaborative decision making
  • Engaged customer proxy
  • Sustainable pace
  • More energy!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I Don't Like MoSCoW

It's OK Sergey and Boris I'm not referring to the capital city of your homeland with it's rich history, wonderful literates and great hockey players.

Instead I'm referring to the technique that the DSDM consortium recommends for prioritizing backlog items.

  • Must Haves
  • Should Haves
  • Could Haves
  • Won’t Have (this time around).
There are a couple of problems with this technique and in my classes my students spot them right away.
  1. The customer always thinks everything is important and therefore the distribution of the backlog items is hopelessly skewed towards the Must Haves.
  2. If we are planning an iteration and we have only room left to take on one more backlog item and we have two Must Haves which one gets planned into the iteration. Of course we should ask the customer but what if they're not there.
Many customers think that promoting backlog items to Must Haves is exercising better control over delivery but it is not. A customer who cannot differentiate between the importance of backlog items is ceding control to the delivery team. Work has to be sequenced and if the customer will not choose then the team will.

A better technique is to rank backlog items such that no two items have the same priority. In this instance it is very clear the preferred order of delivery.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pick Up Your Clothes

With a four year old and a six year old familiar sayings around our house are "pick up your toys", "pick up your clothes", "brush your teeth", "get dressed". Of course we could get our short-term objectives met much faster if we did these tasks but we don't. We understand the importance of our children developing their own awareness of basic hygiene, cleanliness and developing their own skills that will one day help them become independent.

Giora Morein tells us that ScrumMasters's should track hours remaining on a sprint
Time-tracking is a nuisance and a distraction for these motivated folks. To the ScrumMaster and the team, however, it is extremely important.
While I don't question Giora's good intentions and there is no doubt this approach is expeditious I believe it is worth striving to have the team updating their own hours remaining.

There are many many benefits to being a member of a self-organizing, self-managing team but with those benefits also comes responsibility and accountability. Here are some dangers I see in team's not updating their hours remaining:

  • They become less accountable for the number they provide
  • They don't understand the mechanisms of the self-managing, self-organizing team
  • They become dependent on the Scrum Master
  • The Scrum Master becomes frustrated and disillusioned
  • The Scrum Masters morphs from a leadership role to a management role
  • The team starts to revert to form

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Microcosym in a Teacup

If you haven't already heard Matt Aimonetti’s talk “CouchDB + Ruby: Perform Like a Pr0n Star.” at the Golden Gate Ruby Conference caused quite the stir.

There are so many different angles to explore. Here's some that come to mind:
  1. Although I was not offended this crossed my standards of good taste
  2. Although hopefully not his best example Matt obviously has a talent for creating presentations
  3. Like Giles Bowkett says if you're going to apologize then make sure you really mean it. If you don't, then defend your position
  4. If someone from a different sexual or ethical group says they're offended then you have to take their word for it. You have and will never have a basis to refute their argument. Washington Redskins take note.
  5. Strange that Sarah Allen didn't leave. I admire Ken Schwaber's work but recall not staying for his presentations at Agile 2007. His (lesser) crime: he was boring.
  6. In a country where the Sopranos is such a popular show why is it not OK to have a few PG-13 pictures in a presentation
  7. In a male dominated industry is it discrimination to treat others differently or is it discrimination to not
  8. This presentation probably would have been a hit in the UK. I'm hoping John is alluding to my British upbringing when he remarked that "of course you weren't offended"
  9. Why are the US and the UK (two countries I love) so different
  10. But of course this was not the UK so Matt really broke rule #1: Know Your Audience

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Fortune Cookies and Process Improvement

Yesterday I was at the Rational Comes To You Seminar that we hosted in Chicago. I presented a favorite topic of mine Agile Risk Management. The keynote speaker was Per Kroll. Per talked about the Agile Practice Library that the Eclipse Process Framework team are developing, an initiative that we are actively involved in. Dan Gilio and Frank Du Pont gave a presentation on Agility and Compliance and laid to to rest perceptions that agility and compliance are not polar opposites. After all, think about it, how does a waterfall process help with compliance? Great job Dan and Frank.

I was listening to NPR on the last leg of my journey home from Chicago. Michele Norris was interviewing Jennifer 8 Lee about her upcoming book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Jennifer was born in America of Chinese parents and was perplexed why the food in the little white takeout boxes was so different from her mother's traditional Chinese dishes. Then when Jennifer was 13 she discovered fortune cookies weren't Chinese. "It was a disconcerting discovery, like I was adopted and there was no Santa Claus at the same time. In a way, I had bought into the myth of what is really 'Chinese,'" she says.

This led to an obsession that eventually led to her upcoming book. Jennifer's research yielded that an overwhelming majority of fortune-cookie "fortunes" originate from one of two sources: Wonton Food in New York City or Steven Yang, who works out of a warehouse in California where fortune writers craft bits of wisdom that meet an American audience's expectations. Amusingly these fortunes don't translate well in Asia where negative feedback is welcomed because it is seen as essential for improvement.

What an interesting day. It started out with Per talking about agile practices and expounding on lean methods and it ends up back at lean with a real-world Kaizen example. For those Fortune Cookie afficionados out there this blog would not be complete without me adding that shortly after listening to this story I ended up sound asleep "in bed".