Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Agile Principles 103

So I was frustrated with both my previous 2 methods as described in Agile Principles 101 and Agile Principles 102.

Suddenly! I found myself with a group of complete agile newbies and I realised I had the opportunity to experiment with a 3rd method to try and help them understand these really concise pearls of modern management wisdom - the agile principles. By this stage in my career and experience I had convinced myself that the agile principles were just as relevant for software as for any other knowledge work taking place with large numbers of unknowns and lack of certainty. The plan-do-study-adjust collaboratively is remarkably effective in all conditions and circumstances where we're doing something new (more than 10% different from previous experience)!

My third approach involved the learners reading them, leaving them on screen, and then asking targeted questions. I was hoping that by causing all the learners to think and reflect on their own situation, using the principles as some kind of wise "flashlight", they would have flashes of insight!

Questions that I asked:
  • Which agile principles were they achieving in their work 100%?
    • And why?
  • Which agile principles were they not achieving in their work 100%?
    • Why?
  • Which principles were they achieving between 0-50%?
    • Why?
  • Which principles were they achieving between 50-100%?
    • Why?
  • Would you be agile if you followed 11 principles 100%?
    • Why or why not?
  • Of those that were not 100% in practice, which 1 putting fully into practice would bring the most benefit?
    • Why?
    • Which would bring the second most benefit?
      • Why?
      • Which would bring the third most?
        • Why?
  • And which would bring the least benefit?
    • Why?

Typical answers that I received

A lot of concerned faces, puzzled frowns and a handful of the class beginning to figure this stuff out. Reviewing these responses made me cringe - I am sure often my look of disbelief crept past my ability to control my responses. Reader beware!

Which agile principles achieving 100% and why?

  • Retrospectives (the last one) - because "our Scrum Master makes us".
  • Delivery of working software - because "that's what we're here to do". (note, no mention of trying to deliver quicker - with an emphasis on the shorter timescale)

Which agile principles not achieving 100% and why? 

  • Business people and developers did work closely, but not everyday - because "the business people were too involved or important for the business to operate without them".
  • Sustainable development - because "our company encourages a good work-life balance, and we only come in for the weekend once per month, or work late nights 1-2 nights per week".
  • We do welcome changing requirements but not near the deadline - because "then we would never finish".

Which principles achieving 0-50% and why?

  • Technical excellence, best designs, and simplicity - because "we don't have time to improve".
  • Build projects around motivated people and support them - because "we hire professionals and they have to adapt to our ways of working".
  • We think we do satisfy our customers of our business - because "we don't know them and are not allowed to talk to them" or "knowing - that's someone else's job"

Which principles achieving 50-100% and why?

  • Communication is good, we do face-to-face whenever people are close - but not if they are on a different floor, different building up the street, in another town, a different country or timezone - because "travel is expensive and wastes a lot of time" and "we need email trails for audit/regulatory purposes" or "we need emails for our monthly, quarterly or annual appraisals".
  • We like software showcases, but we have a lot of reporting on the side/top of that - because "governance is required" or "regulatory" or "comfort factor for senior managers" or "good publicity for the good work we're doing"

Would you be agile if you were only achieving 11 agile principles out of the 12 - why or why not?

"Yes! Because that's pretty good, it's like 91-92%!" - note, no mention of which one is not being achieved! Just a simple, naive response to the a multi-choice answer sheet. No deeper thinking evidenced.


"No! Because there would not be 12 principles if following 11 made an organisation quicker and nimbler!" - note, although this answer is better than the "Yes", this is still insufficient/a bit naive as the principles are a set of cause-and-effects that together create the synthesis required to be quicker and nimbler. It takes deep thought and putting into practice for some time to fully "feel" agile.

Which principles should be our top 3 to put into practice ASAP, and why? 

The only typical responses I got from this question were that there were no patterns. Every organisation has a different context, with different problems (and size of same problems), prioritised differently and solutioned differently. This is expected. Asking the "Why" for each did cause good conversations between the trainees and really helped people clarify their assumptions and perspectives. So too was the conversations around benefit, and benefit to whom. Good stuff!

Which principle would bring the least benefit and why? 

Again, a total myriad of responses - the only pattern being that everyone fell for this "trick question".
Yes, like most agile things, with teams being in unique contexts, "it depends" is always the right answer. But that helps no one quickly!

Once the trainees had convinced themselves of 1 least beneficial principle, I always constructed a causal model that showed they had picked the most beneficial principle to them. Why this complete opposite approach? I was trying to highlight all the other ways of thinking about things, and highlight that they needed to learn more than their default model in order to achieve agile for their organisation and for themselves.

Benefits of this teaching/learning approach

Was better, slightly, than the previous two attempts.
There was some good discussion going on.

Consequence of this teaching/learning approach

The causal model for the 1 principle they believed would bring them least benefit seemed to cause hostility. Just because Copernicus had a model that proved the planets went around the Sun, did not win the hearts and minds of those who believed the Sun and the planets went around the Earth, especially not those with their own thinking and being models based on the incorrect one!

Several folks dis-engaged from this - I suspect because it is such abstract stuff and it is hard to think about abstract things with people who have different contexts entirely. It's hard enough to make sense of things with people who are on the same page with you let alone from different teams/streams of work!

Post mortem

This teaching/learning method also did not work as I had hoped. Despite many nods, smiles and hope-filled looks that seemed promising, nothing happened after the training session.

I did not see changes in thinking patterns, problems stated, solutions proposed or behaviours. There was no increase in flow of value nor deepening of team trust, no sighting of a high-performance shift or team. No one was picking up the seeds or threads and putting any of the collective wisdom onto the agenda and getting faster.

I had to keep researching, thinking, reflecting and trying different see what I have tried, tested and concluded so far, read further: What Is Agile For You, What Is Agile For Us

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