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Agile Observations from the Trenches is sponsored by Davisbase Consulting, which offers a wide range of consulting services, Agile training courses, and customized services for organizations looking to adopt an Agile approach to their IT development efforts. This blog is written by several trainers that primarily work with teams looking to implement or improve their Agile approach to software development. To find out more about who is behind the blog, please view our 'About' section.

Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to read and participate in the discussion.

A Letter To My Daughter Gwen

September 5th, 2010 5 comments

This blog is typically about all things Agile, but I am taking a slight detour on this post in anticipation of my very first child’s birth.  Gwendolyn Reece Gaiennie is due to be born on October 7, 2010 and I wanted to share with her future self some things I have learned as I myself grew into adulthood.  And if you think that this has nothing to do with business, then you might need to read this yourself.

Hi Beautiful,

I may not always be there for you, in fact, no one will.  Sad, I know, but you already know this.  But you will always be with you, and because I know you are an intelligent young lady, I wanted to share with you some of the things that I have learned, have been taught, or have picked up along the way.  Take these with you as you travel your path through life and look for bits of wisdom you can add so that someday you might also take the opportunity to pass along what you have learned to your own children.

Lead your life based on your values. By the time you read this you can trust that your values are there, you just may not know what they are yet.  That’s ok, so long as you place importance in identifying them as you venture into adulthood. Search for them, be relentless.  Know what you will stand for, and invest your spirit in knowing what you will not stand for.  Never seek to please another person in a quest to satisfy their values, for when you do, you will likely do so while sacrificing your own.  It took your father too may years to realize that a life lived based on anything other than your values is one spent in a futile attempt to gain acceptance from another person in an effort to validate yourself.  You don’t need to do this, it is momentarily satisfying and ultimately vacuous.  You matter, because you are you.

All existing means to your desired end are wrong. Another person’s path is not yours.  And only your path is right.  For you.  Cherish your originality.  Too much stock is put into fitting in, but the truly great ones among us seek to standup in the current, they choose to stand rather than simply float along with the drift.  I know the pressures to be accepted can be overwhelming, but never believe that simply doing what others do is the ultimate value to be had.  What do you truly seek in life Gwen?  It is a big question, but one worth asking.  And asking again.  I allowed too many years to pass before realizing that there is more to life than what can be bought with money.  Find what you seek and be open that what you want may not be easy or even immediately possible, but don’t allow that to sap you of energy.  This is the only life you get, spend it wisely.

There are no shortcuts in life. I wish this weren’t the case, but it is.  It just is.  The truly amazing things to be had on this earth are gained through hard work, driven by experiences, checkered with failures, but ultimately realized through perseverance.  There will be those that try to sell you the easy way out of your problems or the quick path to your goals, and they will be persuasive, but they will be selling you something that simply doesn’t exist.  Life is not meant to only provide enjoyable experiences, but also suffering, hardships, and pain as well.  But this is no mistake, it is by design.  A beautiful design.  These challenging experiences need to be valued as highly as your achievements, for without these you would not appreciate the magnificence of your triumphs.  Always remember that you cannot appreciate the mountains if you never experience the valleys.

Never compare your inside with somebody else’s outside. As you grow up, you will be bombarded with the message that your value is contingent upon your compliance with another’s definition of acceptable.  I can only beg of you to not fall for this, it only ends in pain, anguish, and a feeling of being inadequate.  You are amazing, so long as you live your life based on the values that you define.  Nothing is so important as knowing which principles are worth standing for.

Avoid the boring people. Those people that like to play it safe have nothing to offer you, don’t waste your time trying to get them to feel your passion.  These folks value complacency and sameness as a means for security but in exchange must sacrifice the possibility of something better.  The possibility.  What beautiful words!  In fact, new rule, if you ever find someone that is perpetually afraid to do something different simply for the fact that it is different, share your view that there is beauty in risk, but don’t dwell on it.  If they can’t see it, move on.  Quickly.

Never do anything solely on the assumption that you will be rewarded for it. Your dad is still trying to learn this very valuable lesson.  When we act only motivated by the reward given by another, we give away all of our creative power to someone else.  Do what you believe is right.  And remember, the more talented, the more gifted, the more self-motivated a person is, the less they need the props from someone else.  You may be your biggest critic, but remember that you also must be your biggest cheerleader.   You will never need someone else to complete you.  You are already whole.

The most important lesson I could ever leave for you would be this…

You are responsible for your own experience. Gwen, I have seen too many people waste years believing that someone else is responsible for their happiness.  That someone else is responsible for causing their struggle.  These people have missed out on the opportunity to experience the beauty, and the challenge, of life.  All of the power on this earth exists in you at this very moment and it is unlocked by a simple decision.  The decision to take responsibility for your experience of life, for you.  Others might seem to upset you in life, but as you experience this pain realize that this is your decision.  No one can hurt you without your permission.  No one can ruin your day without your permission.  No one can make you happy without your permission.  I am not asking you to live your life without emotion, in fact quite the opposite; live your life through your emotional experience, but never allow emotion to have absolute meaning without you getting a chance to contribute to the internal discussion.  Never, ever give up this right to create the association of an emotion with a meaning that supports you and your values.  This is a powerful gift that the vast majority of people you will have in your life will have chosen to relinquish.   You are responsible for your own experience. This understanding is the greatest gift I could ever leave to another person, I hope you cherish it as much as I do.

There are many more things I am sure I will leave you, but these are good pillars on which to build a values-based approach to life.  And although you are not here yet, I look forward to all of the wonderful life lessons you will be teaching me.  I love you Gwen.  Always.  -Dad.

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Southern Fried Agile Recap…

July 28th, 2010 No comments

Southern Fried Agile was a GREAT success.  We had a great turn-out for a first annual event and the caliber of speakers was topnotch.  All of the presentations made during the conference are available for download on SlideShare.net (click link to visit).

My presentation can also be found there, titled “All You Need To Know Is That It’s Possible.”  My presentation addresses many of the excuses I have heard teams make over the years as to why Agile could not work for them.  Over time I came to find that most of these teams simply used this type of excuse to relieve themselves of the responsibility of having to try to make Agile work, a responsibility they would certain shoulder, but only if they allowed themselves to believe that the Agile approach might be able to offer the enormous gains that are touted.  These same teams spend great deals of energy in convincing themselves to believe that it is simply not possible for Agile (or seemingly any better approach) to work with their unique, product, team, culture, organization, etc.  They would tell me that they are just too different.  This presentation seeks to make the case that it is often the limiting beliefs held by people that keep them from being able to succeed with Agile.

Hopefully I will see some of you at Agile2010 in Orlando in a couple of weeks, I will be tweeting non-stop for those of you that cannot make it.  Follow me at @AgileAdvisor.

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The Southern Fried Agile Conference is Coming!

July 2nd, 2010 No comments

The Agile Carolinas Leadership Team is putting together a local conference to present and discuss all things Agile.  Because I now live in Charlotte, you know that I will be there.  Not only I will be attending, but I will also be presenting a discussion in the “Learning Agile” track of presentations.  I know that most of you that may stumble upon this blog don’t live in the area, but in case that you do, please register and plan on being there, it is going to immensely valuable for the attendees.

Here are some of the details:

Website (and Registration): http://www.southernfriedagile.com

When: Friday, July 23, 2010. 8:30a – 4:30p

Where: The Crowne Plaza Charlotte Hotel. 201 S. McDowell Street, Charlotte, NC 280204

How Much: $49 (super cheap!!)

Twitter Hashtag: #sfa2010

Want more information: Go to the website for a list of sponsors, speakers, and the sessions currently scheduled.

See you there!!

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The Roar on the Other Side of Silence

May 2nd, 2010 7 comments

I love to watch television shows about the natural universe.  The content of these television programs simply fascinates me at a visceral level I don’t experience with other subjects.  I wonder at the possibilities of the cosmos, the history of the universe, the beginnings of consciousness in pre-historic humanoid brains, and the other organisms we share this planet with.  I think about how humans may be connected with animals, how our culture and community may be connected with our past, and how each of us may have more in common with each other through a shared historical experience than we allow ourselves to believe.  I love to ponder about the nature of simply being.  I think about this topic because on a regular basis I get to see a wide variety of people and get to see how they relate to job and their team, how they choose to exist professionally.

I frequently work with teams of people from a range of companies, industries, and backgrounds, and its during these sessions that I think back to those larger thoughts about how we experience our lives as individuals and as members of teams.  What makes some teams click, thrive, and deliver?  How do some groups of people truly share a common goal and work creatively to achieve it?  Why do some groups of people seem to only suffer through projects and then deliver dismal results, consistently?  What is the definable difference between the experiences of these different groups?  Why are some people happy with their job, their company, their project, their healthcare, their family, their car, their house, their spouse, their life, while others would seemingly choose to be dissatisfied no matter what they may be blessed with?  Where are the connection of neurons responsible for our ability to be happy and productive on a team?  And does this ability to choose happiness relate to better relationships and results at work?  How do I grant the gift of effortless success and indomitable growth to teams that struggle endlessly to achieve even modestly positive results?

To help me answer these questions, I turned to an insightful book The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. In the book authors Katzenback and Smith define a team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and a common approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”  Although I agree wholeheartedly with their definition, the book did not satisfy the curiosity I had about what components make certain teams tick and others tock.  I needed an understanding at a deeper level, I needed to examine the DNA of teams.  So instead of reading more about teams from a business perspective, I instead looked into those double helixes that seem to determine everything about us, our very own DNA, to see if any insight could be found.

The human genome project promised to finally unlock the secret recipe for what makes us who we are.  And like so many other great scientific promises of the past, it failed to yield an answer to everything, but rather provided a perfect foundation for even greater questions.  Although our DNA provides the building blocks for our physical being, it cannot alone explain the curiosities of individuals, from our personalities, to our attitudes, to our propensity for success, or our ability to trudge inexorably to failure.  This mysterious exclusion is expressed effectively in the observation of identical twins, where the DNA encoding remains identical, but where nearly all else is unique, especially when the brain is examined.

Like our DNA, we often cannot choose the members that make up our team, but equally similar to DNA, it is not simply the members of our team that pre-determine our possibilities.  Too often I hear individuals complain that consistent success would be possible if only they were assigned to the right team or if the right team were assigned to them.  This superficial failure of perspective can often become a self-fullfilling prophecy, yielding the expected negative results as a consequence of subconscious actions driven in support of the consciously expected outcome.  As with many mysteries of life, perspective and belief are more powerful than we allow ourselves to consider.  We seem to be more content to apply unreasoned reasons to our perceived consequences rather than seeking to drive meaning from those things for which we could have affected the outcome.

Recent discoveries in the world of science confirm the notion that we are more than our parts, both on the individual and team levels.  These scientific revelations point to a beautiful aspect of life that affirms that we are not limited by our structure, but are allowed infinite possibilities through the wonder of chaos; an inability and impossibility of perfectly predicting results based solely on observing conditions, thus free will is born and an infinite number of possible minds follows.  Author Jonah Lehrer states “that [this] is the triumph of DNA; it makes us without determining us.  The invention of neural plasticity, which is encoded by the genome, lets each of us transcend our genome.  We emerge, character-like, from the vague alphabet of our text.”  And as is true for individuals, it is equally true for how effectives teams can be, regardless of their own DNA, regardless of the individual components of the team.

Supporting these ideas, in a 2002 Science paper entitled “Stochastic Gene Expression in a Single Cell” Michael Elowitz of Caltech demonstrated that biological “noise” (a scientific synonym for chaos) is inherent in gene expression.  His results further solidified the unfolding scientific belief that it was this “noise” that held most of the possibilities for emergence in design for organisms, which contradicted the earlier collective belief that natural selection alone held this potential.  These discoveries, by extension, illuminated the idea that without this inclusion of chaos, then every cell that was created by the same DNA would operate, behave, and produce the same results, but we know that this is not the case.  In fact, without this beautiful inclusion to our evolution, we would not experience the diversity of life that we do.

Digging more deeply into what constitutes success in these complex adaptive systems (organized as teams), yields the result that diversity in experience, knowledge, personality, and drive is what allow them to truly excel.  The equivalent in nature was captured by Darwin when he wrote that ”the more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution, and habits, by so much will they be better enabled to seize on many and widely diversified places in the polity of nature.”  A team’s diversity is one its greatest strengths, so long as the diversity is expressed and exercised regularly.

Teams are not doomed to failure as an inevitable consequence of the composition of it’s members.  Similarly, individuals are not merely limited to the sum of their specific DNA coded sequences.  And if these statements are true, how do we then affect better outcomes from both teams and individuals?  Just as individuals are formed by their experiences that shape their neurons, bringing temporary neural order to chaos, so too can teams also allow their experience to help bring consistency in results to their previously unpredictable outcomes.  But in order to make this happen, teams need two very important components in place: 1. An ability to clearly define their current state set against their preferred results (this allows the team to define the state of dissonance between reality and possibility, thus developing creative tension in the structure).  2. A mechanism that allows the team to utilize experience to shape future team decisions.

I am a firm believer that:

- Given the opportunity, most people would rather succeed than fail.
- People are very well aware of organizational constraints that limit their ability to achieve and succeed.
- Most people feel limited in their ability to affect change in their job.

So what is the answer?  How do we elicit better results from our teams?

If you are still with me this far, then it is only fair that I provide you an answer, right?  Unfortunately, as much as I would like to, I cannot provide an answer, only a direction.

The potential source for your organization’s power lies in the unexplored richness of experience and understanding held by your people.  You may believe that your organization actively solicits input and feedback, but if your organization is like most, you don’t, at least not well enough.  You will know when you have breached the barrier that separates average teams and corporate culture from their extraordinary equivalents.  You will know because you will discover the roar that exists on the other side of silence.  Do not dig unprepared for what you may find, the roar is often deafening.

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The Secret Sauce to a Hyper-Productive Team

April 4th, 2010 No comments

As I travel from city to city working with various teams from a wide range of industries, I have noticed some commonalities in the dynamics present in these teams.  Some of these teams represent those that I feel a deep sense of compassion for…ones that are lacking inspired direction, lacking enthusiasm, lacking a sincere desire to produce a product above and beyond the gathered specs, teams drowning amidst a sea of corporate culture that does not seek to produce the best product, but rather satisfy the demands of its own structure.  Then there are those teams that seem to possess a magical quality where they can accomplish anything, overcome any obstacle, and are adept at creating the right amount and type of team culture that supports their objectives.

Seeing this huge gap between team types begs the obvious question, what is the difference between the teams?  Is it company size? No. Is it the industry?  Nope, seen great teams in every industry including DoD, government, tech, and finance. Is it the goodies provided for free in the kitchen?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.

So what is the secret sauce of these hyper-productive teams?

As you might guess, it is not any one thing, but a combination of many different factors that all support the single-headed direction to support the creation and continued operation of a highly productive team.  So what are the ingredients?  Here is my unscientific, and definitely un-exhaustive list:

  1. Great people.
    We cannot pretend that only process matters.  Spend any amount of time digging into great teams and you are likely to find a fair number of great people, people that would be great on any team.  Get enough of them together and you have a good shot at a great team.
  2. Organizational culture supportive of making mistakes in pursuit of greater return results.
    Teams that are comfortable at making mistakes often find that they also produce extraordinary results.  True success is often comprised of multiple failed efforts that did not sink the team, but rather allowed the team to learn things they could not have learned otherwise.  Working within a corporate culture that recognizes this is a key component to super teams.
  3. True team based delivery culture (which means this is also taken into account during things like individual’s annual reviews.)
    Teams that recognize that we are not simply individuals working in close proximity, but a team where we must all be engaged with one another’s work.  I tell teams looking to achieve amazing results that each member of the team must care as much about their neighbor’s work as they do their own.
  4. Team members that share a sense of purpose, vision, and passion for their work.
    If team members believe that they are contributing to something greater than their individual part, then they will care at a much greater level than their individual contribution.  Work to ensure that a team can share this vision and goals begin to shape themselves.  Better yet, teams begin to manage their own incremental improvement, otherwise know as the team holy grail.
  5. A company that cares as much (if not more) about their employees as they do about their customers.
    At the base of it all, we must feel appreciated at our place of work, or we may not be able to cobble together the above components.  Companies that treat their employees as commodities will likely only experience amazing, hyper-productive teams sporadically, rather than as a expected result of a team-based product development environment.

[Let me state clearly, this list could likely be much, much longer, so please feel free to add to it in the comments. Whole books can, and have, been written on the subject.]

A the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states “any system development activity inevitably changes the environment  out of which the need for the system arose” so true is it that any team activity will likely change the culture out of which it was born.  Corporate culture, although seemingly unchangeable when our teams operate seemingly at its mercy, is always in flux, as this cultural effect evolved not from proclaimed edict, but the work done by teams and the resulting response from the company in which they operate.  Changing this culture to enable and encourage hyper-productive teams is a joint effort from the great team that seeks to produce extraordinary results and the company that chooses to support the behavior that these teams exhibit.  Although it sounds like an easy choice for companies to make, you would be surprised just how often I encounter organizations that seem to want to thwart these great teams.

Have you had the pleasure of working on a team that was hyper-productive?  One that truly exemplified the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts?  What was the secret that you found to be the linchpin to success?  Did you notice that happy teams produce better results?  Did you notice that teams that have fun together are able to more easily maneuver around obstacles that might otherwise sink an average team?  I hope so, because it is these experiences that will continue to push me to better define what those magical, secret ingredients are for those teams that define what it truly means to get work done.  And as my friend Rod Behbood says, “Do Work Son.”

Happy Easter everyone!

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Why Is Change So Hard?

March 25th, 2010 1 comment

Over the past several years I have racked up more than just a few frequent flyer miles.  If my math is correct, I think it is the equivalent of flying from the earth to Mars and back 228 times.  Of course don’t trust my math, I made up that figure to represent not the true number of miles, but what it feels like sitting in these narrow seats week after week, and doing your best to think of new and interesting ways of passing the time without having to make small talk with the guy sitting just millimeters away (I find intently reading a book while holding a highlighter really does the trick, and I have a feeling that it is the power of the highlighter that says to would be conversationalist ‘hey, this guy is so serious about what he is reading, that he is planning on coming back to review it later.’)  It’s not that I don’t enjoy a nice conversation now and again, and I have had plenty while sitting on a plane, it is just that after a few days standing in front of a room of people who have come to one of my classes, I have lost much of the motivation it takes to want to sound interesting to a stranger, especially one that did not pay to hear me speak:)  And I should also point out that I write this while sitting in seat 10C on Delta flight 1131, and although I do have a neighbor in 10A, the one seat buffer seems to keep me from having to engage, thus allowing me to post this entry.

Now of course I didn’t pay for the inflight internet to complain about airplanes, the narrow seats, or the uncomfortable forced conversations that happen on them.  I am writing this because in the fast few weeks, I have had multiple experiences with several different teams all struggling with the same issue, how to transition to an Agile approach.  These were not new experiences for me, in fact I have heard these same songs being sung since I entered this training business and focused on Agile transitions.  The difference is my evolving understanding as to the cause of the difficulty and the nature of the pain these teams are experiencing.

CHANGE IS TOUGH!

I just wanted to get that out of the way in case any person or team was thinking that their transition was going to be easy.  And let me be clear, the change I am speaking of is not the ability to understand a new process or a new approach.  It is not whether a team is able to identify or understand the underlying reasons for the change or clearly defining the organization value stream associated with their development efforts.  These areas (and more) all represent something that can be taught, something that can be learned, they represent new knowledge and techniques for defining the unknown.  My classes cover these areas in depth.  So if not these areas, then what?  What is this difficult part of making a transition of this kind?

The culture. The undefinable piece of our organization that makes us unique, makes our cogs turns, allowing (forcing?) everyone to share the same values and expectations of action/processes/methodologies/etc.  It is what makes us ‘us’.

Here is what happens most often when a company realizes that they must update their approach for product development to one utilizing an Agile flavor (or any other change of this magnitude.)  The senior management identifies with the advantages that the change will offer, they read white papers on how other companies (including their competitors possibly) are utilizing the new approach to make advances in innovation, efficiencies, cost savings, etc.  They send their team to get the requisite training.  The team gets excited, returns to the company, and begins to operate in a way that they believe will make the improvements offered by the change.  But then something happens, things are not as easy as they had hoped.  The new approach seems to uncover problems they weren’t aware of previously, the new approach seems to cause problems, the new approach is actually slower than the old approach, the new approach seems like more work, the new approach may not be working at all.  The excitement, the momentum for change, the forward motion that the team experienced early on has now slowed, and there is growing sentiment to go back to what they previously were doing.  ”It may not be great, but it kinda worked and we knew how to do it” they might say.  And before the team knows it, the old process has returned, warts and all.

This scenario is a representation of a company culture that is oscillating between two structural tensions pulling in opposite directions.  The companies that follow the above example likely have a culture that favors predictability, stability, metrics, milestones, and plans, thus creating a tension in their organization that keeps them to a plan based approach for development.  In the above example, the change identified might have been introduced with the idea that innovation, responsiveness to change, competitiveness, and an amount of realistic uncertainty will move the company in a positive direction.  Unfortunately, this also creates a structural tension within the organization, but pulling in the opposite direction, thus resulting in structural oscillation.  The worst part of this story is that the company above will likely go through many cycles of the scenario, each subsequent scenario and its inevitable failure undermining the next attempt to change the company in a positive way.

Sound familiar?  It likely does, because it is a common thing to hear people in organizations like this say “oh, here we go again, the latest fad” when a new initiative is introduced.  And there is never a shortage of new initiatives, is there?

So what do we do?  How do organizations make lasting change?  It is possible, but rather than change to the superficial wrapper of what it is we are doing in a top down approach (thus opening the likelihood we will become nothing more than a Cargo Cult Agile team), we must address the structure that affects the overall direction of the company, the culture.

I will address this idea of culture as a primary component of our change efforts, but it will have to be in a future post, as I just got word from the captain, we are starting our descent.  Looks like I may have to have that conversation after all, my neighbor just asked me about my blog.

Until next time, let me know what you have done to affect a positive, lasting change in your company’s culture.  I would love to hear war stories, even disaster stories if you got em, I know I do.

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