Archives for the Month of August, 2008

My Mate Marmite

If Agile were a food (instead of a project delivery methodology focussed on people and collaboration), it would be Marmite.

Marmite is a savoury black spread made out of yeast extract. Yes, that’s right: extract of yeast. To some it’s taste-bud tingling good while to others it’s more revolting than three-day old roadkill on a hot summer’s day.

A Love-Hate Phenomenon

It’s estimated that around 50% of the entire UK population love it while the other half hate it. Marmite reminds me of Agile precisely because of this polarised reaction to something as simple as extract of yeast. Marmite reminds me of the extreme reactions I get from folks new to Agile who find themselves challenged by the fundamental values of Communication, Simplicity, Feedback, Courage and Respect and what these values really mean in practice.

Processes Don’t Fail

Some individuals say, ‘Agile’s not for me!’ while others say, ‘Agile doesn’t work!’ Then there are those who declare, ‘I can deliver much more on my own!’ To which I would reply:

  1. Agile is for the team, not just the individual.
  2. Processes don’t fail, people do.
  3. If what you do depends on work others have to do before it can be released to Live in order for its value to be realised, how can you measure success solely based on your own endeavour?

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Agile is much more than just a way of working. It’s about taking responsibility for who you are and what you do, both as an individual and as part of a team. Agile is about putting your team before your ego so that you and your team can move forward together. What value do you place on teamwork? How agile are you really?

Heartbreak Hotel – The Best Way to Deal with Rejection*

Rejection’s tough to take. More often than not, it’s painful, humiliating and disappointing. Sometimes even devastating. It can get really ugly, not just for you, but for all parties involved.

Now we’re all agreed on what rejection feels like, here’s how to best deal with it: Avoid rejection by improving your interviewing technique.

Rejection Can Be Avoidable

In the world of consultancy, failing to get a contract is a form of rejection. Likewise spending five years on a supa-dupa high profile project only to have it rejected two weeks before it goes live because we got the requirements wrong also merits an R for REJECT.

Just as you would spend some time preparing for a romantic night out with a significant other, be sure to gather the information you need to bring about a happy ending to your business engagements.

How the Nine Boxes Technique Can Help

The Nine Boxes is an interviewing technique from the Solution Selling® sales process.

It’s a structured approach for:

  1. Discovering the root causes of problems
  2. Identifying those affected by the problems
  3. Creating an agreed common vision of the solution between you and your customer.

Bonus: The information gathered feeds into user stories as demonstrated by Dave Nicolette.

During the information interview, we gather information about 3 aspects of the problems:

  • Details of the problems
  • Those impacted by the problems
  • What the world will be like when the solution is in place (outcome visioning)

For each aspect, we ask 3 types of questions (3×3=9):

Type 1: Open questions allow the interviewee to tell their story (aka Qualification):

  • ‘Tell me about…’
  • ‘What happens after that?’
  • ‘Why is that?’

Type 2: Control questions help fill in the facts of the story (aka Quantification):

  • ‘How much…?’
  • ‘How many…?’
  • ‘How often…?’
  • ‘When does that happen…?’

Type 3: Confirm questions verify the interviewer’s understanding of what the interviewee has said (aka Confirmation):

  • ‘If I’ve understood correctly… Is that correct?’
  • Only when the interviewee replies ‘Yes’ does the interviewer proceed by posing questions about the next aspect of the problem.

‘Sounds complicated – what do others think?’

I’ve co-presented The Nine Boxes session with Pascal at a number of conferences and participants come out amazed at how quickly and accurately the structured approach helps them elicit the root causes of problems. Most important of all, those who play the role of interviewee (the customer) always say what a refreshing change it is to talk to an interviewer who is a good listener and is capable of developing an accurate understanding of the problems.

The Nine Boxes Technique game was created by Pascal and can be downloaded from our Agile Coach site.

What You See Isn’t What You Get

‘But what if clarifying the problem leads us to discover it isn’t a problem after all?’ I hear the consultants among you ask, throwing your hands up in horror. ‘That’s great news – congratulations!’ I say. After all, it’s one of the best possible outcomes of using the Nine Boxes. Why? Because a customer who is genuinely committed to continuous improvement for their organisation would:

  1. Be impressed by your problem finding acumen and thank you heartily for helping to clarify the misunderstanding that has caused so much confusion and resulted in so much time wasted to date.
  2. Be impressed by your professional integrity for being open and honest instead of charging them for inventing a solution to a non-existent problem.
  3. Ask you to help identify areas where improvements can be made.

More Than Words

Build integrity into everything you do. Take the 5 Agile Values to the next level: build Trust and increase Transparency.

* Special thanks to Gino and Pascal for taking this entry’s feature picture

Ask for Help

Fear of the Unknown

One interesting similarity between being a coach on an Agile Enablement gig and presenting at a conference is this: dealing with an audience who secretly fears the Unknown.

In my experience, there are 3 main groups:

a) Those who ask for help
b) Some too afraid to ask for help
c) Others who think they know it all

Which group do you most identify with? For most people, in an ideal world, change would happen with minimal pain and even less hard work. In fact, many people don’t feel they need to change: ‘Help? Why would I need help? Of course I support Continuous Improvement! Change is for other people though. I don’t need to change.’

These folks make-believe that others need to change, but not them. These folks are usually the ones most resistant to change and this resistance manifests itself, at best, as self-deprecating humour or cynicism and, at worst, as silent sabotage.

The major casualties of such silent sabotages are the individuals themselves. I know this because whenever I resist change I miss out on learning new things and re-learning lessons I’ve forgotten. I end up losing out. I become the largest impediment I have to deal with. But I have a choice. I have the power to remove this seemingly insurmountable impediment by confronting it face-to-face.

Should I stay or should I go?

Occasionally a coachee asks me outright if they’re cut out for Agile projects. They’ve usually taken a bold leap of faith by daring to try to do something different while their colleagues and mates at work look on in wonderment / disbelief / morbid fascination*.

It’s a tough question to answer. As a coach, I’ve learnt the importance of providing feedback that helps people improve instead of criticising or passing judgment. After all, who am I to cast the first stone if I’m not prepared to offer suggestions when asked to help others change for the better? I’ve also learnt that anything that doesn’t increase value leads to more waste. A waste of breath, a waste of time, a waste of human life.

What is potential?

Agile has taught me that everyone has value. Before Agile, I remained sceptical of such a notion. Before Agile, the notion that everyone has value was merely a hollow incantation that, as a manager, I recited and barely believed.

As an Agile Coach I’ve learnt to spot potential. First I had to define potential. Potential for me means a willingness to learn which really means a willingness to change. Most important of all, potential is the willingness to change oneself instead of expecting others to change. After all, we can only change ourselves and lead by example.

Survival of the Fittest

I often hear folks say, ‘This organisation will never be agile’ or ‘Agile only works on certain types of projects – it won’t work on mine’. The reality is this: processes don’t fail, people do. If a process doesn’t work, people can change it. Believing change for the better is impossible is like clinging onto the belief that the world is flat. For as long as a team or organisation can improve, Agile can help you deliver value. So the question we all have to ask ourselves is: what’s my time worth to me? Don’t let it be a waste of breath, a waste of time, a waste of human life.

* Delete as appropriate

Happily Ever After?

SimBlogging: Agile 2008 Toronto Visit

SimBlogging‘ offers a his and-hers-viewpoint as Pascal and Portia timebox-blog simultaneously

Rough Guide to Toronto

  • Darwin at the Royal Ontario Museum – the story of Darwin as a curious young man seeking to better understand the world around him which has helped us to better understand ourselves
  • Casa Loma - a dream come true for one man whose wife was the Head of the Girl Scouts
  • Niagara on the Lake – where shops like Just Christmas are frequented by locals and tourists every day of the year
  • Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls – THE best wet ride I’ve been on in one of Nature’s most beautiful amusement parks

Agile 2008

  • Bimbo Slides‘ – for describing presentations that look good but have a conflicting message when the volume’s turned up
  • Lego Moment‘ – describes a moment in time when you realise a missing piece in your experience you never knew you lacked or needed to complete a task at hand

Chilling Out and Staying Cool

  • Chez Gino’s – an impromptu home-cooked lunch in the red light district served by a charming Belgian Agile coach in Toronto
  • Potted Canadian history in 30 minutes – a compelling account of 400 years of Canadian history in 30 minutes on indigenous people from Allison over a tasty sushi lunch
  • Pairing on Mission Dress Smart – where two Agile coaches practice giving feedback to one another on the most subjective and volatile of topics
  • Dinner with Ben – meeting Christophe Thibault’s other half (binôme) at a restaurant called the Queen Mother’s

Looking into the Mirror

  • Strangers to ourselves – where we ask: Mirror, Mirror on the wall – if I can only change myself and everyone has value, how can I become better?
  • Playing with strangers – Playing Snow White and the Seven Dwarves game as a fun networking exercise where everyone gets to take a good look at themselves in the mirror
  • Learning about business value – Learning to see where the value is and prioritising the backlog using various strategies by playing The Business Value Game

Les Neuf Cases aka The Nine Boxes

  • Running a session in French and EnglishLes Neuf Cases (The Nine Boxes) helped bring together participants with a common interest in learning how to get the questions right in order to ask the right questions
  • Bilingual session preparation – in which Pascal and Portia have fun preparing for a dramatisation of what happens when folks discover the customer’s need by asking the right questions

Value-Driven Presenters

  • Ice cream and tasty cupcakes – meeting people who are passionate about learning new things and know that the best way to learn is through fun and games
  • Show me the money – helping out at the sneak preview of the Business Value game created by Pascal and Vera, the pair who brought you the ubiquitous XP Game
  • Doing not just talking – the best sessions at the conference were those offering practical techniques such as Mike Cohn’s ‘Prioritising the Product Backlog’ and Christian and Christoph’s ‘Conflict Resolution Diagram’ from the Theory of Constraints Thinking Tools
  • Mini celebrations – whenever participants found our sessions useful and relevant so that everyone can become a little more agile every day

Fairytale and Fantasy

Agile 2008 – Day 1

Pascal and I pair-present a session on improving personal effectiveness called Mirror, Mirror on the Wall… Why Me?The session begins with an Agile re-telling of the fairytale favourite Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Think storytime à la Tarantino for adults. We got a round of applause for the storytelling and many participants left the session with new insights about themselves.

Dramatis Personae

  • Snow White – team player, works hard, naive
  • Evil Queen – gets things done, power-hungry, manipulative
  • Hunter – disciplined, practical, mercenary
  • Doc – knowledgeable, solution-focussed, arrogant
  • Bashful – sensitive to others’ needs, quiet, dislikes conflict
  • Sleepy – entertaining, easily distracted, difficult to motivate
  • Sneezy – friendly, creatively efficient, allergic to work
  • Happy – positive, motivated, can ignore problems
  • Dopey – enthusiastic, lacks discipline, lacks attention to detail
  • Grumpy – analytical, critical, poor communicator

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves Game – Part 1

Now we begin our journey of self-discovery through a cycle of personal judgment, reflection, introspection and action. Let’s take Snow White as an example.

  1. Personal judgment: Does Snow White remind you on anyone? Give examples of why you think they remind you of Snow White.
  2. Reflection and introspection – ‘Looking into the Mirror’: Why do you think what you think about that person? What does what you think about them say about you?
  3. Action: What are some actions you can take to improve your understanding of that person? What’s the smallest thing you can do to improve your relationship with them? Pick one action and do it.

Agile Coach’s #1 Secret to Great Teamwork

We cannot change others. We can only change ourselves.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves Game – Part 2

We assemble a fairytale project team. Everyone dreads drawing the Evil Queen card because although the Evil Queen gets things done, she’s also power hungry and manipulative. As in real life, we have to find ways to best leverage the skills, experience and interests of every member of our team. Agile is about facing challenges head on and fostering human potential.

Agile Coach’s #2 Secret to Great Teamwork

Everyone has value.

Go, Go, Gameplay

You can play the game for free. All Agile Fairytale materials will be available online soon under the Creative Commons licence. Why not define your own happy ending today?

Good Morning Toronto


The most striking thing about Toronto is its people. It’s a place where diversity is reflected in every face in the crowd, from groups of friends to couples and families. Walking along Queen St on a Saturday afternoon gives me hope. Here is a community that realises the sociological, cultural and cognitive evolution that Gene Rodenberry envisioned.

The Bizarre and the Marketplace

With over 1500 attendees, Agile 2008 is the largest collective of Agilistas I’ve ever seen under one roof. In typical Torontonian fashion, its diversity is represented by more than 400 sessions across 19 tracks in just 4 days. The variety of sessions makes for interesting reading, but I find myself constantly wondering what I’m missing out on. Sometimes too many options is a bad thing when their cost outweigh their value.

Group Smarts

The key attraction for me was James Surowiecki author of The Wisdom of Crowds. James asserts that ‘groups of people can be remarkably intelligent’. He believes that crowd intelligence improves the closer they are to the ground.

According to James, hierarchies are a problem because they create incentives for people to conceal information, to do what their bosses want, to game the system. The result: a flawed information system.

Dream Team

James reiterates that the secret to teamwork is collaboration. First we assemble a team of appropriate people, then we create the right conditions.

Quality collective work requires three ingredients:

  • Aggregation – so that deliverables reflect group judgment to smooth the fluctuations in information quality
  • Diversity – cognitive diversity is what makes a group smarter – sociological diversity isn’t enough
  • Individuality – because people facing the same direction don’t realise when they make the same mistakes

I dare you defy mediocrity. Trust in the group smarts of your team.

The Best of British


I’m in Toronto for Agile 2008 with Pascal Van Cauwenberghe to present two sessions: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall… Why Me? and Les Neuf Cases (known as ‘The Nine Boxes‘). Being away from home is great because it gives me time and distance to reflect on my Agile Enablement gigs both past and present.

Nothing is Impossible

Imagine. You’re a new recruit for the first Agile team in your global organisation. It’s Day 6 of your first ever iteration. The team has been working late for the past couple of evenings. The team believes things can change. The team’s doing their best to deliver.

Team in Action

(The open plan office is empty but for the one team still busy at work.)

Coach: A core Agile principle is sustainable pace.
Team: (Silence)
Coach: Deathmarching isn’t agile.
Developer: (Silence. Then) Everyone outside the team is watching. (Long pause) They want us to fail.
Team: (Stoic silence)

One Ring to Rule Them All

The next day, I speak to the project manager on the team and raise the issue of the pressure the team feels they’re under. ‘There are others in the organisation who want us to fail,’ I say. He remains silent but for a moment then replies with a bold smile, ‘That’s because they’re afraid of what will happen when we succeed.’ We both knew then that success was by no means certain. What we were certain of, however, was that the team would try their hardest to make it a success.

That was a defining moment for everyone on the team. Their stoicism was something so much stronger than an individual’s desire to prove others wrong. This was camaraderie in action, each member united with one another by the weightiest of burdens they were helping to carry. Hope. The hope that things can change for the better.

Hate Something, Change Something, Make Something Better

Over the next few days after my conversation with the team on that fateful summer evening, the team started leaving work on time. They understood that working late was merely hiding problems due to the way teams have always worked in their organisation. They knew that becoming agile meant maintaining a sustainable pace and addressing difficult problems head on instead of working longer hours.

Never Say Never

Fast foward to the end of the three-iteration-long release. The technical lead who reviewed the code delivered described the quality as ‘some of the highest quality code’ he’d ever seen. After four weeks in end-to-end testing, only one defect was found.

It’s a humbling experience to work alongside folks determined to learn and change in spite of being surrounded by a sea of cynicism and resistance. That’s what makes my heart sing as an Agile coach. Do something that makes your heart sing. Today.