Archives for the Month of December, 2008

Truly, Madly, Deeply

2008: A Personal Retrospective

Things I’m most grateful for:

  1. My first Agile deathmarch with a casualty of 1. Me. Lesson Learnt: Always agree on Acceptance Criteria before doing anything.
  2. Learning from a diverse bunch of people: my fellow Exxies (folks from Exoftware), my client teams and especially Agilistas such as TJ, Pascal Van Cauwenberghe, Vera Peeters, Duncan Pierce, David Peterson and Simon Baker. Lesson Re-learnt: You’re only as good as the people you work with.
  3. Doing 3/3: coaching, consulting and training. Lesson Learnt: Each type of activity acts as a check and balance to the other two. It’s a great way of getting a fresh perspective as well as maintaining objectivity on what you do, how you do it and, most importantly, why you do it.
  4. Meeting more Social Science Heroes: Seeing Malcolm Gladwell present at the London Business Forum, hearing James Surowiecki present as keynote speaker at Agile 2008, seeing Jerry Weinberg demonstrate his consulting toolkit at AYE. Lesson Learnt: Seeing the speakers in action is one way of verifying the authenticity of what they espouse. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
  5. Scoring 5/5: The chance to present The Bottleneck Game with Pascal at the same conference as Eli Goldratt and Neil Armstrong in Paris. Lesson Learnt: The biggest things that come true often start with the smallest wish.
  6. Hearing Isabel Allende talk about magic realism in person as though it were real. Lesson learnt: Turning what you love into your job won’t make it a chore if you genuinely love what you do.
  7. All of you for reading because it keeps me writing. A special ‘Thank You’ to Pascal, David and TJ for their candid feedback. Lesson Learnt: Things that have value must meet a need.

2009: My Wishes

  • I wish to learn more in 2009 than I did 2008.
  • I wish to meet Seth Godin, Tom De Marco and Dale Chihuly. I also wish to meet Eli Goldratt again.
  • I wish to present the Snow White and Seven Dwarves Agile Fairytale in French in Paris.
  • I wish to create a third Agile Fairytale.
  • I wish to try out Agile Fairytales beyond the IT industry.
  • I wish to learn more about Lean and use it more explicitly as part of my Agile Coach Toolkit.
  • I wish to collaborate with Agilistas such as Pascal and Vera to create A-W-E-S-O-M-E Agile games that help us all become a bit more agile every day.
  • I wish to create more Agile teams that endure long after the coach is gone.
  • I wish to receive requests from you, the Reader, on questions you want answers to and the reasons why you need an answer. Think Selfish Programming: The Radio Request Blog.
  • I wish you a Happy 2009 – may it bring you all that you deserve!

How agile are you really?

Begin as you intend to go on

As an Agile Coach, I always start with a Personal Agility Rating exercise whenever I work with a new Agile team. By ‘new Agile team’, I mean a team with whom I’m working for the first time, regardless of their Agile experience. I do this for two reasons: 1) to set precedence for the kind of Agile we’ll be adopting going forward; 2) to create a common understanding of what being agile really means.

The Personal Agility Rating Exercise (Duration: 10 – 15 minutes)

1. Pass around a deck 4″ x 5″ index cards and a pot of coloured felt tips and ask everyone to take one of each.

2. Ask them to write their full name in the top righthand corner on one side of the card.

3. Ask them to write ‘Agile Values’ as a heading on the card.

4. Tell them that there are 5 Agile Values, also known as the XP Values by Kent Beck and Cynthia Andres.

5. Name Communication as the first Agile Value and ask the crowd what it means to them. Write down the value on a flip chart so everyone can see.

6. Summarise the definition of the value in concrete terms and, where possible, reiterate using the descriptions provided by the team.

7. Ask each person to rate themselves for the given value between 0 – 5, where 5 is ‘I’m the world’s best [communicator]!’ and 0 is ‘Needs a lot more work!’.

8. Tell them that the Agile Ratings will remain confidential between each individual and you (the coach) and will be used as a topic for conversation during 1-2-1 Agile Coaching.

9. Repeat steps 5 – 8 for each of the other 4 remaining values (Simplicity, Feedback, Courage and Respect).

10. Collect the cards immediately after the exercise and continue with the rest of your team building/coaching activities.

The Kit – What you need

  • 4″ x 5″ index cards (you can use lined or plain – I prefer lined for writing)
  • Coloured felt tips (these help to create a less formal atmosphere for the exercise)


  • Wait for between 10 – 15 seconds for a response before volunteering your definition of each value to encourage team participation.
  • This exercise is best done following an ice breaker exercise (especially if the group is meeting for the first time) to put everyone at ease.
  • I like to tell a short story about each value to make it more memorable.
  • I like to add a small drawing next to each value after it’s been discussed to make its meaning more memorable.
  • Ratings should be given as whole numbers only. For instance, if someone is tempted to give themselves 3.5 for Simplicity, I recommend they round down to the nearest whole number because there’s always room for improvement. I then reiterate, however, that as it’s their rating for themselves, it’s ultimately their decision what number they write down.
  • The Agile Rating exercise is a great way of entering into a conversation about what being agile really means.

The Personal Agility Rating Exercise for Individuals

I use the the same exercise during my first 1-2-1 Agile Coaching sessions with newcomers to the team.

What do I do next as coach?

Immediate Followup

  • Email a picture of each Agile Rating card to the individual for their reference and include several links on recommended Agile resources.
  • Stick up the Agile Values poster in a prominent place in the team space to serve as a reminder of the activity and the importance of adhering to the values if we are to become an Agile team.
  • Take the poster along with you to subsequent or troublesome meetings as a portable information radiator of what Agile means. In my experience, you don’t have to talk about the poster at all, just having it present and visible is usually enough to encourage Agile behaviour.

Mid-term Followup

  • Discuss the Agile Ratings with each team member as part of their first 1-2-1 Agile coaching session.

Long-term Followup

  • Choose to exercise the option of asking the team member to do a re-assessment of their Agile Ratings (as required) halfway through the Agile Enablement during a 1-2-1 Agile coaching session.
  • Review the Agile Ratings with each team member as part of their last 1-2-1 coaching session with you.

Lessons Learnt about the Agile Values

You can never review the Agile Values too often – if you don’t know what they are, how do you know you’re being agile? Does everyone in your team know the Agile Values? And what about your coach?

Are you ready for Ultimate Agile?

Congratulations! THE BIG DAY you’ve been training for for the past 364 days will soon by upon us. It’s time to cash in on the benefit of the thousands of Agility exercises you’ve been putting into practice at work. Let’s hope all the agile flexing of both brain and brawn pays off. 

Ho! Ho! Ho! Contenders ready?

If you think Christmas Day is a day off, you’re wrong. The 25th of December is the single day of the year when most of us will be trying our hardest to be true to who we are and what we believe in. If that’s not hard work, I don’t know what is. Welcome to Ultimate Agile (also known as Christmas Day with all the family). Are you ready for Ultimate Agile?

Why not have black swan instead of turkey this year?

The problem with Christmas with the family is this: If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll only get what you’ve always got. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. The Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future comes in the form of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, who offers us a chance to understand how we can change our fate.

‘History is opaque,’ writes Taleb, ‘You see what comes out, not the script that produces the events, the generator of history.’ Taleb identifies three ailments of the human mind whenever it comes in contact with history. He calls them the Triplet of Opacity.

The Triplet of Opacity

The Illusion of Understanding, where everyone thinks they know everything there is to know about everything when in fact they don’t

The Retrospective Distortion, how we use hindsight to explain strange and mysterious things to make-believe that we are in control

The Overvaluation of Factual Information and the Handicap of Authoritative and Learned People, how we listen to and believe in those who appear to be experts but fail to give practical answers that work beyond textbooks

Wise is she who knows she does not know

In my experience, destructive human behaviour arises out of what Taleb calls ‘agressive ignorance’, or a fear of looking stupid that is greater than the fear of being wrong. For example, being asked something to which you don’t know the right answer is the event. Agressive ignorance is the emotional response. The script invisible to the naked eye reads:

  1. I know deep down that if I’m wrong, I may have to change.
  2. Change requires effort which I’m not sure I can be bothered to invest.
  3. The effort might go wasted if I fail.
  4. If I fail to change, that makes me a failure.

So what’s the antidote?

Whenever I’m in a spot of bother, I remind myself of the Agile Values: Communication, Simplicity, Feedback, Courage and Respect. When I feel comfortable living and breathing the first five in a given situation (Think: ‘Baby Steps’ or ‘Incremental development’), I throw in an extra two: Trust and Transparency.

For instance, before a discussion becomes a deafening shouting match, I ask myself: ‘How can I be a better communicator?’ to which my brain resourcefully volunteers a myriad of options such as ‘Listen more! Talk less. The two of you have reached an impasse, ask for help or clarification.’

The only thing most people seek at family gatherings is understanding. It’s the same at work. Why not treat your work self at home to a Christmas helping of black swan?

Merry Christmas one and all!

The Devil’s in the Detail

The first and most important thing I share with any team I work with are the Agile Values, also known the XP Values from Kent Beck and Cynthia Andres.

The Five Agile Values

1. Communication is a two way thing. It’s about talking and listening.

2. Simplicity is about simple solutions that do what’s required, no more, no less. Simplicity is synonymous with elegance.

3. Feedback has three axes: Giving feedback, receiving feedback and taking action as a result of the feedback.

4. Courage is about taking calculated risks. It’s about facing and voicing the brutal facts. It’s also about creating an environment where people can be courageous.

5. Respect is an appreciation that everyone can add value. It’s also about valuing diversity.

Agile Values++

During our peer coaching, Pascal and I identified two more vital values to add to the set:

6. Trust is about giving people a chance to do the right thing and to do things right.

7. Transparency means sharing information as much as possible to help create more Real Options for all parties involved.

What the Agile Values mean in practice

Newcomers to Agile often ask me: ‘How do you know if someone is really agile?‘ To which I reply, ‘They follow the Agile Values even at times of great stress.’ Those who compromise on the Values can never be truly agile, especially if they get stuck in Denial.

In my experience, Respect is the toughest and most important value because it forms the foundation for the rest. You have to respect others and yourself to really make the other values count.

The Telltale Heart

I regularly meet Agilistas who appear to respect others and themselves, yet they are incapable of accepting feedback and taking action. According to Marshall Goldsmith, the only correct response to any feedback is: ‘Thank You’. What do you say when someone gives you feedback?

An Inconvenient Truth

Half way through my Christmas shopping mission, I meet up for coffee with my friend TJ, even though he drinks neither tea nor coffee. I tell him about an article I’d just been reading about people’s fitness and gyms.

‘According to the highly experienced instructor in the article, most people put in around 7/10 amount of effort when they workout,’ I say, pleased to have committed to memory what I thought was a useful factoid.

There’s a split-second pause as the thinking cogs click into motion and then TJ says, ‘Most people work out at 3. Out of 15.’

Baffled, I’m silent for some time. Of course there’s no real way of knowing whether or not his statement is factually correct, but it resonates with me. It also casts a dark shadow over the past couple of weeks whenever I’d managed to shave a couple of seconds off my 5k PB.

‘You can run faster than that,’ TJ says.

‘How do you know?’ I huff, indignant of so bold a challenge.

‘Because I’ve seen you do it. Once.’

And I had. I’d just forgotten.

The Wall

As an Agile Coach, the greatest challenge for me on any Agile Enablement gig is The Wall. And I don’t mean the Project Wall (aka Kanban Board), the one with the iteration backlog on display for all to see, where stories and tasks take their turn journeying across the columns of TODO and In Progress before finally reaching DONE.

The Wall I speak of is a metaphorical one. Everyone has one. One person’s Wall may well be different from someone else’s. I can only share with you what mine looks and feels like. The most important thing is to be able to recognise yours when you come up against it. Recognising the Wall is one small, yet significant step towards winning the struggle against yourself.

I know I’ve reached the Wall when:

  • I’ve stopped listening.
  • I refuse to ask for feedback.
  • I refuse to ask for help.
  • I’ve stopped learning.
  • I think I’m right and everyone else is wrong.

The Wall at its most extreme means:

  • I’ve run out of answers.
  • I feel helpless.
  • I feel like running away and leaving it all behind.
  • I’ve lost hope.
  • I question everything I represent: from my areas of expertise and skills to my years of experience.

In summary, The Wall is when self doubt gnaws at your bones trying to get to the marrow. It’s when you refuse to face the brutal facts about yourself and start making up stories in the hope of magicking away The Wall through make-believe.

Agile and The Wall

Agile Enablement is tough because Agile demands continuous improvement. Continuous Improvement means being on the constant lookout for problems and facing the brutal truths when we find them so that we can deal with them through process and/or people improvement. It’s only natural that Continuous Improvement at an organisational level results in growing pains on a grand scale.

Rules about The Wall

  1. You have to confront The Wall.
  2. You have to develop an understanding of how The Wall has come to be in order to identify ways of getting over it.
  3. You have to climb over The Wall. You cannot just skirt or workaround it.

Dealing with The Wall as an Individual

Here’s what I do when I find myself or a team member facing The Wall:

  1. Take a break.
  2. Find a quiet place to sit and think.
  3. Find out how others are feeling about the situation in a 1-2-1.
  4. Ask for feedback.
  5. Perform a version of a temperature reading.
  6. Put checks in place and assess progress.
  7. Rinse and repeat.

Dealing with The Wall as a Team

  1. Take a break.
  2. Hold an impromptu team retrospective.
  3. Mine for key issues.
  4. Brainstorm possible causes for key issues.
  5. Brainstorm possible solutions for key issues.
  6. Commit to trying out 1 – 3 possible solutions as a team.
  7. Put checks in place and assess progress.
  8. Rinse and repeat.

Beware of Wallflowers

Be on the look out for perpetual laggards who choose to hang around The Wall. No one forces them to stay there, as they kick stones at the foot of the Wall, like aged teenagers smoking their cigarettes by the bike shed trying to look cool long after the bike shed is gone. Offer help by way of a 1-2-1 conversation to identify options that may help them go over The Wall.

The Secret to Scaling The Wall

  • Always apply the Agile Values: Communication, Simplicity, Feedback, Courage and Respect
  • Apply two additional Agile Values: Trust and Transparency
  • Practice Real Options thinking
  • Take responsibility for yourself
  • Find meaning in your work
  • Find ways you can add value
  • Strive to improve continuously
  • Strive to enjoy what you do – the amount of fun you have is in direct correlation with the chances of you being able to scale The Wall

There’s one more thing about The Wall you should know: there will be many incarnations of The Wall you’ll have to face. The trick is to focus of scaling the one that’s blocking your way right now. Another one will inevitably spring up elsewhere on your journey and that’s good news because we need The Wall to keep our brains agile and our bodies nimble. The Wall also keeps us honest about how agile we really are.

XPDay London 2008: A Retrospective

What Went Well

Team Compensation by Vera Peeters and Yves Hanoulle: I attended the rehearsal session by Vera and was ‘WOWed’ by the excellent use of Playmobil to illustrate the impact of a maladjusted reward system on team behaviour. This session is a definite MUST-SEE workshop if you get the chance!

Coaching Self Organisating Teams by Joseph Pelrine: Joseph compares team performance with making chicken soup. There are 5 possible states to the Heat Model: Burning (results in team burnout and death marching), Cooking (ideal temperature for continuous improvement), Stagnating (discipline is lost and bad behaviour begins to fester), Congealing (team gets too comfortable to achieve and bad habits become the norm) and Solidifying (control takes over and change is no longer possible).

The Real Options Space Game by Pascal Van Cauwenberghe and me: Pascal and I tried out version 2 of the Space Game board and materials with 18 intrepid adventurers. Thanks to the feedback from Vera during our rehearsal session, Pascal and I improved our pair presenting on the day. Find out how one participant, Al Priest, has been applying Real Options.

Open Spaces: Although I was unable to attend any, the feedback from other participants were positive on the whole. It’s always good to see active participation and exchange of ideas among practitioners! I look forward to participating in Open Spaces next year.

The Yellow Brick Road Revisited (aka The Road to Agile Adoption through Peer Coaching) by Duncan Pierce and me: This was a session Duncan and I presented last year at XP Day London. The intention was to create a ongoing network for Agile practitioners to help one another through adopting Agile. Thanks to Douglas Squirrel and Simon Woolf for their Lightning Talk on their peer coaching experience as a followup to the session!

Complaints with Recommendations

  • One of my main reasons for attending XP Day London this year was to hear David Stoughton give a talk on User Stories, Agile Analysis and Business Value. I know that many others wanted to attend his session too but missed out, so it would be great to schedule such sessions as a keynote for next year.
  • There were 4 scheduled sessions on the afternoon of Day 2 of the conference when there was only one scheduled session in the morning. It may be an idea to spread out the scheduled sessions more, especially when speakers were available to do so. This would give people Real Options.
  • In my experience, catering is one of the most important things to get right at any conference. Tasty meals and snacks would have made the conference more enjoyable.

Merry Geekmas!

‘Twas the night before Geekmas…

‘Happy Geekmas Eve!’ said Portia and Pascal.

‘What’s Geekmas Eve?’ I hear you gasp with anticipation.

Geekmas Eve marks the official day before the launch of the latest version of the Real Options Space Game. It’s an auspicious day when species gather from around the galaxy to marvel at the folly of humankind.

‘Can we trust those humanoids to preserve galactic peace?’, quibble the alien Council members in unison.

‘Fools!’ snigger the evil Montague clan from Beta-564, poised to swallow all that is of earthly beauty in one sloppy gulp.

Never fear, Real Options is here!

I hope you will join Pascal and me this Friday to play the best ever Real Options Space Game* this side of the galaxy at XPDay London. Be there, or risk becoming human snacks.

* No aliens were harmed in the making of the game.

Season’s Greetings

Ho! Ho! Ho!

(Over coffee during an Agile training course)

Student: You weren’t what we were expecting.
P.: What do you mean?
Student: We were expecting a male trainer.
P.: I see.
Student: Actually we were expecting a big man with a beard.
P.: You’re right. I’m no Santa Claus.

What you see isn’t always what you get

A recent conversation with a student reminded me of the importance of keeping an open mind. Most important of all, according to Marshall Goldsmith, we would do well to question the success we attribute to ourselves.

What got you here won’t get you there

In his book on professional development, ‘What What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’, Marshall asserts that most of us are successful not because of personal merit. Instead, Marshall says that most of us are successful in spite of who we are and the things we do.

Marshall identifies the top 20 offences many successful people are guilty of:

1. Winning too much

2. Adding too much value

3. Passing judgment

4. Making destructive comments

5. Starting with ‘No’, ‘But’, ‘However’

6. Telling the world how smart we are

7. Speaking when angry

8. Negativity, or ‘Let me explain why that won’t work’

9. Withholding information

10. Failing to give proper recognition

11. Claiming credit that we don’t deserve

12. Making excuses

13. Clinging to the past

14. Play favourites

15. Refusing to express regret

16. Not listening

17. Failing to express gratitude

18. Punishing the messenger

19. Passing the buck

20. An excessive need to be ‘me’

Do any of these sound familiar? I’m guilty of at least three. What struck me most about the list was that I recognised many of the attributes in the managers with whom I’d worked early on in my career. And yet they continued to be promoted.

In my experience, what Marshall identifies as limiting flaws continues to be rewarded by many organisations. Such organisations are usually highly hierarchical and rigid. Such places are usually mired in all kinds of waste: wasteful management, wasteful individuals, wasted potential. And all because an organisation rewards individual achievement over collaboration, trust and transparency.

Agile Adoption with Change to spare

Agile Adoption requires organisational change. Organisational change requires each of us to make a change for the better, however small, however seemingly insignificant at first glance. Organisational change takes time. And an incredible amount of effort. Personal effort. Some would call it an investment.

People are Magic

Change Happens

P.: I hear you’re an Agile Coach.
Agilista: You are correct.
P.: What do you do as a coach?
Agilista: I change people.
P.: In my experience, you can only change yourself.
Agilista: I change people. Like psychologists do.
P.: My mistake. I thought you said you were an Agile Coach.

With great power comes great responsibility

Agile Coaching is a people business. I’m an Agile Coach because I’m interested in people. Why? Because working with others helps me better understand myself and the world around me. Learning doesn’t just help me deliver business value. Learning helps me create things of worth. I’m an Agile Coach but that doesn’t make me a psychologist.

An effective Agile Coach inspires those around them to change for the better. They lead by example. They constantly strive to improve by seeking feedback and taking action arising from the feedback. They show that change happens by changing themselves.

An effective Agile Coach learns by making mistakes. They take calculated risks by trying out new or different ways of doing things. This means sometimes things might go wrong. Making mistakes is essential in the cycle of learning. You have to do something different to change the status quo. Doing the same thing you’ve always done and expecting a different result is like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

An effective Agile Coach is trustworthy. They act as the guide for a team on their journey towards becoming more agile. ‘Integrity is the opposite of manipulation,’ Pollyanna Pixton once said during a JAOO session on leadership. I take this to mean you can help people change by providing and exploring real options, but the choice remains theirs. Believing you have the power to change others sounds a lot like meddling to me. So long as people have the choice to change, you cannot ‘change people’.

Making a living out of learning

Human beings can’t help but learn. As Jim Collins (of From Good to Great fame) says, there’s no OFF switch to people learning. We’re learning all the time, whether we want to or not. Start by taking responsibility for yourself instead of trying to change others to suit you.