Archives for the ‘Communication’ Category

Real Options: A Strategy for Making the Most of Agile 2009

So much choice, so little time

Apprentice: The problem with Agile 2009 is that there’s too much choice!
Agile Coach: Is it possible to have too much choice?
Apprentice: Sure it is! I don’t have the time or the energy to read through all the session descriptions before the conference starts!
Agile Coach: It’s always better to have too many options than too few.

Can too much choice be a bad thing?

The wide choice of parallel sessions and topics can be a major headache for many attending Agile 2009 next week. When asked, ‘Can too much choice be a bad thing?’, I find myself instinctively thinking ‘Yes!’ at the sight of the hefty programme, yet I know there’s a better answer because of the numerous high value sessions in the programme.

The real problem is the amount of session information participants have to process in time to make choice after choice to make the most of their time at the conference. One approach is to use Real Options, an optimal decision process that lets us postpone important decisions until the last responsible moment so that we can gather more information before we need to decide. The result: the best possible decision based on all the information we have at the time.

What’s a Real Option?

A Real Option has:

  • A value – if not, why would we consider it?
  • An expiry condition – a deadline or condition by which we have to choose
  • A cost: Buying cost + Exercising cost – the Buying cost gives us the right (not the obligation to implement a decision in the future for a known cost); the Exercising cost is the agreed price to implement the decision.

Real Options: The Optimal Decision Process

The Optimal Decision Process helps us structure our thinking in 7 steps (especially when we’re under pressure):

Step 0: Identify your goal(s)
Step 1: Identify your options
Step 2: Calculate the first decision point: Decision Point = Deadline – Implementation Time
Step 3: Decide which option to take under which circumstances
Step 4: Seek out information and more Real Options
Step 5: Reduce Implementation Time to push back Decision Point
Step 6: Wait… wait… Until the first/next decision point
Step 7: Make the decision with confidence.

Real Options applied

Let’s see how Real Options works when it comes to planning your investment of time at Agile 2009.

Step 0: Identify your goal(s)
Let’s assume your goal is to learn as many useful things you can use at work as possible. Ideally you’ll have acceptance criteria so you know when you’ve reached your goal. Refer back to your goal often throughout the conference so that you can refine your strategy to get the most out of the conference to satisfy your acceptance criteria.

Step 1: Identify your options
Each timeslot (eg 14.00 – 15.30) contains a set of sessions you can attend. Each of those sessions is an option. Only those that you consider valuable are Real Options. Let’s assume you create a shortlist of sessions you think will be useful to attend per timeslot. These are your Real Options per timeslot. Other Real Options might include having meaningful discussions while chilling out at the bar instead of following the programme.

Step 2: Calculate the first decision point: Decision Point = Deadline – Implementation Time
Now let’s take a timeslot with the Real Options you’ve identified. You work out that it’ll take you 10 minutes to get to any session at the conference venue. This is the implementation time. Note that the implementation time for all the options are therefore the same: 10 minutes. Next, we calculate the deadline for the options. The deadline for each option is, in fact, when the session ends so if you want to get there for the summary in the last 10 minutes, for a session that ends at 15.30, then 15.20 – 00.10 = 15.10 (although it’s worth bearing mind the value of an option, in general, decreases the later it is that you join the session). For those of you who like to participate from start to finish, it may be more useful to consider the deadline as the time the session starts (ie 14.00), in which case the decision point is 14.00 – 00.10 = 13.50.

Step 3: Decide which option to take under which circumstances
You’ve come up with a shortlist of sessions you’re interested in for a particular timeslot, but you still haven’t decided which one to go to. As a preliminary step, I typically prioritise the sessions from most likely to be useful to least likely to be useful to me. My deciding circumstances might include: 1) If I discover evidence that a speaker is a good speaker/facilitator, then I’ll prioritise their session over the others; 2) Depending on my energy levels nearer the time of the timeslot (it’s important to maintain a sustainable pace at a 5 day conference!), I might prefer a presentation over an interactive workshop.

Step 4: Seek out information and more Real Options
A key activity of Real Option is information gathering. By gathering as much information as possible up to the decision point, you’ll be able to make better informed decisions. Find ways of hearing the presenter speak prior to their session so you can decide if their communication style suits your learning style. Speak to other conference guests and speakers to find out their views on your first and second choices. That way, you can validate your most valuable choices by leveraging the wisdom of crowds. You’d be amazed how far and wide the reputation of a good presenter and/or presentation travels even at a conference of more than a thousand people.

Step 5: Reduce Implementation Time to push back Decision Point
One way of reducing the time it takes you to come up with a shortlist is to divide and conquer the data processing effort. By this I mean, mingle with other conference guests as early and as often as possible (remembering sustainable pace of course!). Look around for folks in similar roles with similar interests to yourself and find out which sessions they think have the most potential. Ask 10 random people which session they plan to go to next and you’re bound to find some opinions that re-affirm or negate your choice or even ideas for more options. This approach means you also get to meet 10 new people out of whom at least one is likely to enrich your conference experience.

Step 6: Wait… wait… Until the first decision point
Remember, you only have to make your session choice 10 minutes before the session starts or 20 minutes before the session ends. With the bar-discussion option, you only have to decide before the bar closes.

Step 7: Make the decision with confidence
Imagine it’s now 08.50 on Monday morning and you’ve got as much information as you could gather in the time given with the effort you care to invest. You exercise your first choice option with confidence because you know it’s the best choice based on what you know and if it goes wrong, you’ve got other real options to exercise.

Read more about Real Options here. Remember ‘Sustainable Pace’ and have fun!

Games Galore at Agile 2009!

Well-known for our penchant for fun and games, Pascal and I will making an appearance at Agile 2009 to play two of the most popular games in our ensemble: ‘The Bottleneck Game’ and ‘The Business Value Game’.

Learning about the Theory of Constraints with The Bottleneck Game

Pascal and I kick off next Wednesday with The Bottleneck Game to demonstrate the five focusing steps from the Theory of Constraints and how it correlates with Agile, Lean and Real Options.

It’s a favourite among our set of learning games which demonstrates, time after time, the relevance of the Theory of Constraints not just to projects or our work, but the way we see the world around us. After playing the game with us, you’ll acquire the necessary techniques and hands-on application to share with colleagues and friends.

Join us to learn:

  • About Agile, Lean and Real Options techniques
  • How to understand processes, a crucial step in business analysis
  • How to use the Theory of Constraints, the Five Focusing Steps and Throughput Accounting to improve processes
  • How to explain all of the above to your teams and customers
  • How to create a shared “big picture” vision of a value stream for people and teams who work in functional silos
  • How to get teams to collaborate to reach a common goal.

Arrive early to the session because there’ll only be enough room for 60 game enthusiasts!

Surely it doesn’t get much more exciting than this… or does it?

‘Show me the money!’ with The Business Value Game

… Yes it does! Pascal and I trialled The Business Value Game for the first time in public at Agile 2008 in Toronto. We’re back this year and in Chicago with a bigger and better version based on the valuable feedback we’ve had from playing with our numerous client teams, conference goers and fellow Agilistas around the world.

Join us next Wednesday afternoon and:

  • Experience the issues facing the Customer/Product Owner
  • Experience the link between program, project and story prioritisation
  • Discover the right level at which to estimate Business Value
  • Learn “good enough” business value estimation techniques to start delivering higher value today.

We’ll be running a total of 6 parallel teams for 50 people. Come early to get a seat at the table!

Request for Help!

We’re looking for a helper to help co-facilitate The Business Value Game. The only pre-requisites are 1) You’ve played the game before and you understand how it works; 2) You want to play it again in the large with 60 people! Contact us if you’re available and interested to help out.

The Team Manifesto – Part 2

Leverage the Wisdom of Your Team (Duration: 15 – 30 minutes)

Now we have our team values and the team’s definition of Quality, we’re ready to create our team manifesto out of two A0 posters. A team manifesto should be created by the team for the team.

  1. Ask the team to divide up into two groups, one to produce the Team Values poster and the other for the Quality definition poster.
  2. Give each group 10 minutes to produce their poster. Tip: Ensure the posters retain the order of the original lists of team values and Quality.
  3. Ask the team to post up their poster side by side in the teamspace. Tip: Find a place that is visible from everyone’s desk and, ideally, to passers-by. This serves as a reminder and declaration of the importance of the manifesto to the team.
  4. Invite everyone to affirm their commitment to the manifesto by signing below each of the posters. Tip: If certain members are reluctant to sign the posters, find out why. It may be that the team needs to revisit certain points on the posters until they come to a consensus. We suggest adjusting your facilitation style to increase the involvement of those people during the subsequent discussion.

Why the manifesto works

  • It harnesses the collective wisdom of the team. Collective wisdom is an increasingly well-recognised approach for helping disparate groups to find solutions, gain buy-in, resolve conflict and increase respect for one another through shared knowledge.
  • It’s self-enforcing. Refer back to manifesto the regularly. Since the team came up with it, individuals are more likely to behave responsibly and encourage others to do the same.

We strongly recommend asking everyone to affirm their commitment by signing the manifesto.

Sixty minutes later and we’ve created our very own team manifesto. Smiles everywhere.
The team stands back and gazes in silence at what we’ve achieved.

The Team Manifesto – Part 1

TO create a team that delivers value now and in the future
AS A group of individuals
WE NEED to create an agreed way of working.

Immediately after the Profile Card Exercise, we create the team’s manifesto.

The Definition of Team (Duration: 15 – 25 minutes)

We begin by asking the group: “What does ‘Team’ mean to you?” We use the Clustering Exercise to ensure we collect everybody’s ideas.

The Clustering Exercise

  1. Brainstorm ideas: Pose a question to the crowd. Ask everyone to write down their answers in silence, describing each idea or thought in no more than a few words on individual Post-its. Set aside 3- 5 minutes for this.
  2. Share ideas: Ask each member to go through their entire stack by reading out a Post-it then posting it up one at a time. Ensure everyone can see the information being posted up.
  3. Cluster ideas: Ask everyone to group the Post-its by theme. The clustering must be done in silence so that individuals cannot verbally influence one another’s way of grouping.
  4. Identify themes: Select a cluster then read out the individual Post-its one by one. Ask the group to give the cluster a theme. Write down the theme on a Post-it and place it at the centre of the cluster. Repeat this step with each process.
  5. Vote for themes: Count up the total number of themes then divide it by 3. The product is the number of votes given to each member. Ask each member to vote for their preferred themes. If someone feels particularly strongly for a theme, they can allocate all their votes to a single theme.
  6. Spot the top themes: Count up the total number of votes per theme. Note down the number of votes on the associated theme Post-it.
  7. Select the top themes: Write out the question you posed to the group as a heading on an A0 piece of paper. Identify and agree with the group up to top 5 themes to form the group’s collective answers to the question. Write down the themes as a numbered list below the question heading.

Once we’ve defined the team values, we take a break. After the break, we move on to the second exercise to build up our team manifesto.

The Definition of Quality (Duration: 15 – 20 minutes)

Quality is an integral part of everything we do. We’ll have many conversations with the team throughout the project about Quality, so it’s important to define upfront what Quality means to us.

Next, we ask the team “What does Quality means to you?” using the Clustering Exercise. Again, we begin by finding out what Quality means to each individual and then come to a common understanding of what it means to the team.

Why define Quality?

  • To come to a common understanding of Quality.
  • To find out how important Quality is for the team.
  • To tap into the team’s sense of professional pride.
  • It helps team members to stick up for what they believe in, because they’re supported by the team.
  • It’s self-enforcing. Since the team came up with it, individuals are more likely to behave responsibly and encourage others to do the same.

Why is the Clustering exercise useful?

  • It allows introvert thinkers to share their thoughts and ideas without being dominated or distracted by the extrovert thinkers in the group.
  • It shows the coach how individual members behave in a group.
  • It develops a sense of solidarity as a group works together to come up with a collective answer.

Now we have the information for creating two posters that make up the Team Manifesto. Here’s what we do next.

The Secret to Change

Question and Answer

(At a conference in Paris back in 2008)

G.: You understand that Agile is about people and change.
P.: Go on.
G.: There’s a film called ‘Clean‘ in which a character played by Nick Nolte says, “People change. When they don’t have a choice, they do change.” What do you think of that?

In my experience, there are two reasons why people change. One, because they want to. Two, because they have to. Think about the two kinds of reasons as an equation of sorts. Let’s imagine the Individual as the subject of change and Change as a force operating on the subject.

Type One Change: Because I want to

When you want to change, and I mean really want to change, you are committed to making it happen. That commitment is characterised by determination and perseverance.

You know there’ll be blood, sweat and tears, but it’ll be worth it. You are 100% aware of the benefits the change brings and then some. You actively look for ways to inject an element of fun into everything you do. You do this because you know having fun makes you want to do something more and doing something more makes you better and better at what you do which, in turn, accelerates the change process, taking you closer to your goal sooner.

And whenever the going gets tough, you don’t give up. Instead, you summon up the vision of what life would be like after the change and you double up your effort. You run at a steady pace. You feel empowered to determine your destiny. Change feels good.

Type Two Change: Because I have to

You are uncertain about the change happening around you. You’ve probably glimpsed your Wall and are dragging your feet. You wake up in the morning feeling glum about your work and life in general. And you’ve every right to feel the way you do. You find yourself always playing catchup and all you can think about is what happens when you get left behind. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Type Two Change is always the more stressful of the two precisely because it feeds on negative thinking.

Change your tune to make change happen

Here’s what I do when I find myself stuck in the Type Two Change frame of mind:

  • Hang out with folks who are into Type One Change: Quiz them about your concerns. Don’t worry about dampening their spirits, they’re committed to change and will appreciate your thoughts on how the change is going. Find out what keeps them going.
  • Listen with an open mind: Quieten down the little voice in your head that begins every sentence with “Yes but, No but”. Challenge everything you think. Take notes so that you can replay conversations and meetings. Take time to reflect and absorb your conversations and experiences.
  • Work at a sustainable pace: Going through the toughest change for me is like training for a half-marathon, it’s likely to be something entirely different for you. Find the hardest thing you can imagine doing and use that for comparison whenever the going gets tough to help put things into perspective. Remember to keep moving as well as take regular breaks. The best time to take a break is just before you need it. Avoid running on empty.

Committing to Change

It’s always better to lead yourself from the front rather than from behind. No one can make you change. Only you can change yourself. Once you think: ‘I do!’ you do.

Dead End or Opportunity?

Sticks and Stones

(During a peer coaching session)

P.: I would like some feedback. Do I come across as patronising?
Agile Coach: Not at all. Why’s that?
P.: Occasionally, certain individuals say they find my sessions patronising.
C.: (Pause) I don’t think it’s got anything to do with you.
P.: But there’s clearly an issue. I ask them for suggestions, but we seem to always be short of ideas.
C.: It’s up to me to decide whether or not you come across as patronising.
P.: (Silence)
C.: Another example is when people feel insulted. I can’t remember the last time I felt insulted. I always assume that people are trying to help me. If they give me information I already know, they’re just being helpful. People decide for themselves how and what they think.
P.: Thanks for your feedback.

Walking the Walk

For me, calling myself an Agile Coach is like painting a target on my back. It forces me to be better than I was yesterday, every day. And that can be exhausting. I push the question about patronising sessions onto the stack of Puzzles I carry around in my head for safekeeping.

I know that I’ll probably have to walk around for days, carrying the question in my head, in the hope of finding ways to improve the way I come across during sessions. I’m confident an answer will manifest itself so long as I’m open to changing myself for the better.

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.

I’m not a Bottleneck, I’m a Free Man!

Playing to learn about the Theory of Constraints

It’s 5 pm on a Thursday night and everything’s already pitch dark outside. We need at least 7 players to play the Bottleneck Game created by Pascal Van Cauwenberghe but we only have 6 eager participants. Being an Agile Coach has taught me to be resourceful (think Macgyver), so I roam the corridors for a couple more minutes in the hope of netting a few Agile enthusiasts keen to learn a thing or two about process improvement and bottlenecks.

To my surprise, I don’t just find one, but two volunteers: Darren and Paul. Both Darren and Paul have been extremely helpful and supportive with our fledgling Agile teams to date. I’m glad the promise of an Agile game and Halloween chocolates prove more enticing than a visit to the gym. It’s also a sign that I’m working with a learning organisation.

Favour Brain over Brawn

The Bottleneck Game (also known as ‘I’m Not a Bottleneck, I’m a Free Man!’ teaches us about the Theory of Constraints (TOC). According to the Theory of Constraints, every organisation has at least one constraint which limits the system’s performance in terms of its goal. The theory states that we can improve a system’s throughput learning how to recognise and deal with a system’s constraint (also known as a bottleneck).

The 5 Focusing Steps

Step 0: Make the goal of the system explicit.
Step 1: Find the constraint.
Step 2: Exploit the constraint.
Step 3: Subordinate everything to the constraint.
Step 4: Elevate the constraint.
Step 5: Rinse and repeat.

Lessons We Learnt Today

  • If you’re rushing, you’re probably stressed – slow down instead and you’ll improve your quality as well as increase your throughput
  • Apply improvement changes one at a time
  • Always measure the throughput before and after applying improvements to verify their effects on the system
  • Cross-training helps improve the throughput of a team
  • Small, incremental changes can make a big difference to throughput.

Process Improvement is the New Sliced Bread

Don’t let inertia become the constraint. Help your team and your organisation become more agile by striving to be a bit better than you were yesterday every day. Thanks to Alison, Suresh, Bhavna, Paul, Mark, Darren, Jo and Genevieve for being such professionals as employees of The Boats and Hats Company!

The Theory of Constraints is clearly a hot topic as Pascal’s also run the game with one of his clients over in Paris. You can read a more comprehensive account of the Bottleneck Game as played by our French Agilista counterparts here.

Learn About Bottlenecks with Your Friends and Family

Origami isn’t just for work, it’s for learning, too! The “I’m not a Bottleneck! I’m a Free Man!” game by Pascal Van Cauwenberghe and Portia Tung is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Belgium License.