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The Power of Whining and the Evolution of Agile

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It's somewhat amazing to think about the power of whining ("whinging" to those across the pond and in Oz & NZ!).  Back in February, I received a "Dear Dave" letter from the Agile 2011 conference saying that my "Survival Guide for Agile Coaches" session hadn't been accepted. 

I whined publicly about it on Twitter, only to have the Agilemeister, Angeline Tan, suggest that I submit my proposal to the SFAgile conference she was organizing.  Lo and behold I found out a few weeks later that my talk had been accepted!

Now, that and a quick personal review of my session would have been somewhat interesting.  Add the following sessions and it'even more interesting:
  • Lean Solo Leanpreneurship by Dan Neumann, showed a frighteningly similar career arc to my own, although mine occurred several years earlier.  It was about Dan's own evolution from an employee to an independent Lean/Agile Coach, focusing on his decision to become independent and how he subsequently worked to build his network.
  • Lean UX & Product Stewardship by Tim McCoy & Zach Larson, was about the confluence of traditional UX processes with Lean, and focused on delivering what was required by teams as close to when they required it as possible.  While the concepts were all familiar to me, I have no trouble listening to people talk about the desperate need for shared responsibility between Product Management, Development and the UX community!
  • How to Form Agile Teams by fellow Canadian Dave Sharrock, also covered material with which I'm familiar, but Dave did a terrific job of tying specific points such as cross-functionality to research both from and outside the software community, and went well beyond the standard "you have to have QA on the team" mantra.
  • Improve Flow Through Prioritization was the "Buy a Feature" Innovation Game facilitated by Carleton Nettleton, and was a fun but informative look at the prioritization process that highlighted some very real world behaviours like "I'll cooperate once I get my pet project approved" even in a game setting.  Arguably the best one-liner of the conference came from Lanette Creamer in that session: "I'm surrounded by Libertarians and Republicans... I want to pollute their water!"

  • The first day ended with the inspirational session, Enterprise Agile Evolution: How We Escaped Our Timeboxes by Ted Young.  In it he described how his group lived inspect and adapt, and over a few years evolved their Scrum/XP process naturally into something that worked very well for them.  It was a great story about how Agile and Lean are really supposed to be done!
  • Day 2 began with Derek Wade's Uncover your Frame – Leadership for Effective Agile Teams. This was a session that illustrated how we infer "frames", or the motivation behind someone's actions and had an exercise on the use of the Advocacy/Inquiry technique to help discover the true motivation or meaning.  It was a technique for coaches, and an area where I'll be spending some research time in coming weeks & months!
  • Dave Sharrock then led a panel discussion (filling in for an unfortunately absent Jurgen Appelo) around an open forum of Agile and Lean topics.  It was interesting that despite the advanced nature of many of the attendees, there was still a desire to discuss the steps for a long-term transition from traditional methods to Agile and Lean.
  • The Agile Doctor: Five Riffs on Agile Inspired by The Doctor by Evan Cofsky was a fun session about how the current poseur for Dr. Who (we all know that Tom Baker was the only Doctor!) was actually quite Agile in his work, taking whatever he had available at the time and encouraging the people around him to work together to succeed.  While it was light-hearted, there were some rather powerful messages involved for people who are coaches, the main one being that you may have to fail in order for those you are coaching to properly succeed.  This session did have some criticism, because it required at least a passing knowledge of the Dr. Who series, although even mine from the late 70's was sufficient to know that anything involving Daleks was generally quite bad.
  • I was happy with my session, A Survival Guide for New Agile Coaches.  It was fun, as I had intended, and the audience seemed very receptive to the format and the stories/messages.  I received from great feedback and do have ideas for how to improve the session for future iterations!
  • The sessions concluded with Dollars and Dates are Killing Agile by Chris Sterling and Brent Barton.  This was another killer session about working within the traditional cost accounting business structures that we have to live with regardless of whether we want to or not!  One of the best sound bites came from this session: "Real enterprise agile is when you pull projects thru teams rather than form teams to handle projects"
Those sessions would have been enough to justify attending the conference, and I took away some great ideas and made some fantastic connections with other people in the Agile/Lean community.  But throw in the keynotes about Lean Startup from Eric Ries and Josh Kerievsky and my mind was officially blown.  I understand that someone talking away at the front of a room isn't exactly the best method for learning, but both Eric and Josh's talks were riveting, and certainly resonated with me.  Some key points:
  • Validated learning is the unit of progress, not some intangible "business value" (Eric)
  • A startup is by definition an experiment, which means that it can occur within an established business (Eric)
  • Speed is critical, but not just in "getting stuff done" but rather in obtaining enough concrete knowledge to pivot successfully (Eric & Josh)
  • Ideas to build, code to measure, data to learn, rinse & repeat (Eric)
  • What's important is how quickly you get through that loop, not how well you do any or all of the steps, [although it's assumed that you are at least 'good' at them!]  (Eric)
  • When experiments reach diminishing returns, it's time to pivot (Eric)
  • "We keep having epiphanies every few days now!" (Josh)
  • "We [Industrial Logic] shifted from 'lets try this idea' to 'what's the experiment we are going to do?' (Josh)
  • Hypothesis to Happiness instead of Concept to Cash (Josh)
The feeling among many of us there was summed up quite well by Adam Yuret:

The problem with Lean Startup as presented by Eric Ries & Joshua Kerievsky is it makes scrum seem pointless & wasteful.

I believe that I was seeing, for lack of a better phrase, the future of Agile.  The SFAgile conference was the equivalent of the Olduvai Gorge - the evolution of how we organize, plan and do our work is occurring in the Lean Startup movement.

As Josh said in his closing keynote,

If you're riding the Agile Wave turn around and look at the monster wave behind you called Lean Startup.

I'm returning home with a new sense of purpose and direction.  A new world of possibilities has been opened up, and what I knew a week ago as 'mainstream Agile' now seems somewhat quaint.  Many of the 'good things' I learned from XP, Lean, Scrum and Kanban still apply but the philosophy is now different.  The rules and the way the game is played aren't just different - the whole game has been changed, and now we have to learn how to play.

All because I whined a few months ago.

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Published at DZone with permission of Dave Rooney, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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