Powerful Questions

There are many things that I’ve learned since becoming a mom… but there is nothing more powerful for me to date than learning to see the world through very young eyes.

The beauty behind a child’s approach to the world is that it is so fundamentally based in observation rather than judgement. When my daughter asks questions, she seeks to better understand what she observes. In so doing, she rarely asks “why?” but is more focused on “what?” in her line of inquiry.

From this, I’ve realized that “what?” is actually a very powerful way to question the world. Consider these examples for a moment…

Rather than asking: “Why is that?” …ask instead: “What does that mean?”

Rather than asking: “Why is she (or he) like that?” …ask instead: “What happened to her (or him)?”

Changing your stance from “Why?” to “What?” opens up your line of inquiry. You automatically move away from a place of judgement to a place of understanding. Looking at the world through the eyes of a child isn’t for every occasion… but if you are aspiring to understand and accept, it’s not a bad place to start.

The Secret of Success

Recently, the stellar community of Ottawa Agilists gathered to share stories about Agile regrets and success. The first session was hosted as a “fail faire” and the second session was hosted as its’ counterpart… a “success faire”. As an outcome, we attempted to gather the “lessons learned” and “secrets of success” for each event respectively.

Having hosted both these sessions, it was interesting to me how much harder it was to root out the source of success over the lessons learned. In part, this came from the participants themselves… story tellers were more apt to share directly what was the cause of a failure. Success stories were related in more detail about “what happened” rather than “what exactly made this work”.

This got me thinking… why don’t we pin point the source of success with the same attention and effort we do causes of failures?

Could be that we don’t analyze success with the same interest because… well, it worked… what is there to analyze further? Sure, I get it.

However, just like not all steps undertaken when we make a mistake are necessarily causes of our failure, not all steps that were undertaken when we succeed necessarily meaningfully lead to our success.

And just like we identify root causes of mistakes so that we don’t repeat them, we should seek out the root causes of success… so that we can repeat them.

We can’t do Agile.

Over the years, I’ve heard many variations of “we can’t do Agile”:

Agile doesn’t allow for proper thoughtful design.
Our project \ organization is too big to do Agile.
Agile is really just a dev thing.
Agile just isn’t reality.

I realize that behind every single “we can’t do Agile” statement, there’s a story. My intent here isn’t to delve into the stories of Agile woe… rather, I would like to open a small crack for the “we can’t do Agile” crowd.

Consider…

1. Have you ever stopped yourself from sending an email, and instead decided to walk over and have a conversation with a team mate?

2. Have you ever argued to make the right fix on your project, even if it went against the requirements \ spec document?

3. Have you ever sought out feedback from your customer or end user in order validate your understanding of a project?

4. Have you ever adjusted your project plan in light of new feedback (user based or technological)?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you successfully “did Agile”! Consider the values of Agile below and review the questions above again respectively…

1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

2. Working software over comprehensive documentation

3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

4. Responding to change over following a plan

Viewed in the light of Agile values, many teams are already adopting Agile methods… albeit implicitly. Embracing these values in a more explicit fashion opens a door of possibilities… among these possibilities would be to let go of the idea that “we can’t do Agile”.

Seeking Feedback: Value of the Agile Coach

Recently, I have been deconstructing with curiosity my role as an Agile Coach.

Let me begin by saying how committed I am personally and professionally to the deeper understanding of Agile and Lean. Putting these values and principles into practice over the past few years has given my work meaning in so many ways. 

That being said, I have failed to appreciate the importance of how the organization views these skills…

I believe that a good Agile coach acts almost imperceptibly.  Building courage, simplicity, communication, feedback and respect… all that a coach does in order to build a stronger and more effective team might not be obvious. Indeed, as coaches, we can become so focused on the success of the team that we may risk neglecting looking after our interests within the organization.

That is to say, there may not be clear evidence of the coach’s value to the organization. So while executives may recognize the improved effectiveness of the team, they mistakenly begin to assume that the coach’s skills have been captured by the team itself.  They then conclude that this process can be reproduced (rubber stamp like) to other teams.  To borrow Dave Snowden’s analogy… they believe that “having a good recipe” is the same as “having a good chef”.

As practitioners of evidence based learning and progress, how do Agile coaches provide evidence of their value to an organization?  Is this even skillful or necessary to do so? I look forward, dear readers, to your feedback…

2013 Retrospective

At this time of year, it’s worthwhile taking stock of our lives… to do a retrospective of sorts. To collect both accomplishments and gratitudes for the year….

Tip: Skip past the bullet points if you are quickly seeking the punchline.

  • I received generous support and guidance from @eegrove who helped me to define the role of an Agile coach within the context of my work at Corel.
  • I spoke about UX from a developer’s point of view at NSNorth. I also met and reconnected some dedicated iOS / Mac developers and had a few pints with some brilliant people.
  • I joined an excellent group of volunteer organizers at Agile Ottawa and co-hosted a Fail Faire event with @BillyGarnet and@simbourk.
  • I attended Agile Coach Camp Canada in Toronto, where I gave a lightning talk on Agile Teaching and proposed and lead an Agile 101 session.
  • I completed Coaching Agile Teams training with @lyssaadkins and @mspayd. This class helped me to better understand, take ownership have confidence in my skills and abilities as an Agile Coach and, looking back on it, was a life changing experience for me.
  • I started to blog and am proud to say that I’ve put together 18 posts that I feel add value to the Agile community in their own small way.
  • I created and gave a presentation that summarizes 6 different software development methodologies in under one hour using nothing more than a marker and a whiteboard as a visual aid. I’m happy to say that the feedback from this presentation was very positive.
  • I helped my former team at Corel to complete a significant re-architecture of a large legacy code base. I also created a spirit of collaboration, sharing and trust on the team by facilitating, coaching, mentoring and teaching Agile values, principles and methods.
  • After being laid off from Corel in early December, I interviewed at a few startups and, while the job hunt continues, this experience has given me the opportunity to meet some energized and inspiring folks doing good work.
  • I’ve received career and life coaching and support from my dear friend @spydergrrl … over twitter, over the phone and over lattes.
  • On a personal note, my 4 year old started school this year and it’s been a pleasure to watch her grow out of a toddler and into a little girl with thoughts and opinions all her own. I feel privileged to be part of her journey through life.
  • On another personal note, to my partner in love and life… it’s been a year full of distractions, but I’m lucky to have someone that I can be completely honest with…for all the good, the bad and (sometimes) the ugly sides of me.

So what does listing some my accomplishments and gratitudes do for me? It helps me to take a deep breath when I feel that I’m not fast enough, smart enough, energized enough, or <enter perfect person quality here> enough… I can tell you that I will be coming back to this list a few times during 2014 to remind myself that I am… indeed… enough… and that I am very very lucky to be surrounded by such amazing people.

What improvements would I bring forward to 2014? Clarity, simplicity and courage in my own thoughts, words and actions. Love, compassion and respect to those who matter in my life. Mindfully choosing with awareness where I give my energy in those empty hours when I’m all alone with my own thoughts.

Ok… well… maybe these are more life goals than yearly goals… but if Agile has taught me anything, it’s that when you are faced with uncertainty, you need to be able to lean hard on your values.

Wishing you the very best in 2014. Thanks for reading 😀

Backlog Baggage

I’d like to suggest a radical strategy for backlog management.  The strategy is simple, whenever you review an item and opt not to consider it for active work, destroy it.  Yes, you heard me, set fire to the blighter!

This might seem a little extreme at first glance, but I think the logic behind it is pretty straight forward.  First, by keeping it, you are implicitly saying that anything new that you will learn as you work is less important than the thing you just said no to.  Secondly, by keeping it, you are also implicitly saying that you have no feedback mechanism whereby the item could come back to you without constantly collecting and reviewing it <insert Gollum sounds here>.  And don’t get me started with the cost of maintaining all that baggage if you opt to keep it.  Believe me, I understand that we love our precious items…  I do.  But a backlog item just doesn’t have value unless it’s being worked on meaningfully right now.

With the year end looming, this might be a good time to simply grab all that baggage in your backlog and toss it out.  Trusting that if any item was really important, it will come back to you quite naturally in good time.

Creating a Culture of Learning

“I know one thing: that I know nothing.” – Socrates

For Agile teams to meaningfully embrace change, they should also embrace a culture of learning. This idea is not unique to Agile, Lean also explicitly makes mention to the importance of learning by making it one of its’ principles.

So what can we do to create a culture of learning on our teams?

I would suggest that while it’s important to encourage learning and to create learning opportunities on the team, doing so may not be enough to truly embrace a culture of learning.

For this to happen, we first must first create the capacity for learning on the team. This means honouring the time and energy that it takes to set aside our own agendas and then divert this time and energy to learning. It also means allowing ourselves to acknowledge and dare to speak three simple words: “I don’t know.”  This can be tricky because we don’t often reward or encourage a culture of “I don’t know” in our work and personal lives. It’s unlikely that Socrates would have climbed high up the corporate ladder with his approach of “I know nothing”.

So if you are seeking to create a culture of learning on your team consider…

…do you ever hear team mates asking for help?

…is it ok for the team to acknowledge what they don’t know?

…do we honour learning on the team in the same way we do “solutions” and “results”?

The key here is to be able to accept what we don’t know and then move on to “what do we need to do to learn?” while being comfortable with the reality that we may never have perfect answers.  However, by not acknowledging what we don’t know, we risk buying into answers that don’t deliver value.