Agile Executive Blog

Pete Behrens has a very interesting and relatively new blog called Agile Executive. His recent entries have included thoughts about High Performance Teams, Executive Priorities, and some book reviews.

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Transformative Learning and Agile

It seems to me that most people who have had any kind of success on serious projects, or in life, can probably point to a profound collaborative experience at the core of that experience. In my last posting, “tools vs. capabilities” I said that because Agile is fundamentally a process of collaboration and our culture is fundamentally is a culture of contest, we need to recognize that learning Agile requires a transformation at the level of character more than methodology. Despite the fact that we may have had profound experiences with collaboration, because we are also deeply influenced by our environment, there are limits to what we can understand about it. We need not look further than the agile disciplines to see how most of our working and social practices are not supportive of Agile perspectives. For example empowering the team and the concept of self-organizing team is a direct challenge to most of our social, economic, cultural, community and familial structures which are essentially hierarchical. The discipline of amplifying learning is a direct challenge to the practice of excessive specialization which manifests itself in the form of expert elitism. How can any one of us ever hope to have a culture of learning and innovation if we come from a culture of expertise and hierarchy based on that expertise?

This is where transformative learning comes in. Agile requires of us not just an ordinary, but transformative learning experience. When we learn, we take something new and fit it into an old category or assign an old meaning to it. Categories are ways in which we organize our learning, they can also be called frames of reference. If we encounter an experience for which we have no category it is hard to understand it. For example have you ever been in a conversation or taken part in a course where what you were learning was so foreign to you that you didn’t even know what kinds of questions to ask to help you understand it?

Our frames of reference are shaped through the influence of our culture, language, and experiences, which all interact to set boundaries to future learning. This is because outside of these categories it is impossible for us even to register something new, let alone seek out its reality in an unprejudiced manner.

How often do you find yourself in a new learning situation where you feel overwhelmed, frustrated or even angry? It is possible that at those times you may be at the threshold of a transformative learning experience. You can have two reactions: one would be to dig deep and try to figure out why you are disturbed and see what insights you are led to and the other would be to just give up on the idea and find arguments against it.

Another way to recognize a potential opportunity for tranformative learning is to reflect on the following question: have you ever had an experience where you were faced with some new learning and because you have had a similar experience or because for some reason you see yourself as an expert in that field you have not been able to derive the proper learning from that experience? You may have realized this at a later time after numerous interactions with a similar experience where you slowly started to recognize gaps in your own understanding.

In order to derive the full benefit of a new experience that doesn’t fit into the realm of our experience we must have a transformative learning experience. A transformative learning experience is an experience that requires of us to examine the values and limitations of our old categories and assign new meanings to them. This does not mean that all of our previous learning is invalid. A transformative learning experience allows us to expand our frames of reference to allow for more complexity and at times possibly to integrate two previously perceived dichotomous approaches.

For a detailed introduction to transformative learning theories, its thinkers and history check out this link:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transformative_learning on Wikipedia.

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Agile Infrastructure Projects – Lessons Learned

I’ve worked as an agile coach on three infrastructure/maintenance projects in a row. One was a software/hardware upgrade, one was implementing agile for a defects/enhancements team, and my most recent was a data warehouse decommissioning project. In all cases, the interesting part for me was taking the basic principles of agile and applying them in a way that works when not doing new product development. Here are some lessons I’ve learned:

1. Figure out what is going to deliver value (usually cost savings). In the case of infrastructure projects, one is usually focused on cost savings. Find a way to tie your work items directly to cost savings. You need a good financial model to do this. Mary and Tom Poppendieck talk about this a little in their Lean Software Development book. In the decommissioning program, there was a very explicit dollar cost associated with disk space and cpu utilization. Every user/MB decommissioned saved a measurable amount of money. As well, it allowed us to easily prioritize our backlog.

2. Focus project/program organization more on Lean principles than agile. A good understanding of queuing theory will go a long way to helping with throughput. In a team doing defects/enhancements work, the small pieces lend themselves well to certain types of streaming through the team. Iterations are not necessary to chunck work. Instead, iterations become checkpoints solely for process reflection.

3. Technical infrastructure projects can benefit greatly from automation. Test automation including test generation can sometimes be possible. Automating parts of a regularly repeated process that is used for every work item can be extremely beneficial for increasing speed. In the case of the decommissioning effort where every database table needs to be considered separately and where they all go through the same process for decommisioning, there are many opportunities for automation. The project/program/team can invest in doing this automation to great benefit to NPV.

4. The basic axioms (We are Creators, Reality is Perceived, Change is Natural) and disciplines (Empower the Team, Amplify Learning, Eliminate Waste) still apply. Even though it is not “new” product development, the creativity of people is essential for problem solving, and finding ways to do the work faster. Stakeholders still need to have their perception of reality acknowledged, and the teams still has to do constant checking to make sure they are on track with that perception. And of course, things are always changing including priorities, our understanding of the work, resource availability etc. Having an empowered team makes short work of many obstacles, but that wouldn’t happen without an explicit acknowledgement that we have to constantly be learning and eliminating waste. Teams get better and better at these disciplines over time.

I would be very interested to hear other peoples experiences with infractructural/operational projects.

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Tools Versus Capabilities Approach To Agile Training

Which approach is most valuable in training that fosters collaborative work for the purpose of optimizing the performance of an organization: a tools / methodologies approach or an inner capabilities approach? The typical orientation that most organizations take is often external and rule-based. This consists of creating methodologies, rules, boundaries, systems and processes to enhance collaboration.

These external approaches ultimately fail to have a lasting effect on people and the culture of the organization because they don’t address change at the level of habits of mind. People then work in the new structure with the same patterns of behaviour. Behind this kind of surface approach to change are assumptions about human nature. At worst this consists of a belief that people are base (greedy, selfish etc.) by nature. At best that people are fundamentally good but cannot improve except through external measures. It is true that we need external systems and structures to give expression to our inner capabilities, to test, foster and develop them in action. However all the investment that companies make in tools, systems, methodologies are obviously not enough. We need both external and internal approaches to training people in collaborative processes. Systems and tools provide only a framework that then need to be filled in with character. At the core of Agile there are disciplines (such as Empower the Team, Amplifly Learning) without which the methodologies would have no life. The practice of the disciplines fostered by the development of inner capabilities infuses life into the Agile methods and at the same time the methods act on and reinforce the inner practice of the disciplines.

As Agile champions (coaches, facilitators, practitioners) we must invest energy on fostering -through modelling and coaching- the development of inner capabilities. The Agile community will benefit from an identification of core capabilities required and a deep exploration of how to foster their development in individuals, teams and organizations.

Although it is our nature to organize in groups and we may have much experience with collaboration, we nevertheless live in a culture of contest and individualism. Out of this culture comes a set of belief systems which are so deeply rooted in our lives that we are not fully conscious of them and their affect on us. These belief systems cannot change easily through the introduction of external structures alone.

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Wideband Delphi Estimation Technique

Here’s an excellent introductory article on the wideband delphi estimation technique. Typically wideband delphi is used to estimate software development efforts, but can be used in almost any domain of work. This method might be applied to estimating effort for items in a work list at either a project level or tasks in an iteration work list. The way it is described, it sounds fairly heavy-weight, potentially taking several hours for a relatively small list of work items. However, it is worthwhile for process facilitators and product owners to be aware of these sorts of methods if problems with estimating occur in a project team. The wideband delphi model is related to the Delphi method.

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Agile Architecture Report

Detailed report on applying agile practices to an architectural project: http://www.architecturalpractices.com/articles_report_001.html. An interesting excerpt:

One of the things I like about Extreme Programming (XP) is that its advocates gladly share their experiences using it. This sharing contributes in many ways to its increasing value as a project management process. We can all review, comment, and learn from each other.

With this end in mind, I offer the following report on an architectural project completed recently using XPM practices. XPM is an acronym for Extreme Project Management, my version of a set of practices based on Extreme Programming. It shows one way XP practices can be adapted to a non-software project. I hope others using or considering similar practices will find this report useful for their own endeavors.

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A Good Quote

It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.
- Sir Winston Churchill

(Thanks to Chris Celsie for pointing this out!)

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Personal Philosophy of Adult Education

The following is my approach as an educator to my work in community and organizational development. I have come to this understanding mainly through experience, a great deal of mentoring and study.

Please note that when I use the term “teacher” in this document I also mean consultant, mentor, coach etc. The term “student” is also interchangeable with organization or community. The term education is interchangeable with organizational or community development consulting.

Validation: a starting point

Education should start from, affirm and validate the experience, insights and knowledge of the individual. This is a foundation for education that honours and respects the student. Recognizing the nobility of the student allows her an active role in her own learning. The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning by drawing on the experience of the student, to build on that experience through the acquisition of new insights, knowledge and skills.

Learning must be self-directed. The teacher may have a number of wonderful things to teach, but if the student does not believe that they are relevant to her, she will not be engaged. This is especially true for teachers who are working in communities that they are not a part of. The teacher must engage in careful investigation in order to understand the situation of the student, which includes attentive listening, as well as a genuine interest in the needs of the student, before proceeding along any line of instruction. Taking her cue from the students, the teacher must work with the individual / group to create a learning environment in which everyone takes responsibility for their own learning. In this kind of environment the teacher is not an expert and does not do the students’ learning for her. The teacher can use questions to assist the student to understand, instead of delivering answers. The teacher should also encourage an environment of learning that recognizes mistakes as part of the learning process. The learning environment should create in the student a hunger for the acquisition of knowledge, insights and skills beyond the direct experience with the teacher.

Encouragement: the key to self-directed learning

Once the experience of the student has been validated and her needs established, education should be challenging but not obtrusive and challenges must be presented with respect and encouragement. Encouragement versus excessive criticism leads to individual initiative instead of paralysis. The natural result of an encouraging and challenging learning environment is self-discipline and self-correction instead of external discipline (control) and constant external correction.

A transformative, holistic approach centred in humility and service

The learning environment should foster humility in both the student and teacher. Most contemporary approaches to education are materialistic; the student pays, studies, receives a degree, becomes an “expert”, etc. The whole educational experience, from the teachers to administrators, cultivates in the student a sense of self is that is based solely on the expertise and knowledge gained. The “Expert” attitude in the community development environment is often not useful because the work in the field is so complex. Many stakeholders have keys to the process, as a result, the “expert” attitude devalues the knowledge of others and tends to taint the path to solutions with conflict and ego. Another consequence of the expert mentality in the community is dependency; people are divorced from the solution to problems that they all contribute to and to which they all hold the keys. Instead of drawing on the knowledge of the stakeholders, the expert renders her own knowledge most valuable which in turn causes them to discard volition and succumb to a state of perpetual dependency on one expert after the other. Community members or institutions are robbed of the ability to play a central role in their own lives as a direct result of being robbed of opportunities to play central roles in the decision-making process of their community.

With humility at the centre of all learning, the purpose of education becomes transformation. We learn so that we, our communities and our institutions can improve and change for the better. Also as learning is applied to community efforts, individual capacity unfolds and is developed. Learning for its own sake is valuable, but learning for positive social change, makes the acquisition of knowledge, skills and insights relevant and engaging in the face of community development challenges. Learning then becomes intimately connected with action and is corrected and refined through action. This infuses a powerful sense of purpose and meaning in the learning process, especially as successes are realized.

Principle-based approach facilitates ownership

Education should cultivate a sense of personal ownership in the learning process and community life. Fostering a sense of personal ownership comes with educating students to have a mature perspective about their own learning as well as the changes they desire to implement in the community. It involves helping students learn the capability of ‘becoming’ the change that they want to see, as well as finding positive starting points in desperate situations and building on them. A mature outlook demands that students have a principle-based approach to problem solving versus a rule-based approach. Education then becomes not only a process of acquiring knowledge but centred on capacity building for individuals, institutions and groups. Fostering the development of capacities needed to overcome obstacles also requires a principle-based approach, embodying principles such as perseverance, human rights and dignity, building unity in diversity etc.

Integration and balance of methods essential

Education should be methodical and balanced. It should aim to acknowledge, validate and employ different learning paradigms: those of science, spirituality, culture and the arts. Systems of education that value science above the arts or spirituality are destructive to the individual and community as they create an imbalanced view of the world and rob people of a diversity of perspectives and tools that they need to face complex challenges. An educational program should strive to address the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical needs of students and not focus too much on merely one dimension of life. This is especially important in communities that have experienced extreme marginalization (colonization, oppression) where healing and wellness must play a significant role in the learning process.

Modelling Change

A key ingredient to success in transformational education is the example of the educator. As people, naturally we do what we know and what we have experienced. In order to change our patterns of behavior we need to begin having fundamentally different experiences than what we have known. The educator must be able to assist in the creation of such experiences. To do this she must be capable of modelling what is being taught and through constant critical self-reflection strive to exemplify in every action empowering ideals.

Summary

Learning and education are indispensable to all community efforts for positive change. The job of an adult educator is to assist individuals, the community and its institutions to adopt a posture of learning. This begins with working with the experience of the student, fostering self-directed learning and follows as the teacher interacts with the student to challenge and assist her to new levels of learning. With humility at the centre of all learning efforts, dependency on “experts” can be replaced with volition and independent decision-making. The potential of the individual further unfolds as she applies her learning to service to the community. Attention to capacity building and cultivating a sense of personal ownership -in the process of learning and community building- deepens the experience and truly engages the student in taking an active role in the development of her life. Utilizing all systems of learning in the education process ensures balance of methods and helps cultivate the infinite and diverse capabilities of human potential. Ultimately the success of an educator rests on the degree to which she is able to model the change she is fostering.

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Extended ISP Problems

Over the course of the past week and a bit, my ISP had a serious outage which prevented this web site and related email addresses from being available. Please accept my appologies. We will resume regular new contributions soon.

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Process Facilitator Role

I’ve been thinking a lot about the roles on Agile Work projects. Here is a possible “mission statement” or definition for the Process Facilitator:

The Process Facilitator is a person who is both experienced with Agile Work and trained as a facilitator. The Process Facilitator acts as a coach to the team to monitor the process, foster the understanding of the Agile Work Axioms, the development of the Agile Work Disciplines and adherence to the Agile Work practices. The goal of the Process Facilitator is to assist a team to become “performing” so that they are able to actively and independently persue continuous learning and improvement.

Also Known As: Scrum Master, Coach, and previously referred to as the “Process Owner”

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Lack of Entries

I have been unable to post to this blog lately due to time spent setting up a new home in Richmond Virginia combined with starting on a new and very large, intense project. I will begin to post again regularly. Sorry to regular readers (I know there are some :-) ).

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