The Importance of Questions

I’m currently doing some coaching work with Regina, a new project manager working with a small team of web developers at a community development organization in Toronto.  We had our first session last week. Regina was having trouble getting started on a particular project and I shared with her some of the Agile methods of creating a prioritized Cycle Plan, breaking it down into small tasks, etc.

Regina seems to be finding Agile methods helpful in general, but there was a special kind of interaction that we had around removing an obstacle that was particularly interesting for me.  It had to do with an email she received from Peter, a developer working on one of the websites she’s managing. Regina shared a concern that she didn’t know some of the technical terms Peter was using.  So I had her read through the email and form questions around the points she wasn’t clear about – i.e., “what are buttons?” and I wrote them down as she was speaking.

I then suggested that she compose a reply email containing the same set of questions.  Regina’s eyes opened wide and she exclaimed, “Oh yeah – that’s so obvious!”  I went on to mention that another option would be to go and do some research on her own but that there were some valuable advantages in asking Peter directly, particularly in terms of team-building, that may not be as immediately apparent as asking the questions solely for the purpose of having them answered.  Here are a few:

First, it’s a way forRegina to remind Peter that she does not have a technical background and that he should not assume that she is familiar with web-lingo.  Second, it also reminds him that she is a different person from the last manager he was working with and subtly reinforces that it’s important that they get to know each other as two individual human beings and learn to work together effectively.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, it gives Peter an opportunity to help someone else on the team learn something new, and by doing so, contribute to the culture of learning on the team.  Fourth, and perhaps most obviously, it promotes open lines of clear communication on the team.

(Of course, if the team was colocated, which it is not, lack of communication would be much less of an obstacle!)

Asking questions in the interest of learning makes it visible to others that you don’t know everything.  For some people, this presents a dilemma.  What makes it a dilemma is that asking meaningful questions is something that many people aren’t able to do well.  The ability to ask meaningful questions is a learnable skill requiring the capabilities of truthfulness, humility and courage.  Such capabilities – let’s call them moral capabilities – can themselves be developed through conscious, focused effort.

Someone in the position of a newly hired manager, or a veteran manager with a new team, who lacks these capabilities may feel that it is important to present to a team a persona of all-knowingness.  But, of course, this is false and the truth of one’s degree of knowledge and capability, or lack thereof, soon becomes apparent anyway.  Clearly, this person needs to do some honest hard work to develop some humility, but truthfulness and courage are still often major factors.

Or maybe you’re the kind of person (like Regina) who just doesn’t want to bother anyone.  In this case, humility is not necessarily lacking, but truthfulness – and perhaps most of all courage – may need some attention.  Concepts around moral capabilities deserve much more elaboration, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.

To sum it up, if you are open and clear in the way you ask questions, people will tend to appreciate it and will trust you more in the end.  Moreover, it can have a transformative effect on the environment of the team.  When your team members realize that you are not afraid to ask questions and be truthful about your lack of knowledge in a certain area, it will encourage them to be more truthful about their own capabilities.  Not to mention that most people feel good when they are able to help others.  When your team members feel safe to ask for help and free to help each other, it is empowering for everyone.

Asking meaningful questions, therefore, is an essential aspect of learning together, and nothing is a more powerful contributor to the success of an organization than a team that learns as a team.

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Agile Teams Study Being Conducted

If you are currently or have recently worked on an agile team that completed a project or a delivery of software, I encourage you to participate in a study being conducted.  Here is a link to the study information.  And here is a link to an online survey that is part of the study.

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The Agile Recession Challenge – De-Bureaucratize!!!

Okay, global markets are in turmoil.  Consumer spending is dropping.  Economists are forecasting recessions or extremely small growth.  Businesses are adjusting revenue and earnings forecasts.  Bad news all around.

Actually, no.  This is the perfect time to be in business.  This time of crisis can actually be the opportunity that your business desperately needed, you just didn’t know it.

The way to get through this is simple: focus on value, remove waste and obstacles.  The trouble is, simple though this sounds, it’s actually very hard for many businesses.  Why?  Because one of the first responses to financial crisis is to cut costs, and the easiest, most obvious cost in most businesses is staff.  Cutting staff is not the same as focusing on value and removing waste and obstacles.  In fact, cutting staff is almost the exact wrong thing to do.  Why?  Because you still leave in place all the old policies, procedures, checkpoints, systems, role definitions, chokepoints, logjams and wasteful activities that were hidden because we were riding through “good times”.

It’s true, of course, that staff are a substantial cost for most businesses.  However, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that in any business where staff is a substantial cost, it also probably means that staff are responsible for a large proportion of the value your business generates.  Cutting staff therefore means reducing value, and that just puts your business into a vicious cycle. Cut staff, deliver less value, customers and clients don’t get as much value, they start looking elsewhere, you get more revenue pressure, you cut more staff, etc.  Not only that, but if you cut staff, but leave the bureaucracy in place, then the ratio of bureaucratic overhead to staff is increased leading to even worse productivity!

Okay, so where does agile fit in?  Simple: agile methods such as Scrum for software work and OpenAgile for business management are designed to help you find waste, remove it, focus on value, learn from both successess and mistakes, and do better next time all in very short cycles which allow you and your business and your teams to adapt to changing (market, economic, competitive) conditions very quickly, always delivering the highest value fastest and at the best price.

Recent case studies in the Scrum community are showing revenue gains of 200 to 400 percent in less than a year for companies that are rigorously adopting Scrum, not as a “solution” or a “methodology” but as a powerful, principle-based, learning framework applied universally.  Scrum and other agile methods, when used properly, cause substantial, deep changes in an organization’s culture and habits.  These changes all center around the idea of delivering high value, high quality, quickly, and always getting better and better and better at doing this.

Teams using agile methods become super-teams.  Organizations using agile methods become super-organizations.

Feeling the fear of recession?  Feeling the need to cut costs?  Anxious if your job, your team or your business is going to survive this crisis?  Use agile – Scrum, OpenAgile, Extreme Programming, Lean Software Development, Crystal – to not just survive the crisis, but to thrive while your competition struggles and succumbs to the challenges.

Some Other Reasons Agile is Good in a Recession:

“customers will start asking about iterative deliveries (to control spendings(sic))” – (agilerevolution.net)

“Agile can drastically improve time to benefits, quality and efficiency, team morale, the relationship between IT and business staff, and responsiveness to change.” – (thoughtworks.com – PDF)

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What is Agile?

The word “Agile” refers to a type of method for getting work done.  It’s all about doing valuable work with speed and quality.  An Agile team delivers finished work frequently while working at a sustainable pace.  Agile process consists of short iterations of work that deliver small increments of potentially shippable customer value.  Frequent delivery ensures visibility of the work of the team, as well as its needs and obstacles, to all stakeholders.

Agile refers to a discipline defined as the middle way of excellence between chaos and bureaucracy.  Agile also refers to the philosophy that humans do work in a complex world.

Although Agile has emerged out of endemic crisis in the software development sector (but not exclusive to it!) – mainly caused by the pressure built up from the strata of systemic dishonesty and distrust – it is not a software development process methodology.  Rather, it is a system of learning that challenges deep cultural assumptions and catalyzes change in an organization.

Agile methods are made of processes, principles and tools.  But most importantly they are concerned with people.  Therefore, Truthfulness is the foundation of success in an Agile organization.

Although Agile cannot force people to be truthful, it reveals the direct consequences of opacity in an organization, confronts it and challenges it to change.

Agile prioritizes by value, not “dependency”.  In fact, Agile teams are expected to break dependencies and are empowered by such challenges.  Agile teams self-organize their own work -  they are not “managed resources”.  Agile is team-focused rather than project-focused.  Agile responds to evolving requirements and avoids frozen requirements.  In an Agile environment change is embraced as natural and healthy, rather than as something “risky” to be avoided.

In short, Agile is about overcoming fear, both on the part of individuals as well as collectively and culturally on the part of organizations.

As with any sincere effort to overcome habitual fear, Agile work is hard work.  Becoming Agile can be an uncomfortable, confusing and frustrating process and can remain that way for a long time.

Agile is the art of the possible.  It’s methods are idealistic, not dogmatic.  Agile is about learning, adapting and striving for the ideal.  Agile is based in reality – it relies on everyone to be truthful about the possible and to contribute honestly towards customer value.

Therefore, Agile requires a constructive and positive attitude.  In an Agile environment, a state of crisis is an embraced opportunity to learn and improve.

An Agile team is empowered by its responsibility to self-organize.  On an Agile team, people work together towards a common goal and coordinate their work amongst themselves.  There are no managers or bosses on Agile teams.  Correspondingly, no member of an Agile team reports to a boss or a manager.  All team members report to the team.  While working on a team, everyone checks their institutional titles, roles and responsibilities at the door.  All members of an Agile team are responsible for one thing: contributing as much customer value as possible to the work of the team.

Agile exposes the true character of an organization’s culture and forces visibility on all levels.

At Berteig Consulting, we practice Agile.  I am currently working in the role of Process Facilitator for our core team of 4.  We work in 1-week iterations.  As a couple of the team members have a 4-day work week, we have our Retrospective on Monday mornings at 10 AM, followed by the Planning Meeting for our next iteration at 11 AM.  The remaining work days begin with a daily stand-up meeting using the reporting methods of the Daily Scrum (each member reports 3 things to the team – “What I did yesterday”, What I’m doing today”, and “What are my obstacles”).  We work in a collocated team room, with product backlog items, iteration backlog tasks, obstacles, definition of done and a burn-down chart all up on the walls.  We are currently in our fourth iteration of our current project (which, in this case, is the business itself!).  As part of our retrospectives, team members actually demo finished work – i.e., Mishkin shows us some of the great changes he’s made to his course materials and Paul demos the latest edition of our beautiful newsletter (the one you’re reading right now!).  Laila has even demoed some travel tools that she’s been working on for the coaches and trainers.  We also decided to each write our reflections in order to share them with those who might find it useful as a way of wrapping up the retrospective for this iteration.

Agile can be implemented anywhere people do work together.  Visibility of work, openness of consultation and a strong collaborative spirit feeds an overall feeling of excitement and optimism on an Agile team.  Clear goals based on small pieces of prioritized value and sustainability of work ensure quality and speed of productivity.  But of course, in order for a team to build up these capabilities, it must establish, maintain and defend a firm and immovable foundation of truthfulness.

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Extremely Short Iterations – Agile 2008 Experience Report

Infoq published the video recording of my talk at Agile 2008 titled “Extremely Short Iterations as a Catalyst for Effective Prioritization of Work“.

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