Tag Archives: Discipline

Work Item Backlogs as Queues – Agile vs. Lean

A recent discussion on the Scrum Development list (Start of Discussion) provides a good follow up to my parting words in The Art of Obstacle Removal about agile practices themselves becoming obstacles. I have excerpted a small amount of the discussion and added my own comments here.

Continue reading Work Item Backlogs as Queues – Agile vs. Lean


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Amplifying Learning Through Fostering Critical Reflection

I have written previously about the tendency we have to limit future learning based on previous learning. This tendency has aptly been termed by Mezirow as the central learning problem of adulthood: “that we fail to notice that failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” In Transformative Learning literature a central method advocated for overcoming this learning problem is critical reflection. Critical reflection is the act of becoming conscious of our beliefs and assumptions (Where do they come from? Are they valid? What are their limitations? etc.) and either expanding, validating or discarding them.

Stephen Brookfield has written extensively about critical reflection and the following is a brief summary of a part of a chapter he wrote in a text on adult and continuing education entitled “The Concept of Critically Reflective Practice.”

Brookfield outlines Four Traditions of Criticality found in different fields:

Ideology critique

It is based on a premise that uncritically accepted and unjust dominant ideologies are embedded in everyday situation and practices. The purpose of ideology critique is to examine these assumptions in order to effect change at the social and institutional level. An example of this kind of approach to learning is found in the work of American popular educator Myles Horton. As the founder of Highlander Folk School, during the civil rights movement he started literacy program for African Americans. Study groups would learn to read while engaging in ideology critique in their own lives and communities using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a the text.

Psychoanalytic and psycho therapeutically inclined critique
These are traditions that work on identifying and reappraising limitations created through childhood traumas. This tradition advocates individual and group therapy for personal learning and development for the purpose of integration of all aspects of self.

Analytic philosophy and logic
This is the tradition that for most is closely associated to critical reflection. Here critical reflection means to recognize logical fallacies and see the difference between bias and fact and opinion and evidence, and become effective at using different forms of reasoning.

Pragmatic Constructivism
This tradition is based on the premise that reality is perceived, that is, we construct our own meaning out of experiences. The focus here is how people interpret their experience v.s. universal and recognizable truths. There is also a strong emphasis on creating new realities together.

Brookfield proposes that to engage in reflection is not the same as engaging in critical reflection. His understanding of critical reflection is centered on ideology critique rooted in the pragmatic constructivist approach. Renowned Brazilian educator Paulo Friere speaks of a similar process by which adults “achieve a deepening awareness of both the sociocultural reality which shapes their lives and… their capacity to transform that reality through action.” Ideology critique is rarely used in the work place. For the most part a culture of conformity and obedience is promoted by organizations.

Brookfield presents a picture of what the process may look like: “The adult educator’s task is that of helping people articulate their experience in dialogic circles and then encouraging them to review this through the multiple lenses provided by colleagues in the circle. On the basis of these collaborative critical reflections on experience adults reenter the work to take critically informed actions that are then brought back to the circle for further critical analysis.”

To engage in collaborative critical reflection based on a rhythm of action and reflection is not only a process of building collective knowledge and consensus, but also strong foundations for both trans formative learning in the work place and thriving self-organized teams. It is also a way to discover appropriate forms of metrics because it helps people apply multiple lenses of analysis to their work.

Critical reflection should be taught to teams through modeling. For example the coach disclosing his/her won process of critical reflection. Critical reflection should no be associated with self berating and putting others down or the culture of “telling it like it is” without regard for others.

Try the list of questions in the extended text to get a sense of how your work as an Agile practitioner (or whatever work you do) can be enhanced by critical reflection.

Continue reading Amplifying Learning Through Fostering Critical Reflection


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Agile Work Uses Lean Thinking – Empirical Process Control

This is Part 2 of a 3 part series.
Part 1
Part 3 – not posted yet 🙂

Some work processes cannot be perfectly controlled nor perfectly defined. There may be non-linear interactions between steps in a process or there may be creative input from a human required. Processes with these qualities require empirical process control.
The basic attribute of empirical process control constitutes a continuous cycle of inspecting the process for correct operation and results and adapting the process as needed. A simple example of this is detecting impending failure of equipment by constantly monitoring the operation of that equipment. For Agile Work, the book Agile Software Development with Scrum provides an excellent chapter about this topic of Empirical Process Control.

In human processes like those to which Agile Work applies, the frequency of inspecting and adapting must match the needs of the process. Many projects occur in the context of constant change. This constant change makes long-term planning a wasteful effort. Rather, short-term planning with constant feedback provides a simple inspect and adapt cycle. This cycle can play out at different levels: daily for a team, monthly for a client of the team. The team inspects and adapts daily at the level of the tasks that it is performing. The client inspects and adapts monthly at the level of the team’s actual delivered results.

Both lean and agile methods claim to increase both speed and quality. Many people believe that there are four constraints in a system that can be controlled: speed (or schedule, or time to market, or process cycle time), quality (number of defects), scope (how much functionality), and cost savings (how much to spend on the work). Frequently, management believes that one has to trade off between these four constraints; spend more money, get more scope; lower quality, go faster. But in fact, lean and agile strongly support the idea that as you increase quality, you also increase speed… you just have to do it right.

In Agile Work, increasing speed and quality is done in three ways. First, increase the frequency and quality of communication among team members so that errors are detected early or avoided altogether. Second, drive the work with the creation and execution of automated testing. No work is done without a test in place to check if it is done correctly. This constant testing means that work is always defect-free and therefore very little time/money is spent on fixing defects. Third, eliminate wasteful work steps or obstacles to performance of work. This last one is difficult to do an bears closer examination.

Wasteful work is done in every process, no matter how efficient. Lean tells us that there are several types of waste in a manufacturing process. Those types of waste have analogies in Agile Work. For example, documenting something you plan to do instead of just doing it is wasteful. Another example is waiting while someone completes work that you depend upon. Any step or task that does not add value to the final product of an effort is waste. This standard is very high and most organizations have about 80% of their efforts going into wasteful tasks. An organization that has done an initial cut of wasteful work might stand at about 50% waste. The leanest organizations, such as Toyota, stand at about 20% waste.

Agile work eliminates waste in the form of barriers or obstacles that come up when a team is trying to go fast. Sometimes this is in the form of waiting for another group to do something for the agile team… an outsourced request for service. Sometimes waste is in the form of corporate standards or policies around documentation of work. The Process Facilitator role in an agile team has responsibility for working with the team and others to help overcome these obstacles.


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Is There a Single “Most Important” Agile Work Practice?

There are a few times that I have been involved with implementing agile pratices without management knowledge or direct support. In these cases it has usually been necessary to gradually introduce the practices. An unsupportive or apathetic environment cannot be changed instantly and big-bang introduction of agile tends to bring too much negative attention too quickly.

In reflecting on those experiences, as well as “normal” agile implementations, I have felt that there are some specific practices that can stand alone.

Self-Organizing Teams

The practice of a self-organizing team consists of frequent regular status meetings, face-to-face, reporting to the other team members accomplishments, work commitments and obstacles. Scrum has a very strict method of doing this on a daily basis but I have found it valuable to do more or less frequently depending on the team and its environment (generally any less than every second day is not enough). The team, or some assistant of some sort, tracks the barriers and works to resolve them quickly. Management, if it exists, must be contacted through trusted channels to assist with the removal of barriers. And stakeholders must be able to attend the status meetings or receive reports immediately after the meetings.

This single practice tends to have the ability to bootstrap the others. The identification and clearing of barriers provides a way for the team to practice all three Agile Work Disciplines (Empower the Team, Amplify Learning, Eliminate Waste). Reporting accomplishments to the other team members Amplifies Learning. Committing to work is empowering.

Some teams have done only this single agile practice and seen great improvements in productivity, morale, and stakeholder satisfaction. However, there are some pitfalls that must be acknowledged and dealt with.

Pitfall: Speculative Work

The team can tend towards speculative work if there is no strong representative of the stakeholders. This does not always happen since most people are sincere in their desire to “make a difference”. However, if as a team you adopt only this practice and find yourselves doing lots of “what-if?” or “wouldn’t it be neet if…” or “what exactly is our purpose?” discussions, then you need to find some external stakeholder support for your effort.

Pitfall: Failing to Deliver

In many organizations, failure to deliver is an endemic problem and a self-organizing team will break through and start delivering. However, failure to deliver can also become a cultural mindset for an organization or group. A self-organizing team must maintain a goal (not a plan) for itself, and that goal must include delivering something valuable. Again, finding an external stakeholder to support the team’s efforts can help to avoid this pitfall.

Pitfall: No Barriers

Sometimes a team will get into a habit where no new barriers are being exposed. This can often happen when the progress in the work becomes steady and is recognizably better than it was before. The team falls into a “local optimum”. In this case, the team needs a fresh way to view their work. This can happen in a number of ways: a crisis, an external observer, or a change in environment among others.

Do you have experience with successful but incomplete agile implementations? I would love to hear of other experiences and opinions about this.


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Agile, the Adult Educator and Ethical Considerations

A review of Tara J. Fenwick’s “Limits of the Learning Organization: A Critical Look” (article found in Learning for life: Canadian readings in adult education).

This article is a critique of learning organization literature (as presented in the works of Peters, Senge, Watkins, Marsick, Argyris, Schon and others). I chose to do a review of it because learning organization literature can and does inform the work of Agile practitioners. The writer, Tara Fenwick, offers a critique of this literature as an academic and practitioner in the field of adult education. Even though the language and tone of the article is judgmental and at times affronting to the corporate trainer audience, it is never-the-less challenging and valuable because she raises interesting ethical questions that can serve as cautions against potential trends that can distort agile practice. I will summarize her argument in the some of the areas most relevant to Agile practice.

Fenwick’s summary of the model of learning organization found in the literature, is an organization that: “creates continuous learning opportunities, promotes inquiry and dialog, encourages collaboration and team learning, establishes systems to capture and share learning, empowers people toward collective vision and connects the organization to its environment.”

The following is a summary list of some of Fenwick’s critiques:

Who’s Interests are Served
Although the learning organization literature holds great promise for a more humanitarian and egalitarian workplace, it has the potential to distort learning “into a tool for competitive advantage” and in turn, exploit people as resources in the pursuit of profit. To explore this idea she asks a valuable question: “Who’s interests are being served by the concept of learning organization, and what relations of power does it help to secure?” She argues that learning organization literature tends to serve the interests of educators working as trainers in organizations and managers interested in their own self preservation.

How Learning is Defined
Learning, in learning organization literature seems to be defined as that which benefits the organization, all other learning falls into the dysfunctional category. This perspective negates other ways that people create meaning and learn and potentially causes a person to become “alienated from their own meaning and block flourishing of this learning into something to benefit the community.”

Assumptions about Learners
The learning organization literature subordinates employees by seeing them as “undifferentiated learners-in-deficit”. Educators and managers are the architects of the learning organization while employees are busy “learning more, learning better and faster” trying to correct their knowledge deficit. In the learning organization workers become responsible for the health of the organization without the authority to determine alternative ways to reach that health. The fear of being left behind in a quickly changing market environment is used to create anxiety and fear as motivations for learning. All of these factors serve to put serious limits on the potential of people to learn in the work environment.

Diversity and Privilege Overlooked
Perspectives of race, class and gender -which research has shown affects the way people learn and collaborate- are lacking in the literature. Fenwick challenges the notion of achieving a democratically ideal situation for open dialog -that the learning organization literature calls for- when all people in the work place do not “have equal opportunity to participate, reflect, and refute one another” (for example because of the status of ones job, character, gender, class, age etc.)

Fenwick sheds a clear light on where the good philosophies of the learning organization are found wanting. The Agile community can benefit from asking some of the same ethical questions she asks in relation to our work. Her critique is a good challenge for Agile practitioners. It challenges us to:

  • Continue to strive for higher levels of ethical excellence in our work
  • To consider issues of power in our work
  • To become conscious of how we use our own power
  • To give thought to what voices are included / excluded in the creation of the learning organization
  • Pay attention to how we motivate learners
  • How to foster collaborative environments that are conscious of the privileging of some over others
  • Think about who decides what is valuable knowledge and learning and how that affects the knowledge creation process

Reflecting on these issues will go a long way to contributing to the development of agile practice.

The full text of an old version of Fenwick’s article can be found here.


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Agile Coach/Mentor Job Description (Process Facilitator)

Given the Agile Axioms and Disciplines then an agile coach or mentor should have some really specific experience and capabilities. This list constitutes a first attempt at a job description.

Continue reading Agile Coach/Mentor Job Description (Process Facilitator)


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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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