Here’s a slightly off-topic, but nevertheless excellent read: “The Inner Ring” by C S Lewis. This is a talk given by C S Lewis to what seems to be a group of university students. In it, he describes the notion of the inner ring and the desire to be “in”. It is amazing how much our culture in North America and our corporate culture is driven by this desire. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is good or bad.
Last night I was thinking more about the analogy of technical debt. In this analogy, design and quality flaws in a team’s work become a “debt” that must eventually be paid back. This analogy is fantastic because it can be taken just a little bit further to understand just how bad defects are…
Agile Work consists of seven core practices. These practices form a solid starting point for any person, team or community that wishes to follow the Middle Way to Excellence.
Any group of people that wish to be an Agile Team need to take the initiative to determine for themselves how they are going to work (process) and how they are going to do the work (product). The term “team” really applies quite broadly to any size group of people that are working together towards a common goal.
Teams go through stages of development as they perform their work. The most important result of team development is the team itself, and not the specific skills and abilities that the individuals learn.
If the team is part of a broader organization, that organization must give the team the authority, space and safety to learn to be self-organizing. The organization’s leadership is responsible for determining the “why?”, some constraints on “how?”, and then letting the team respond to the need as best as it can.
Also Known As: Whole Team (Extreme Programming), Cross-Functional Team (business management).
Agile Work uses short fixed periods of time to frame the process of delivering something of value. Each of these iterations or timeboxes is structured so that the team or group actually finishes a piece of work and delivers it to stakeholders. Then, the team builds on what has previously been delivered to do it again in the same short amount of time.
The sooner that valuable results can be delivered, the more value can be obtained from those results. This extra value is derived from opportunities such as earlier sales, competitive advantage, early feedback, and risk reduction.
There is an explicit tradeoff: the shorter the time to delivery, the smaller the piece of value will be. But, like investing in one’s retirement account, the earlier you start, even with small amounts of money, the better off you are in the long run.
Also Known As: Sprint (Scrum), Iteration (Extreme Programming), Timeboxing (generic), Time Value of Money (accounting).
Plan to Learn
Every type of work is governed by a Horizon of Predictability. Any plan that extends beyond this horizon of predictability is bound to fail. Agile work uses an explicit learning cycle tied in with the planning of work to accomodate this inevitable change.
First, a goal is required. This goal can be long-term. Teams using Agile Work then create a queue of work items to be done in order to reach this goal. Each iteration, some of these items are selected, finished and then the queue is adjusted. The changes in the work queue are based on external factors, and learning that the team does as it goes.
One of the most effective methods for the team to learn about how it is doing its work is the retrospective. After each delivery of results, the team holds a retrospective to examine how it can improve.
Also Known As: Inspect and Adapt (Scrum), Kaizen (Lean), Adaptive Planning (generic).
A team needs to have effective means of communicating, both amongst team members and also to stakeholders. To Communicate Powerfully, a team needs to prefer in-person communication over distributed communication. Synchronous over asynchronous communication. High-bandwidth over low-bandwidth communication. Multi-mode communication over single-mode communication.
The results of failing to communicate powerfully include wasted time for waiting, misunderstandings leading to defects or re-work, slower development of trust, slower team-building, and ultimately a failure to align perceptions of reality.
The single most effective means to communicate powerfully, is to put all the team in a room together where they can do their work, every day for the majority of the work time.
Some types of work do not lend themselves to this approach (e.g. creating a documentary video), but every effort should be made to improve communication.
Also Known As: Visibility (Scrum), Whole Team and Team Room (Extreme Programming), War Room (business management).
Defects are one of the most critical types of waste to eliminate from a work process. By testing everything, by driving all the work of a team by creating test cases to check the work, a team can reach extremely high quality levels. This ability to prevent defects is so important that only an executive level decision should be considered sufficient to allow defects into a work process. Quality is not negotiable.
In Agile Work, removing a defect is the only type of work that takes priority over any new features/functionality/production. If the end result desired is to maximize value, then removing defects is an important means to that end.
A team has an ethical duty to discover new ways to effectively test their work. This can be through the use of tools, various feedback mechanisms, automation, and good old problem-solving abilities.
Also Known As: Canary in the Coal Mine (Scrum), Test-Driven Development (Extreme Programming), Defects per Opportunities (Six-Sigma).
Since Reality is Perceived, it is important for an agile team and organization to have a clear method of describing and perceiving what is important for the organization. Measuring value is a critical method for describing and perceiving what is important.
A single metric can be used to drive all the measurement and goal-setting and rewards in an organization. All other measurements are secondary and must be treated as such: limited in use and temporary.
There are many things which are easier to measure than value. It is often easy to measure cost, or hours worked, or defects found, or estimate vs. actual… etc. However, all of these other measurements either implicitly or explicitly drive sub-optimal behavior.
Also Known As: Measuring Results (Scrum), ROI (business management), Economic Driver (Good to Great), Running Tested Features (Extreme Programming).
Clear the Path
Everyone in an organization using Agile Work takes responsibility for clearing the path, removing the obstacles that prevent work from being done effectively. Clearing the Path doesn’t just mean expedient, quick fixes to problems, but rather taking the time to look at an obstacle and do the best possible to remove it permanently so that it never blocks the path again.
In the Agile Work method, the Process Facilitator is the person who is responsible for tracking obstacles and ensuring that the path is cleared. To do this, the Process Facilitator maintains a Record of Obstacles.
Clearing the Path is sometimes painful work that exposes things we would rather not deal with. As a result, it is critical that people build their capacity for truthfulness and work to develop trust amongst each other. Building a capacity for truthfulness is not something that can be done by using an explicit process.
Also Known As: Removing Obstacles (Scrum), Stopping the Line (Lean).
Remember also, that these practices must always be viewed and implemented in the context of the Agile Axioms. These axioms provide a check to ensure that the practices are not being applied blindly, but rather applied appropriately to the given situation.
Agile Work is a set of methods that are useful in working effectively and delivering value to stakeholders. There are many good business reasons to use Agile Work. There is also a very important human reason to use this method: developing trust and the capacity for truthfulness.
The coach’s gathering last weekend also got me thinking about the ethics of Agile Work and coaching. Is it okay to use agile methods for destructive purposes?
Every once in a while the del.icio.us tag for Agile turns up something really interesting. This evening, I found this article about the ongoing use of the term “Agile”. The article is brief and a little weak, but it brings up a concern that is always niggling in the back of my mind. Interestingly enough, a good friend of mine, Christian Gruber, emailed me another web page of similar import…
This list of nineteen leadership capabilities, hosted on the web site of a private school in Ontario, Canada, is inspiring and in many ways closely related to the work one must do in an Agile context. The list is written in the language of a moral or ethical framework. The whole list is interesting food for thought so I have reproduced it here as well with a few additional comments.
A review of Tara J. Fenwick’s â€œLimits of the Learning Organization: A Critical Lookâ€ (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: â€œcreates 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.â€
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 â€œinto a tool for competitive advantageâ€ and in turn, exploit people as resources in the pursuit of profit. To explore this idea she asks a valuable question: â€œWho’s interests are being served by the concept of learning organization, and what relations of power does it help to secure?â€ 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 â€œalienated from their own meaning and block flourishing of this learning into something to benefit the community.â€
Assumptions about Learners
The learning organization literature subordinates employees by seeing them as â€œundifferentiated learners-in-deficitâ€. Educators and managers are the architects of the learning organization while employees are busy â€œlearning more, learning better and fasterâ€ 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 â€œhave equal opportunity to participate, reflect, and refute one anotherâ€ (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.
A few more words are in order about how Truthfulness is the foundation upon which the three Agile Axioms rest. Taking them one at a time: