Over the last twelve months, I’ve worked with a client to rebuild a digital platform and a team to deliver it. It’s now time for us to leave, and a perfect time to reflect on how things went. The digital platform rebuild was part of a greater transformation programme that also involved the entire business changing alongside at almost all levels of people in the organisation. The programme also outlined, before we arrived, outlined a complete change in all technology platforms as well (CRM, CMS, website) to be rebuilt for a more integrated and holistic service offering.
Our part in this program turned into building the new web digital platform, working against a very high level roadmap, and a hard marketing deadline. We ended up building the site using Ruby on Rails serving content driven by a 3rd party decisioning platform (much like Amazon recommendations) guided by the business vision of better tailored content for end users. We didn’t have much input into the final choice of several products. I’m very proud of the end result, particularly given the tense and short-timed framed environment in which we worked. Here are some examples of constraints we worked with:
- 4 Product Owners over the span of 11 months – From January this year, through to the end of October, the business was onto its fourth Product Owner for the digital platform. Building a consistent product is pretty much nigh impossible with changing product hands, and trying to bridge work from one Product Owner to the next was definitely a challenge.
- Constant churn in the business – The 4 product owners is one instance, but we would often be working with people in the business to work out what should be done, only to find that the following week they were no longer with the business.
- 3 Design Agencies engaged resulting in “reskinning” approved by the board before the 6 month public launch – We saw several “design changes” done by firms well stocked with people capable of generating beautifully-rendered PDFs that were signed off. However often these would imply new functional work, or be impractical to the web medium.
- Marketing deadlines announced well before the development team had been engaged - A common pattern in the business was marketing launching a press release announcing a date, well before the people involved in delivering it were made aware, or even consulted on it.
- PM Explosion – At one point, it felt like we had more Project Managers on the group planning out work with budgets and timelines that would be approved well before the development team had been approached.
Even with these constraints we’ve been able to deploy to production 37 times in the last three months and more since the original MVP go-live in July. Part of what I’m particularly proud of is the team where we were able to achieve the following:
- Building an Evolvable Architecture – We questioned the original choice and need for a CMS but with a constraint that a decision had been made on buying these tools, we architected a solution that would hide the implementation details of the CMS via a content service. With our TW experience and pain dealing with CMSes that are shadowed by business need, we wanted something that would not constrain what the business could achieve (hence the decoupling). We even had a chance to prove this out when the business requirements quickly hit the limit of the CMS’s built in categorisation module.
- Responding to Change – The business roadmaps seems to change on a daily basis, and our team was able to quickly tack to accommodate these business changes. We changed the team structure as the team size increased, changed the team structure as we went live, and again as people in the business changed. Whilst our process felt similar, it would look nothing like a textbook XP, Scrum or Kanban process.
- Improving the Process – Our team has been constantly trying to change the process not only internally to the development team, but also helping people in the business find ways of improving their own way of working. Progress has been slow as the change that starts falters as people leave. Retrospectives have been a key tool but also has the ability for the team to feel empowered with recommending and pursuing improvements they see fit.
- Setting an example of transparency – Showcases are key to the business, and we would offer fortnightly showcases to the features built to the entire organisation. Huge numbers of people came along and I found it fascinating that it was one place where people had an opportunity to talk across silos. This sometimes slowed down our ability to show what we had actually done, but I felt exposed missing communication structures that people still needed.
At a technical level, I’m really proud of some of the principles I wanted to achieve at the start and that the team lived throughout (I’d love to hear what their experience is). Some of these include:
- Fast developer setup – Getting started on each new machine should be fast without complicated installation processes
- Developers rotating through operations – There’s nothing like supporting the code you wrote to help developers understand the importance of logging, test cases that are missed and just experiencing what production support is like
- DevOps culture – Everyone on the team is capable of navigating puppet, knowing where to look for configuration changes and ensuring that applications are configurable enough to be deployed without special builds across environments.
- Continuous Delivery – Our second product owner (the first transitioned out the day we went live) actually asked for us to release less often (i.e. it is a business decision to go-live) so that they could work with the rest of the business to ensure they had their non-IT dependencies in place.
- Devolved Authority to Feature Leads – I blogged previously about Feature Leads who could help shape the technical solution and drive the knowledge for the project.
- Metrics Driven Requirements – Though not completely successful, we were able to stop the business from implementing some feature by showing them production metrics. In this case, we were able to avoid building a complex search algorithm to show that we could achieve the same result by adding to a list of synonyms on search.
- Everyone grows – If I look back at the project, I think everyone on the team has experienced and grown a significant amount in different ways. I think we struck a good balance between being able to work towards individuals goals and find ways they could help the project at the same time.
Other particular things I’m proud of the team:
- Taming the Hippo - Worthy of its own post, Hippo CMS has been one of the least developer friendly tools I’ve had to deal with for some time. The team managed to work out how to run an effective functional test around its poor UI as well as deploy and upgrade the beast in different environments without the 12 step manual process outlined on their wiki.
- Rapid team size – Management wanted the entire team to start at the same time. Even being able to push back, we ended up with a very aggressive ramp up and we still managed to deliver well.
- Diverse but co-operative – We had something like 17 people and 14 different nationalities and it’s one of the strongest teams I’ve seen who were able to work through their differences and forge ahead.
Things that I would like to be different:
- Find a way to code a lot more – Due to the circumstances, many elements drew me away from coding. At best, I can remember pairing with someone for at most two days a week (for a short time) and I would like to find a way to do that more.
- Implement more validated learning – Although dependent on a product owner willing to do this, I would have liked to work more on trying to build and experiment a lot more.
- Have a stronger relationship with decision makers with authority – I believe development teams work best when they are connected to people who can make decisions, not just organisational proxies who provide answers. Unfortunately I felt most of this cascaded very far up the organisation and due to the constant flux and organisational change, this wasn’t possible in the timeframe. I’m hopeful that as the business matures and more permanent people find their place, this will be more possible.
Another year, another agile conference. It’s time for reflecting on the conference and uncovering lessons learned. Dallas, Texas hosted this year’s Agile Conference. More accurately, the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine hosted this year’s Agile Conference. Loved by many at the conference (notably less so by Europeans) the resort reminds me of the Eden Project and a weird biosphere (see picture below) that is self-contained and fully air-conditioned. Although maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing with a West Nile virus outbreak in Dallas.
Needless to say that I stepped out quite a bit to try to get some fresh, if not, refreshingly humid air.
Onto the conference. It was very well organised, very well run and even rapidly responded to feedback (such as moving rooms when demand proved too much for some of the anticipated sessions. Food came out very promptly in the different breaks. We didn’t have to queue too long and the variety was pretty good. The only breakdown was probably the Tuesday lunchtime where it wasn’t clear we had to get our own food and with a limited number of on-site restaurants in our self-enclosed bubble world, proved to be a bit of a tight squeeze in schedule.
The people at the conference seemed to be a bit of a mix. Mainly lots of consultants like myself sharing their experiences, but as one person noted, an extraordinary number of agile coaches all apparently looking for work. On the other extreme there seemed to be lots of companies adopting agile and lots of people selling tools and training to help them.
Lots of parallel tracks meant lots of choice for many people but I often found it hard to find things that worked for me. I’m less interested in “enterprise agile adoption”, and more interested in the practices pushing the boundaries, or the deep insight offered by people. The few technical sessions I went seemed to be aimed at a bit more of an introductory audience. I particularly avoided any of the “do this with scrum” or “do this with kanban” as these appeared by be pushing.
In terms of keynotes, I thought they did a great job of assembling some diverse and interesting sessions. Although Bob Sutton (No A**hole Rule author) felt like he didn’t do much preparation for his keynote from the text heavy slides that jumped at different paces, he had some good anecdotes and stories to share. My biggest takeaway from that session was thinking about taking away practices just as much as adding practices, something that I think I do implicitly but should try to do more explicitly. The other keynotes were pretty inspiring as well, with Dr. Sunita Maheshwari behind Telerad talking about her accidental experiment moving into doing remote radiology to support the night-shift need of hospitals in the US and the interesting growth of their business. The other really inspirational keynote was by Joe Justice, the guy behind the amazing Wikispeed project taking sets of agile practices and principles back into the car-making industry. I felt he really knew his stuff, and it’s amazing how you can tell someone who really understands the values and trying to live them in different ways and then translating them into a different world. Very cool stuff that you should check out.
In terms of other workshop sessions, I left half way through many of them as the ideas were either too slow, or not at all interesting (such as one on Agile Enterprise Architecture that spent 30 minutes trying to go back to the age-old debate of defining Enterprise Architecture.)
Two of my most favourite sessions was one by Linda Rising who gave a very heart-felt and personal Q&A session that left many people in tears. Her stories are always very personal, and I really admire her ability to look beyond someone’s words and really uncover the true question they are asking with a usually insightful answer as well! The other session was listening to the great work that Luke Hohmann of Innovation Games has been doing with the San Jose government to change the way they make decisions about where the money goes through the use of games and play. Very awesome stuff.
I had my session in the last possible slot on the Thursday and had a large number of well known people in competing slots such as Jeff Sutherland, Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. I’m very happy with the turn out as we had a lot of fun playing games from the Systems Thinking Playbook including a number of insightful conversations about systems thinking concepts and how they apply to our working life. One of my most favourite exercises (Harvest) that demonstrates the Tragedy of the Commons archectype played its course and we finished in just three years (iterations) only due to a constraint I added early into the game. I love this exercise for its potential for variation and the insightful conversations about how this applies to agile teams, organisations and functions.
You often can’t come away from conferences without new references, so here’s the list of books and web resources I noted down (but obviously my summary is without actually reading into it, so YMMV):
- Thinking, Fast and Slow – A book on cognitive bias, thinking and decision making
- Human Systems Dynamics – Looking at how people shape mental models
- Organizing Genius – Another book on team stuff and the secrets behind “brainstorming”
- Birth of the Chaordic Age – The story behind VISA
- Perceptual Control Theory – Another resource on mental models, influence and decision making.
The morning started off with a keynote from Sally Spinks of IDEO talking about design thinking and their wholistic design approach to organisations and service design. From what I understood, her role involves “Organisational Design” which is an interesting concept that I initially balked a little at. How can you “design” an organisation and just expect people to play it out. Fortunately she answered that later in the talk about preparing for people to surprise you and to make sure you plan for that change. She talked a little bit about the history of IDEO moving from product design to service design to organisation design and describing how business models are the new units of design.
Being effectively a “change agent”, her most compelling message hit home for a lot of us. Set purpose. Do small stuff, tell big stories. Iterate on the purpose, do more stuff and tell more stories and keep going.
Another highlight for me was a short speech by a well known Swedish chef (in Sweden at least) called Jan Boris-Möller. He’s famous for a TV show going into people’s homes and cooking a three course meal in a a short time based on everything they have in their kitchen. He talked about leadership (setting direction for the kitchen), adaptability and understanding your constraints (e.g. catering for weddings on a farm where you limited access to power sources) and balancing personal creativity with customer success. He talked about understanding your customer and the contraints they work in. He gave the example that it is extremely rare for Swedish people to drink at lunchtime, but often drinks wine at dinner. This means that if you serve the same soup at dinner, it needs to probably be more intense in order to compete with the acidity in the wine.
He even prepared the wonderful evening meal for the conference dinner including wonderful creations including ceviches, foams and an intensely flavoured shot of soup. He
I also hosted an open space session called, “Succeeding as a technical leader” and had some really great conversations covering topics such as what makes a technical leader different from other leaders, their key responsibilities, their challenges and growth paths or how organisations help (or don’t) help them grow. We discussed items such as dealing with conflict, whether or not the role was needed and heard some great stories from the other open space participants.
I also later participated in the workshop, “Combining Usability and agile” involving both a little exercise and a healthy discussion on the different ways that teams integrate usability with agile. It was a small group but lead to some great examples and discussions.
At this year’s OOP Conference, Diana Larsen gave me a copy of her latest book, “Liftoff: Launching Agile Teams & Projects” and I promised to write her a review. I found myself with some time on a flight to Chicago and finally got around to reading it. I’m pleased that I did. It’s not a very thick book, but it’s definitely packed with great advice for teams from both Diana and her co-author Ainsley Nies.
Roughly broken into two sections, the book covers why teams should do a Liftoff and great recommendations on how to go about doing it. I agree completely with their premise at the start of the book – a lot about the productivity of teams and organisations often get set in the beginning. Whilst there is great value running a Liftoff even in the midst of a project, if one hasn’t yet run, it offers an opportunity for working relationships to start right at the beginning.
It many ways, the Liftoff overlaps with several of the activities we often run during a ThoughtWorks Inception (covered a lot in the Jonathan Rasmussen’s Agile Samurai book). During these periods, we try to help businesses shape the project, and even help them question whether or not the project should even run (fail fast!)
The book offers even more value by focusing on, given a project vision, helping align everyone in a way that helps them work towards that vision. The authors often refer to the trio of elements to cover including Purpose-Alignment-Context to which they describe some very practical advice on planning and running a project liftoff.
I like the way that they’ve also used a number of examples, including one for their own book, that shares examples of the positive impact that liftoffs done well can have for organisations. The book is dense with lots of advice such as detailing who should be involved, what sort of activities you might run, and a set of principles to plan and run your liftoff with.
The second half of the book focuses on agile chartering, making it relevant for teams working today in an agile environment, and who will most likely pick up a copy of this book. I see it as a useful example of applying the first section (liftoffs in general), to a particular working environment and making it more concrete as a guided walkthrough backed by even more real life stories throughout.
I see a lot of value in this for many teams. So many initiatives often get started that people forget about spending time on establishing a real sense of culture and purpose. The result is clear – a group of people that constantly “step around” issues, or a group of people all pulling in different directions clearly visible in the final solution.
What I also like about this practice, is that it doesn’t even have to be about software initiatives and is relevant for any group of people working towards a common purpose.
I think a lot of people will like the fact that it is such a short book. If you’ve read Diana’s other book, Agile Retrospectives, you’ll be familiar with a set of activities that are useful in a different context. This book doesn’t detail the activities that you might choose to run – I see this as too much for a book like this, but covers the important aspects around the thinking behind the activities you might run for your project liftoff.
First full day of XP2011 was a pretty full schedule as I had to prepare for two lightning talks on different subjects. Fortunately both of the topics were very close to my heart, one about learning using the Dreyfus Model (slides) and the other about Systems Thinking (slides). The second day started off with a great breakfast selection at the conference hotel before kicking into the keynote by Esther Derby. Clearly jetlagged, Derby used a set of hand drawn slides to explain her topic, “No Silver Bullets”.
Her presentation style was very conversational and I can’t say that the crowd responded very well to this. Perhaps it was their jetlag as well, or the way the room had been set up. Nevertheless, through many of her stories, I still saw many heads nodding and a really great response on twitter to the things that she was saying.
I’ve followed Derby’s writing for years and could only wish more people would be exposed to them. As a result, I found many of the topics and opinions I found interesting reinforced, such as failing to address the management layer inevitably means agile adoption hits a hard ceiling. Or the oscillating behaviour that results when managers attempt to react to a system with long delays in its feedback cycle. I appreciated the very vivid term, “Bang! Bang!”-management style describing the style of managers who seem to have only two distinct and opposing reactions to a system, unable to moderate their use and wait for systems to find a new equilibrium. If you imagine these two opposing reactions the result of a huge iron lever being flipped, hopefully you can imagine where the noise comes from.
Derby covered lots of different areas, quoting a few people like Donella H Meadows, “The original purpose of hierarchies was to serve the sub systems, not the other way around.” And the work that George Lakoff does with word association with metaphors in our everyday use. Raising self awareness of your own in built biases and metaphors is another key thing she emphasised focusing on the judgements, habits, feelings, thoughts, mental models, beliefs, rules and values we tend to be intrinsically governed by. I particularly liked the phrase she uses to help people uncover their own and others’ mental models, “In what world would this make sense?”
She told one great story about the dangers of measurements as targets, using the example of the manager who decided to “Grade developer estimates”. This manager decided to give A’s to those who estimated on time, B’s to those who estimated over time, and C’s to those who estimated under time. Of course, you can imagine what magically happened as people’s grades mysteriously improved.
She also reminded me of the work of Ackoff, who I need to revisit, and the great work that he’s written about Systems Thinking. I have only been able to refer to the Fifth Discipline as a Systems Thinking book, but I really need to read his other ones to see if they would be of use, or are more accessible.
David J. Anderson also reminded me of the importance to think in terms of the languages executives speak in order to better get our message across. He reminded me of all the great things that Ross Pettit has to say, although I think Anderson’s analysis on accounting for software development costs doesn’t seem to match with some of the data I’ve heard from Pettit.
There was so much more to the conference. Always the way great conversations emerged and the wonderful atmosphere of the hotel adding to the uniqueness to this event.
Almost five and a half years ago, one my first project in the UK, I built a constrained email tempting engine to be used by marketing folk with a small team of three other developers. I think we worked for about six to eight weeks to develop the entire application, including retrofitting its integrate its output with another system.
A year or two ago, we had some consultants return to the client who talked to one of the original developers who still worked for the same client. They spoke fondly of the good times he had on our team, and spoke proudly about the application we wrote. In the four years or so of constant use (they would revisit their emails at least once a month), the users apparently only ever reported one bug. He mentioned that bug (a special character in the email subject line) was also deprioritised from the original work we did. It was an enough fix and with test around it, was not a problem updating the system.
I certainly appreciated the feedback, particularly since you don’t always get to return to see the long term results of the work you do as a consultant, or even just as a developer.
Some of the great things I learned from that project.
Acceptance Test Driven Development is entirely possible
On a different note, coverage combining end to end acceptance test and unit tests meant we had 100% code coverage. It was never the goal, but interesting to see on this application it was entirely possible.
Never discourage people from trying new things
The organisation was rife with contractors. Not all of them entirely passionate. I love building great teams and the fact that everyone was learning, and saw things being delivered reignited people’s passions to do various things. I distinctly remember two events made possible by encouraging people to explore their passions and strengths.
One of the developers, interested in the User Experience side asked if he could do some user testing with the application. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but certainly encouraged him to do that. He did, what some people call Guerilla Usability Testing – grabbing someone who didn’t know anything about our application, and giving them a task list to complete as he watched them over the shoulder. Based on this study, we found out, to no surprise, the way we laid out the application didn’t make some of the tasks as easy as they could have been. We channeled this feedback into our interface and helped make life easier for its users.
The other event, a contractor, seemed to find his passion for developing usable software reignited. Everyone will know that swing applications aren’t the nicest things to look at. I remember coming in one morning to find that whole interface reskinned and redeveloped. It looked a whole load better than what you’d get with swing out of the box.
I found out much later that he had, by his own volition, worked a couple of extra hours one night to reskin our interface using JGoodies because he wanted make the interface attractive to users. Awesome stuff that would never have happened without encouragement to do “the right thing”.
Involving real users
As a systems thinker, I know that the purpose of the project should have been an intermediate step towards a bigger change. The real problem was that the organisation was a missing feedback loop from IT back into marketing. I knew that then, and I know that know, however being pragmatic and realistic, you can only do good things within your own sphere of influence. Trying to change how the entire marketing and IT department silos worked (or failed to work together) would take much more than the two or three months I was going to be there.
Fortunately, we had one person on our project who had worked for their company for a while and had a couple of good contacts in marketing. Whilst we couldn’t change the way projects spun up, we managed to get someone who was going to use our software down, early, and show them what we were building for them. More than that, they asked for somethings (that we could almost immediately turn around for them) and they were blown away that their feedback actually mattered and made a difference.
I appreciate good projects, and where possible, create those environments for others to thrive in. There are many good things to carry forward in these things and can only hope others benefit from it as well.
Benjamin Mitchell asked for my thoughts on this article at the start of the month. I’ve finally had some time to read it so I thought I’d share my thoughts. It’s much easier to blog about it than to tweet it. Mitchell is a big proponent of Arygris’ work and a lot of what Mitchell talks about resonates a lot about with my own observations in the world.
This very old article, published in 1994, still holds relevance to today’s organisations and managements. I think, if anything, it’s even more relevant as organisations look to adopt agile methods and thinking to help improve responsiveness. Argyris links back stories and observations back to some of the ideas he is well known for including the difference between single loop and double loop learning and theory in use versus theory in action (what you say versus what you really do).
What stood out for me was Argyris’ interpretation of “good communication”. He uses plenty of examples where managers focus on the “positive” to the detriment of covering over their own opinions and what they really think. These examples naturally fuel his arguments between unsustainable change and how these very actions prevent people from accomplishing any learning. For me I find it fascinating his association with “good communication” meaning communication that solely focuses on “positive” emotions.
When I think of “good communication”, I more think of effective communication. For me, this is more of the idea behind the interests-based negotiation talked about in the book Getting to Yes, or the ability to really talk about the matters that really matter like in the books, Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations. Lying, or hiding what you think is not what I’d call effective, or good, communication.
I still think that Argyris’ article has value and relevance for today. I see many of the examples of behaviours he writes about in managers trying to flex authority in order to empower people. I liked his description of a CEO “lending power” to people instead of trying to question why the system prevents people from taking action on their own. My only issue with the article is that he’s examples do not resonate strongly for me for demonstrating good communication.
I was fortunate enough to attend The Leaders Summit organised by John Seddon’s company, Vanguard. The day unfolded with plenty of people talking about applying systems thinking/lean thinking to various environments.
Given Seddon’s experience with the public sector, I wasn’t surprised by the large number of people from other public sector organisations. In fact, given the perceived ineffectiveness of many public services, I’m all for this enthusiasm and interest.
Some of my key takeaways follow, however it’s definitely worth while checking out the, very much more detailed and thorough, blogging from Benjamin Mitchell here.
Change is hard – agile transformations, same for systems thinking transformations
A lot of the presenters talked about the difficult positions they were in before looking toward systems thinking. They all had their critics, all the usual people not wanting to do things differently, and support or lack of support from management. For example, one speaker, Denise Lyons from East Devon District Council encountered the “That’s how we’ve always done it around here” mentality.
Another speaker had to sneak their change program through existing mechanisms for change and business efficiencies. Even the questions asked by the audience reflected this.
I found this interesting as these are often the same problems we see, trying to introduce agile values into the software delivery capabilities of organisations. Even many of methods for helping people with change were the same.
One of the questions we often struggle with, applying lean and agile to the software delivery part of an organisation, is should we really be working on the entire organisation structure. Listening to some of the speakers is that it’s worth starting somewhere and build on that success.
Rob Brown talks about the long changes still to go rolling systems thinking out to the rest of the organisation, but there was plenty of value already generated by implementing it in that area. For example, they still have to deal with the HR challenges of annual appraisals and all the budgeting games of the larger organisation.
All the speakers emphasised the way of starting small, and building on that success. Of course, this still ensures that you take as large of a systemic view as much as possible. Some of the constraints will be out of your control.
Labels don’t really matter
As much as everyone used the labels of the Vanguard consultants, I found it refreshing to hear about people really understanding the ideas behind lean thinking from a systems perspective without getting too hung up on the labels. One of the people talked about instead of “interventions”, they did “reviews”. It was also refreshing to get Dr Steven Allder, someone who came to systems and lean thinking through Peter Senge who didn’t use the same labels but you could see the same thinking behind it.
Mark’s tweets got me thinking when I tweeted a short number of responses back at him recetly. Unfortunately twitter isn’t a great place to have a long and well thought conversation and figured I would blog about it like Mark did.
The gist of the conversation seem to float around two positions that seem to be in conflict.
Most people read this position and (incorrectly) deduce, someone’s behaviour is solely determined by their environment (or system) therefore, it is best to focus on one of them.
Mark makes a great observation that people perform “differently” given they have the same environment. In an environment, sometimes those “differences” may be “better”.
To which I responded in the brevity required by 140 characters, “different strengths and interests at play. Emergent behaviour based on individual and environment.”
Emergent behaviour in this case can be seen as much more than just strengths and interests at play. People are complex systems and highly unpredictable. Each individual goes through many different experiences. Just as an example, everyone’s commute around London is different. Train failure? Tube strike? Traffic on the street? Walking to work? Everyone has different social structures – sleep deprivation from young kids, happiness from a child’s graduation, hard night out celebrating a friend’s send off. Even the weather has a huge impact on people (though everyone responds differently).
It’s rare that I think we are all in the “same” environment all the time.
Add in the topics you’re currently interested in, the events unfolding around you and regardless of the system, and the skills, strengths at play and ambitions, I hope you start to understand why everyone behaves differently. Of course some of those elements in the system have minor impact on the end result yet might explain why some perform “better” (i.e. differently) to others.