Reflecting on Agile 2011

This US-based series of conferences are quite different from the XP20xx series I normally attend. I last spoke at, and hence attended the 2009 one held in Chicago. The related Grand and Little America Hotels hosted this year’s conference in Salt Lake City turning into a pretty good host for the 1600+ registrants that descended upon Utah.

I think it worked very well as a conference venue because people spent more time at the venue than at surrounding attractions and the small but wide corridors and spaces helped make it feel more conversational than faceless crowd.

General Thoughts
An impressive eighteen concurrent track ran almost entirely throughout the five day period offering many choices for all types of participants from novice to experts. Like 2009, I found that there weren’t that many sessions that really provoked new thoughts, challenges, or entirely new areas to explore yet I enjoyed meeting many old friends and meeting many new ones as well.

Highlights for me included the initial keynote, sitting in a systems thinking session and the general vibe of the conference. I particularly liked the fact many new things were tried (experimentation and willing to fail all part of this) such as the Dinner with a stranger program or the way “Park Bench” setting in the very popular Open Jam space.

The rest of summaries of some of the sessions that I attended.

First day keynote, “Why Care About Positive Emotions?”
Interestingly many people, including myself were a bit taken aback when Dr Barbara Fredrickson first took the stage. Introduced as an academic and taking a softer style, I wasn’t quite sure how she was going to be as a keynote speaker, however both the topic and relevance to the way that we work really made a huge impact and I came away really enjoying it.

Fredrickson talked about why we should care about positive emotions, particularly in the way that we work and commented on the succinct yet ever-relevant Agile Manifesto over their more verbose one. She focused on two key facts about positive emotions:

  1. Positive emotions open us
  2. Positive emotions transform us

What the research indicates is that it creates more possibilities, more creativity, more resilience, and better performance. She also notes about the fairly well known ratio of 3 positive events to outweigh 1 negative event (and more is good) however in a very balanced statement pointed out that we also equally need negative events. Taking the “be positive” saying as an edict is not only harmful to the heart, but it masks negative emotion and produces insincere positivity.

I liked the way that she presented it as thinking about “nutritional value” and thinking about whether or not we’re meeting our daily doses closing with the advice of “creating the mindset for positivity”, not just pretending to have it.

One thing I plan on trying for the next two weeks is starting my day with a “Morning Appreciation” to reflect on what positive things I already have in my life.

Ron and Chet’s Lessons Learned
I dropped into Ron and Chet very raw and honest look at what they recommended as part of XP, and what they would change. I liked the way that they looked at some of the ways people took some of their recommended methods in XP and how they would modify it now understanding the passage of time.

Practices and principles they would still keep included frequent releases, simplicity, solid technical practices, reality based management and cross functional teams. The things they would revisit included the estimation and planning process (using points and velocity for planning) because it didn’t change people’s mindsets – only worked to satisfy people’s questions “when would it be done” and that “agile” was a bad name because it was too good.

Seeing and Steering Systems
Hosted by Esther Derby, this session guided us through step by step building systems diagrams to look at inter-related effects. The steps were quite simple, but my Teachable Moment was ensuring that when drawing the things that effect each other, use Nouns or Noun Phrases. This made a whole lot of sense to me because describing things as negative, positive or increasing/decreasing makes the loops difficult to understand.

The steps I came away with included:

  1. Start with the problem – Draw related circles attached to that central node that are affected. When done, draw related circles to those other related circles and keep going until you have a “Shape of the problem”. Looking at a problem this way may surprise you at who and what is really impacted by the thing that concerns you.
  2. Start “Finding Factors” by looking at inner-to-outer, outer-to-inner, and bi-directional forces. Brainstorm these and filter to those that are most important. Be sure to use noun and noun phrases that are neutral (or positive is generally okay)
  3. Build the links – with amplifying, dampening cycles and you end up with your systems diagram.

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