The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Books (Page 4 of 6)

Book Review: The Human Side of Agile

A majority of books in the agile space always relate to the practices talked about in various methodologies, if not focusing on the methodologies themselves. With the Agile Manifesto talking about Individuals and interactions over Processes and Tools our community seemed to have missed a bit about how you go about building better interactions between individuals.

The Human Side of Agile

Fortunately a community member, Gil Broza wrote a book called The Human Side of Agile: How to Help Your Team Deliver. Gil was kind enough to send me a book a while back, but it was only on this trip to Agile Brazil that I managed to find the time read and reflect upon what I learned in the book.

My first impressions about the book is that it covers a solid range of topics. It addresses the role of leadership, strategies for getting to the ideal “self-empowered team” and useful advice on practical topics such as communication, meeting facilitation and about how to go about constantly improving. These are all topics that are often skipped, assumed easy, and are also the topics many people ask about at conferences. Fortunately Gil has been able to put a lot of practical advice, peppered with some great stories about what impact some of these ideas might have on the team.

The book is laid out in a series of questions, and so I can imagine people finding it particularly useful in a, “What do I do here?” situation. He covers topics some might avoid such as how to deal with behaviour seen as potentially destructive to the interactions of a team as well as dealing with the fact that people change in organisations and advice on how to deal with it.

This book provides a much needed guide to our industry where there was a big gap before. The writing is clear, easy to digest and quite approachable. Definitely one to add to any essential agile reading list.

Book Review: Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management

Workplace Management On my most recent plane trip, I got a chance to read Taiichi Ohnos Workplace Management: Special 100th Birthday Edition. It’s a book, translated and written down from a series of narratives and distilled into a small set of digestible chapters full of short stories. It has a pretty great representation of many of his ideas, and is a great read about the philosophy and attitude behind Toyota, and ultimately the movement classified as lean thinking/manufacturing, etc.

I found the book sometimes jarring, perhaps it’s just the conversational style and the translation that means it’s a bit halting. The constant references to manufacturing terminology also makes it slow to digest, but I find it fascinating to see how many of these ideas easily translate into the world of software as well. The book touches upon a little bit of thing when he goes on to analyse the difficulties of the “white collar workers” and how it’s much harder for them to “go to the gemba” to see the results.

Much of the advice is still appropriate today. Many take aways reinforce many of the ideas espoused by many of the lean movements such as tool makers should not be separated from the tool users, or they end up creating tools that are not useful. The idea that improvement cannot be mandated centrally, away from the “gemba” but must be done by the people “on the gemba”.

The book also starts off with his attitudes towards people being human, the the problems that we have with our own mental models or misconceptions that lead us to be wrong. Chapters like “The wise men mend their ways” and “If you are wrong, admit it” are good examples of how to cope with these human traits.

The book is a short read, and is full of nice little soundbites. Probably my favourite out of the book is:

“There are so many things in this world that we cannot know until we try something. Very often after we try we find that the results are completely the opposite of what we expected, and this is because having misconceptions is part of what it means to be human”, in the Chapter: “If you are wrong, admit it”

Book Review: The Coaching Bible

I’ve had this book sitting around for a while, but I thought I should get around to reading it. The snow in London and the cold weather gives me a perfect reason to get through a little bit more reading. The Coaching Bible: The essential handbook focuses on some of the skills an effective coach requires, and introduces a few tools that a coach can use.

The Coaching Bible

The book is largely domain agnostic, although the coaching examples they use tend to be focused on a business context (i.e. not life coaching, sports coaching or agile coaching). I think that makes it quite accessible to any person interested in developing coaching skills, but aren’t necessarily looking to be a full-time coach themselves.

They introduce this “Multi-modal” coaching model made up of four different perspectives a coach can focus on:

  • Logical levels – Beliefs (why), Environment (where, when), Behaviours (what), Capability (how), Identity (who). A good point is that an effective coach considers which logical level to focus on and where their efforts might have the most impact. Doing so at the wrong logical level leads to frustration and an ineffective coaching relationship
  • Remedial versus Generative Continuum – Coaching falls along a spectrum, of whether or not it needs to be targeted at a specific instance (remedial) or outcome, or help with exploring options (generative). Once again, consider what is most appropriate for the situation.
  • Systemic Context – With a strong nod to one of my favourite books on systems thinking, The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization: Second edition, the idea here is that coaches are working with people who are working in a larger environment that drives their behaviour. It’s useful to step back and view this larger context, and explore it as part of the coaching conversations
  • Interpersonal-intra psychic continuum – Lastly, and the one I understood the least, is the idea of trying to not simply focus on external relationships/observations but also to think about exploring the inner beliefs and internal drivers of the coachee.

I agree with quite a number of the other chapters in the book and I think they offer quite a number of practical examples and advice on items a coach focuses on, such as “Building the Alliance” with a client (agree on how/when to meet, develop an agenda, establish goals and how to measure progress) and the importance of identifying the “Mind-Body-State” necessary for both you as a coach, and the coachee to have a healthy conversation.

One of the most useful resources for a new coach is also found in the appendix, referring to core competencies outlined by the International Coach Federation.

The Retrospective Handbook – Now in Print

Last year, I announced the digital version of The Retrospective Handbook being released. As much as I feel digital books are important, I am one of those people who like reading using a physical copy of a book. It’s great for you, and it’s also a great way to give one away. And now you can too!

The Retrospective Handbook

The print copy of the book is now available via Amazon (all the links are below). Buy one for you, your team or as a gift today.

Book Review: Getting Naked

Getting Naked sat on my list of reads for a while, and it was only recently that I tracked down a copy. A “business novel”, the book describes the style of consulting through a story line, and a pretty interesting one (for a business novel). It follows the tale of the main character Jack Bower, working for a big consulting firm who acquires a much smaller but better of consulting firm called Lighthouse. Behind the company is someone he considers a rival, and is put into an uncomfortable situation trying to learn more about the way that they do business.

The larger consulting firm does business as I see traditional consulting – one with a very highly leveraged model of few partners all the way down to an army (find a better word) of associate consultants who do their research and analytical thinking. Their style typified by land-and-expand consulting that is generally more about the sales than it is about doing business.

Jack Bower goes down to see how Lighthouse run their business, skeptical of their approach. Firstly they have a smaller set of consultants, and much less leveraged with a much lower turnover. He is horrified to shadow the first client where he doesn’t see any background research done, no “presentation” prepared but they just go in and start asking questions about their business and what their problem is.

The rest of the book unfolds with a whole set of principles around the Naked Consulting idea that I think makes a lot of sense. In many ways, I like to think I see this in what I’ve seen very good consultants do. The book has a nice way of concluding the principles that I’ll list here:

Fear of Losing the Business
Put yourself at stake even when there is a risk of losing business. Honesty builds trust that wins over the long term. Principles include:

  • Always consult instead of sell by demonstrating value through serving
  • Give away business – advice is cheap, so don’t hold back even before they are a client
  • Tell the kind truth – It’s important to tell the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable. Be respectful but never avoid stepping around issues that others might.
  • Enter the Danger – Kind of feels like XP Courage value but requires you stepping into the middle of uncomfortable situations to fearlessly address an issue others are afraid of.

Fear of Being Embarrassed
Don’t put personal pride about idea generation and suggestion. Principles:

  • Ask dumb questions – It’s better to become informed in something you don’t know and often many other people don’t know the answers to the same questions
  • Make dumb suggestions – Offer many small suggestions to test for new ideas versus waiting for the “perfect solution”
  • Celebrate your mistakes – Being wrong is okay, inevitable and perfection is not expected. Acknowledging these helps builds confidence in others to take part

Fear of Feeling Inferior
Trying to look superior, or with a high level of standing or expertise. Client needs above the needs of others. Principles:

  • Take a bullet for the client – Being a sacrificial lamb can help the client in some situations, but is balanced out with the kind truth
  • Honour the client’s work – Show interest in the client’s industry/business. It helps to choose clients that are aligned with your own company’s interest. In the book, for example, the smaller successful firm turns down clients in industries it just can’t work in.
  • Do the dirty work – Don’t consider tasks “beneath you” regardless of your skill/experience and do it humbly
  • Admit your weaknesses and limitations – Ensure you know where your strengths lie and avoid covering up your own weaknesses in order to thrive in the best environments.


The book was easy to read, simple and had a very clear message. I found lots of similiarities to the way that ThoughtWorks conducts business and the skill I’ve seen with some of our great principal consultants. It summarises the approach in a very, clear digestable manner and I’m pleased to have heard of many of these things before.

Book review: Suckers

I like catching up on some reading when I’m on a long-haul flight, so the trip to Agile 2012 gave me some time to do some reading. I picked this book called, Suckers from my local library intrigued by its title on telling the truth being Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM throughout the rest of the book). It’s a pretty detailed book, looking very well researched and I think gave me a pretty good comprehension of all the different CAMs out there including all the gritty details.

Some of the book didn’t really surprise me such as many institutes often set up and made to create “certifications” to allow people to credentialise themselves in fields that don’t really exist (sound familiar to you agile folk?). Although I tend to avoid CAM theories on the basis of not knowing so much, the book made be realise how much damage they could cause just by being there. For example:

  • People who don’t know what they are doing prescribing things that are completely inappropriate. Often triggered through some subscription-based service/product scheme.
  • Less harmful is where people take money for ailments that really do-nothing.
  • More harmful is when people put too much confidence in these therapies and skip medically researched alternatives that may actual help them. The book told of one sad story of a man with cancer skipping traditional treatment in lieu of a “machine that generated light” that cost the quack a fraction of what they sold it on for.
  • Risk around unknown substances making their way into these alternative medicines where they are not regulated, therefore all sorts of elements potentially find their way into the final solution. They cited a number of cases where people ended up poisoned from some “other” ingredient added to the final pill to make it cheaper to manufacture

Interestingly the book covered motives why people would go for CAM therapies such as a distrust of the government and medical industry (out to make money), people looking for a “silver bullet” solution and the face-to-face time they get from alternative therapists when face-to-face time with doctors in the UK sees downwards trends.

I learned that the CAM world is much bigger than I originally thought. Yes they cover traditional ones like homeopathy, acupuncture, Chinese medicine and chiropractic treatment but there are whole realms of things I didn’t realise people actually believe in such as magnetic treatments, “healing stone” therapy, light therapy, wind therapy, and Ayurvedic treatments. One big surprise for me was that chiropractic treatment has not scientific basis, and therefore isn’t a very well regulated industry so be careful if you’re going to get anyone to crack anything in your back. You only have one of them after all.

I would definitely recommend this book for anyone looking into Complementary and Alternative Medicines. It’s easy to read and very well suited for anyone living in the UK (as they refer to the UK medical system and legislation often).

Reflections on Agile 2012

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):

The Retrospective Handbook

I’m very proud to announce the release of The Retrospective Handbook: A guide for agile teams now available on

I wrote this book as another resource to help agile teams make the most of their retrospective practice. It contains the distilled experience of facilitating and participating in retrospectives for the past eight years as well as the advice gleamed by talking to, and observing skilled facilitators from numerous conferences and agile gatherings over the years.

Author of Agile Retrospectives, Diana Larsen kindly wrote the Foreword for this book.

Book Review: Getting Past No

A long time ago, I read the very excellent Getting to Yes (1981), a book that described the difference between position-based negotiation and interests-based negotiation. The follow up book written by one of the authors, is aptly named Getting Past No in applying the same principles from Getting to Yes but provides a different technique when negotiating with another party who is unwilling to relent.

In the book, Ury describes the conditions that prevent people from getting to agreement, including your own reactions, their emotions, their position, their dissatisfaction and their power. I like the five step series that he outlines in the book:

  1. Don’t react, go to the balcony – A powerful metaphor that describes a thinking style of keeping your reactions from affecting the negotiation. Instead of giving to natural instincts of striking back, giving in or breaking off, going to the balcony offers a different alternative to approaching the situation. Take time to evaluate the situation as it will lead to the best outcomes for both sides
  2. Don’t argue, step to their side – What I like about this book is the way that Ury describes a collaborative approach to negotiation. Stepping to their side often involves acknowledging (you don’t have to necessarily agree) with the other party’s point of view. Until the other party’s viewpoint is heard, they are unlikely to hear your own.
  3. Don’t reject, reframe – Reframing involves using questioning and other techniques to change the game from a “fixed-pie” mentality to a “win-win” opportunity. Rejecting doesn’t progress negotiations. Exploring interests can. The point of this chapter talks about avoid dismissing the other party’s position, but instead trying to understand what their motivation they have behind it and finding a solution that might solve both sets of interests.
  4. Don’t push, build them a golden bridge – Ury describes this stage as one that takes time. If you try to close a deal too quickly, negotiations will break down. During this phase, you need to address unmet interests, help people save face and involve the other side in the solution.
  5. Don’t escalate, use power to educate – This section outlines a number of strategies if the other party sticks to their position and is unwilling to relent. The key to this stage is knowing both your own Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) as well as theirs. Ury recommends executing on your BATNA as this will reduce the possibilities of future transactions, but by knowing both positions, you can explore the consequences if both parties fail to agree. He talks about strategies such as using third parties and aiming for mutual satisfaction rather than adopting a victory mindset.

Book Review: Liftoff

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.

Liftoff Book

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.

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