On October 21, 2020, I led a Toronto Agile Meetup “Quicktalk.” Here’s the promotional blurb.
“What is there about Agile that hasn’t already been said? Lots, actually, but much of it is “elephant in the room” stuff. We know it’s there, and it’s probably big, but we pretend not to see it. Maybe it’s time to start talking about it.”
One of the issues I’ve observed is that we don’t recognize our own dogmatism. A lot of people have a preference for one of the Agile frameworks. This can be for any or many reasons. Maybe it’s the one we learned first, the one for which we have our most recent (or only) certification, the one the “cool kids” are talking about, the one we know the most activities for, the one that “just feels right.” Maybe it’s something else. But we just know our framework, activity, method, process or other solution is the right one. We risk becoming a bit, well, fanatical.
There’s an old saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Are Scrum, kanban, SAFe, unSAFe, etc. our hammers?
What if our favoured flavour of Agile isn’t right for the context? What if Agile’s not the answer? What if we open our mind to the possibility that some other solution will work?
Do we talk about this? With our employers and clients? Amongst ourselves? Do we even think about this? Or do we introduce our preferred frameworks, structures, tools and processes and make everyone does them correctly.
Perhaps it’s time to think about how we understand the first value of the Agile Manifesto.
Which leads to another conversation. Agile practices were designed to replace current processes, not pile on. They are instead of, not in addition to.
In my long-ago Scrum training, people from a large financial institution, objected to almost everything our instructor told us. “We can’t do that,” they whined. “Audit won’t let us.” Maybe I called out, “How do you know? Have you asked them?”
As Agilists, our role is to improve the way people work, not add to their burden. Certain reporting requirements and other practices become redundant when teams work this way. Does the corner office really need that status report when they can see the work board? Is this security practice still relevant?
Conversations with our bosses, partners and clients can create realistic expectations. Can we have them? Do we have them?
The same sort of conversation can help us – and our
bosses, partners and clients – understand whether agile practices and actually address the business problem. Or which practices address it and which add no value.
They may have hired us to teach teams to use Scrum properly and get all those user stories lined up in Jira with the right amount of story points to the appropriate decimal place. How is that going to help our clients, our customers or our organization? Perhaps it does that. But do we know? Do they know?
When we have a constructive, two-way conversation about the practices they and we are introducing, we contribute.
Do we wait for the all-singing, all-dancing, all-ducks-in-a-row. super-technicolour Agile solution to come along, all signed-off and budgeted and staffed up with seals of approval all over it? Change does not have to be a big, hairy deal.
We can make change non-threatening – for everyone – by framing change as an experiment. Let’s try this small thing for a short time and see if it works. We’ll learn something. We’ll use the people and budget we already have. And, if it doesn’t help, we’ll stop it.
Nothing will convince people you are serious about experiments and empiricism like cancelling a change that didn’t work out.
A few days ago, a colleague asked me what I would recommend new Agilists do to build their knowledge and credibility. I suggested they learn about business – not just business, in general, but their business. We need to understand what are the business results organizations are hoping to achieve through Agile practices. Are we getting them? Is what we’re doing helping?
The software industry has done well to move from a process focus, to a program focus, to a product focus. The next focus must be an outcome focus. What is the point? What are we getting? How is it working?
One of the most disturbing things I have observed is a sort of “Agile Arrogance.” I see Tweets about, “these guys just don’t get it,” and comments about “management morons.” Why are some people so dismissive about people who don’t buy the ideas they’re selling? (Recall the dogma section.)
I suspect they define success in their as “people do what I tell them.” Is that really the deal?
We are hired and paid for our expertise and experience. We offer our best support in the best way we can. People, including those who hired us, won’t always take it. Recall Jerry Weinberg’s Third Law of Consulting: “Never forget they’re paying you by the hour, not by the solution.” Our job is to make the offer.
We offer our mad programming, facilitating, coaching, change management and people skills and experience. They are more likely to be appreciated, and our support accepted, if two other traits are in place. You can’t be certified in them and they may not show on your resume. But people know when they are present. They’re worth discussing – and practising – if we are to improve our profession and our own chances of success as practitioners. We need to develop humility and curiosity in ourselves and nurture these traits in others.
We need conversations about all these things, where we use empathy and confidence, in equal measure.
What I’ve seen, in over 50 years in the workplace, is that real confidence comes from knowing you don’t have all the answers and being OK with that because you’re going to find them – or you’ll find something better on the way.
In this era of social media influencers, anyone who’s read a book or watched a TED talk can self-promote as an expert in that topic. Now that we’re isolating in a pandemic and everyone is rushing online, I could be a legit distancing diva. After all, I’ve been working, coaching and training online since the ’90s. And I know how to use breakout rooms, polls and whiteboards on Zoom and have the power to mute anyone at will.
Unfortunately, I seem to want no part of it anymore. I’m not sure why, except that it worries me.
LEVERAGING TECHNOLOGICAL INTERMEDIATION
Buzzwords make you look smart, right? I see folks in my professional world believing, imagining or pretending that their online tools connect them. They judge that they – both people and tools – are being effective. They wonder what made us think work teams needed to be co-located. Unfortunately, no matter how good the tools are, they provide, at best, a shallow, fabricated, artificial connection. When work requires true collaboration, is real communication happening when we spend our days on Zoom?
I recognize that tools are what we have, as we isolate, temporarily, in this pandemic. And I’m rather fond of what Zoom has done and can do for me and my tribe. What worries me is my certainty that some business people, watching work groups make this ‘remote work thing’ actually work, are thinking, “Hey, this ‘remote work thing’ actually works; let’s keep it going. We’ll save on premises costs, travel and the hassles of dealing with people all day.” The cost issue, alone, will be attractive once the pandemic ends and the accountants tally the financial impact while the PR folk position this to maximize share price.
Worry Number One: What will be missing when technology is, forever, intermediating? Even deluxe, wonderful intermediary platforms (Adobe Connect, iObeya, D2L, etc.) require careful thought about what, why, with whom and in what context we are communicating. Are we considering these things when we set up – or sit through – the seventh online meeting of the day? Or when we reformat our highly interactive in-person workshops as webinars? Or when we move our annual conference to virtual? Or when we forget that there are still neighbourhoods without reliable highspeed?
Worry Number Two: Are we chasing solutions before we understand the problem? And what is the problem, anyway?
Yeah, yeah. I know about the George Box quote, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” I developed this model, years ago, when I was trying to get bosses, colleagues, clients in the business world to recognize that communication only happens when we make a connection. And connection only happens when our message, or content,
is aligned with the situation people are in, or context,
and the channel or means of contact
Context: So let’s start with breaking down the work. What parts of it can people do alone? What parts need collaboration? Do they need to see and manipulate screens together? Or can they talk about it and send each other screenshots? Who needs to collaborate with whom? Who has the info needed? These are context questions. You can probably think of more.
Content: Is the communication about transmitting facts (“Here are the sales figures for March.” “We deployed n times in April.”)? Or does it need a discussion (“What factors affect our sales figures for March?” “What led to the drop?)? Do we need images? Or will data suffice? Are we informing people? Or do we need people to make a decision? Again, who has the info needed? These are content questions. You can conjure up others.
Contact: Next come the means of contact questions. Here are a few big picture considerations. Do the people with the information have a good Internet connection? Can people get through the firewall? How long does it take? Do people know how to use the tools? Do they have company tools, or are children and a spouse also using the family computer? (That’s also a context question, as is the next one.) Do they have a quiet place where they can be on a call? (Yesterday, I heard about someone who, on a confidential call, had to Zoom from the privacy of the bathroom.)
The next step for generating contact questions would be to match tasks and tools. What can be an email? What needs to be a call? Do we need to see each other? How can we do that? Do we need to share screens? How can we do that? What’s the value of having [whoever] here? What’s the downside risk? What about this tool your brother-in-law recommended? Can we use that? Do we really need it? Will it run on everyone’s machine? When you work thorough that task-tool matching exercise, you may discover that you don’t need to spend seven hours a day with your whole team assembled on Zoom.
We can make working from home work if we’re thoughtful about the content, context and means of contact, matching tools to tasks. We can make it work if we remember that we are dealing with people, unpredictable, creative, quirky and oh so human. As I and others have said before, this is a weird time. Working at home is our response to ‘sheltering in place during a pandemic’ or ‘staying safe in a crisis.’ Let’s hope it’s temporary and not ‘a new way of working.’
I recently posted: “Google before you Tweet” is the new “Think before you Speak.” Since things posted on the Internet are forever, I thought I’d remind myself and others that it’s good to verify your information before pontificating. (I have snopes.com on speed dial.)
The same is true for reading the content before we share on facebook or retweet a link. Actually reading and checking what we post can preserve the illusion that we are intelligent beings. Otherwise we risk sharing something incorrect or inappropriate or pass on, as truth, satire from The Onion or Mooscleans.
Being asleep at the wheel when you are posting as yourself is merely embarrassing. But when you’re posting on behalf of an organization, it’s criminal not to have your brain in gear. So I was puzzled, today, to see a retweet of something I posted a couple of weeks ago.
Is this an organization rubbishing itself? Or is someone simply not reading and thinking before posting?
NovoED is the learning platform for an online course I’m taking. (A MOOC with thousands of participants.) Desire2Learn, based in my community, would seem to be a rival in the ed-tech space. (Yes, I Googled that before pontificating.) So why would NovoED repeat a plug for D2L?
One of my intentions for 2008 is to stop reading the comments after stories in the online version of the Globe & Mail, our national newspaper. They showcase uninspired and uninspiring nonsense posted by people who seem, with a few exceptions, to be ill-informed, ethnocentric, regionally oriented and partisan conspiracy theorists hiding behind anonymity. The outpouring of ignorance and intolerance is especially disturbing because these creatures are my fellow citizens. The news is bad enough; witnessing people at their least charitable makes it even worse.
It’s hard to be a Help Desk person. We customers only call when we’re angry or confused or both. If only we could just learn to enjoy:
- waiting (Kenny G is Top Of The Pops on “Hold” this week)
- listening to long multilingual messages that don’t make sense in any language
- bouncing between service people (I suspect they have a [Random] button to send us to other departments where we will hear, “That’s not my job,” immediately before they ask the obligatory question, “Is there anything more I help you with today?”)
- getting nowhere and taking forever to get there
In a bid to be the “ideal customer,” I have started to use my problems as entertainment, for both myself and Help Desk employees. I had a great chat, this morning, with someone at Bell Canada. He was wonderful and had the customer service spirit so often missing in call centres.
Call anytime, but it’s better to send e-mail – Yesterday, while I sat on hold long enough to tidy my entire office, the recorded greeting told me that my bank has extended its call centre support service by two hours. Nevertheless, the recording went on to suggest sending them an e-mail for faster service. The irony is that the purpose of my call was to clarify something about online banking. Hmmm.
A friend is using the time she spends on hold to write a book – I imagine there is a statistic, somewhere, revealing that the average North American spends 1.5 months of his/her life on hold.
Would you like fries with that? – Another friend revealed today that while he was waiting for service at a technology site, the system offered him the option of waiting with or without music. I guess they didn’t read the 2002 study by France’s Université de Rennes showing that callers listening to music while on hold underestimate the length of time they’ve been waiting. Next we’ll have a choice of musical styles. But will we ever reach a human being?
Poison IVR – Broadcaster/podcaster Jeff Hoyt has some interesting thoughts on yesterday’s subject of interactive voice response systems that seem to be keeping customers separated from customer service reps. You’ll find his entertaining “Voice Jail” recording at www.hoytus.com/?p=21