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To close my participation at LAST Conference, I’ve presented a follow up of the talk I’ve done at LESS 2011, talking about why I believe most organisations are not set up for learning.

In the presentation I’ve explained my thoughts on why I believe change programs are often unfair to employees, asking them to embrace change, but only the one that management is putting forward.

I’ve also talked about learning within organisations, product teams, and how management teams should step back and understand their new role as leaders instead of controllers of the company.

If it sounds interesting to you, there is more info here.

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It is well known that Agile (not sure about the big/small “A” thing, it always gets me confused) has gone mainstream nowadays. With big companies and conferences endorsing it, long gone were the days when you actually had to convince people this was a good idea… and that’s great!

However, with the early/late majority now adopting Agile, we are not talking about small companies anymore, and that means that the challenge is not how to get teams delivering better, but whole departments and organisations. So yes, scaling agile is one of the current challenges, with the preferred approach being the dreaded (at least by me) “Change Programs”.

I don’t believe agile is a fad or just a small team thing, since empowerment, short feedback loops and delivery of results it’s never going to be a fad and isnt IT specific either. There are many other examples, in different industries (errm… Toyota?) which show that the same principles can be applied successfully in a much larger scale, on complete different problems.

The problem begins though, when by scaling agile, companies try to scale the practices, keeping the control mindset, instead of scaling what’s important, i.e. the principles.

It is common to see companies, for example, adopting a hierarchical structure to create multiple agile teams, all “reporting” to a main office, killing most of what was good about the idea.

If agile in the organisation is the challenge, we need to think about empowerment, short feedback and delivery of real results for the whole company. Unfortunately, the more common behaviour is to talk about bigger walls, how to standardise velocity across teams and synchronisation of iterations.

And if we go back to the roots, and look at the manifesto, I believe we can find a good guidance of what can be done:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools: Instead of scaling processes and tools to control teams, why not increase the ability of individuals to traverse the organisation, making software developers talk to real customers and sales people talk to qa’s?

Working software over comprehensive documentation: Scale by making a working product the final goal, removing the necessity of internal product briefs, extensive training of sales staff and long delivery cycles.

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation: It is actually impressive how this still makes sense now. We just need to change the customer. It’s not the product owner anymore, it’s _the_ customer, the one who buys your product and pays the bills.

Responding to change over following a plan: Feedback, feedback and feedback. Not from a showcase though, but from the market.

Yes, if it feels like you’ve heard these ideas before, it’s because they are not new. Product teams are the way to scale agile in my opinion. Small and independent groups of people that can get to the best results in short iterations with feedback from the market, in a Lean Startup style. The game shouldn’t be about execution anymore, it is about innovation.

If you have ever been in an Agile project, or something that looks like it, you should have heard about the concept of spikes.

For those who haven’t, spikes are the agile response to reducing technical risk in a project. In case you are not sure how to build something or fear that some piece of functionality might take much more than expected, and you have to gain more confidence about it, it’s time to run a spike. Usually timeboxed, spikes are technical investigations with the objective of clarifying a certain aspect of the project.

In my current team, we are developing a few tools that are quite specific to our context and were not sure on how to solve a few issues, so we have been quite frequently playing spike cards.

This is all not new and I’m sure most of you have done that before. If you did the way I used to do, you would write a spike card, something as “investigate technology X for problem Y“, would spend 2 days doing it and would have a response for it in your head once you were finished.

In our current context, team members were rotating quite quickly, so we were worried that any knowledge we would get from spikes could have been lost if it was just…let’s say.. in our heads.

Not wanting jut to write the findings up, as we first thought about doing, we decided to tackle the problem with the golden hammer of agile development: tests!

So, instead of writing tests to decide how we should write our code, we started writing tests to state the assumptions we had about the things we were investigating, being able to verify them (or not) and have an executable documentation to show to other people.

For example, here is some code we wrote to investigate how ActiveRecord would work in different situations:

it 'should execute specific migration' do
  CreateProducts.migrate(:up)
  table_exists?("products", @db_name).should be_true
  table_exists?("items", @db_name).should be_false
 end
it 'should execute migrations to a specific version' do
  ActiveRecord::Migrator.migrate(ActiveRecord::Migrator.migrations_paths, 02) { |migration| true }
  table_exists?("products", @db_name).should be_true
  table_exists?("items", @db_name).should be_true
  table_exists?("customers", @db_name).should be_false
 end
it 'should not execute following migrations if one of them fails' do
  begin
    ActiveRecord::Migrator.migrate(ActiveRecord::Migrator.migrations_paths, nil) { |migration| true }
  rescue StandardError => e
      puts "Error: #{e.inspect}"
  end
  table_exists?("invalid", @db_name).should be_true
  m = ActiveRecord::Migrator.new(:up, ActiveRecord::Migrator.migrations_paths, nil)
  m.current_version.should == 3
  table_exists?("products", @db_name).should be_true
  table_exists?("items", @db_name).should be_true
  table_exists?("customers", @db_name).should be_true
  table_exists?("another_table", @db_name).should be_false
 end

We have used this technique just a few times and I won’t guarantee it will always be the best option, but so far the result for us is having code that can be executed, demonstrated and easily extended by others, making it easier to transfer knowledge between our team.

I’ve been thinking about and researching the topic of organisational learning for some time now. Last year, I presented on the topic at LESS 2011, but realized it was time to take some time and write about it. So this is the first post of a series to explore the topic, which I’m also hoping will help me clarify my view on the subject.

Organisational learning. Should anyone care ?

My hope is that this goes without saying, but I guess that the first question to be asked is why should anyone care about learning? Some businesses make money staying still, while the world keeps moving. Full stop.

While this could be true for established business in the past, it’s something that is not so clear anymore. Gary Hamel makes a good point in his “Reinventing the Technology of Human Accomplishment” presentation: Change is changing, and it’s much faster now than it has ever been.

The world is changing, and faster than ever, so (every) company has to adapt, not only once but constantly.

Why is it so hard ?

A company has to learn. If this was an easy task, it wouldn’t be so rare, but creating a learning organisation is one of those things that gets harder the more you try and control it. If you want to form a learning organisation, a few questions you might think of are:

  • What does my company need to learn ?
  • If I had to setup the body of knowledge necessary to run my organisation, what would it be ?

While these could have been easy questions to answer 50 years ago, nowadays, in this ever changing (specially IT) world, whatever you write as being essential today might not be useful at all in one year’s time.

And the big issue is that most companies are not setup to deal with this problem. Instead of an evolving structure, modern organisations still have a very hierarchical structure based on top down control, with the vision of a CEO (put any other senior role here) that drives the strategy while most of the company just follows.

They have Project Management Offices that dictate how to deal with projects, architecture teams that say what can and cannot be done and common policies that dictate behaviour for everyone. Bjarte Bogsnes  has a good tale about how companie’s policies try to establish control over the employees:

“A friend of mine works at SAS. Even if he is trusted to fly planes around the world, if he wants to change his shirt more often than what the policy states, he needs a written authorization”

So the common alternative to evolution in this kind of structure are the well known “Change Programs”. They try to implement a top-down approach to change, that can be explained in two simple steps:

  1. Senior people decide how to move forward
  2. They teach the rest of the company how to do it

While step 1 is always a success, step 2 is usually more troublesome that people would like to think. And it’s not hard to understand why, since the whole idea of a change program is quite an unfair proposition to the affected employees, which could be described like this:

“You have to embrace change, but only the change we want”

As expected, people resist. Peter Senge has a quote that explains this situation quite well – “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed” – It’s natural that most employees will doubt and resist something that they haven’t been asked about. I would, and I’m quite confident that most people would too.

And as a result, money is spent, time and most importantly people are consumed through the process, and not much is learned in the end.

So is there an alternative to this situation ? Do you agree with this view ? Let me know what you think

One of the challenges I’ve had to face a few times in my career was how to ramp-up a software development team, specially in what relates to knowledge sharing.

Why is it hard?

I still remember watching an old presentation from Dan North where he kept hiting on the same point, which was that there is always a story behind any decision made on a project. And that is the main problem I see when joining a new team: there is always story, and you probably don’t know it.

Working in a new codebase for me feels much like moving to a house in a new neighborhood. It takes some time until you know where all the shops are, what’s the best way to get anywhere and where can you buy stuff in the middle of the night. In a software project you don’t know exactly where things are in the codebase, it takes time to understand the rationale behind the design and you are afraid of making big changes, even when they should be made!

So when ramping up a team with a considerable amount of new developers, there is a risk they won’t be able to be effective for quite some time, or that in the urge to be effective they will end up changing what doesn’t need to be changed, being counter productive after all.

So here we go again

This challenge came up again in my last project, where we were starting to work in our second release and wanted to include a team of developers in China in what would turn into our new distributed team.

Gladly enough we were able to spend 2 weeks together as a colocated team in Xi’an, but still we needed to use this 10 working days to ramp up 5 new developers who had little or no experience in the codebase we had been working on.

This time we decided to try something out of the ordinary with some inspiration coming from my period at Thoughtworks University  (what Sumeet would call workscaping), in what could be described as a mixed of promiscuous pairing and very frequent showcases.

What does that mean ?

The idea was:

  • We rotate pairs every 2 hours
  • After each 2 hour block the team would stop and every pair would do a 5 min presentation on what they had done
  • We have a 30 min slot available at the end of the day for having a more in-depth discussion about topics that the new developers had doubts about.

Some of the benefits we expected to achieve were:

  • Everyone would work together quite a few times, improving the relationship between team members
  • The new developers would have an opportunity to touch different parts of the codebase quite soon, hearing the stories from the old ones about what was there and why
  • By presenting it back to the team, everyone would have a chance to raise questions and understand a little bit more about a specific topic
  • The constant sharing of information would enable newcomers to get more questions answered and deliver functionality quicker, which always helps with confidence

So the day would start with a normal standup, and after 2 hours the team would swarm and go around the room, hearing what had been happening. Pairs would then rotate and start again. Repeat that 4 times and the day is over.

How did it go ?

Overall the result was quite good in my opinion. Most of the results we expected to obtain actually happened, specially the communication within the team, which was great after a few days.

After one week of doing it most people started feeling the need of working more hours without interruption, so we changed our pace to 2 rounds of 4 hours and then eventually rotating pairs once a day, where we ended up stabilizing. Despite being earlier than expected, it felt like a natural point where people had enough knowledge to deliver and wanted to focus on that, which can probably be considered as a success.

Some time ago I’ve wrote here about a small distributed retrospective that we have done in one of my last projects. While it was effective at the time, I’ve recently been in a distributed project for longer, and had the opportunity to learn another lesson from Herry.

In our project together we had a team divided between Melbourne and Xi’an and have been running retrospectives every two weeks. To avoid the common problems of distributed retrospectives, our team was using a simple format that worked (and is still working) quite well.

  • We began by having a 5 minutes chat with the whole team present and setting the goals for the meeting
  • The teams would then go into a 15 minutes offline mode, where they would raise and vote for the topics they wanted to discuss separately
  • After the initial voting, we would normally pick the 2 most voted topics on each side and discuss them all together.

While it seems quite simple, the separation for the voting and initial exchange of ideas makes the the retro feel much more focused and better than other distributed retrospectives I have previously attended, and definitely a format I will keep using for distributed situations.

 

A couple of months ago I did a graphical facilitation training with fellow Thoughtworkers in Sydney. The training itself was excellent and gave us a much better understanding on how to use graphics to facilitate a meeting/workshop. Unfortunately I haven’t been in many situations that would allow me to use those skills lately, but wanting to somehow exercise them, I’ve decided to use graphical recording on my notebook to try to follow the presentations I attended at LESS 2011.

Here are some examples of the results. I’m sure I could get better at it but the fact that I’m able to look a t it 2 months later and still remember what was presented says to me I’m on the right track.



Apart from that, the act of recording and try to create an explanation of what is being said makes me pay much more attention on the content. And it also helps me perceive when Im actually not understanding what is being said (or it is actually too hard to understand..), which happened a couple of times during the conference, as you can see from this example.