Monthly Archives: June 2014

When playing pool in the kitchen is just that!

The other day, I was copied on an email at work. It was from the IT lead in my organisation.

It went something like this:

Last week, Katrina Kolt (that’s me!), took me on a tour of the facilities at the accounting software company MYOB. I was astonished to see at 10am on a Friday, two young guys in the kitchen, playing pool! No doubt, what they were actually doing, was collaborating on a difficult IT problem!

I responded:

I’m so glad you enjoyed the tour at MYOB. I did too. It is correct that it was Friday, and it was 10 o’clock, and there were indeed two guys in the kitchen, playing pool. I’m not sure though that they were collaborating on a difficult IT problem. I’m guessing that they were just playing pool.

What is true though, is that two team members who work hard, and then take time out to play pool together, will no doubt be able to collaborate on solving a difficult IT problem.

Agile values individuals and interactions and Agile processes promote sustainable development. When you saw two guys taking time out to play pool in the kitchen you saw both these principles in action.

When this guy, albeit in astonishment, referenced an Agile practice in that email, what he was really doing was acknowledging his learning, as a result of a field trip!

Purpose

While it’s nice to turn up, look around a groovy office space, say thanks and depart, if you do that, then you won’t be making the most of a great opportunity.

First up – don’t take someone on a field trip, unless you have a clear vision of what outcome you want to achieve.

I’d worked really hard to get the IT lead to come out on a date with me. We were in the throes of designing our new office space, and I needed this guy to understand how an Agile office fit out could support Agile practices in our organisation. Things like no desk partitions to allow better communication, break out spaces for collaboration, large white boards with video conferencing facilities installed, to allow stand ups between distributed teams and a large area to hold spontaneous celebrations,

Preparation

Make sure you provide background info to tour participants to help achieve your goal. In the case of this guy, who had no Agile knowledge ahead of meeting me, I put together an Agile primer. I engaged him in conversation about Agile ahead of the tour.

Your preparation also needs to include talking with the people who are hosting you, ahead of the day. Explain the purpose of the trip to them. Discuss a suggested agenda. Tell them heaps about who is going to be attending, what their understanding of Agile is, or is not, what level of detail to provide to the guests.

Explicitly check if it is Ok to stop the tour guide to ask questions, or to point something out to the people on the tour.

Check if it is Ok to take photos.

Playing on the day

On the day. Make sure you introduce the people who have come along. Don’t just say. Hi guys, this is my team from [insert organisation]. Make sure you make the tour guide aware of who’s who. This is John, he’s the  IT lead for my company. Use this as an opportunity to remind the people attending why they are here. John’s curious to see how you’ve set things up to support Agile because we are going through this process right now.

This is Paul, he’s our architect, and he’s designed a terrific office space for Envato. It supports Agile practices, but he’s keen to see how you’ve done it here in a much more scaled Agile environment.

When you see people “pairing”, then point out this behaviour to the tour participants. Don’t interrupt a stand-up, but listen in as chickens at a couple of different stand ups.

A good host will arrange for you to be able to chat with the Scrum Masters after the stand-ups, so that you can be walked through how different teams do stuff.

Use the different information radiators on the wall to initiate conversation. That’s what they are there for!

Make sure you thank your hosts and ply them with heaps of extremely unhealthy treats (in the proper Agile fashion) so that they can share these between the teams you visited.

The debrief

Immediately after an awesome tour, you’re going to need and want to chat about what you saw. Allow time for a coffee or lunch to have an informal conversation and compare notes.

But don’t just let the experience of the tour end there.

The learning bit

Make sure that you schedule some time to take staff offline for a couple of hours, so that you can do something with the learnings from the field trip.

After our trip to MYOB I collaborated with the IT lead, to design our new office space.

If you are taking an Agile team on a field trip, think about a workshop that asks three key questions:

  1. What Agile principles do we utilise in our workplace?
  2. What Agile principles did we see in action at MYOB?
  3. How can we adopt some of these to improve the way we do things?

You can create large visual charts with this info to display around the place, so that other teams can learn too.

The wrap

So, back to the IT lead – there have been a few wins:

  • He now knows my name!
  • I got to be involved in designing our new work space!
  • I now have an Agile champion in the organisation.

In Agile hills are epic

Hill-training

Some of you may be aware that earlier this year, I started running. This is something I’ve tried to avoid in my life up until this point, because, quite frankly it has seemed too hard. I always blamed this on the hills around my home, not my lack of fitness. So recently, while running up a hill, it struck me that a hill is just a mindset. To put you in the picture, my usual 6.5km run, starts with the steepest hill ever, followed by downhill, about 2km of level running, then up and down another hill, before returning on the same route.

Mentally, I tackle the run by breaking it into manageable chunks. Firstly there’s the uphill run, and it takes longer and certainly more effort, than the downhill run. The level part is really quite straightforward. I size the second uphill and downhill part by comparing it to the first one. It’s not quite so bad, but maybe this is because my legs are warmed up and no longer objecting to the cold winter’s morning.

At a certain point, during my run last weekend, I began wondering if my approach was because of my Agile mindset. Agile looks at a body of work and calls it an epic. Here’s an example of an epic: “As a student, I want to submit a Change of Enrolment form online, so that I don’t have to fill out a paper based form”. An Epic is further broken down into “stories”. These are the smaller chunks of work that need to get done in order to deliver the epic. These might look like this: “As a student, I want to be able to fill out a form and hit submit, so that I can get an acknowledgement of submission of the form”, and “As a student, I want the form data I submitted to be emailed to the faculty, so that it can be approved”. The advantage of breaking an epic down into stories, is not just because the work can be tackled in these smaller chunks, but because it’s easier to estimate the amount of effort required to complete these chunks of work and schedule accordingly.

In our team we size stories according to small, medium, large and extra large. When we go to size a story, we look at it relative to other stories. So in the case of the Change of Enrolment story, if we previously completed a similar form, we can estimate the size of this one, by thinking, that last time that form was a medium, and this one is more complex, so we’ll estimate it as a large. Estimation is run as a group activity in Agile, and this helps the team use their joint knowledge of our history of typical tasks to agree on an estimate.

Agile values relative sizing, rather than absolute sizing, because it acknowledges that sometimes you need to size something without all the information to do so. Certainly, it’s best to have as much information as you can, but given that there is often time pressure to define a project timeline, relative sizing, is a way you can develop a fairly accurate estimate.

So, back to my hills. It’s clear to me that sizing the hills, helps me break the run down into bearable chunks. I know, as I approach my second uphill bit, that there will be a downhill bit that’s just 2km from home. Sizing makes the run feel achievable. I’d even go so far as to say that it was probably estimation that helped me complete my first ever fun run – the Mother’s Day Classic, where I’m proud to say I placed 3775th! During my practice run, I even sized the notorious Anderson St hill on the Tan, as less grueling than the hill of horror near home. Right now, I now have my sights loftily set on a 10km fun run. After all, it’s just 6.5km with a couple more stories.

And finally … Agile up in lights at Southern Cross Station

Talk-moreThe other morning, on my way down to work in Geelong, I spotted the following illuminated sign at Southern Cross station, “Desk less, Go talk to Jen, three desks away”. Well, I thought, now it seems that even the Victorian Government is supporting Agile!

Agile emphasises the concept of communication within a team. Various Agile “ceremonies” facilitate team members conveying information to each other face to face. If you visit an Agile workplace, then throughout the morning, there’s a certain choreography around this type of communication. Teams will spontaneously get up from their desks, head to a spot where they can congregate, and whilst standing in a circle, they’ll one at a time communicate what they need to tell each other to keep the team’s work moving for that day. This is not a meeting, it’s a “stand-up”.  The aim is to communicate with each other, specifically on the work that the team has committed to completing during that sprint (iteration). Each person takes a turn to describe: 1) what they completed the day before, 2) what work they intend to complete that day, and 3) what obstacles they need to resolve, to move their work forward. It’s really efficient to be able to catch the right person to resolve an issue there and then. Conversations, usually go something like this, “I’ve just finished putting together this form, and now I’m finding that the thing won’t submit. Can anyone give me a hand to figure it out?” or “Katrina, can I catch up with you straight after stand-up to understand out how we move forward with ….”

In our team stand-up is holy! You don’t miss it, you don’t come late and you don’t waffle on about stuff that’s not directly related to completing the work in that sprint. It’s the one time in the day when you know everyone is present, listening and ready to resolve roadblocks.

Another ceremony that punctuates a sprint, is the “retrospective”, or “retro” at the end of each sprint.  This is not a post implementation review! A post implementation review takes place when a project has been completed, there is no opportunity to change things, and the project team may be on the cusp of being disbanded. A retro is the opportunity to acknowledge the stuff that’s going well, recalibrate what’s not working and address things we are still confused about. There are a whole bunch of creative ways you can do this, but essentially it all comes down to the team feeling open enough to structure their communication into three questions:

  1. What should we be doing more of (i.e. what went well)?
  2. What should we be doing less of (i.e. what didn’t go well)?
  3. What still puzzles us (i.e. what do we need to define more)?

Where a team is able to communicate comfortably, retro results can be powerful in continually adapting learnings and making a commitment to doing less of the stuff that’s holding the team back. Agile teams are self-managing, so they are empowered to make decisions on the sort of things that help them achieve the best velocity on their throughput, such as the duration of their sprints (work iterations), or how they estimate their work.

The outcomes of retros might look something like this:

  • “The way we figured out resourcing for this sprint really worked for me, because it meant we got through all the work in the sprint”
  • “It didn’t work for me that some people missed the beginning of our planning meeting, because it mean we didn’t have everyone available to commit to the work in the sprint.”
  • “I’m still confused about what our course of action is when we have been waiting too long for approval on assets to go live.”

Back to Jen, who is just three desks away. Agile hates email, and to a certain degree instant messaging. If you send someone an email, wait for the response, read that response and find you have another question, wait for the response on that question, you begin to understand just how inefficient it is to have sent the email in first place. Where you need to ask someone something, you look up, see if they are at their desk and go over and ask them the question. If it’s a question that will help a single team member or the whole team get on with what they need to be doing, then having a culture where you can resolve it quickly is essential.  Agile is an extremely respectful way of working, so if someone is focused on a task that they cannot deviate from, it’s also ok to say, “Will it work for you if we catch up in 5 minutes?”

In a well-designed Agile workspace there are breakout areas where a few people can go for a more extended conversation. These aren’t bookable meeting rooms, but rather comfortable areas where team members can collaborate for 10 minutes or half an hour as required. These physical spaces support team members coming together for spontaneous problem solving.

Where teams are geographically split, you can’t just pop over for a quick conversation. IM is useful, but tends to be a bit like sending an email and waiting for a response. The telephone is good and Lync video is even better. In fact, it’s sensational!

Given that adopting Agile communication, is not only effective, but also great for your physical health (all that getting up from your desk), consider giving it a go!

Lean coffee – not quite an Agile weight loss program

Geelong Lean CoffeeLast month I kicked off Geelong Lean Coffee.

Geelong Lean Coffee is a community of practice for people working Agile/Lean/Kanban in the Geelong area. We’re interested in diversity, and bringing together people who share common practices, be it in manufacturing, higher education, software development, eCommerce, business processes or healthcare.

Lean Coffee runs like a lean enterprise, so items for discussion are identified, prioritised and then discussed in a time boxed fashion – all in an hour. Best of all, there’s no preparation required and you usually have a few laughs along the way!

Since Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith conceived of the idea of starting a group that would discuss Lean techniques in knowledge work in Seattle in 2009, dozens of groups have sprung up. Jim and Jeremy didn’t want to start a whole new cumbersome organization with steering committees, speakers, and such. They wanted a group that did not rely on anything other than people showing up and wanting to learn or create.

Since joining Deakin University six months ago, I’ve been incredibly impressed with the receptiveness of the Geelong community to new ideas. Chatting to eSolutions staff and other professionals in the Geelong community, I was sure that getting people together to share ideas about doing things better through Agile could bring value to Geelong. I also saw this as an opportunity for the university to reach out to the Geelong community and show thought leadership.

That’s exactly what happened last month when 12 people from Deakin, and diverse companies across Geelong, gathered at Waterfront Kitchen at 8:00am to start talking. With just a few instructions, two tables of conversations about Agile happened. For the first few minutes we all scribbled topics for discussion on index cards, and then dot voted on these. Once these were prioritised in our “To do” column, we moved the most popular topic into “In Progress” and discussion commenced. At the end of five minutes we voted with a thumbs up or not, as to whether to continue discussion of that topic, or move onto the next topic. At the end of an hour, our “Done” column reflected a whole bunch of interesting topics we had discussed like “How to manage distributed teams” and “How to induct new members into an Agile team”.

If you are in the Geelong area and interested in sharing ideas about doing business better across the Agile space, then join us for Geelong Lean Coffee.

Party like it’s 1967

Party like its 1967The Agile stuff I’ve been introducing to my team has generated a lot of interest, so I kicked off a series of brown bag sessions at work, to lift the lid on Agile. These are informal introductory learning opportunities held over lunchtime.  People turn up with their lunch, their brain and if they like, some questions on the topic.

Our first session was titled “Party like it’s 1967”. 1967 was an exciting year. It was the summer of love in San Francisco, The Beatles starred in Magical Mystery Tour, The Doors released Light My Fire, The Monkees, I’m a Believer and Aretha Franklin, Respect. An unmanned craft, the Surveyor 3 was landed on the moon and sent back 6000 pictures. Martin Luther King Jr denounced the Vietnam War and tens of thousands of protestors marched on Washington. In Australia, Aboriginals were given the right to be counted in the national census. It was probably not good form for me to mention to my Geelong attendees that Richmond defeated Geelong in the footy grand final.

It was, whether you were around to remember it or not – BIG!

The aim of the brown bag, was to plan project “Party like it’s 1967” using Agile. During the session, attendees put together user stories to deliver all that was required for a groovy 1967 themed party. The user stories looked like this:

  • As the event coordinator, I want a venue, so that Katrina can hold her party.
  • As the event coordinator, I want music, so that I can evoke the atmosphere of 1967.
  • As the event coordinator, I want invitations, so that guests can come to the party.
  • As the event coordinator, I want food, so that guests can eat at the party.
  • As the event coordinator, I want entertainment, so that guests can enjoy the party.

Thinking through the venue story, the participants artculated the following acceptance criteria:

  • The venue can comfortably accommodate 100 people.
  • The venue has an area for quiet conversation and groovy dancing.
  • The venue is in the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
  • The venue décor has a party, rather than corporate, atmosphere.
  • The venue must allow pictures to be hung on the walls.

Whilst planning the party in an Agile way, the team talked with the Product Owner and learnt heaps of useful stuff like what the  the most popular colours of 1967 were – turquoise, pink, orange and sunshine! They also had the opportunity to be Scrum Master  for an hour and be involved in a self-managing Agile team. It was a fun session and the image with this blog post shows what the team looked like after planning “Party like it’s 1967”.

Can Agile help you tie knots?

square-lashingIt turns out that the stereotype about scouts and knots is true! The other weekend, my little guy had a scout event where teams of individuals construct a raft and then race it down the Yarra River. The materials involved were poles, plastic oil barrels (for floatation) and of course rope, for tying the stuff together. To provide some context here, the only thing between drowning in the Yarra River and getting to the finish line, was the competency of tying the knots that held the raft together.

My kid’s team quickly settled on the knot required as being the square lashing. For those of you who were once scouts, you may know that this is not a straightforward knot. For those of you who do not know this, you can consult the diagram in this blog post. As it turns out, despite all four team members being scouts, only two knew how to tie the knot!

The scouts had a time limit on construction of the raft, and as a self-managing team, it was up to them as to how they managed that time. It made sense to me that perhaps the scouts who knew how to tie the knot, might teach the two who didn’t. After all, a bit of time spent teaching others, could ultimately save time.

However, and this is where things began to unravel, this self-managing team didn’t take that approach. Instead they struggled to complete the 12 square lashings and didn’t. Two team members were frazzled and two were unoccupied.

It was clear to me, not just because it had been raining and the river was running higher and faster than usual, but because the raft was only half-finished, that it was destined for disaster. It sure was going to be amusing though to see what happened!

My son described the raft race as terrifying and fantastic. Unfortunately, without the full requisite of knots, the raft’s path to destruction in the river rapids was swift. Thankfully it survived long enough to get the four passengers safely to the finish line in time to win the wooden spoon.

In Agile, the concept of “pairing” reminds us that it is not only OK, but terrific for people to pair up and teach each other new things. It might take an hour, or a day, or even an hour and then another few hours later on. When you see two people sitting next to each other to jointly complete a task, it’s pairing. Sure, two people spend time doing it, but ultimately it develops the skill base in a team and means that the raft won’t break apart before it crosses the finish line. Also, next time a raft needs to be built, there’s four people who know how to tie the knot.

The sound of Agile

A few weeks ago, I took my friend out for his birthday. I’d organised to head to a free ‘Symphony Under the Stars’ concert. Before you accuse me of taking him out on a cheap date for his birthday, here’s the deal – I did the planning and brought along a sensational picnic dinner (OK, this was mostly “sourced” rather than cooked).

Sometime into interval, after the scrumptious dinner, I surprised him with the cutest double decker mini chocolate cake ever (this was homemade!). He was pretty chuffed, but then, knowing me as he does, his expression changed to fear, and he asked, “You’re not going to sing Happy Birthday loudly and embarrass me are you?”. I responded by singing Happy Birthday very loudly and encouraging those around us to join in, which they happily did. At just that instant, the orchestra had commenced their post interval warm up. I began to notice that their cacophony of warm up noise was morphing into some much nicer sounds… and so it was that the entire audience, accompanied by the 70 piece symphony orchestra sang Happy Birthday to my friend.

You guys know by now that this is going to be a story about Agile – right? In my team, we are making a bit of noise. When we’ve completed a story, the person who does the finishing, gets to have a turn on our very own toy xylophone to announce, in the most pleasant of ways, that another story is in the “done” column.

Halfway through last sprint, I noticed that we were well on the way to completing everything we’d committed to in the sprint. I felt that this called for a soundful acknowledgement, so during our standup the finale of the 1812 overture filtered through the office, complete with cannons. Was this disruptive? Well quite possibly, but all for the right reasons. It probably made people wonder what wonderful thing had happened. It probably also made some people want to get with the team that’s having the most fun!

It was however, pretty apparent to me after the 1812 overture incident, followed by Parrell Williams’ Happy and Alex Lloyd’s Amazing, (when we did complete all the stories in the sprint), that the team was finding my musical taste a bit eclectic (read “only suitable for those over 40”). I countered with a competition to supply some music we can use when we are happy, excited, kick some goals, or finish a nasty story. Hinting at a past spent in too many 80s dance clubs, one team member came back to me with the sounds of an all-night party mix of Sing hallelujah, Such a good feeling and Ride on time!

Happy-AppleOur other sound is that of our cheery faced 1970s retro toy – Happy Apple. When you tap him, he emits a very soothing chimey sound. Having brought joy to a couple of generations of kids in my family, his goofy face is now bringing cheer to generation digital. Happy Apple has been making some noise as he makes his way around the team as a way of acknowledging when someone shows great agile-ness.

And so back to symphony orchestras. There’s probably no need to panic that they’ll be playing in my workplace any time soon. What is happening though, is that the sound of Agile, like that of Happy Birthday, is getting us to celebrate, collaborate and get the job done.