"It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change!" - Charles Darwin

Monday, 2 October 2017

Agile Education at a primary school in Italy - Part 2

In a previous blog post, I introduced the experiment my brother and I conducted between November 2016 and May 2017 applying Scrum in a primary school in Italy.
I talked about how the whole idea started, how we selected the school project and how we kicked off the experiment. In this post you will find the whole experience report, the results of the experiment and some conclusion we feel we could draw.




The experience report

The stand-up routine triggered very quickly some interesting behaviors right from Sprint 1.
Each team had their stand-up meeting on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 8.45 to 9.00, where each kid learned to explain:

       What did I do since our last stand-up meeting that helped my team meet the Sprint Goal?
       What will I do today to help my team meet the Sprint Goal?
       Do I see any impediment that prevents me or my team from meeting the Sprint Goal?

In the same days they got one hour to actually execute the tasks they had pulled into work.

The self-organizing daily planning was pretty rapidly received and understood by the kids, even though it was a completely new practice for them. It even affected school entrance punctuality in a very positive way: all kids tended to arrive on time to attend the stand-up and not to lose the opportunity to speak up.

As described in the previous post, each backlog item consisted in representing one of the 20 Italian regions on construction paper, visualizing morphological characteristics, hydrography and main cities; the team which pulled the story had to study everything concerning the specific learning object, including economic activities, relevant historical figures, monuments, customs and traditions, without this information was presented or explained in any way.

Each Sprint was three weeks long and ended with a Sprint Review where each team had to show what they learned and created during the Sprint to the teacher and the rest of the class. The shape they created on the construction paper was also integrated on the big map to get a truly potentially shippable product at the end of each Sprint, which all teams contributed to. Many even deepened the subjects presented in the school book with additional researches and volunteer studies.

The demo was organized directly by the students in an autonomous and simple fashion, by splitting tasks inside each team. Each kid had his/her specific role in the product presentation, even though everyone was able to discuss any aspect concerning the region under review: this was yet another proof point for us that the ability to self-organize is kind of natural and desirable even for the youngest.


After the joint Sprint Review, each team had their own Sprint Retrospective to encourage a collective self-reflection both on the quality of the work done and on the interpersonal dynamics which characterized the path towards the delivered product at the end of Sprint.
The retrospectives, held before starting the new Sprint, were facilitated in a lightweight way (e.g. using straightforward activities like Mad-Sad-Glad) to allow the kids to point out more easily the key items to reflect upon. Usually each retrospective had an individual reflection time first and then a team sharing to give everyone equal air time and avoid stronger characters to take the monopoly of the conversation. 

The highest voted improvement item by the team triggered a team commitment to one or more improvement actions to execute in the coming Sprint.
For instance, in the first Sprint, one of the teams had wrongly interpreted the information on the atlas map and included inside Veneto (Venice region) a big lake where you are supposed to find Dolomites! During the retrospective the team had the chance to reflect that, possibly, studying the region first, before representing it graphically on the construction paper, would be a better option (before the end of the school year they also managed to fix the mistake effectively!).

It was extremely interesting for us to notice how, thanks to regular retrospectives, each team developed a self-consciousness of being one team with one common goal. 
At the beginning, some students, usually poorly disposed to stay focused and participate actively to the school activities, tended to isolate during the daily working time or to group with classmates from other teams, who had the same low commitment or the same poor inclination to teamwork.

These aspects started to emerge during the Sprint retrospective and some kids, publicly confronted by their teammates, first reacted with denial and even burst into tears, accusing the others of not involving them. Every team has to go through a Storming phase!
However these heated debates brought their fruits. 
The students, who did not show commitment, realized that their disengagement wasn’t going unnoticed; at the same time the “hard-working part” of the team acquired a higher sense of responsibility in engaging their teammates, who probably wanted (and needed) to be a bit more stimulated and supported in their learning journey.
In some cases, this sense of responsibility took some particularly capable and mature student to play a mentoring role towards the kids who showed some learning difficulties, naturally nudged by the framework to practice “cooperative learning” and “learning by doing”. 
In a wonderful talk to a group of young students, Simon Sinek says: “Learn by practicing helping each other. It will be the most valuable thing you ever learned in your entire life”. And this was exactly what our kids were experimenting.

The fact that no one was a formally recognized leader, nor could ever be, put a stop to some usually strong leaderships, who used to dominate the class. This boosted instead who more often preferred to follow others. Interpersonal dynamics enjoyed great benefits during the journey, especially due to the need for the team members to necessarily achieve some form of group consensus, in order to move forward and progress in the work.

As the northern regions were inserted into the map and started to connect with each other, a discrepancy in the quality of the work among the different teams and few integration issues became obvious. 



For instance, the coloring looked in-homogeneous, while rivers crossing over multiple regions flew incongruently. It was so visible, that the kids realized that they needed to collaborate across teams, especially to define the borders between different regions and to agree on the execution of common areas to multiple regions. They also co-created a common Definition of Done.
This contributed greatly to improve the work execution and the general quality of the unique product (the big map of Italy) that all teams realized they had to collaborate to produce: the power of fast feedback loops and early integration :)

At the end of the school year, the last region to complete was Campania, their home region. In that specific case the backlog item was divided into smaller chunks (five provinces) to allow all teams to collaborate, but still keep their own Sprint backlog.


Both half-way and at the end of the year, all parents were invited to the Sprint Review to experience first-hand what their children were doing and learning. The reactions were enthusiast to say the least: they said that their kids were telling them what they did at school, but seeing them in action in a fully autonomous and self-organized way was a source of great satisfaction for them. 
In both cases the day ended with a celebration in the classroom, where the whole group could taste delicious food and cakes which the kids and their parents had prepared at home and brought to school.

Results

We analyzed the results of the experiment through collection of both subjective and objective data.

First we asked kids and their parents to fill in a multiple choices questionnaire to evaluate the experience compared to a similar course they had to study in the previous years.
The idea was to look at what happened from the perspective of the students and the perception of their parents.

Here is the list of questions we proposed:

Since I started using Scrum and compared to the geography class during last school year:
  1. I learned much less/less/about the same/more/much more
  2. I understood the task the teacher was asking me to do much less/less/about the same/more/much more
  3. I had fun much less/less/about the same/more/much more
  4. I felt motivated much less/less/about the same/more/much more
  5. I collaborated with others much less/less/about the same/more/much more
  6. I felt autonomous much less/less/about the same/more/much more
  7. I organized my work much less/less/about the same/more/much more
  8. I feel satisfied of what I have achieved much less/less/about the same/more/much more
  9. If it was solely up to you to decide, would you continue using Scrum at school? Definitely No/No/Doesn’t matter/Yes/Definitely Yes
  10. Would you suggest Scrum to your friends inside or outside your school? Definitely No/No/Doesn’t matter/Yes/Definitely Yes
The questionnaire for the parents contained the same questions: we just replaced “I” with “My child”.
The results were astonishing.

More than 84% of the kids' answers were positive, including all the answers reporting "More" or "Much more", "Yes" or "Definitely yes" in the definition of "positive". The rest were basically neutral answers with less than 2% of the answers being negative.

The parents' evaluation was even more positive: 95% of the answers were positive and absolutely none was negative.

In particular below are charts showing the percentage of the answers for the different statements in the questionnaire for the students and their parents.


Answers from kids
Answers from kids
Answers from parents

Answers from parents


The objective evaluation includes the proficiency the different kids achieved in a variety of skills and disciplines analyzed from the teacher perspectives.
The data emerged at the end of the project are reported in the table below and are classified in different areas, to make them easier to read.

Relationships and Social skills
Before the project, the class group had already a good level of social and relational skills, but there was a certain tendency to privilege some friendly relationships compared to others, which were kind of less “desired”.
The need to involve and get consensus from others, with no chance to “impose” any decision, has clearly sharpened the relational skills of every student, both those who are more naturally inclined to lead and those who are more kind of “followers”.
The former ones had to learn how to articulate their ideas more effectively, the latter ones got finally the chance to dissent and propose, although still with hesitance, alternative suggestions. And everything happened in a more and more collaborative and fun environment as the time went by.
Respect of ground rules
The framework gave structure and a feeling of rhythm and cadence to the work. This made the rules of the game more visible, more effective and thus easier to follow, with a direct consequence on the kids’ ability to respect ground rules about living at school and outside the school.
Personal interest
The interest of the kids into all activities and consequently into the studied discipline was very high throughout the whole experiment. This gets even more relevance if analyzed in comparison with the same discipline studied in the previous school year. The clarity of the expected outcome and the enablers in the framework gave the possibility to constantly reflect on strengths and improvement areas and directly act on them both on individual and team level. As a consequence the level of ownership was always pretty high.
Motivation
Capturing attention and stimulating motivation is usually pretty hard with a subject like geography at a primary school.
Differently from last year and from former professional experiences the teacher had with grade 5 students, there was no need to motivate kids to learn this time. They just showed so much drive towards their goal and how to reach it in the best possible way, that no additional motivator was necessary.
Engagement
The participation to the class activities was very high. The major educational success of this activity was determined by the high level of engagement, especially of those who were more prone to lose focus and used to participate less.
The proposed project looked just like a technical and graphical activity, but in reality required an accurate study of the discipline, which the kids accomplished without even realizing it. The strive to achieve the final result pushed them to research as much information as possible, in order to deliver a quality product (the map) which was easy to understand also for the classmates, who had not studied the specific region.
Commitment
The level of commitment was simply a result of motivation and engagement, so obviously the results were very positive. The students who were used to achieve outstanding results, simply excelled in the project. But most important, the kids who were used to struggle to achieve a sufficient grade, reached educational results far above their average, also thanks to the support and help from their teammates.
Planning and time management
One of the biggest outcomes of this project was the improvement in terms of ability to plan the work and time management: at the end of the year all the students reached an outstanding level of autonomy and self-organization.
Even the kids, who had more troubles in finding an effective time management approach, had the chance to catch up thanks to the intrinsic focus and the teamwork.
Competence level
The class group which experimented this project had already pretty high average level of proficiency and grades.
However the multiple elements, emerging from the project, contributed to determine a generally much more positive grade compared to the results achieved by the same students in previous school years.
It is interesting to highlight that the results achieved have been even more positive for the students who had already outstanding grades.
Those who had good grades accomplished remarkable improvements, with a greater awareness of their own abilities.
Those who barely reached a sufficient grade had numerically better grades, but the fundamental outcome of this experiment was an actual acquisition of new competences from all kids.
Those competences include the ones that in the European Commission White paper “Teaching andlearning: Towards the Learning Society” are denoted as: the Know-how (skills), the Know-how-to-be (attitudes), the Knowledge.
These are the goals to purse at school: the students must acquire Knowledge (Rome is the capital city of Italy; Monte Bianco is on the Alps, etc.), but they have to acquire also, and much more than the mere knowledge, the Know-How (logical skills, intuitive skills, linguistic skills, etc.) and the right Know-how-to-be.
Actually the most important task of the school nowadays should be to help kids learn how to learn, so that they can keep learning for the rest of their life and the applied methodology seemed to support very much this direction.

Conclusion

The experiment tried to give an answer to following questions.

Can Scrum used in education support to create a learning experience for kids which would encompass the following?

  • Being more adaptable to a kid’s specific learning needs
  • Being a meaningful experience involving feelings and physical emotions
  • Fostering self-development and co-education
  • Training skills which are crucial in the 21st century and the school is traditionally not that good at teaching, e.g.
    • self-organization
    • leadership
    • ability to plan
    • imagination
    • self-reflection
    • dealing with uncertainties and the unknown
Can this work in the context of a primary school in the South Italy?

The empirical evidence of what happened during the experience (including the observation of the behaviors naturally nudged by the adoption of the Scrum framework) as well the collected results, encourage a positive answer to these questions and validate the assumption that Scrum is a powerful change engine in many different contexts.
Scrum is founded on empirical process control theory, which asserts that knowledge comes from experience and making decisions based on what is known. Scrum employs an iterative, incremental approach to optimize chances of success when addressing a complex problem, a problem where solution is unknown or multi-faceted, including learning something new.

Empirical process control has three pillars: transparency, inspection, and adaptation. When you manage to create an environment where the values of commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect are embodied and lived by the Team, the Scrum pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation come to life and build trust for everyone. Then people, whether kids or adults, are capable to learn and explore as they work with Scrum.
On top of that, the students could engage with their classmates and their teacher in a much more human and profound way and live an experience they will probably remember forever and tell to their grandchildren.

And that’s what made this experience mostly rewarding for my brother and me!


Happy Scrum students with their teacher :)


Friday, 8 September 2017

Agile Education at a primary school in Italy - Part 1

Agile In Education Compass - designed by Stuart Young (Radtac) 
My brother Marco is a primary school teacher in Italy. 
From this perspective we share a common interest, since I am a trainer and I am interested in how people learn. 

I’ve been actually interested in that for more than 25 years: as a Scout leader it has been very clear for me that educating boys and girls is giving them the opportunity to learn and become the best they can be.
It is not by chance that the verb “to educate” comes from the Latin “ex ducere”, which literally means “to lead out” what a person already potentially is.


Last year we happened to talk about how to create a learning experience for primary school kids which would encompass the following:
  • Being more adaptable to a kid’s specific learning needs
  • Being a meaningful experience involving feelings and physical emotions
  • Fostering self-development and co-education
  • Training skills which are crucial in the 21st century and the school is traditionally not that good at teaching, e.g.
    • self-organization
    • leadership
    • ability to plan
    • imagination
    • self-reflection
    • dealing with uncertainties and the unknown
As an Agile coach and trainer, all these things resonated a lot with me as they sounded like the skills of true "agilistas" or the characteristic of an awesome Agile team.

On the other side, I was aware of the many experiences in the field of Agile in Education, which are summarized on the website agileineducation.org and conceptualized through the Agile Education compass created by a group of Agile educators at the Scrum Gathering in Orlando in April 2016.

So the proposal was kind of natural: why not trying a learning experience based on Agile values and principles? Learning and using the Scrum framework looked to me the simplest and most straightforward option to help the kids practice agility at school.

The very first step was actually to educate Marco in Scrum: I led him through an introductory session to the Agile manifesto, Scrum and its foundation, including Empirical Process Control.
This was enough in catching him up in the idea: the confidence in his older brother did the rest in accumulating enough enthusiasm and motivation to get going with the whole experiment J

Basically we wanted to have a first-hand validation that applying Scrum in a primary school class is doable, kids enjoy it, they can learn faster and practice skills they normally do not in a traditional classroom environment.

Below I will describe the whole concept we adopted, how we structured it, a report of the different phases and some final results we achieved (I will actually split the whole story over a couple of posts to make each post reasonably short).

Selecting the project

The first problem to solve was to pick a learning project which was suitable for the experiment.
It should have been challenging enough to get a meaningful result out of it.
At the same time it should have been concrete enough, so that the kids could actually produce something tangible (iteratively and incrementally) and see the outcome of their work.
There is no Scrum team without a productJ.

The class consisted of 19 kids: considering the recommended size of a Scrum team between 3-9 people, the selected learning project should have been suitable to work in multi-team environment. Multiple Scrum teams had to work in parallel on the same product and get success by collaborating and integrating their work, hopefully at each and every iteration.

The natural choice emerged to be an interdisciplinary geography project, including learning objectives in arts (mainly image), math (mainly statistics) and humanities.

Students in the 5th grade are supposed to study the whole Italy and specifically each of the different 20 regions which form the country. This looked very promising for creating a backlog of multiple items, which many teams could work on at the same time: each Product Backlog Item would have been one of the 20 regions.

Kick-off

The whole experiment started in the first week of November 2016.
In a previous meeting, Marco had informed all parents about the trial which would have involved their children during the year. He explained them the idea and the rationale and all of them showed curiosity and agreed to move on, based also on the trust they had in the teacher.
The kids were also prepared. They were informed that this year they would have studied geography in a different way: they got full of enthusiasm but also expectations.

Whenever I kick-off one or multiple Scrum teams, I basically help them learn three things:
  1. Know about the Process
  2. Know about the Product
  3. Know about each other
So, we reserved one full school day to achieve the following results:
  • Deliver an introductory training on Agile and Scrum to all students
  • Create and kick-start the different teams
  • Getting the teams acquainted with the backlog
  • Hold the first Sprint Planning

Marco introduced the day and then we had a 2-hours interactive training so that the kids could understand:
  • What is the most suitable approach to solving complex problems, like learning something new
  • The Agile values and principles'
  • The Scrum roles, events and artifacts
The day could have not been started better than by trying the Marshmallow Challenge and learn the beauty and effectiveness of “prototype and refine” and why it works better than planning upfront and just following the plan, when an individual or a team faces something they have never tried before.
It was just amazing how they immediately grasped this and made all sense to them.



At the end of the 2 hours they could explain what a Product Owner or a Sprint is.
After a short break we moved to their actual classroom where my brother had prepared all the necessary supply I had instructed him to buy to facilitate the day and the team work.

So we started presenting the backlog. To make the final product visual, Marco prepared a big blank map of Italy, just reporting the borders of the different regions (see the draft picture below).



Each backlog item (i.e. representing each of the 20 Italian regions) had to fulfill the following Acceptance Criteria.
  • A construction paper shape of the region must be prepared:
    • Borders must conform to the map
    • High and low grounds are represented
    • Hydrography is represented
    • Cities are positioned properly and regional/provincial capitals highlighted
    • Different sectors of local economy are represented 
    • Peculiarities of the region are highlighted
  •  A report on the whole region must be prepared and shared by the team with the whole class

In that way the kids had something concrete to produce and an underlying architecture which made integration easy. At the same time the different teams could work independently.

Then we moved to form the Scrum teams: with a class of 19 kids we decided to split them in three teams. The teacher would have the role of Product Owner and I would formally act as a Scrum Master for all teams.

However I knew that I could not be present so I instructed my brother that he should work as a facilitator as well and take actually care of the Scrum Mastering part, while I would have coached and consulted him remotely along the way.

During the preparation phase we evaluated whether it would be a good idea to let the kids self-organize in three teams by following a certain number of constraints, but we discarded the option. Marco did not feel too comfortable and he wanted to make sure that the groups had enough diversity from many perspectives, including different learning styles and proficiency at school, which probably the kids would have not been able to take into the right consideration themselves.

So we proceeded with the splitting: the first empirical evidence was that they did not look surprised at all about how their teacher split them up and no one complained. This might mean either that the split made sense to them or they simply did not care or did not dare to speak out about their teacher’s decision. Having interacted with the kids and having seen the teacher-students relationship in the class, the first option looked more plausible to me.

Then we gave time to the different teams to select a team name and logo and enjoy some practical activity to create their task boards, pick a corner in the classroom space, hang the whiteboard on the wall and craft their own team space.



The next step was to stipulate an agreement on our routines.
When it comes to decide the Sprint length and day/time for the different events, we had some constraints:
  • Marco works only 4 days a week in that class (school week in Italy is 6 days)
  • We wanted the kids to work on the project mainly at school, not at home, so that we could observe and facilitate team dynamics
  • I had mainly Friday and Saturday available to join them remotely over Skype

The agreement came pretty constrained:
  • Sprint length: 3 weeks
  • Sprint Planning: Saturday mornings
  • Sprint Review and Retrospective: Friday after lunch
  • Daily Scrum: 8.45 in the morning (but 4 times a week,  when my brother was in the class)

The different teams worked on drafting their own team ground rules on a flip-chart, which they then hung in their team space.
Last step before moving to Sprint Planning was to draft the first version of Definition of Done, which I renamed with the slogan “We will have done a good job, if…” to translate in a more suitable language for 5th graders J


Here below is a picture of how one of the team’s corner looked like at the time they were building it the first day.



We had finally everything ready to get going with the first Sprint Planning.
My brother explained the first few backlog items on top of the backlog, re-read and clarified the Acceptance Criteria. He mentioned more than once that each team could pull any backlog item they wanted in the order they were presented, but if they felt that one item was too much to get done in 3 weeks, he was available to discuss possible ways to split the work in smaller chunks.

No team actually considered this as necessary and on the other side no team believed they could take more than one region into the Sprint. The whole class collaborated to agree which team pulled which of the top 3 items in the backlog.


The teams moved to decide on how the chosen work would get done. 
I instructed them to split the Backlog items in smaller tasks and the kids even started pulling tasks.


Each student designed a magnet with his/her own avatar and put it close to a post-it. 
We encouraged pair working from the very beginning.
The day ended with a celebration.

The kids were extremely happy and enthusiast. Some of the comments I got from them included:

  • “Will you stay with us for the whole school year?”
  • “I usually have troubles in following, but today I understood everything”
  • “We love you!” (This obviously moved me to tears!)

It looked like we were on a good track and had managed to create the right foundations for the experiment to give the expected results.


Side note: the day after, I met the mother of one of the kids, which is a dear friend and an ex-school mate of mine. 
She stopped me and asked: “What the heck did you do at school yesterday? My son came back so enthusiast like I have never seen him before after a school day!”

I was in a hurry: I simply smiled, hugged her and left. This event triggered the idea to involve the parents as much as possible moving forward in the experience.

Stay tuned for the continuation of the story in a coming post!

Monday, 3 July 2017

3 signs your daily Scrum sucks (and how to cure them)


It is actually a long time I have not written an educational article on Scrum. 
I have recently found some notes from a conversation I had with a community of Scrum Masters few months ago and decided to package them into a blog post. Hope you appreciate it.

So here are three small and easy to observe signs that you need to fix your Daily Scrum.

1. People are only interested in their own tasks.
I found that this behavior is also pretty encouraged by the common way of running the Daily Scrum, i.e. the famous three questions. I found many times that people normally follow with attention until it is their turn to speak; they simply disconnect after that.
When I see this, I normally propose the team to try a different way of handling the stand-up.
One way that works is to keep the same 3 questions, but have 3 rounds instead of one, with each person answering only one question at a time. 
This usually gives two benefits. 
The first of course is to keep people actively engaged until the end, since they know they will have to speak again. 
But there’s a more important one. It serves better the real purpose of the Daily Scrum of collectively assessing where the team is compared to the Sprint goal and collaboratively deciding what the next most important task is for each team member to complete, in order to move closer to the Sprint goal.
Another way (which brings even more benefits in my experience) is to run the stand-up not focusing on people’s tasks, but on User Stories. 
The idea is that the team takes one User Story at a time from the top and discuss about how to make it “done done” as soon as possible. Then you take the next and move on, either until you covered all the opened stories or until the 15-minutes time is up. In that way team members do not focus on the individual tasks, but more directly look at the Sprint goal as a collective goal to achieve. Sometimes you do not manage to talk about lower priority stories, so people who are working on those feel a bit excluded J. That provides some social pressure to contribute to complete the highest priority stories first, instead of minding their own tasks.
2. Everybody is looking at the Scrum Master instead of at each other
Sometimes it feels more like a status report. So I use the trick to encourage them to stay in circle, closer to the task board, and I take (or ask the Scrum Master to take) a step back, pretending I’m taking notes. I avoid looking at them in the eyes, so that they feel a bit uncomfortable and they are forced to find other eyes to look into: their team mate’s eyes. It works immediately most times.
I use the same trick also when they tend to look at their manager attending the Daily Scrum: I encourage them to stay in circle, leaving all other attendees outside.
3. People tend to have long discussions, trying to fix problems during the stand-up
I know that many Scrum Masters tend to interrupt discussions or ask people to continue discussion outside the meeting. This works some times, but many times I found that a bit irritating. I try to use and teach a different approach.
I normally try to explain at the beginning very clearly to the team that the Daily Scrum is intended for the Daily Planning, so that everybody understands and buy into this . So, when I see that a discussion is going on, I leave room for a couple of minute. If it is not concluded yet, I ask a question like: How do you think this can affect today’s planning? Most times people admit that it is not strictly relevant and propose to park it.
On top of that, in order to have the team really self-organize, because it is everyone’s responsibility to keep the time of the Daily Scrum, I always use a timer (a digital one or a “pomodoro”) to visualize the time passing and signal when it is up, so that the Scrum Master does not act as the bad time-keeper guy.
Of course the three above and other dysfunctions might be just a symptom of something deeper. 
If the techniques illustrated above do not work, it can be a smell of something more important that must be addressed.

What are the dysfunctions in your Daily Scrum?

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The 21st century´s paradigm to connect people and work to be done

Few days ago I had a phone call with a friend of mine. During our conversation she shared with me one of the challenges she is facing at work and wanted to check what I might think about.
Basically they have few issues when it comes to allocating people to work on a project they sold to a customer.

The challenges are multi-faceted:     
  • Finding people with the competences which fit that specific project
  • Finding people who are available to work on that project
  • Finding people who are willing to work on that specific project

Now the sweet point would be: a reasonable amount of people with the right competences, who are available at that time and willing to take on the project.

Very hard! Almost impossible! So what is usually the second best option?
Right! Put together on the project just who is available at that moment in time and hope it will not turn out too bad until someone with the right expertise can join and save the boat.

Does it sound familiar? I am sure it does, if we live in the same world.

But I have a second question: any guess what my friend’s job is?
Well, if you are thinking about anything among Project Manager, Development Manager or SW developer, you got it wrong. 
She is an architect: not a SW architect, a “real” architect.

If the fact that an architecture office might have similar problems to any product development company sounds unexpected to you, you have not considered the fact that the nature of the work is substantially the same in both fields: solving new problems which have undefined boundaries and multiple possible solutions within a complex environment where multiple entities influence each other in unpredictable ways.
To me this is just another confirmation of a pattern that I have seen in all organizations coping with work of such a nature and trying to apply traditional patterns to solve this challenge in the current century.

Can the situation be slightly improved by applying those patterns more efficiently? Probably yes and the PMI might have few ideas around that.
However my experience tells me that the problem cannot be solved if we do not embrace the fact that a totally different paradigm is needed.

Why?

  • Customer requests are more and more unclear: they do not know what they want. Problems are wicked: there is no pre-defined answer
  • Market is becoming more volatile: new and unexpected needs are emerging which require flexibility in companies
  • Professions are more and more specialized. Too many individuals I-shaped skills, which means they have deep knowledge and experience in just one area
  • Work is done in silos: lack of holistic view by individuals, but also knowledge domain in many professions is so big that is impossible for a single person to know-it-all
  • Having parallel projects competing for human resources is not sustainable anymore in the above context
  • Having people working on multiple projects reduces their effectiveness and productivity: context switching makes people waste time and produces stress, which can reduce IQ by 20%

So what is this different paradigm all about?

  • Understand the flow of value you create and setup stable, 100% focused, self-organized teams with a shared goal around your value flow
  • Bring highest value work to teams instead of allocating (or multi-allocating) people to work
    • Having the team as the atomic element simplifies allocation very much
  • Focusing on getting the most important thing out as fast as possible instead of focusing on making people busy (flow efficiency over resource efficiency)
  • Teams must be cross-functional: they must have all the competence needed to get work done
  • The holistic view of the work is kept at team level
  • Move from I-shaped individuals to T-shaped or even X-shaped professional who can do more things, so that you can have smaller teams with all needed competences
    • This can be partly achieved through synergies in teams, but also having the expert teaching to the others, to reduce the bus factor

Dare to take the journey? Do you have enough courage to address your own problems?

*In her book “Mindset”, Carol Dweck talks about the following concept: if you take two people, one of them is a learn-it-all and the other one is a know-it-all, the learn-it-all will always trump the know-it-all in the long run. See also what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in an interview last year about his effort to overhaul the company culture.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

A conversation with the CIO community

Leadership quote by photosteve01 / CC BY 2.0
Last June I had the pleasure to get my interview published on Netweek, the biggest magazine for the Greek CIO Community (the Greek IT Managers are both readers and editors). 
I am thankful to George Fetokakis, Editor-In-Chief of Netweek to make it possible and for the interesting questions.

Since I realized that the interview was only published in Greek, I decided to post it here in English and share it with a bigger community.
Trust you will find value in it.
Looking forward to your feedback and comments.


1. How did you get started in the Agile world?
Interesting enough, I actually started my Agile journey in Greece. At the end of 2009 I got the chance to be part of kicking-off the Agile transformation in a big development organization of around 2000 people. So I got to spend 3 months in Patras, together with other 18 apprentice coaches from all over the world and 9 consultants among the most knowledgeable Agile coaches and trainers at that time. Every single day of those 3 months was an incredible learning experience and that still remains the most exciting and fun period in my professional career. Which better place to start a life-changing journey than the place which gave birth to the Western culture?


2. What does success mean for you in this world? 
In my opinion success in this context for a company or an organization means: effectively leveraging on Agile values and principles to achieve your specific goal sustainably in the fast changing world we are called to live right now.
For a development team success means delighting your customer with products that actually solve their problems. For me personally success means contributing to transforming our world of work in something more meaningful for human beings.


3. What are the top skills that an effective Agile coach should have?
The two coaching skills which helped me most in my 7-year experience as Agile coach are: empathy and situational awareness. Empathy is a crucial skill for coaches and leaders.
I learned that people want to feel themselves valued and appreciate when someone is truly listening and not judgmental. This doesn´t come easy: it is a skill to practice to be able to listen for potential, namely listening to people not for what they are, but for what they can become in the future and be committed to help them become the best they can be.
With situational awareness I mean the ability to be really present, observe carefully and understand what is going on around you: the ability of “reading the room” or “smelling the room” beyond what is said.


4. How Agile (and Scrum) has changed the way that the developers think and work?
Agile and Scrum are incredibly effective change engines: they trigger a paradigm shift in everything. Not only in how we develop products and services, but in how we lead, in the way we collaborate with each other, in the way we interact with customers, in how we consider ourselves as professionals. Embracing agility means embracing continuous change, which in turn simply means embracing reality. Someone said: life is what happens while we are making other plans. Believing that things will stay still just to please our plans is the ultimately insane wishful thinking.


5. Scrum is simple but not easy.  How difficult is to make a company Agile?
Being simple is definitely one of the strengths of Scrum but also one if its pitfalls: it is so simple that many managers fall into the trap of believing it can become a magic wand for the company´s problems. A famous quote from Ken Schwaber, co-inventor of Scrum, is: “Agile development will not solve any of your problems. It will just make them so painfully visible that ignoring them is harder”.
And that´s where the tough part starts! Scrum is not plug-and-play! It´s not just a SW methodology upgrade. It changes some of the basic assumptions about how products get developed! It´s like installing an iOS 9 app on an iOS 4: it won´t work! You need to upgrade the Operating System! Only courageous leaders, who are willing to make an impact, dare to start the journey to upgrade their company´s operating system.


6. What should companies do to achieve a successful transformation in the Agile world?
The first step is about asking “Why?” What is the problem we are trying to solve? There must be a clear need for any improvement change: imagine how crucial it is to start off such a dramatic change. So any successful Agile transformation implies a top-down approach, in terms of Company values, leadership culture, business goals and management support. However, there are aspects that need to emerge bottom-up, like practices to be selected by self-organized teams. It has to be a sandwich strategy! Given the importance of the top-down part in the enterprise change, one of the initial steps is to educate managers, for them to understand the why, be able to share and communicate the vision, embrace Agile values and be ready to support people with a new leadership style. Many times this critical step is down prioritized, if not even neglected.
Finally it is extremely important that teams are organized so that they can deliver value to customer as fast as possible, replacing functional teams organized around the system architecture. Effective teams are cross-functional and have all the competences needed to transform a backlog item in a product increment within one Sprint.


7. What words of advice would you give to people who are just getting started with Agile themselves?  
Every context is different: so simply copying from others will not work. Scrum is a good way to start, it is a great teacher: if you have never tried Agile development, Scrum can give you the framework to be able to start. At the same time, you need to know many things outside Scrum to make Scrum work effectively: having an experienced Agile coach to guide you through the first challenges can be a key differentiator between success and failure.


8. What are the biggest challenges that they have to confront, what are the biggest mistakes that they should avoid?
I have seen few recurrent failure patterns: Product Owners without authority, knowledge or time, superficial knowledge and lack of coaching on Agile practices and principles, complacency as opposite to a culture of continuous improvement. Well, avoiding these failure patterns is one of the biggest challenges to confront. One of the biggest mistakes is considering Agile as something to implement: Agile is rather something you are or can be. Agile is an adjective, not a noun.


9. What should people and teams do to make their workplaces and lives more productive with Agile and Lean?
There are few things that helped me become more productive and I have seen also helping individuals and teams I have coached:
  • When you have a question to answer, spend time in understanding the question before jumping to the answer.
  • Do not make assumptions: genuinely ask why. If you have to make assumptions, try to validate them as soon as possible.
  • Challenge how things have always been done.
  • Work on your strengths, more than your improvement areas.
  • If you wish to succeed at anything, have a clear vision of what you want to achieve and consistently take baby steps in the right direction.

10. Where do you see things going to Agile in the future? What changes are coming?
I see contrasting things. From one side I see more and more “Agile” instances which have nothing to do with agility, where people and especially managers have lost or probably never got the original meaning of Agile manifesto: where, for instance, individuals and interactions are in service of processes and tools rather than the opposite. This can be also considered a normal evolution. When an innovation reaches the hype, it starts getting late majority or even laggards in the game: they probably accept Agile just to look fashionable or to please their boss. On the bright side I see a convergence of researches, theories, methods and practices coming from really different domains (Entrepreneurship, Neuroscience, Psychology, Finance, Management, Non-profits, even Military and Government) which are collectively creating a very visible red thread. And this red thread is all about coping effectively with fast change by using an empirical approach, embracing individuals as whole human beings not as resources to exploit, being mindful, decentralizing power, and creating meaningful relationships. That´s really exciting and resonates a lot with agility. On a broader scale, our generation is experiencing a growth in our consciousness as human race (let’s take for instance social responsibility) and that´s going to create benefits not only to our industry but to the entire world.