Today was officially the start of the Agile2018 conference, and now that it’s the end of Day 1, it feels like it’s already been three days – so many information-packed sessions!
I started the day with a four-mile run along the waterfront, which was really beautiful and peaceful. Loving the San Diego location. Had breakfast and ran into old and new friends alike. One of the many reasons I love this conference is that you can talk to anyone – everyone is very welcoming and personable.
Brian Button kicked off the conference with an overview of the program, appreciation for those who helped make it happen and the following stats:
- 2347 people from 54 countries (more than 10% from California), 992 companies
- 1500 submissions, which resulted in 279 sessions, over 20 tracks, with 19 sessions running concurrently at one time.
The Future of Work and Healthy Teams – Dominic Price
Brian then introduced Dominic Price for his keynote on The Future of Work and Healthy Teams. Dom works at Atlassian, where he started out as the head of program management and is now a work futurist.
He led us through an exercise, where we needed to hold hands with the person next to us and stare longingly into their eyes to let us know the level of discomfort we should be feeling for his presentation. (Spoiler alert, I wasn’t uncomfortable at all during his presentation).
He shared his story about how early in his career, there were two “Dom”s, work Dom and social Dom, and how exhausting it was keeping up with both. And, he realized that he needed to take a hard look at his values and why he was doing the work that he was doing at the time. He mentioned that the agile adherence regime makes it easy to lose sight of your values.
The epiphany came when he was working for one of the Big 4 consulting shops, and in a conversation about identifying values, the values that they came up with ended up with the acronym “prick,” which he snickered at. The ensuing conversation was that the leaders at the time won’t “getting the joke.”
The situation prompted him to think: what do you value this week? What do you stand up for? He described how values are important for technology such as artificial intelligence which is showing great strides in facial recognition but can’t tell the difference between a Labradoodle and Fried Chicken.
He touched on the cultures where the “lone genius” is celebrated and are put on a pedestal, the most famous one being Steve Jobs, who admitted that it was the Apple family that made things happen.
He sees “dysfunction as the gap between what you know, and what you apply.” We focus on the acquisition of knowledge but forget about its application. As we acquire new learnings, he challenged us to think “what can I do with this?” And, “what got us here, won’t get us there.”
He touched on the war for talent and how we focus on being “time poor,” or “busy.” Which usually boils down to priorities and when there’s misalignment (these are mine, those are yours), it creates disappointment.
He spoke to how the pursuit of perfection tacked on to the end of agile “doesn’t make sense,” e.g. 18 months out I can describe and plan for what perfect is in the future. Progress is more important than perfection.
Atlassian did a study of the corporate workforce, and they found that 78% of people don’t trust their teammates, with the top two reasons being Poor Communication and Lack of Accountability. For communication, it’s too much noise in the system, and not enough clear messages, for accountability, it’s the pursuit of perfection.
Dom then shared how the workforce expectations have shifted from efficiency to effectiveness.
Decades ago, the workforce was usually illiterate, wasn’t learning, clocking in and doing their time and it was all about how predictable you could make the system. Education programs today still talk about how important it is to have an efficient system. He mentioned Taylorism and the “perfect shovel.” Most leaders today grew up in the world of efficiency.
Dom then touched on the measurement we need to care about is KPIs and outcomes, and he stressed that the outcomes usually take some time, sometimes months to appear and that 50% of what’s achieved isn’t what you want (ala Marty Cagan’s first truth). That it’s not about the hours a team puts in, but the wisdom and creativity of the team.
He shared the story of Blockbuster, and how their seemingly “knowledge of the business” ran them out of business and highlighted that the average tenure of Fortune 500 companies is shrinking.
When detailing what makes great teams, he shared traits like: a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset, having the right priorities, and not being stuck on the status quo (that’s the way we’ve always done it).
He shared his work on the Atlassian Team Health Monitor and talked about how it works:
- Team Mindset – assumes that there is radical candor and psychological safety in the environment and that everyone sees the world through a different lens, active listening and “argue like you’re right and listen like you’re wrong.”
- Rating Attributes – he’ll have the team do a thumbs up/thumbs down behind the back and then show it and ask questions like “what did you see that made you feel that way?” Then they’ll discuss the ratings with respectful dissent and disagreement.
- Focus Areas – looking at the Red items, they’ll choose one area to improve. Usually, the root cause was lack of shared understanding, which lead to the team being slow and ineffective.
He usually found that teams lacked shared understanding, that they forgot the “why,” which caused them to not course correct when appropriate. To help solve for this, he suggests having an elevator pitch for the project (what would you say to the CEO when they ask “what are you working on?) and a project poster (the Band Poster).
He ends by introducing and sharing the Team Playbook, which is available at atlassianteamplaybook.com, and he shares his viewpoint that all the frameworks have something to be learned from each of them, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Organizations need to adapt frameworks to fit their needs.
Dom then shares a great quote to motivate the audience for the week ahead.
Verbal Agility – Facilitation Tips and Techniques – Michelle Sliger and Erika Lenz
When I was first learning about agile methods, I was referred to Michelle‘s work, so it was awesome to hear her presentation, and it didn’t disappoint.
The session opened up with a self-organizing exercise where participants needed to organize themselves alphabetically by Country, State, City and if needed, Street Name. It took about five minutes for the approximately 250 of us to line up against the wall in order, and it helped us understand the criteria that are needed for self-organization, which is:
- A clear goal
- Tools to get the job done
- An understanding of the boundary conditions
- A feeling of safety
We then got into the facilitation portion, where we had an exercise where we paired up and one person listened with indifference while the other talked about something they were passionate about, and then switched to listening with curiosity and openness. It was an exaggerated exercise but really hit the point home.
Erika then covered a model called the “tact filter,” which shared the ways we’ve been conditioned to either have a filter before information is absorbed in our mind or a filter before we speak. She shared that everyone has a tact filter, and usually buckets into two types:
- Talking – people who use tact before speaking will usually pay attention to the adage, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Their filter is in the mouth.
- Hearing – people who use tact before hearing information, usually were conditioned to “not pay attention to what people say.” These individuals are usually direct and blunt (assuming everyone else has their same tact filter) and appreciate others who are direct and blunt. When interacting with someone with a Talking filter, those with a Hearing filter will usually think the person is “pussy-footing” around to avoid the issue.
Note: the two types were “normal” and “nerd” in the model referenced (Biglar’s work); however, I don’t like the distinction and kudos to the woman who also pointed it out in the session.
To help facilitate collaboration, it helps to apply empathy, which introduced us to an exercise on reflective listening (reminded me of Conscious Leadership). We discussed ways to deal with pontificators, which include raising your hand, standing behind them to break eye contact and calling them by name. We talked about the importance of a parking lot, and that the parking lot cannot be ignored at the end of the meeting because then it would be a manipulation technique.
Below are some of the tips shared. Overall, it was a very engaging and fun session, especially where tablemates were recruited to be disruptors to the facilitation exercise.
Need to be mindful that the question “Anything else” ends dialogue because it’s a yes/no question.
Next up was a lunch break, and I decided to take a break from the conference and had a nice lunch on the waterfront. At 1pm, I headed to the Women In Agile Initiative section in the lounge to answer any questions. Appreciated the folks who stopped by and the conversations.
Creating an Environment for Successful Agile Teams – Esther Derby
I’m a huge Esther Derby fan, even before I found out she also has a French Bulldog, and I was also looking forward to her session because I also strongly believe that the success of teams is highly dependent on the environment.
She opened by saying that most of what helps create that environment isn’t taught in colleges nor in the basic management training, which is usually focused on process (here’s how you fill out this form).
She explains that a team is a social unit, and what an environment which is enabling successful teams looks like – it’s an environment of continuous mutual help and looks like fun.
Historically, the job of managers is to “get people to work hard,” and we need to update that definition. We need to make solving difficult problems look easy – when it’s working really, really well.
She share’s Kurt Lewin’s equation, which is b = f(p,e), where b=behavior, f=function, p=person and e=environment. You can get the right people, however, you put them in a crappy environment, then they’re not inclined to be engaged, successful, etc.
Usually, when conflict appears, the automatic assumption is that conflict resolution is needed. That’s not always the case, it’s likely that the cause is environmental, and we need to fix the environment.
We did a really fun experiment where different table groups were given a packet on their table with varied instructions and the vague goal of “make an animal.” We had pipe cleaners on our table, and we collaboratively made this rabbit. It was fun!
Then, we went through an exercise where we mapped our experience as a team member over time, and then wrote out the characteristics of high point teams vs. low point teams. Readouts from this exercise included: respectful interactions, high engagement and high trust, assumptions of good intent and strong leadership with a clear goal.
Lack of clarity is usually the source of conflict. Esther shared a story about a call that she received asking for help for an agile team who had been fighting for two years. When she asked what has been tried, she received answers like, “they’re self-organizing, they’ll figure it out.” The team had spent months arguing about what they were doing, and the team needed to be disbanded. Not having a clear goal is a recipe for churn and conflict.
Much like a marriage, when teams start out with high hopes and expectations, the test comes when the team hits that first little dip once the “honeymoon” period ends. Solid working agreements and a strong goal also help.
When defining that goal, it helps to keep the following in mind:
- What problem they’re solving?
- What benefit they’re creating?
- For which group of people?
Esther then shared a story of a team that was working on updating a bank’s compliance pages on the website. There wasn’t clarity of the work and no one was eagerly waiting for the outcomes. The challenge was how to connect them and make the goal more compelling.
So what makes a ” Real Team”?
- Most people are more motivated to not disappoint a teammate than their manager, which creates mutual accountability. However, we need to make sure that the environment isn’t assigning (and rewarding) individual accountability.
- Ensure that the team has a say in the decision for hiring a team member to drive investment in that new team member’s success.
- Teams with over 5 or 6 people usually see diminishing returns on productivity.
- Feedback loops help teams steer and course correct.
- Ensure that the team has access to outside resources because not all tools/knowledge/resources are usually present in one team.
- Expand the Diamond to have an increased bi-directional flow of contextual and front-line knowledge.
I really enjoyed Esther’s session, and the insight that really resonated with me was the story of her neighbors attempting to train their dog with an electric fence and collar. They didn’t bury the boundary wire so it would move around with the wind. The poor dog could not learn where the boundaries were because they kept changing erratically and getting shocked in the process! That teaches the dog to not move – not something that is indicative of a learning, innovative and creative organization.
A Close Up with Conflict – Games to Transform Conflict Into Collaboration – Pradeepa Narayanaswamy
Pradeepa led a really fun session covering conflict and introduced some games for teams to play to better understand where conflict comes from and address an elephant in the room.
The opening was really powerful in that we needed to find a stranger, ask their name, what their name means, where it came from and the reason for why one’s parents gave it. It was a way to create a quick bond with folks – knowing a person’s name helps us see them as a human vs. an object.
We then discussed the components of conflict (kudos to Pradeepa for facilitating a conversation in a room of about 200!)
Components of Conflict:
- Communication – usually the breeding ground for conflict. Helpful tips include adding “I’m asking this because…” to questions to provide context and also be less threatening.
- Competition – competition for raises, promotions, visibility and egos. “It’s all about me” or “my group vs. your group.”
- Inconsistency – can show up as different policies and procedures and by blaming others.
- Diversity – our different perspectives based on past experiences, amount of experience, etc.
- Perspective – for example, developer vs. customer.
- Emotional Intelligence – the lack of EQ; differing sets of values and principles.
- Interdependency – different goals and priorities
Then we got into the games:
- A Close Up with Conflict – the objective of the game is to understand one’s initial reaction to conflict and how our reactions may influence the outcome of the conflict. In the game, Pradeepa held up a giant “conflict” sign in the middle of the room and asked that participants model what they do when they’re faced with conflict. Some ran to the corners of the room, some hugged her, etc. Then we were asked to reflect on how we responded.
- Body Language Game – one person in the group had paper instructions of body language to communicate (poises, looks, movements, etc) and the others in the group needed to guess what the person was trying to communicate. Helps reveal how much of how we communicate (and how it impacts our assumptions) is communicated non-verbally.
- Two Truths and a Lie – the objective of this game is to understand how our judgments are not accurate many times and how it leads to ineffective communication. This was fun because it helped reveal a lot of quick assumptions and judgments we make about people.
- Hot Buttons – the objective of this game is to recognize one’s emotional hot buttons, understand the barriers it can create and learn how to control it. We paired up and each talked about our hot buttons, and quickly came up with an action plan of how to adjust our behaviors.
- It’s a What? – the objective of this game is to understand the obstacles of collaboration and to experience a collaborative process. In this game, someone was the time-keeper, and the rest of us would build on each other’s drawings every five seconds. Below is what we came up with. It was really collaborative and fun!
After Pradeepa’s session, I wandered around the area for a little while, and then met the Learning Track team for celebratory drinks and snacks with the reviewers and the speakers. It was a fun time – lots of great conversations in the gorgeous San Diego weather.
Looking forward to tomorrow!