Agile Culture Conference - Melbourne 2019

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On Friday, 6th September 2019 I attended the inaugural Agile Culture Conference in Melbourne. The conference was held at Engineers Australia (an amazing venue). A massive thank you is due to Rajesh Mathur for organising the event; Chhaya Mathur for her coordination of the day; Dan Prager, Ruma Dak, Andrew Dodgshun and Venky for facilitating the round-table discussions.

If the slides for any of these talks are published, I will embed them in this post as they become available.

Keeping Culture Coherent at Scale

Presented by: James Ross from Envato

The first talk of the day began with James defining two key terms used in his presentation:

He then went on to define three key concepts at Envato:

  • Sticky stories;
  • Explicit expectations;
  • Cultural counterweights.

Sticky Stories

The key take-away I got from this section of the talk was that all cultures have stories. Some of them are true, some are not. No matter if the stories are true or not it is important to know if they are the stories that you want. If they embody the desired culture of the organisation, then action needs to be taken to foster the story; if not then action is required to negate the story, so it stops spreading.

A key part of fostering or removing the story is to ensure that stakeholders are aware of the journey (both past and future) the organisation, ideas and individuals have taken. This helps to improve context and leads to a greater understanding of why things are the way they are.

As part of this it is necessary to know how to tell a story. This was nicely reduced to a set of four prompts:

  • In the past…
  • Then something happened…
  • So now we’re…
  • In the future…

Using these four prompts it is easy to describe a journey in a way that is relatable to the listener.

The final part of this section of James’ talk was about the importance of supporting the people with a positive intent for long term, scalable, maintainable architecture (not just in IT systems, but also in organisation culture).

Explicit Expectations

The one-liner that can be taken away from this section of the presentation was, “The reason behind every failed relationship is unmet expectations”. The antidote to this is setting explicit expectations; this can be in the form of clear documentation relating to the role so it can be reviewed at any time. Remember, it is unfair to expect someone to perform a certain action if they are unaware it is desired or expected.

Some other points that were made included that relationships are really just connections between people, and this is at least partially driven by the fact we can do more together than we can alone.

A large part of the need for explicit expectations is based on our limitations of social groups (Dunbar’s number). We’re limited in our social network because as well as tracking our own interactions with others, we also track the interactions of the members of our social circle with other people in the same circle. In terms of complexity, this is an n^2 complexity; for every person we add to our social group we double the number of relationships we are tracking. To help account for this we assign roles to people that are not in our inner circle. The term proposed by one of the conference attendees (that became a bit of a running joke throughout the day) was “automatons”, this includes people like the train driver on the commute in the morning, or the nameless fellow passenger sitting next to you; both have roles assigned to them in your mind, and if the role is broken it has an impact on your day, despite them not being a part of your core network.

Cultural Counterweights

Cultural counterweight is the concept that every cultural practice we perceive as good also has a dark side. Some examples of this are:

  • A long-term focus has a negative impact on short-term focus;
  • Autonomy encourages inconsistency;
  • Flexibility reduces predictability;
  • Positivity can affect ability to focus.

Once the dark side is identified, it is possible to pay attention to achieving the ideal balance of the positive and negative aspects of both parts. Allowing either side of the equation to gain too much traction will have a negative impact on the organisation.

Round Table Discussion: Presentation 1

  • If people don’t understand the past and present journey, then role-based expectations are more likely to be misunderstood, leading to unmet expectations.
  • Gossip is not always negative in affect or content. It can be a positive that helps reinforce culture and can include positive content.

Who Says We Can’t Change the World?

Presented by: Jordana Patterson from World Vision Australia

Unfortunately, my notes for this presentation got lost somewhere in device syncing hell, so this is all being written from memory.

Jordana’s presentation centred around the implementation of agile concepts in the marketing department at World Vision Australia.

One of the massive challenges for the marketing department in Scrum style sprints is that major disaster events are unpredictable. It’s quite possible that the team will finish work on a Friday evening and get called back into the office on a Saturday due to a major disaster occurring (eg an earthquake); when this happens all existing work is put on hold and the focus is placed on the communications relative to the disaster. This led to negative impacts on longer term initiatives and hid the deprioritisation of the needs of certain target groups.

As part of countering these issues, the team started by creating a dedicated squad for a campaign; they were given focus and in the event of any significant incidents were not required to change their focus. This team managed to complete one of the most successful campaigns undertaken by World Vision Australia (it achieved over 150% of the target).

The success of this team led to a wider adoption of agile concepts through both the marketing team and the wider organisation. During the adoption a number of challenges were encountered:

  • Terminology added a barrier to understanding and adoption;
  • Some individuals agree to the changes without embracing them;
  • Past success can create stress for a team as feel they need to replicate that success.

To counter these challenges the department stopped using Agile specific terminology and instead focussed on the cultural changes that would enable the improvements for teams and the individuals. This enabled people to gain a better understanding of why the changes were occurring and led to more people embracing the changes.

In terms of the extremely successful team, they initially swept their stresses under the carpet until it could no longer be hidden. When this occurred, the team reached a crisis point, individuals opened up about their insecurities, feelings and stresses and ultimately discovered the entire team was experiencing the same issues individually. This led to an open discussion, coaching from leaders about where their responsibility ends, and the team supporting each other.

Another element that was mentioned by Jordana was the importance of focus. Due to the passion many people in the organisation have, the entire organisation is driven by relationships and people don’t like to say “no” to a request. This has led to a lot of tasks being started and not finished. As this was recognised task completion rate for a team was monitored and was found to be producing a highly variable number of outputs (between approximately 20 and 40). With a renewed focus on task completion the team was able to complete nearly 80 tasks in a single iteration simply by focussing on all the tasks that were nearly complete. Although the team’s throughput has reduced back to "normal" levels, the number of tasks completed is now less variable as they focus on completing tasks and don’t get distracted by every new task that is mentioned.

Round Table Discussion: Presentation 2

  • Translation from agile and tech terminology to other departments is a significant barrier to agile adoption;
  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools:
    • One of the most successful teams didn’t use any “agile” tools (this was considered a unicorn situation);
    • Terminology should be considered a process or tool and if it is creating issues can be changed or discarded;
  • A crisis within a team can be used as a team building exercise and can improve the coherence of a group;
  • Limiting work in progress leads to a requirement for prioritisation and improved focus.

Leave Your Frameworks and Methods at the Door, Here’s How Agility Starts with You

Presented by: Paula Burton from Mass Dynamics

Paula’s presentation focussed on 10 key items that anyone can do to help embrace an agile culture.

Be aware of yourself

This means you need to be aware of the emotions of yourself and others. You need to accurately self-assess, and be both self-motivated and self-confident.

Know your motivation, this helps to regulate yourself

Work out how to regulate yourself; display emotional self-control, but maintain transparency. Be adaptable, show initiative, and be optimistic. Most of all, let your ego step-back and recognise when you are wrong or when someone has a better idea.

Build an understanding of environments

Ensure you both give and get context for situations. Be socially aware, and also ensure your organisational awareness is on-point. Be empathetic, but remember to turn it down sometimes so you don’t burn out, you can’t help everyone all the time.

Regulate and manage relationships

Regulation and management of relationships encompasses both the positive and negative aspects of a relationship. As a leader in an agile environment it is important to ensure you both inspire and positively influence others, and help them to develop themselves. You also need to ensure that conflict is managed to have a beneficial outcome (or at least not a negative one) and actively work on ensuring teamwork is effective.

Support your team in bringing the best version of themselves to work

According the The Resilience Project, one in five Australians between 16 and 85 experience a mental illness in any given year. It is important to keep this in mind when supporting your team, as it can have a significant impact on your interactions.

When interacting with others remember to be compassionate and display empathy, be mindful, and display gratitude; it will help with building relationships and also ensure people are comfortable to be themselves.

Look for opportunities to increase diversity in your team

Increasing diversity in a team does not mean just ensuring there are both males and females; it does not mean ensuring you have different people from different cultural backgrounds. It means ensuring you have cognitive diversity (a range of people who think in different ways); this can be actioned by employing for gender diversity, cultural diversity, age diversity and also neural diversity.

When considering gender diversity, it is useful to understand that there are some differences between the decision-making process in males and females when choosing to apply for a role (these are generalisations, and of course do not apply to everyone, but sometimes stereotypes can be useful). It has been reported that for a stereotypical male to apply for a role he will need anywhere from 40% to 60% (or greater) of the required skills for a role; for a stereotypical female this value is 100%. Ensure that any job ads are realistic and do not create a barrier to applications from diverse backgrounds.

Don’t forget inclusion

To quote the LEGO Movie:

Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you’re part of a team.

As well as attracting diversity, it is important to promote inclusion. Without inclusion, individuals will not feel comfortable in the environment and will not be engaged. Inclusion comes in all forms, from ensuring everyone has an opportunity to speak (remember some will speak without thinking, and some will require time to process everything before they speak) to ensuring social events are inclusive (if “everyone” goes to a bar on Friday after work any non-drinkers or those with family commitments will be excluded).

Mind your language

As well as slang potentially alienating people (seriously, imagine being from another country and trying to understand Australian slang), there are some words that we commonly use that reduce the importance of a statement and can change the meaning without intending to. A couple of examples of these words are:

  • “just” - this can be seen as passive aggressive (for example “why don’t you just do XYZ”);
  • “but” - with some minor re-wording it can be replaced with “and” or removed altogether.

During this part of the presentation we were given an exercise of creating a sentence or two using “just” and “but”, and then to reword them without those words. The group I was in came up with “I just can’t think of a sentence, but I will think of one eventually”, we modified this to “I can’t do this. I will think of one eventually”. The revised sentence has significantly more impact, and raises the importance of both statements.

Be aware of syndromes

There are two key syndromes to be aware of. Many people are aware of impostor syndrome (I’ve written about this previously); not as many are aware of bossy syndrome.

Impostor syndrome can manifest in two extremes. In one case a person will withdraw and be quiet, in the other they will try to counter for it and be very vocal and outspoken.

Bossy syndrome is more likely to be experienced by women due to their upbringing, but also includes men in a different way. For women it can manifest in feelings of being bossy when they are really just being assertive, this is caused by the frequent reinforcement in formative years of being called “bossy” when expressing an opinion strongly. For men bossy syndrome is something they often perpetuate by referring to a woman as being “bossy” in a situation when they would think a male is being forceful (in a positive way).

Be authentic

When interacting with others it is important to maintain your integrity. If you try to fake interest or concern it rapidly becomes obvious you are trying to do this.

It is important to display empathy and the other traits described in this presentation, but it is more important to be authentic and for the traits to be a true part of you. Remember you are in control of yourself, take the time to truly adopt these traits and then remember to display them.

Round Table Discussion: Presentation 3

  • As part of diversity, remember that alcohol diversity is important. Non-drinkers can exist for religious and cultural reasons, but also because of lifestyle choices and potentially from addiction. Make sure your workplace is inclusive of those who do not include alcohol in their life.
  • An important question was also how to encourage businesses to hire for neural diversity. No answer was forthcoming for this, and it is a much bigger topic that needs significantly more discussion than could occur within the time constraints of this conference.

Agile 15 Years On. It’s Still Just About the Culture

Presented by: John Sullivan

Over the last 15 years agile has changed from a team-based optimisation, through divisional, then strategic and now an organisation wide optimisation.

John has observed that:

  • successful transformations are often not talked about and planned as many corporate transformations have been. They happen gradually over time;
  • success comes from a culture shift, not a framework adoption.

Similarly to Paula’s presentation, John used some key points throughout his talk.

Have realistic expectations

Starting an agile transformation with an unrealistic expectation will result in failure.

One organisation (I won’t include the name in this article) began their transformation with an expectation that they will operate better, faster and cheaper and will be able to reduce the number of employees by 20%. With any transformation there will be overheads due to change; in the case of this enterprise there’s also a significant number of agile coaches and other specialists that are being added to the workforce, so an expectation that an increase in roles, increase in change and an increase in quality and quantity of work will result in a decrease in head count is highly unrealistic.

It must be remembered that although change can improve effectiveness and efficiency in the long term, in the short term it will have a negative impact on both of these. It’s also worth noting that agile is neither faster, nor cheaper; it is about increasing quality and sustainability, these both come at a cost. A core tenant of agile is to be customer-centric and many agile transformations have chosen not to observe this; faster and cheaper is not in any way a customer focussed metric.

Use metrics to guide you

If you ask a team if they are working better in a mature agile environment, they will say “yes”; when you ask for metrics to verify this then rarely are any available.

A key aspect of metrics is to use them to verify or display a change. A metric will (in general) not show the cause of a problem, but will show that something is different to normal. Using the analogy of a car, when driving down the same road the speedometer, tachometer and engine temperature will generally be similar on multiple trips; if one day the tachometer and the engine temperature is higher, this could be the sign of an issue in the engine, but it could also be a sign that the car now has 4 occupants instead of just a driver. The same is true for any metric used in team monitoring; is the reduction in throughput due to an increase in complexity of tasks, the addition of new team members and the lag while they upskill, or is it that there’s an underlying issue in the team? The metrics cannot answer this.

Metrics used to monitor a team should also be outside of the team’s influence and control. If a metric of “points” is used and the team is told their point delivery has reduced, they will simply start adding more points to each task; if a metric of “tickets” is used and the team is told their delivery rate has fallen they will divide each task into more tickets.

The meaning of the practices

In many agile transformations, the implementation of processes is seen as the objective. The objective should be the implementation of the core practices and values.

An example of this is the implementation of stand-ups. Many organisations see the implementation of stand-ups as the end goal. If the organisation were to concentrate on core practices and values, they would instead be aiming for the increased communication and shared knowledge within the team.

While on the topic of stand-ups, John also discussed why stand-ups should not be required in most modern agile implementations. The concepts of stand-ups dates from when organisations were siloed; business analysts would sit in one area, operations in another, developers in yet another. The stand-up was designed to help these distributed teams to communicate in person at least once per day. In a modern agile organisation teams are generally co-located; all members of a team sit in close proximity to each other. In this situation, if you have to wait until tomorrow’s stand-up to find out what’s blocking someone or what’s wrong, then the team has failed.

Master craftsmanship over technology

Technology is capable of solving a huge number of problems; unfortunately, it can’t solve the problems that most need to be solved. The services you offer today will become the baseline expectations for tomorrow.

With these factors in mind it is important to recognise that the code that is developed today will either be disposed of or will be significantly enhanced and extended. A master craftsman will ensure the correct effort is placed into a task to ensure it does what is required today, can be extended tomorrow, but the cost of disposal is low when it required a complete overhaul.

Team building

John started by saying that he will dispute Paula’s assertion that hiring should be focussed on diversity, and that a focus should be placed on belonging. He then defined the terms diversity, inclusion and belonging:

  • Diversity: a range of thoughts;
  • Inclusion: working together in a diverse environment;
  • Belonging: sharing a sense of purpose.

If hiring is based on people that will feel they belong in a team then diversity will naturally follow. During the hiring process it is important to ensure that people with the desired traits are involved in the interview process as most people will hire someone similar to themselves.

New ways don’t do away with the old - they blend

Many agile implementations discourage specialisation and promote generalisation. The role eradication undertaken during the adoption of agile has resulted in a loss of skill.

Two examples of this are:

  • the removal of the “software architect” role, and leaving the task to software developers without any specific training has resulted in the loss of software architecture skills;
  • the implementation of devops and operations as code without additional training for developers to gain a good understanding of the infrastructure later has resulted in low quality, expensive infrastructure implementation.

Due to the specialised nature of these roles there is a requirement to reimplement these custodianship roles and to have appropriate specialists and specialisations.

Round Table Discussion: Presentation 4

By this point in the day I was fatigued and mentally drained. My attention during the round-table discussion was superficial at best and I did not take any meaningful or useful notes. For this reason, I cannot provide a summary of the discussions that finalised this session.