Sunday, July 29, 2018

“How can we balance agility and stability?”

... is a question I have been hearing since 2003, or so. As far as I can remember, I wrote my first piece with an ISBN in 2004 on that subject ("Agil, aber Stabil", GI Jahresband)

But I don't really get it.

What is there to balance?

I hear people arguing that agile would be harmful because the interfaces (be it APIs or human-machine-interfaces) could “change any time.” Or that requirements would change so quickly in agile, that it would not be possible to achieve bigger goals.

That’s actually not what was intended originally. The “Systems Metaphor” in XP (one of the first agile Methods) was meant to be extremely stable. And Scrums original 30 day iteration was meant to protect the team from ever changing requirements.

There even was a thing called “release planning” in Scrum – planning concerned with long term goals.

Most agile methods actually promote stability – the agility is about adapting to changing situations and especially adjusting the process.

So there is no need to balance agility and stability. Adopting agile practices –especially when enriched with some Kanban and Lean thinking– actually creates stability.

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Trouble with Jira

The Trouble with Jira

The trouble with Jira isn't (only) the trouble with Jira. It’s rather the way it gets used.

Remember “Context is king” - Jira might well be an excellent bug-tracker. As an Agile and Kanban tool the opinions definitely differ. From my personal experience with many real life implementations I would say that Jira is one of the bigger issues preventing an agile mindset. People from the Lean and Agile communities tend to agree in private conversations (and some even say things along that line of reasoning on twitter).
But as soon as corporate reality strikes, those voices get less loud and the conversation shifts more towards “It can be made to work – millions of users can‘t be that wrong.”

Well, if we have to “make do with what procurement decided to buy”, here are some things I consider to be vital to make it at least not unbearable.

Something like Jira should be a tool. But it should be only one tool. Amongst others. Not the ”one tool to rule them all.”

As long as you have

  • enough machines available to permanently display uncomfortable information (and a way to secure them from unwanted access) (Permanent: Without exchanging content every few seconds – yes, that might mean e.g. two different machines, or at least displays, for boards at portfolio level and at team level. In the same room. Gasp!)
  • enough rights for the people who actually use the boards to edit boards on the fly (and the same for workflows, if they choose to do so) whenever the teams needs to
  • enough knowledge in the teams to be independent from central administration
  • the willingness, tools, and knowledge to generate additional information (mostly statistics) outside of Jira

you'll probably be fine. (-ish)

Otherwise – in my experience – you’ll soon hit a glass ceiling consisting of (amongst other things):

  • change cycles (to Jira related things) that take longer than an iteration
  • information buried in dashboards that are theoretically available but never looked at
  • Reliance on Jira-provided graphs and numbers (not exactly tailored to your needs)
  • An unwillingness of people at all levels to gradually modify their processes
  • a general agile-tool-fatigue

Oh, and on an –not really- unrelated note: You can copy and modify a lot of things in Jira - even if you don't have the rights to change the original.

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

P.S.: Of course one could blame Atlassian – the company behind Jira – for introducing all those access control mechanisms and thus promoting a command and control culture in the first place.
But that really wouldn't be fair. After all, the core of Jira is a ticketing system. Designed to control people by means of centrally designed workflows.

The whole part that Atlassian sells as “Agile” nowadays used to be a plugin, called “greenhopper.” And if customers demand "Tools to enforce Processes to control the Interactions of Individuals" then why should Atlassian remove those restriction. Oh, wait there was Individuals and interactions over processes and tools, ... well... Of course there also is ...and we have mandatory processes and tools to control how those individuals (we prefer the term ‘resources’) interact

Sunday, July 01, 2018

What is agile coaching really?

Over the last couple of years, agile coaching has become “a thing” and a term that is used in recruiting, staffing, by managers, trainers, HR, and by many others. And even by many agile coaches themselves.

‘Recently’ (starting about five years ago) a new challenge emerged. From the world of life coaching comes the statement that “You all call yourself coaches, but none of you has a coaching education.”

And there may be a lot of truth in that sentiment.

But if we want to educate agile coaches in coaching, which kind of coaches are we actually referring to?

From memory, the prototype of the agile coach was the sports coach, not the life coach. Why? Well, the first mention of a coach in an agile context I came across is older than Agile. The XP-Coach was mentioned in eXtreme Programming explained (1st ed. in 1999, and the reference to the xp-coach on the original wiki is even older.
Later, long after the agile manifesto was written in 2001, the term “agile coach” appeared with all kinds of connotations.
Looking back at descriptions from the turn of the millennium it seems as if the agile coach in these times was more like a sports coach than a life coach.

Life coaches mostly work within the a set of assumptions that fosters the personal growth and development of the coachee. For some this might be represented in a list like:

  • The solution lies within the client
  • Coach and client are at an equal level (peers)
  • The coach is not the one to find the solution
  • The client is the expert for them self
  • The coach offers a container without judgement
  • Coach and client work with an open outcome

Now if we look at the (rather technical) description of the roles of the XP-Coach that somehow doesn’t fit.

To quote and paraphrase from eXtreme Programming explained:

“... the job duties are as follows:

  • Be available as a development [programming] partner [...]
  • [make refactoring happen]
  • Help programmers with individual technical skills, like testing, formatting, and refactoring
  • Explain the process to upper-level managers.”

or - on a later page: - “Sometimes, however, you must be direct, direct to the point of rudeness. [...] the only cure is plain speaking.” And also “[...]I am always in the position of teaching the skills [...] But once the skills are there my job is mostly reminding the team of the way they said they wanted to act in various situations. The role of the coach diminishes as the team matures.”(p 146)

As I learned from Dan Brown (the Kanban Dan Brown, not the fiction author) who also happens to be a children’s rugby coach the education of some sports coaches looks at six different attitudes of coaching:

  • tell (intervene and/or give directives e.g. to avoid injury)
  • show (let players see the effect of actions)
  • teach (educate the players on physical and nonphysical aspects [of the game])
  • train (increase the effectiveness or efficiency of an acquired skill or aspect)
  • sell (convince the players to 'buy into’ the application of techniques)
  • develop (work on the personal development of the players)

When I look at these lists, the sports coach seems to be much closer to the role of the coach that was outlined by XP.

And what’s more: it seems to be in much closer alignment with both the expectations of most clients as well as the expectations of most teams. For one thing only very few clients want to hire an “agile coach” with a completely open outcome. Due to the nature of agile approaches the specifics are of course not clear at the onset, but the general direction is clearly towards something that is aligned with the agile manifesto and probably includes a number of agile techniques.

So – even though I usually call myself neither an agile nor a Kanban coach, end even though I have clocked up a decent three digit number of education hours in life coaching over the past two decades or so – I mostly find myself in roles more akin to a sports coach than in that of a life coach. And that is true whether I'm working with teams or with upper management.

So perhaps we should keep this in mind if we use the term “coach” in conjunction with agile or Kanban.
What are agile coaches offering these days? Something akin to sports coaching or something akin to life coaching?

And what are customers looking for? What do they need, given where they are right now?

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg