Anti Pigeon Holing or Why Leaders Should Consider Capabilities, Not Job Titles

Often during a DevOps or agile transformation, we demonstrate the potential of fresh ways of working with a single, pioneering team. Generally these teams produce solid results and there is a strong desire to scale the approach to more teams. This moment is something of a tipping point for the department, successful scaling leads to successful teams, leading to successful projects. How people are picked for those teams is crucial. A team’s make up is just as important as the practices it adopts; personalities, skills, experience and enthusiasm will all determine the drive, output and diligence of the team.

So how are teams created in your organisation? The easy way is to ‘do what we always do’: gather people finishing a project, or copy the template from the last team created, or maybe teams don’t change at all! Slightly more adventurous is to replicate the list of job titles in the pioneering team. These cookie cutter approaches may be successful, but only if the department is already populated by talented flexible individuals. However a little consideration will often yield better results, not just for the business but for the individuals in the team.

…for the rest of  post see the Skelton Thatcher Blog

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The Entirely Random DevOps Days London Write Up

There are some great posts out there on the superlative DevOpsDays London 2016 Conference. Of particular note are Manual PaisDevOpsGuys  and Helen Beal’s DevOpsDays London: Making Happy. These are well structured, balanced pieces which neatly represent each talk along with insight from experienced authors.  I hate to disappoint, but this post is not one of those. It’s a random collection of the things that peaked my interest at DevOps Days London.

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What is Legacy?
There was lots of talk of legacy, the BiModal debate rolled on. Much like the sporadic agile wars many of the detractors use out dated definitions as convenient ammunition, Gartner’s understanding of the challenges seems to have evolved away from its original strategy towards an exploit and explore approach for recent and legacy systems respectively.  Defining legacy is challenging, with considerations beyond just the age of the software or system. There were a few definitions I really liked:
“Legacy is code you can’t iterate on as quickly as you need to” – Casey West
“Legacy is code you don’t have automated tests for. – Micheal Feathers
“Legacy is where your customer money lives” –  Bridget Kromhout

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The merits of really reading
I keep having the same conversation, like being in a endless loop, it goes like this:

Person: “Yeah, I know all about Conway’s law, it is super insightful”
Me: “Exactly, that example about teams building compilers, that’s a light bulb moment”
Person: “….the compilers?”
Me: (Thinks) “Have you really taken time to understand what you’re advising people to do, or are you just reciting tweets?”
Me: (Says) “ Check out the article, there’s lots more in it”

It is like this with so many topics, REST, OODA, Learning. That’s why I was so pleased to hear the ever-eloquent Gareth Rushgrove call out the value of reading academic papers in his talk.  These days we are so prone to snacking on sound bites we seldom get the satisfaction of a full reading meal, yet our brains cry out for this kind of nourishment. I believe papers, and source material in general, are the best way to gain a firm understanding of a topic, particularly because they build a picture of what motivated the author, not just what they did.  Much like software patterns, understanding the intent and motivation is key to successful application.

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Burnout
A couple of talks touched on burnout, as did a well attended and lively open space. What surprised me was how many people had direct experience of it, it remains an issue in the industry despite raised awareness and talk of sustainable, humane ways of working. Oliver Wood talked about his experiences working so many hours that he slipped a disk. Keen that others may avoid the same fate, he created GoodCoderBadPosture.  During his ignite he reminded us “you are ephemeral , you are not highly available“.  My talk (Things I learnt About DevOps When My Car Caught Fire) used the analogy of looking through the windscreen of my burnt out car, all the instruments you normally rely upon to sense the world are warped and confused, your view is fogged and distorted. If only we could see metal strain as readily as we can bad posture.

I noticed much of the burnout open space was concerned with what management and organisations can do prevent burnout, and recognise it’s occurrence. This is a reasonable standpoint given that our behaviours are generally shaped by the systems we work within. However In the spirit of DevOps we should also note that it isn’t a problem for effected individuals and their mangers to tackle alone.  While organisations take action, we might also ask ourselves:

1. “How would I know if one of my colleagues was suffering from burnout?”
2. “How would I help someone I thought on the verge of burnout?”
3. “How do my own behaviours effect the likelihood of burnout in my colleagues?”

There was a nice note in Jeromy Carriere’s talk, and a potential answer to question 3: “Work hard to make every alert exciting” this has implications for burnout, exciting alerts implies only being disturbed for hard problems, not simple switch flicking exercises.

Change
There was plenty of talk of change, particularly the danger of not evolving and experimenting.  Change strategies were discussed, including the value of heading into conversations well armed with data.  It was clear from their talk that Microsoft are changing in places, for instance setting up open team rooms or neighborhoods.  I rate this approach, it appears to balance team privacy, open communications and the distractions of full open plan.

“It is not necessary to change, survival is not mandatory” – Deming (Who wasn’t present!)
“The riskiest thing is not to change” – Joanne Molesky

The change theme included the importance of investing time in the most valuable activities, and how to discover them. It highlighted that many of those valuable activities are operational features, not just shiny new toys to please users. If you’re in the mood for self reflection you might give some thought to this quote from Bridget Kromhout:
“When evaluating yourself don’t forget to look at the value you are adding”

A conference, with a culture
The thing I love about DevOpsDays, and the way it’s organised, is that it still feels like a community event, sure it’s scaled, but the level of friendliness, inclusion and support are almost as the first time I spoke in Goteborg 2011. The story of this scaling and principles behind it were told by Kris Buytaert, it’s surprising how many of the early adopters are still active. The conference manages to short circuit a lot of anchoring and group think by giving almost 50% of the time to open spaces. Taking responsibility for the schedule out of the committee’s hands into the delegate’s ensures that topics are relevant to attendees, right then and there. The willingness of speakers to stay and participate in these sessions is key to their success and makes for some great learning.  Not bad for a movement that still can’t agree what its about.

The Final Countdown; Adjourning Agile Teams

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When introducing agile  I’m sometimes asked to assist with the creation of teams, I’ll be asked questions like:  how many testers do we need?  Is ten people enough?  Who manages performance?  Should they wear shorts?  These are predominantly valuable questions, lucky covered at length elsewhere.  Something that’s very seldom planned is what happens when these teams disband.  And yet, without due care team members may end up demotivated, disappointed or feeling unappreciated.  In the age where everyone is fighting to retain smart people, and to transform their organisations, at the expense of a little forethought, it seems a high risk to take.

New teams are recognised  to move through similar phases, regardless of their domain.  Tuckman’s stages of group development is the ubiquitous cycle, suggesting that teams move through the following stages as they gel and become productive:
Forming – When a team gets together there is a buzz, there is expectation, and caution as they figure out their mission and their colleagues.
Storming – The team realise what they are up against, both from their mission, and each other, there is vying for position, conflict and resistance.
Norming – The team start to behave as more collaboratively, making progress towards goals, and developing team relationships, they are increasingly effective as a group.
Performing – The team is stable and performing its best, there is respect, understanding and a strong sense of shared purpose.

The sequence provides a useful heuristic for what to expect as a new team gets together.  Of course progress isn’t strictly linear, and teams iterate through these stages.  Something as simple a desk swap may prompt a little storming, with care though the overall trend remains towards performing.

Having studied and developed the concept, a decade later Tuckman added a fifth stage.  It is sometimes referred to as ‘mourning’ although I suspect that’s largely due to rhyme compatibility with the other stages, Tuckman named it ‘adjourning’.

Imagine this:  you go on a sunny holiday with a bunch of  new friends, sure the journey was a bit fraught, it took a while to get used to the new place, pace and lifestyle, there were some heated words along the way, in the end everyone is getting along, doing their thing and generally having a good time.  The holiday peaks when everyone gets together, sharing experiences and ideas, the energy is tangible.  Then one day you notice someone has left the group; “needed elsewhere” apparently.  Next day the hotel barman disappears, then you notice no-one is organising activities anymore.  The swimming pool is turning a curious green hue.  Two people wonder off because ‘there’s a more interesting holiday going on over there’.  The kitchen runs out of food – the chef is only there once a week, mumbling about “other priorities”.  The manager who used to stroll over enthusiastically and ask; “how can I help today?” now seems afraid to look you in the eye.  Slowly people drift off until the sense of fun and bonhomie are lost.  Triumphs forgotten, you kill time until the holiday reaches its end date.  A sense of loss and a slow fade to boredom becomes the overriding memory.

The adjourning phase in teams is important because it sets up the attitude, enthusiasm and levels of energy taken to the next team.  What is carried forward is largely based on the emotional response someone has looking back at the project.  The final weeks are particularly important because we are recent creatures, more recent negative experiences will replace older positive feelings.

Sensitivity to the adjourning phase is especially important during an agile transformation, and when introducing change in general.  In those early days a change initiative needs allies and evangelists to support and promote it.  Peer to peer recommendations are particularly respected, and people who have enjoyed a project help form a cohort of change agents.  The opposite is also true, word of a poorly handled team will soon spread, and be seen as part of the ‘new way’.

So you need to make sure that a team has a positive emotional response when they think about the project otherwise, regardless of what ‘facts’ or ‘reasons’ are given, it’s the emotional side that will determine whether a similar initiative is supported, or resisted.  I’d suggest the following:

Mark The Occasion – Lunch, cakes, a flaming aquatic Viking burial for the team board, anything that underscores that the project is done.  No need for speeches, but be sure to say thanks, recognise achievements, and just mark the last time the team exists in this form.  Often it feels more useful to do when the whole team can attend, rather than the calendar close date.

Close it down – Agree what work should be completed, rather than allowing that nagging unfinished, lost opportunity feeling.  Consider the tasks that will make it possible for other teams to work with product when handed over.

Retrospect – There are two motivations for this, firstly to gain learning and insight for future projects, secondly so team members feel like they’ve been heard and that things will improve in future projects.  A good option is to hold a ‘futureospective’ focus the retro on the future, asking each participant to choose a couple of initiatives they’d introduce to their new team.

Communicate – Often team changes are requested by outside influences,  it is good to soften the feeling that team changes are being ‘done to them’, especially in an agile environment which encourages self organisation and team responsibility.  If the team faces a slow wind down with people moving over a few weeks, explain why, ask for input into how the team’s remaining commitments and assets should be managed.  Again you’ll uncover solid ideas and increase engagement.

In the aspect of adjourning agile teams are no different to any other, except perhaps that they are expected to move through the stages of group development more often and more rapidly than their counter parts.  We should be mindful that our search of agility does not lead to disenfranchised groups and teams that never truly form due to prior poor experiences when disbanding.

Compared to the effort we put into forming a team the effort required for a successful adjournment is small, and the rewards are high; raised enthusiasm, engagement and even increased support for transformation.  So let’s not short change our teams, lets facilitate the closing phase of team life with as much thought and attention as the beginning.

There’s no script for agile – what can we learn from Improv theatre?

It’s always good to hear a new perspective on a seemingly familiar subject, it often provokes thought, inspires action, and encourages change.  Paul Goddard has introduced one such perspective on coaching teams in his book ‘Improving Agile Teams’.  There are plenty of books with similar titles, but the clue here is ‘Improv’ – the book shows readers how improv theatre techniques and games are of benefit to agile teams, both aspiring and experienced.  

I’m confident improv needs no introduction, the likes of Paul Merton, Josie Laurence and more recently, The Mighty Boosch have brought the art to the mainstream. Something you quickly realise reading the book is just how spontaneous improvisers are.  There are subtle cues, and openings the players use to both support, promote, and challenge each other.  Take a look at the expressions on the faces of Ryan Stiles and Jeff B Davis in the first minutes of this Improv-a-ganza clip, you’ll see reactions to unexpected events, and rapid adaptation to changing circumstances.

The idea of using improv techniques to improve team collaboration is an appealing one, the principles of agile and improv seem closely aligned, success in entertaining an audience and working effectively on complex, creative projects requires trust, collaboration, respect and a sense of play.

The book draws out five principles;
Safety – concerned with creating an environment in which teams (players in improv speak) can trust and rely on each other, supporting, encouraging, accepting failure and learning together.
Spontaneity – the business of developing an open mind, to increase creativity and receptiveness to others ideas.
Storytelling – as a method of engaging, inspiring and developing empathy, not just applicable to conversation, but also in user stories.
Status – identifying status, and manipulating it in a safe way to identify issues and further creativity and collaboration.
Sensitivity – the ability to sense, or listen and respond appropriately to others, in order to work effectively with them.

These are novel choices for what must, by extension, be agile principles, but the book explains the thinking behind these, and grounds them in current theory. For instance, in safety pointing out that absence of trust is one of the five dysfunctions of a team .  It’s nice to see Mihaly’s flow model get a mention too.

What I really like is that these principles are used to introduce a improv games and tips designed to further the maturity of teams.  These range from simple, everyday exercises that most teams would be comfortable with, to techniques that may challenge both team and coach.  It’s interesting to run through the techniques, and think “Could I run this with my team?”  if the response is ‘no’ then it’s likely attention to one of the five principles is warranted.

There are fifty or so techniques in the book, some quick and simple and great for livening up stale meetings (like conducting a stand up without using the letter ‘S’) while others require more time, and set to explore a particular area with a team.

One technique is ‘The physic Stand Up’, when team members aim to give someone else’s daily report.  I’ve seen this in action, and it’s fascinating, especially when vociferous people give reports on behalf of more timid people, there’s a strange mix of relief (that’s what I’ve been wanting to say) and shock (did they really just say that?).

I found the status techniques are particularly interesting, especially as it’s an area less explored by agile.  The Dinner Party game is aimed at understanding and recognising status, and the responses it elicits.  In brief, players are invited to an imaginary dinner party, split into two groups and asked to show either high or low status behaviors.  The groups then switch for the same amount of time before retrospecting on the experience.  

Sounds simple?  I’d suggest reserving judgement until you’ve tried some of the techniques, either in a safe environment or on the ‘stage’ of the shop floor.  There are great benefits to be found, experimenting with improv is both challenging and thrilling, the learning is definitely in the doing.

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In a similar vein, I’d highly recommend the book Artful Making, an unlikely collaboration been a Harvard Professor and a director/playwright.  It draws agile and leadership lessons from the world of makers, particularly experiences running a busy theatre and working with groups of actors.