The Agile Tribe

Becoming Agile

Author: Craig Smith

After a recent talk I gave about Being a Business Analyst in an Agile world, I was asked for some resources that might also help a Project Manager move into the world of Agile. The difficult thing I find that project managers deal with on Agile teams is the need to let go of work at the task level, and the need to move to more of a leader role and what I call a “traffic cop” that protects the team.

The PM is outside the core team, dealing with stakeholders, budgets, resourcing and all of the big issues whilst protecting the team so they can get on and deliver software. Hence the reason I recommend that a PM is not the iteration now.

For Leadership and Project Management:

And then there are many new leadership techniques which fit hand in hand with Agile (moving from management to leadership) as well as many good books, but a couple to get you started:

Some great books:

Here is a list that was put together earlier in the year of the Top 100 Agile books, and I would agree with most of the titles on this list, so it might be worth a browse as well.

Agile Training:

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Agile Academy, they have a two day Project Management course that was developed originally based on work carried out in Suncorp.

Craig is an Agile coach and has spoken at various conferences about Agile and related topics including Agile 2010, Agile Australia 2010 and the Atlassian Summit. He openly shares his knowledge and experiences through slideshare and his blog.

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Has your duck lost its quack?

Author: Susan Akers

A recent blog post by Seth Godin called: Watcha gonna do with that duck? got me thinking.

Seth said that:

We’re surrounded by people who are busy getting their ducks in a row, waiting for just the right moment…
Getting your ducks in a row is a fine thing to do. But deciding what you are you going to do with that duck is a far more important issue.

It reminded me of working in an Agile environment, where you have to get your ducks in a row to a certain extent but it is just as important to let your duck have some freedom to explore other paths as long as they come back to the flock and reach their intended destination.

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Agile's Secret Sauce – Part 3

Authors: Tracey Kay and Julian Coldrey

As project leads, we bring a certain perspective to how we have achieved the team culture described in Part 2 of this series.

So here are some things we did as a project leadership team that seemed to get a good result:

  • We picked the right people. It’s not about assembling the best, most high achieving collection of people. It’s about team fit and picking a group of people who work well together and, as a team, EXCEL.
  • We let the team self-select almost everything. Nothing says empowerment like the ability to choose how you work, what you work on, and who you work with. By enabling our teams to self-select and organise around our goals, they took on the choices as their own and were much more inclined to make them work (or even better, change them when it was obvious they weren’t working!)
  • We eliminated Leads to create accountability. It may seem counterintuitive to drive accountability by eliminating leads in an Agile team, but past experience showed us time and time again that creating leads for each skill set (“Dev leads,” “Test leads,” “BA leads”) caused an immediate diminishing of accountability with the rest of the team. We felt that if someone was given the “lead” role that it flew in the face of the culture of shared accountability we wanted to generate, so no leads became the order of the day.
  • We chose a specific leadership style. Leadership is always important, but in an Agile environment where empowerment and self-direction are critical to success, choosing the right leadership style is paramount. We decided to provide leadership that focused on the vision and purpose of the team, but which was not directive in terms of how to achieve these goals. In other words, our mantra was always “this is what we need to do, now let’s figure out how to do it as a team.” This really empowered the team, got everyone thinking, and ultimately helped create the sort of culture we were looking for.

We hope some of musings in this three part series about what makes up Agile’s secret sauce has resonated with your experiences of building high performing Agile teams. If we could take one thing away from this project experience, it’s that we’ve never regretted any investment we made into building a healthy team culture, as it has consistently been repaid in the form of a fantastic, high performing team who have fun!

Feel free to send us your Agile recipes for success too or direct us to other good blogs/articles.

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Agile's secret sauce – Part 1.

Authors: Tracey Kay and Julian Coldrey

Welcome to Part 1 of our series on a real case study of working Agile and what we have learned.

Let’s be clear right from the beginning, WE ARE fans of Agile. After going on a multi-year journey from the warm, cuddly, but ultimately illusory security blanket of Waterfall to the extreme sports vibe of a functioning Agile environment, we know the benefits of Agile first hand. Team empowerment, distributed problem-solving, stepping up, across, and even — occasionally – down; Agile is simply a great way to get things done! We’re currently working on a large, geographically distributed project to deliver a snazzy new insurance claims system. Challenging as it has been, we don’t know how we would have made it to the point where we’re at, almost ready to drop our first production release only a few months after starting to code, if we had been working any other way than Agile.

As much as we dig storywalls and retrospectives, we don’t credit our progress to Agile practices. Sure, Agile has a great toolkit of techniques that can help the team understand and manage what needs to be done but …… teams with low Agile maturity often hone in on the more tangible aspects of the methodology: standups, story cards and so forth. Yet time and time again, we’ve seen teams go through the motions and ultimately struggle, even though on a superficial level they are doing “everything right.”

SO WHAT IS THE SECRET SAUCE THEN? Put simply: CULTURE and, because culture is driven from the top down (ie. the leadership team) the right culture creates an environment for a productive set of values and behaviours to emerge. It is the culture, not the mechanics of Agile, that infuses Agile practices with the right intent. Culture, not a wall covered with sticky notes, enables sustainable pace, quality and collaboration. In fact, experience tells us that, without an appropriate culture, working Agile is pointless.

Now that’s a lot of italics, let alone ideas, to cram into one paragraph. And we don’t mean to suggest we’ve nailed it in our project. However, the closer we’ve come to the right team culture, the more effective our Agile practices have been; the better the team has worked; and the more confident we’ve been in reaching our goals.

In part 2, we’ll look at some aspects of the team culture that have helped our delivery the most.


Can't see the wood for the trees?

Author: Cara Talbot

Introducing Agile to an organisation, as with any change program, means significant disruption. The way we do things is no longer the same. We no longer have our traditional rulebooks to clearly define what our roles are, how we’re supposed to engage with each other, or how we should go about our work.

This has heightened anxiety to some degree either consciously or unconsciously for almost everyone coming into contact with it. What’s my role now? How am I supposed to know what I should be doing? What if our team fails? What if I fail?

Most have dipped their toes in the water, and have grown in confidence as successes have been achieved. Some have quite radically removed some of the traditional roles altogether and claimed early successes. What risks might have they introduced critics would argue? It’s all a bit too early to tell. Some have turned into what is being coined as ‘Agile Purists’ where they will argue to the death about sticking to process over pragmatism. Perhaps this is because a natural inclination for some might be to seek new (Agile) rulebooks to replace the old; to firm up the ground beneath their feet and feel secure and stable again.

The irony is that debating at this level stunts productivity and can cultivate fear, uncertainty and doubt within their teams by challenging who should be doing what role instead of simply enabling the team to get on with the business of delivery. Teams can lose sight of their end goal.

My observations in attending the recent Agile Australia conference in Melbourne perpetuated this theory. No matter the viewpoint or appetite for risk, discussion threads resulting from the presentations and workshops were often on the following sorts of themes:

  • All design must be done up front/ no upfront design at all; get rid of the Architects!
  • Iteration Managers vs Project Managers. Get rid of the PMs; IMs aren’t really needed!
  • Business Analysts vs Technical Analysts; Subject Matter Experts vs Business Analysts; get rid of the BAs!
  • er… is there anyone left to progress the project?

Of course, there were also the sales pitches about the numerous methods of Agile we should be applying, although Scrum and Kanban seemed to be clear favourites du jour.

Perhaps, it’s a natural evolution of maturing Agile development for organisations. However, there appears to be a tendency to become overly introspective when faced with the challenge of change, rather than focus on what we are trying to achieve by changing. Perhaps we need to reassure people that their base skills are still valid and valued, we just need to work out how and when to apply them to achieve the Agile values of: doing enough to give the best bang for our buck; focussing on delivering benefit to our businesses quickly; being flexible enough to seize opportunities where it is sensible to do so… in other words, projects still need management (albeit there is a heightened, but not new, focus on coaching first, directing second). don’t get mee wrong though we still need to go into design; problems still need analysis; code still needs to be written and tested… and we need to figure out how to do all of this flexibly and collaboratively.

What was most refreshing to me during the conference was to hear the views of Martin Kearns (Agile Practice Lead from Renewtek), Neal Ford (Software Architect from ThoughtWorks) and Nigel Dalton (CIO of Lonely Planet). These three guys appeared to be in the minority in expressing what I feel being Agile is really about –

“…it’s just a guidebook guys, do what works for getting to your end goal.”

With all the Agile methods, tools, techniques and blurring of roles – there are two constants that run commonly between them all – the promotion of genuine collaboration; and of continuous learning. All roles bring value to the way we work. Alistair Cockburn has said: ‘people are highly variable and non-linear’ and as people aren’t software components – it inevitably introduces variability into projects. What’s great about Agile is that it fits process to people, not the other way around. Agile brings a different approach to process: the team is responsible for choosing their own processes, and as such no project will be the same, and no team will be the same.

We need to avoid the trap of holding ourselves up for too long by trying to figure out who does what activity within the project; and instead lift our eyes towards the project’s end goal. What are individual’s expertise – let them get on with it, don’t shuffle activities for shuffling’s sake. What are the team weaknesses? Get the team to collaborate on how to best address any gaps. Don’t introduce any unnecessary complexity. Think – what will success look like, and how can the team best work together to get there?

For those that are still seeking the new rulebook: defines Agile as:

  1. Quick and well-coordinated in movement; lithe.
  2. Active; lively.
  3. Marked by an ability to think quickly; mentally acute or aware.

To me, this means that to be truly Agile you have to be agile! The minute you think you’ve got it right, you’re making mistakes. Agile is ever evolving, and what we see as Agile today is likely to bear little resemblance to what it will look like Tomorrow.

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“10 + 1 pointers to a more innovative Agile journey!”

Author: Chris Zaharia

Someone suggested that I write a blog on my top tips for using innovation with Agile to make great things happen.

From Flickr - Cayusa.

This got me thinking about Clayton Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. In it he explains how start-ups have taken over previous market leaders across many industries, time and time again because they chose to introduce “disruptive innovations”. What this means is that it may be better to release a product or service that would cannibalise or even replace your core business than to wait for a competitor to beat you to it! Sounds like Agile to me. You collaborate with and learn from your customers what they really want. Most people will accept the less than perfect if they can see that at each step it is fulfilling one of their needs.

A success story that reflects this is Atlassian, one of the most effective adapters of Agile in Australia. I was fortunate enough to meet Mike Cannon-Brookes, the co-founder, back in 2008 when he explained how they identified that their existing customers found enterprise software much too complex to use. So they listened, developed and delivered an innovative suite of products which gave customers a simple, easy to use group of solutions, resulting in taking market share from previous leaders who were ineffective at innovating and turning an initial investment of $10,000 into over $75million in revenue business. We now see some of these products (Jira, Confluence and GreenHopper) being used by the likes of companies such as Macquarie, BMW and Adobe.

I’m not in the same league as those innovators at Atlassian but I am an innovator and offer a few words of advice from my own experience.

  1. Don’t let others knock your ideas down even if they think it could never work. Gather Energisers around you. They will provide support for your ideas and constructive criticism when appropriate as opposed to Energy Sappers who will say NO to all your ideas until you are discouraged to bring any more up.
  2. Go to GenY employees for ideas, and graduates who have recently finished University, as they usually have the latest perspectives on the most current trends and technologies and are more than happy to share their ideas. Consider giving them the time to develop their own side-projects too, possibly even create a graduate innovation initiative for them to conceptualise and deliver projects with formal teams and budgets. Similar initiatives have been a great success at companies such as Suncorp and Deloittes.
  3. Even go as far as to approach the younger iGeneration and children for ideas. Their perspective can bring surprisingly blunt and down-to-earth approaches that might jumpstart innovations. Don’t dismiss the GenXs and Baby Boomers either, as they can give a more realistic perspective which can enhance ideas to become feasible products. In fact, Deloittes has an effective method of hatching more realistic innovative solutions by pairing up a junior and senior employee to come up with ideas.
  4. Don’t leave innovative features that come up in a forgotten backlog due to the difficulty in estimating them. One way to address this is to perform a spike. Another method is to develop a throw-away prototype and demonstrate it.
  5. Allow customers or work colleagues from other parts of the business to take a look at the product. You can gain a variety of ideas which can introduce new approaches you may have forgotten or not even thought of by giving access to the product’s current iteration or via an communications channel like Yammer to get feedback from a much larger internal audience.
  6. Implementing an idea management system where anyone within your department or organisation can share ideas or challenges and vote on the best solutions.
  7. Bringing people in from outside your core team to take part or at least observe parts of your project. This may result in more efficient methods/processes being identified and taken up by the team.
  8. Have team members participate in industry workshops and events and then present what they have learnt to the rest of the team.
  9. Don’t limit yourself to only looking at competitors. Look at industries which are at the forefront of the technologies you are adapting. For example, in the insurance industry, a market leader in online retailing may have features that no other insurance website has and adapting it would bring in efficiencies in navigation that translate to increased business value.
  10. Actively follow the latest trends and technologies in as many industries as you can, and consider using a checklist of these when brainstorming at the concept phase of your Agile project.
  11. Finally, you can look at brainstorming sessions or even creative-thinking techniques for individuals such as SCAMPER. I found “Thinkertoys” by Michael Michalko to be a great book with lots of techniques to help you come up with ideas in the first place.

My final word of advice is this:
I see many people come up with great ideas and say they will do something but never drive themselves enough to act on it. You have to do something about it to really make it happen. Don’t just keep your ideas to yourself, otherwise you may be living with regrets about what might have been. Apple’s Steve Jobs once said “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower” so be a leader and make those ideas come true.

You CAN change the world!


Watch out! It's the Agile Presenters Club.

Author: Heather Dickinson

Although standups are a basic practice along the Agile journey, as we all know public speaking, no matter how safe the environment, can be stressful, so our current and past Agile Graduates (or Gradgiles) are seizing the opportunity to develop their presentation skills, essential to their growth and development in the business world. They are doing this through participation in a modern, self driven program developed by our company. As a large financial organisation whose way of working is all about being “Agile”, we certainly try to live up to the Agile mantra of “people over processes”.

Through a supportive and dare I say, “fun” environment, the Gradgiles are working together to chair, present and reflect on each other’s presentations in a safe and supportive environment.

So, how does it work? A Club meeting is a “hands on” learning experience. Clubs meet once a month with the average meeting lasting about an hour. Each Club operates under their own social contract and each meeting has set roles that assist the Club in being self-sufficient. Roles include the Chair, the Time Boxer, the Reflector, the Word Master and the Scrum Master.

Club members use the organisation’s Yammer Presenters Club Group to collaborate and share common knowledge amongst the members in-between meetings. I believe this is (and has been) a great learning experience for eager minds who are hungry to achieve their dreams and aspirations.

It has been a pleasure to be involved and I would certainly encourage other organisations to also trial a self-driven program if you’re fortunate to have such a motivated group of employees in your company and also have the support of your management for such an initiative!


The Power of One: Along the road to Leadership

Author: Ryan McKergow

Taking a leaf from Fiona Mullen’s earlier blog, I too was inspired by “Liquid Leadership” by Damien Hughes, the next book in the saga after “Liquid Thinking”. Its focus is on how everyone should and can take the leap to become a leader.

Recently I presented to other graduates at our organisation and called on them all to aspire to be leaders and proposed the self-realisation that I too was a leader.

So… what is it that makes a leader?

Personally I see a leader as someone who gives direction to others, while leading by example. What do I mean by this? I mean that they have to:

  • Be bold and courageous, but also vulnerable at the same time;
  • Be optimistic and/or energisers;
  • Have a clear vision of where they are going; and
  • Continue to communicate and reinforce why we are going there!

I also think that to just get by in this world, you should:

  • Value your family, friends, and yourself first!
  • Always be polite and respectful; and
  • Do some good by changing the world, even if it is only in a small way.

Now you might be asking yourself, why should I bother to be a leader?

To put it plainly, this world needs leaders! You don’t have to be in a leadership position at work to be a leader. You could be a leader at work without the title, a leader in your home/family life, a leader when you’re playing sport or in a band, or a leader at your church!

Let me paint you a picture of a time when leadership is needed and how it applies to this world needing leaders.

Imagine that you are walking down the street with one other person. This person suddenly falls down and you rush over to help them. But what if there were 40 others in the street and that one person collapsed?

Everyone starts thinking to themselves, “Oh it’s ok. Someone else will help.” No one took the lead to help this person and that person could have been YOU!

This is why we need leaders in our world.

Ok, what can you do to become a leader?

I have two suggestions on what you can do, but obviously there are many more:

  1. Tell someone that you see as a leader, that you want to be a leader and ask them how they have became one! You’d be surprised what they will do to help you if you just ask.
  2. Make yourself vulnerable. Make the humbling realisation that there is always room for self-improvement and to learn something new. A good starting point could be to read “Liquid Thinking” and “Liquid Leadership”.

Let me leave you with a parting quote (from Damien Hughes book) about leadership and why you too can become a leader, even if you don’t think you have the influencing power….

“If you think that you are too small to make a difference,
try going to bed with a mosquito in your room!”


Agilists – Keep fighting the good fight!

Author: Fiona Mullen

Recently I had the opportunity to visit Canberra with Sharon Robson from Software Education. The purpose of the visit was to familiarise Canberra IT professionals with what Agile is, how we managed the transformational change in Suncorp along with how the Agile Academy can support them on their Agile journey via training, opening sharing information to the wider Agile community through social media and events.

Personally I found the trip invaluable and I was overwhelmed by the engagement of those who attended across many industries. There was definitely a commitment in the room that Agile was useful but what most struggled with was how to get leadership buy-in.

A lot of these folk were doing Agile in some shape or form in their silos but were really struggling to make traction across their portfolios as Agile was not front of mind with the decision makers.

What I stressed when I talked to people, was that going Agile is a transformational journey and there needs to a structured approach for tackling this along with finding opportunities to influence decision makers on the value Agile brings. Speed, flexibility, teamwork and business value should always be front of mind and if it isn’t then challenge it!

I certainly have an appreciation for how lucky we have been with our Agile journey and although we had hiccups along the way, we also have had strong leadership support to use Agile and that’s why it has become our way of working.

My tip to those struggling with Agile is to keep fighting the good fight and remind those sceptics that success is all about business value.

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Hi! Ho! Hi! Ho! It’s off to Agile conference world we go.

Authors: Craig Smith and Susan Akers

It seems timely to talk about content of conferences now that the “season” seems to be almost upon us. There are many great Agile related topics from a wide and varied group of speakers the world over on offer. A call for papers is like a call to arms but wouldn’t it be nice if more presentations could move away from all the fantastical things that Agile does and share more of what we have learned from our failures. There is a lot to be learned from our failures and isn’t that what Agile is about – “doing so, in a safe to fail environment:”?

As Edward Phelps says:
“The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything. “

You’ve got to take your hat off to Suncorp which while certainly acknowledged Agile leaders in Australia particularly in the financial and banking industry, were not afraid to showcase their pathway along a sometimes rocky Agile road with a case study presented by Jody Podbury (Suncorp) and Lachlan Leasman (Thoughtworks) at last year’s inaugural Agile Australia conference. They focussed on their journey adopting Agile in BAU. They discussed what they tried, then failed at, what they then tried instead, and its current evolution. It was the story of a transition from a directed and managed support group to a self-leading, self-governing and self-correcting team.

The great thing about the Agile community is that many of our worldwide conferences encourage experience reports where real people talk openly about their real Agile issues. And most of the time, talking to any of the attendees in the hallways opens up a wide discussion of corporate successes and failures that would have been hidden behind closed doors just a few years ago.

The problem however, is that most of these real world stories are dwarfed by the large number of self-serving or consultancy selling presentations that seem to dominate most technical conferences. There is so much “good news” noise out there about Agile that finding a gem from amongst the fool’s gold stories put out by the fan boys can mean putting your hard hat on to really go data mining.

Furthermore, presenters often talk about their sessions being open exchanges but most tend to be one way communication streams with minimal questions/comments.

What about the speakers taking some time to get real interaction and ideas from the audience of how they have overcome issues perhaps in an innovative way? We not only learn from our own mistakes but do also learn from others. As an Agile community we are very open to sharing our stories with each other.

Isn’t it now the time, as the rest of the world is starting to catch on to the Agile buzz, that we share our honesty with the wider world in a more collaborative fashion?

A parting thought:

“Flops are part of life’s menu. Everyone makes mistakes. High achievers learn by their mistakes.
By doing that, an error becomes the raw material out of which future successes are forged.
Failure is not a crime.
Failure to learn from failure is.”

– Unknown