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The Software Process and Measurement Cast 403 features our essay on Agile practices at Scale. Scaling Agile is a contentious topic.  Frameworks and techniques for scaling are often lambasted as semi-Agile or perhaps even backdoor waterfall techniques. Occasionally you still hear that if a piece of work is too big for one team to complete in a reasonable period of time it should be broken down or just not done. Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, many organizations have taken a more pragmatic approach and adopted techniques to scale Agile. We discuss the issues and some of the steps that can be taken to address them!

We will also have a visit from the Software Sensei, Kim Pries. Kim discusses making real transformations using his experience learning Tai Chi.  Kim points out that change like deep learning is not instantaneous.

Gene Hughson anchors the cast with an entry from his Form Follows Function Blog. We discussed his article titled,  NPM, Tay, and the Need for Design.  Gene points out that being forewarned is forearmed. While it has always been true, in today’s dynamic environment, an architect needs to be forearmed.

Re-Read Saturday News

This week we continue our re-read of Kent Beck’s XP Explained, Second Edition with a discussion of Chapters 8 and 9.  Chapter 8 changes gears and provides advice on how to get started with XP.  Beck suggests that there is no single place to start for everyone. Where you start depends on where you are beginning.  Chapter 9 provides a list of corollary practices that build on the primary practices discussed in Chapter 7.  

Use the link to XP Explained in the show notes when you buy your copy to read along to support both the blog and podcast. Visit the Software Process and Measurement Blog (www.tcagley.wordpress.com) to catch up on past installments of Re-Read Saturday.

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Chameleon changing color

Words are important. They can rally people to your banner or create barriers. Every word communicates information and intent. There has been a significant amount of energy spent discussing whether the phrase ‘Agile transformation’ delivers the right message. There is a suggestion that ‘adoption’ is a better term. Based on my research and outreach to approximately 20 Agile practitioners (a range of developers, testers, scrum masters and consultants) it is apparent that both words have different connotations. Connotations that are both dangerous and useful.  As noted when we wrestled with the message and baggage of the word transformation, the answer of when to use one or the other is not cut and dry. (more…)

Transformation is creative destruction.

Transformation is creative destruction.

Words are an important vehicle for communicating information and intent. Recently I was privy to a discussion over the use of ‘transformation’ and ‘adoption,’ when used to describe an organizational change. The conversation was focused on whether the word transformation in the phrase ‘Agile transformation’ demotivated team members. The answer is not cut and dry. Both words communicate a slightly different intent. In addition, when each word is used to describe current activities, each carries a different set of connotations. After listening to the discussion of the two concepts at Agile DC, I began reflecting on how I use the two terms, did further research and reached out to approximately 20 Agile practitioners (a range of developers, testers, scrum masters and consultants) in order to develop a more nuanced understanding of the two concepts, and when to use them safely. We begin with transformation.

The word ‘transform’ means to thoroughly change into something else. Transformation is an act, process or instance of change of something into something that did not exist before. The noun ‘transformation’ evokes a long-term change program that will result in a large-scale, strategic change impacting a whole organization (or at least a significant part). Steve Woodward of Cloud Solutions pointed out that a transformation requires directed cultural change. Culture change requires planning, effort and a vision of the future that Bharathi Vasanthakrishna of Kornerstone Consultants points out, does not currently exist.  The vision of the future provides the organization with a goal to pursue and aspire to attain. For example, an organization that is beginning an Agile transformation is making a statement about how they perceive the future and, in a negative sense, what they perceive to be missing today. In many organizations, transformations are begun to escape a burning platform (a place or situation that the organization or group finds uncomfortable and wishes to escape); therefore once the transformation begins, there is no safe place to return. Transformations up-end the status quo causing disruptions and dislocations. The impact of transformations is often couched in code words like “an act of creative destruction.” These types of phrases are used to sugarcoat the potential impact of a transformation and to distance those leading the change from the pain it can cause. Any change that disrupts relationships or is perceived as being disruptive will cause some level of negative reaction. When done poorly in a heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all manner, the perception is often deserved.

If we define a transformation as a long-term change that disrupts an organization (which certainly conforms to how the practitioners I queried responded), it is easy to see why it might evoke angst. I checked the usage of the word transformation on Google’s NGran site. The usage of transformation has shown a steady decline since the late 1990’s, perhaps reflecting a problem in the perception of the word. Realistically, the concept of transforming an organization makes sense. One upon a time, Apple transformed itself from a midlevel computer manufacturer into the one of the most important electronic device manufacturers. GM transformed itself (with help) from a failing car manufacturer into a successful one. Just because the word connotes pain doesn’t mean it should not be used.

Next we will dissect the words ‘adopt’ and ‘adoption,’ which are often perceived as the darlings of Agile coaches.

Different training tools are sometimes needed!

Different training tools are sometimes needed!

Organizational transformations, like an Agile transformation, require the acquisition of new skills and capabilities. Gaining new skills and capabilities in an effective manner requires a training strategy. The best transformations borrow liberally from all categories of training strategies to best meet the needs of the transformation program and the culture of the organization. The four major training strategies typically used in Agile (and other IT) transformations have their own strengths and weaknesses. Those attributes make the strategies better for some types of knowledge and skill distribution than other strategies.

Training strategies by use.

Training strategies by use.

Lectures and presentations are the ubiquitous feature of the 21st century corporate meeting. These techniques are useful for spreading awareness and, to a lesser extent, to introduce concepts. The reduced efficiency of the lecture to introduce concepts is a due to trainers that are not trained educators, conference/training rooms that are not as well appointed as college lecture halls and learners that tend to pay only partial attention whenever possible. The partial attention problem is a reflection of email and text messages generated from their day job. Difficulties occur when distributed meetings are not supported with proper telecommunications.

Active learning and experiential learning are both excellent strategies for building and supporting skills and capabilities. Each method can include games, activities, discussions and lecture components. The combination of methods for generating and conveying knowledge keeps the learners focused and involved. Involvement helps defeat the common problem of partial attention by keeping the learners busy. The scalability of the two techniques differs, which can lead to a decision to favor one technique over the other. Many transformation programs blend both strategies. For example, I recently observed a program with group learning session (active learning) with assignments to be done outside the class as part of the learner’s day-to-day activities then debriefed in community of practice sessions (experiential learning).

Mentoring is a specialized form of experience-based learning. Because mentoring is generally a one-on-one technique, it is generally not scalable to for large-scale change programs, however it a good tool to transfer knowledge from one person to another and an excellent tool to support and maintain capabilities. Mentoring is most often used for specialized skills rather than general skills that need to broadly distributed.

Transformation programs generally will need to use more than one training strategy. Each strategy makes sense for specific scenarios. The of crafting an overall strategy requires understanding of which skills, capabilities and knowledge need to be fostered or built within the organization, then the distribution of the learners, the tools available and finally the organization’s culture. Once you understand the requirements, the training strategy can be crafted using a mixture of the training techniques.

You learn to play an instrument by practicing.

You learn to play an instrument by practicing.

Experiential learning, often thought of as learning by doing, can play an important role in any transformation program. In this strategy learners gather knowledge from the combination of doing something, reflecting on what was done and finally generalizing learnings into broader knowledge. The theory holds that knowledge is internalized through concrete engagement more effective and quickly rather through rote learning techniques. The basic steps of experiential learning are:

Experience – The learner is directly involved in experiences that are tied to a real world scenario. The teacher facilitates the experience. Writing your first computer program in a computer lab is an example of a concrete learning experience.

Reflection – The learner reflects on what happened and what they learned during the experience. Reflection typically includes determining what was important about the experience for future experiences. When used in a classroom, the reflection step generally includes sharing reflections and observations with the classmates (a form of a feedback loop). Demonstrating the program you wrote, reviewing the code snippets and sharing lessons learned with the class would be an example of this step.

Generalization – The learner incorporates the experience and what was learned into their broader view of how their job should be performed. The lessons learned from writing the program adds to the base of coding and problem-solving knowledge for the learner.

The flow of work through a team using Scrum can be mapped to experiential learning model. Small slices are of work are accepted into a sprint, the team solves the business problem, reflects on what was learned and then uses what was learned to determine what work will be done next. The process follows the experience, reflection, generalization flow.

There are several versions of the three stage experiential learning model. Conceptually they are all similar, the differences tend to be how the stages are broken down. For example, Northern Illinois University breaks the reflection step into reflection and “what’s important” steps.

There are several pluses and minuses I have observed in applying experiential learning in transformation programs.

Pluses

  1. Builds on and connects theory to the real world – Theory is often a dirty word in organizations. Experiential learning allows learners to experience a concept that can then be tied back to higher-level concepts such as theory.
  2. Experiences can be manufactured – Meaningful real-life examples can be designed to generate or focus on a specific concepts. When I learned to code first assembler computer program in the LSU computer lab, I was assigned a specific project by my TA.  This was an example of experiential learning.
  3. Can be coupled with other learning techniques – Experiential learning techniques can be combined with other learning strategies to meet logistical and cultural needs. For example classic lecture methods can be combined with experiential learning. My assembler class at LSU included lecture (theory) and lab (experiential) features.
  4. Individuals can apply experiential learning outside of the classroom – Motivated learners often apply the concept of experiential learning to add skills in a non-classroom environment when the skill may not generally applicable to the team or organization. For example, I had an employee learn to write SQL when I got frustrated waiting for the support team to write queries for him.  I learned by writing simple queries and debugging the results (he also used the internet for reference).

Minuses

  1. Not perfectly scalable – Experiential learning in the classroom or organization tends to require facilitation. Facilitation of large groups either requires multiple facilitators for breaking the group up into smaller groups and extending the time it takes to deliver the training. Without good facilitation experiential learning is less effective (just ask my wife about my skills facilitating her experience learning to drive a stick shift).
  2. Requires careful design – Experience, if not designed or facilitated well, can lead to learning the wrong lesson or to failures that impact the learner’s motivation.
  3. Reflection and generalization steps are often overlooked – The steps after experience are occasionally not given the focus needed to draw out concepts that were learned and then allow them to be incorporated the broader process of how work is performed.

Can anyone learn to ride a bicycle from a book or from a lecture? But you can learn to ride a bicycle using experiential learning (the reality is that it might be the only way). Experiential learning lets the learner try to ride the bike, fall and skin their knees, reflect on the how to improve and then try again.

Presentations are just one learning strategy.

Presentations are just one learning strategy.

How many times have you sat in a room, crowded around tables, perhaps taking notes on your laptop or maybe doing email while someone drones away about the newest process change? All significant organizational transformations require the learning and adoption of new techniques, concepts and methods. Agile transformations are no different. For example, a transformation from waterfall to Scrum will require developing an understanding of Agile concepts and Scrum techniques. Four types of high-level training strategies are often used to support process improvement, such as Agile transformations. They are:

  1. Classic Lecture /Presentation – A presenter stands in front of the class and presents information to the learners. In most organizations the classic classroom format is used in conjunction with a PowerPoint deck, which provides counterpoint and support for the presenter. The learner’s role is to take notes from the lecture, interactions between the class and presenter and the presentation material and then to synthesize what they have heard. Nearly everyone in an IT department is familiar with type of training from attending college or university. An example in my past was Psychology 101 at the University of Iowa with 500+ of my closest friends. I remember the class because it was at 8 AM and because of the people sleeping in the back row. While I do not remember anything about the material many years later, this technique is often very useful in broadly introducing concepts. This method is often hybridized with other strategies to more deeply implement techniques and methods.
  2. Active Learning – Is strategy that is based on the belief that learners should take responsibility for their own learning. Learners are provided with a set of activities that keep them busy doing what is to be learned while analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating. Learners must do more than just listen and take notes. The teacher acts as a facilitator to help ensure the learning activities include techniques such as Agile games, working in pairs/groups, role-playing with discussion of the material and other co-operative learning techniques. Active learning and lecture techniques are often combined.
  3. Experiential Learning – Experiential learning is learning from experience. The learner will perform tasks, reflect on performance and possibly suffer the positive or negative consequences of making mistakes or being successful. The theory behind experiential learning is that for learning to be internalized the experience needs to be concretely and actively engaged rather than in a more theoretical or purely in a reflective manner. Process improvement based on real time experimentation in the Toyota Production system is a type of experiential learning.
  4. Mentoring – Mentoring is a process that uses one-on-one coaching and leadership to help a learner do concrete tasks with some form of support. Mentoring is a form of experience based learning, most attributable to the experiential learning camp. Because mentoring is generally a one-on-one technique it is generally not scalable to for large-scale change programs.

The majority of change agents have not been educated in adult learning techniques and leverage classic presentation/lecture techniques spiced with exercises. However, each of these high-level strategies have value and can be leveraged to help build the capacity and capabilities for change.