Archive for April, 2011


Practice versus Theory

The title of this post is the thought that lead me to creating this blog. In my notebook I wrote “Practice versus Theory” because I was thinking how we spend a lot of time where I work on practice and implementation. That is a good thing. If we don’t execute on plans the company would be in a bad place, and we are not. But what about the theory behind what we do? Who is working on that? Do we need someone to be working on theory?

I started thinking about this while doing some research on high performing Scrum teams. I was following random branches from Google, from blogs I found, from citations by various papers. One interesting article I came across was a Forester report on the adoption of agile practices world wide (Google “mainstream adoption agile” to find an accessible copy). About the same time, I read a post by Jurgen Appelo mentioned how he was spear heading the creation of a network agile thinkers in Europe. After reading Jurgen’s post, I thought that perhaps our European business units would be very interested in this. It then occurred to me that I didn’t have a clue if any of the European business units were using agile development. Oh, wouldn’t it be cool to survey my global colleagues on the penetration of agile in the business. Would it mirror the Forester research? Then I asked myself what the business value of such research would be. Hmmm. I don’t know.

So we have thousands of employees in North America alone and I don’t know of any technical employee’s engaged in pure research. We recently started an innovation labs and the suggestions so far are targeting features or technologies that we can sell. If there was no business value to understanding the adoption of agile within the organization then how does Forester charge hundreds of dollars for a study on just that? Here is another thought, do any PhD’s work for the company? If so what do they do?

In my eleven years with the company I have met just one person who holds a PhD. He is a PhD in English and wrote the most extensive and beautiful process documents. We have MBA’s, accountants who became programmers, and even a few with a Masters but no PhD’s that I know of. Perhaps they are of no value? That doesn’t feel right to me but that may be due to the fact that my father has a PhD (A sample of his work). So what is an example of something that blends practice and theory? How about the monthly magazine published by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM)?

In the past year, ACM has revised its monthly magazine Communications of the ACM (CACM), to include articles for both practitioners and researchers (scientists). Perhaps this is in part to complaints from the researchers about copyright issues, here is one opinion, or perhaps it is to keep practitioners such as my self engaged. Do I understand the value, or even care, about three quarters of the research papers the CACM publishes? No, I don’t and sometimes I read something amazing that wants me to know more. Does it necessarily help me accomplish my business goals, usually not today, and probably not in the near future but it might.

I think a company needs people who just love digging into things regardless of immediate business value, and how big does a company need to be to fund people like this? Do you have to be a GE or IBM, or can you be something smaller? I do it because I love it. I read morning, noon, and night and learn all sorts of ‘useless’ things that might be useful one day, or not. Wouldn’t it be cool if part of your day job including pure research?

So where do you think the value of pure research lies for businesses?


Measuring Trust

How do you measure trust? This was not a question I expected myself to ask. Isn’t trust one of those things you have, or you don’t? I know there are degrees, or levels, to trust and I didn’t think I would ever need to measure it. Working with my colleague Keith Cerny and others on how to build high performing Scrum teams, we came to the realization it would be useful to measure trust. Without trust, the teams are not likely going to become high performing, so how can we help them with building trust?

So we need a starting point, a measurement of how much trust there is in our organization. That is trust between team members, and trust between teams and management. With a starting point we can measure the effect of changes on trust. I think the bigger question is, how deep do we want to go in measuring trust? We could keep it simple, like Net Promoter Score, and ask on a scale of zero to ten, “how much do you trust X?”. Or we could create a complex questionnaire that really digs into trust.

A quick search with Google reveals that measuring trust is a new model for some businesses. The big name in the business is Steven Covey Jr., and his new book “At the Speed of Trust“. According to the Speed of Trust web site this is a complex issue because they are”…measuring not simply a trust level but the specific trust components that make up the trust score.“. Wow, that is a lot more complex than “how much do you trust X?”. Then there is a Canadian company, Trust Learning Solutions, which also offers to measure your “organizational trust index”, and/or the individual levels of trust. Again, it sounds like measuring trust is a complex art that requires a PhD to understand. That is perhaps not far from the truth when you look at the Harvard study found here, or at the white paper published by the Institute of Public Relations.

Personally, I am a fan of simple solutions. We might not be able to come up with an eleven point scale of trust similar to the Net Promoter Score, however perhaps a six point scale will work. Starting at zero, which would correspond to “I don’t trust X to tell me the time of day”, to a five which is “I trust X to to always say what they are thinking (without being either defensive or offensive) and do what they say”. And I hope we never see a zero on a survey.

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Walking the talk

I have a weekly meeting with the staff in my office, open to all in our business unit as well as my direct reports. In this meeting I update the staff on what is going on at other campuses and within the company. In the meeting following my attendance of Agile Open 2011 session hosted by the Toronto Agile Community, I shared some of my thoughts and referred the staff to my blog on the conference. And much to my surprise, not only did some of them read it but they went through the site and read the rest of what I had posted. I then received an email challenging me to ‘walk the talk’.

I posted that one reason for starting this blog was because there was a lack of dialogue about agile and other topics in our office. The email I received challenged me to bring one topic to every staff meeting for discussion. The sender offered to support the dialogue and would bring their own topics for discussion by the group. Ok, now I had to come up with a topic for our first session. The very next day, following posting of notes from the Scrum of Scrums (SoS), I received an email about one of the points in the meeting notes. At the SoS, the group discussed making managers Scrummasters. The email I received indicated that the employee thought this was a very bad idea. Excellent, a topic for my first session.

Actually, ‘walk the talk’, or the say-do gap, comes up on a fairly regular basis. Trust is a big factor in agile. Without trust between team members, and teams and management, agile doesn’t really work. Closing the say-do gap is an easy way to build trust. It isn’t always easy thing to see though. For example, our group has a policy of no meetings on Wednesday’s for the staff. However, the managers trying to book meetings with staff across at least two different time zones and sometimes 3 or more locations, found the empty space on Wednesdays very convenient. We started to book meetings on Wednesdays until the topic came up at a SoS. We, the managers, were breaking down trust because we were not following the agreement to not book meetings on Wednesdays. This didn’t actually occur to us until a colleague in another group pointed it out. We needed to close our say-do gap by leaving Wednesdays meeting free.

And our first ever open discussion about agile in a staff meeting was a success. It was a success because almost everyone contributed to the discussion. The overall sentiment was that managers as Scrummasters is a bad idea. There were a few suggestions on how to improve the role of Scrummasters which I shared with the other managers. I look forward to our next meeting and discussion.

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Toronto Agile

This past Saturday I attended an OpenSpace event hosted by the Toronto Agile Community. This was two firsts for me, in that I had never been to an OpenSpace event and I had never been to an agile event. I will admit that I contemplated staying home to enjoy the sunshine and get my motorcycle ready for another season of riding and I am glad I went.

OpenSpace is a fascinating idea, essentially a self-organizing conference. A bunch of time slots are allocated, and a big pile of paper and pens are placed in the middle of the room. Attendees create topics they either want to present, or learn more about, and post it to the schedule. There is some negotiate around combining sessions, or moving sessions so interested parties can attend what they are interested in. Then it starts, or not. While time slots are allocated, sessions can start and finish whenever they want. If a session isn’t interesting you, get up and wander over to the next session, or stare out the window. Whatever works for you.

About 55 people showed up for the conference of the 70 or so that registered according to the organizers. The group was quite diverse, from young to…umm…mature, and developers to managers, and at least a couple of agile consultants/coaches such as Michael Sahota. Topics discussed covered such things as using improv to improve your stand ups and how to do Scrum in a distributed environment. Some topics didn’t go in the direction the speaker intended and it was a very lively and interesting discussion. In others, such as the distributed Scrum practice, we were all experiencing the same pain, and coming up with the similar solutions which made at least me feel a little better.

Overall, I enjoyed the OpenSpace experience and will look for opportunities to attend future events, and perhaps even use the concept myself. I have an idea of where it might be applicable. My only possible regret was not going for drinks afterwards but I had a burning desire to get that new motorcycle battery. A great day because I did learn new things, and I was only a day ‘late’ in getting the motorcycle prepped for a new year of riding.

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