Putting the ‘soft’ into software: lessons from Agile Cymru 2016

I had the opportunity to attend the 2-day Agile Cymru 2016 conference in Cardiff, which I grabbed with both hands. I was lucky enough to have co-presented here with Margaret Morgan in 2015, and was keen to experience the workshops and speakers on offer, which promised to be an eclectic mix.

The Agile Cymru conference attracts speakers from all disciplines and countries, and it was a particular treat to hear the keynote speakers on both days: Dr Kitrina Douglas and Stevyn Colgan.

Dr Douglas is an independent researcher who specialises in identity development, physical activity and mental health; this interest has grown out of her experience as a successful amateur and professional tournament golfer. She has won the European Championships, the English Open Championships and was a member of the first winning European Solheim Cup team.

Stevyn Colgan is an ex-policeman, author, artist, songwriter and public speaker; he has written TV scripts for Dr. Who and is a visiting lecturer at several UK universities.

 Dr Douglas spoke about the importance of the acknowledgement of alternative narratives to any given ‘dominant narrative’ (personal or cultural). The stories that we accept and tell ourselves and each other about who we are can limit our potential for happiness and fulfilment. For example, the narrative “I have to be the best, so I must sacrifice my time to practice and more practice”, is not the only narrative of champions. Her research, involving many conversations with sports men and women, has demonstrated that other stories can also be told, for example “I enjoy my golf and love the opportunities it gives me to travel”,(amongst many others). Interestingly, our actions, behaviours and stories shape the way the brain develops.

 Stevyn Colgan spoke about his experience as a policeman who sought to change the way in which policing is approached. He spent his time looking for ways to prevent crimes rather than to maximise the number of his arrests. As a policeman on the beat, this included talking to people to find out why some areas were more prone to crime than others, and arranging a dog show on a troublesome estate in order to bring the young and the old into contact.

The ‘commit a crime > get arrested > go to court > get sentenced’ narrative is creatively and effectively challenged by the idea of prevention by addressing circumstances and other factors.

But what has all this got to do with agile software and systems delivery?

My answer is this:

One of the things that agile seeks to do is to maintain the essential connection between business value and product delivery through the creation of high performing teams who deliver iteratively and continuously for as long (or as short) as needed. Adaptation and responsiveness to change is essential. Dr. Douglas and Stevyn Colgan are strongly favouring individuals and interactions over processes and tools (as per the Agile Manifesto), and are demonstrating with real results the benefit of so doing. This is directly related to creating and delivering software, and reminds us to ask continually about the value and purpose of what we are building.

The transformation of our working lives through the application of agile principles in software development is taking us deeper into areas of personal and team development.

This is borne out by the high proportion of ‘soft’ skill presentations and workshops at Agile Cymru 2016, where sessions such as “A manager’s guide to working with self organising teams”, “Empathy from agility”, “How to grow beautiful teams”, “Empowering people through play” sit alongside sessions like “Strategy Deployment for the Agile Enterprise”, “How deep are your tests?”  and Joseph Pelrine’s “Psychological aspects of estimating” (a scientific study of the interaction between system data and human behaviour).

References to specific tools or technologies are minimal. The chief areas of focus are: how to maximise team/personal empowerment and how to ‘scale agile’. These reflect the kinds of shifts that agile principles require of businesses in order that systems and software can deliver most value, most quickly.

I have to give a mention to Adrian Panucci, Matt Roadknight and Eben Halford, who delivered the most interesting, creative and insightful session of the conference. They addressed the challenge of ‘Dealing with Evolutionary Change’ head-on. In short, successful organisational change involves everyone at some point moving out of their comfort zone, across an edge, and into a new reality. This experience was cleverly facilitated for the participants, and allowed us to get a deeper insight into the personal and cultural edges we need to work together to move through to create new ways of working.

This focus on the ‘soft’ aspect of software delivery is changing the conversations and interactions we have at work every day. This, to me, represents the essence of agile and I am excited to see where the journey takes us from here.

All visuals above attributed to Fran O’Hara

Supporting transformation: my thoughts from Scrum Day London 2016

As an advocate for the use of Scrum and in need of some Scrum Juice, I went with Sopra Steria colleagues Steve Forbes and John McNeill to the Scrum Day London 2016 – an event held by Scrum.Org where Ken Schwaber, co-creator of Scrum, was giving the keynote speech, and the day’s theme was “Business Agility through Professional Scrum.”

The story of the day for me was that while Scrum is popular, seen as necessary and is adopted by many, Scrum success as represented by teams delivering working software into Production every Sprint or Iteration (i.e. every one to four weeks) continues to be a challenge. Very few teams are able to report success against this measure – in fact, I was the only person in the room with a raised hand when Ken asked the question “How many of you release software every Sprint?”

The fact is, technology exists for teams to be able to release into Live every 5 minutes (or even less).

The issue appears to be that Scrum and Agile require a change in organisational thinking and support that is hard for many to implement, and in a way that allows the innovations a Scrum Team offers to be realised.

We heard first from Gunther Verheyen, co-developer of the Scaled Professional Scrum Framework, who laid out the map of the journey from a ‘waterfall’ type structure (and mind set) to one that supports Scrum. Gunther has a vision:

‘Management’ is not a collection of people exerting hierarchical powers. It is an emergent, networked structure of co-managers. Removing Impediments. Optimising a product’s value. Updating the organisation’s OS.

… and you can  view his presentation online.

Karen Bowes, Head of HR & Sustainability at Capital One gave an impressive and honest insight into how Capital One was adopting Scrum not just in software delivery, but throughout its management structure. We were reminded by Ken Schwaber that Scrum requires courage, and courage was used by Capital One to great effect: they realised that there is always ‘noise’ and conflict when new practices and change are introduced and accepted this as a fundamental part of deep transformation. The focus of their management and strategising was consciously shifted from detailed micro-planning and control to providing support for Scrum teams and the removal of impediments to Scrum team success. Not an easy journey, but one that has already reaped rich rewards for Capital One.

Ken Schwaber’s new initiative is to propose a ‘Scrum Studio’ approach, which effectively places a Scrum team (or group of teams) in a special location within an organisation, with all the support structures it needs, and allow it to get on with its job. In this way, the hope is that the impediments to successful Scrum uptake are removed and organisations can then further adopt Scrum practice at a pace they can manage if and when they see a benefit in doing so.

Whatever the future for Scrum and Agile, it is going to take motivated, influential and courageous individuals to lead and support the kind of transformations that business is being challenged to undergo.

It was a privilege to meet some of them at Scrum Day London. Do let me know your thoughts – leave a reply below, or contact me by email.