Five things I learned by teaching a training course “from the back of the room”

Our Agile Foundation Certificate training course is delivered using a “back of the room” approach. Almost all teaching points are taught using activities, discussions and self-authored presentations. We don’t use Powerpoint, we don’t use a screen projector. We do use internet searches, two-minute talks, Lego, balloons (with faces on them), Jenga blocks and origami.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned from delivering the course a dozen times:

  1. BOTR (“back of the room”) really works. Lugging a suitcase of Lego and Jenga up the stairs on the Tube I sometimes think it would be better to just talk to a slide deck. But the feedback that we get for our course is almost entirely positive. People seem to like it. And our pass rate is currently ninety-five percent, so they also remember and understand what they’ve learned.
  2. Showing is better than telling (especially for skeptics). We explore Agile techniques using physical activities and we encourage our delegates to research various Agile methodologies online and come back, not only with praise, but also with criticism (‘one star’ Amazon reviews of a method’s textbook are often a good place to look). This approach seems to work particularly well with people who are skeptical or unconvinced about whether an Agile approach will work for them, or for their project, or ever.
  3. People want to hear about real Agile projects. When we’re not delivering Agile training, our “day job” is working on Agile projects, maybe as ScrumMasters, maybe as Agile coaches. People really want to hear about this real-world experience. It’s a distinct advantage of using Agile practitioners to deliver the course.
  4. People take games very seriously. Even though the tasks that we set people in the training aren’t really important, people get totally absorbed. And that’s a good thing. We can use games in the training room to show important ideas in a safe (sometimes called a “safe-to-fail” environment). But it also means that if you’ve got any complex points to communicate – you should do them before you get out the Lego.
  5. Once you’ve tried BOTR – it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way. We’re now looking to develop other training courses, workshops and executive briefings using a back of the room approach. We know Agile and iterative approaches work. So when we do develop something new, we try it out at every step with real users, incorporating their feedback as we go.

If you’d like to be involved in that process – or you’d like to know more about attending our “Agile Foundation Course” please get in touch.

What IT service management can learn from CrossFit

Six months ago, when my children told me I was “great to bounce on”, I decided to sign up at the local CrossFit gym. I’d heard from friends that it was a good way to get in shape fast. CrossFit has a reputation for being somewhat tribal, with participants enthusiastically cheering, back-slapping and wearing garishly coloured clothes, so it was with some trepidation that I signed up for the induction to my local ‘box’ and set myself on a course to…

Forge. Elite. Fitness.

Two days later, it hit me hard. I couldn’t bend down far enough to put my socks on. Even brushing my teeth hurt! My head was full of acronyms such as WOD, AMRAP and EMOM and strange expressions such as “I totally RX’d Linda today, but I know I can lift more on the clean.” In short, I was a confused and broken mess. But something inside me clicked. I liked it and strangely, I embraced the pain. I was hooked.

I gave myself a week to recover and then bit the bullet and stepped back into the fray, partly because of what it could help me achieve over the longer term. I knew results wouldn’t come quickly, but with perseverance I was sure I could reach my objectives.

As weeks have turned to months, I’m still going, getting fitter, faster and starting to become a little less bouncy around the midriff. It still hurts, but I push past this and keep going because the will to succeed outweighs my desire to be a children’s trampoline.

For me, IT Service Management sometimes feels the same.

Bonding through adversity

It can get pretty intense in the box. Everybody is competing against themselves and the pain is very real even though the barriers to success are often more psychological than physical. A strong spirit of gym camaraderie is essential in getting the best out of everyone. Encouragement and praise is plentiful and audible; this helps maintain commitment and energy levels even when the going gets really tough.

It’s the same in an operations team that works in a fast paced, high pressure environment; a strong team spirit is essential in maintaining throughput of work and ensuring the team does not burn out. Give support to your colleagues, whether it’s a pat on the back, a well-timed joke or a few beers, it can make the difference between a team coping and falling apart. Get to know one another, trust each other, and enjoy working together.

Speaking a foreign language

“What on earth is an AMRAP?! You jerked what?! Your favourite Girl is Nicole?!” Such are the musings of a CrossFit newbie, as the acronyms and bizarre phraseology make CrossFit initially impenetrable.

IT Service Management (ITSM) can be just as bad. To the non-initiated, the fact that an issue is not the same as an incident which is not the same as a problem can be something of a conundrum. ITSM has an abundance of acronyms, abbreviations, and terminology that means nothing to your average developer, let alone the Chief Finance Officer (when you are trying to explain why you need £10K for that critical but under-performing SAN array).

I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Sometimes it helps to feel you belong to a private club that shares the same goal and interest. Having a common language helps us talk in a consistent and professional manner.

Scaling enables continuous output

At its most basic, scaling is the use of tools or alternative techniques to make CrossFit exercises easier and is particularly useful when you are starting out. Many routines (such as pull-ups) are beyond the reach of most mortals, so anything that makes the job a little bit easier is a godsend. It’s not cheating; it simply allows you to progress at your own pace and, most importantly, maintain it.

Going lighter isn’t the enemy to CrossFit. Stopping mid-workout is.

This is equally true of ITSM, where the ability to consistently deliver and maintain throughput is key to successful operations. Overburden a vital function and you might as well rip up that forward schedule of change.

We need to scale our operations. The use of tools to automate processes can pay massive dividends through the release of resource. If a process is slowing you down, make it more efficient. This doesn’t have to involve full blown Lean-ITSM. The removal of just one redundant step could mean the difference between getting that change deployed on time and missing the deadline. Consistent throughput of work though the removal of constraints is the key here.

Again, but faster

CrossFit is about getting stronger, faster, leaner and tougher. Athletes achieve this by performing an activity, analysing their performance, and then seeking to improve on this the next time round. CrossFit continuously encourages you to try to go that little bit harder, push that little bit more and find that last little pocket of energy you didn’t even realise you had.

ITSM should be like this. We face criticism for being overly bureaucratic, cumbersome, expensive or ineffective. These criticisms are not without merit and, like my ever-expanding waistline before CrossFit, are often the result of apathy and a reluctance to look introspectively for the source of the problem.

Continuous improvement processes should strive to first understand the baseline. Once this has been established, they must analyse the system to find out what can be added, removed, refined or improved to accelerate the flow of work. Then rinse and repeat. The team should always be challenging itself to go faster and improve performance but not at the expense of the overall machine. The value chain is only as efficient as its weakest link, so focus on the least efficient components first and make sure that when you cut out the fat, you are not losing some of the muscle with it.

“Having arms like Arnie won’t help you run any faster!”

Shout it out

“There’s only one rule of CrossFit and that’s that you never, ever, stop talking about CrossFit!”

CrossFit people can get a little obsessed and it does have a tendency to border on the intolerable for non-CrossFitters.

In my career I’ve come across a lot of ITIL* evangelists; hardcore supporters of the cause, unwilling to accept that there may be other ways of working or that, just perhaps, full blown change control isn’t required to reboot that printer in the lobby. But ITIL and ITSM is something to get passionate about. When I first found ITIL it was nothing short of a revelation. Here was an approach that allowed IT organisations to shine, add value and actively demonstrate, with meaningful metrics, how and why they were doing a good job and making a difference.

ITIL has come a long way since then, and now has global support in industry, but we shouldn’t be devout followers, deaf to all criticism. ITSM practices need to adapt if they are to keep pace with cloud, digital, and similar emerging technologies.

We have built ITIL and helped to promote the ITSM movement that has radically transformed the way that businesses have operated IT and it’s just as relevant now as it ever was, if we keep it fresh.

That is some achievement and, just like CrossFit, I think that is worth shouting about.

What do you think? Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

(* ITIL – formerly known as the Information Technology Infrastructure Library)