It's Hard to Get Better without Changing

Photo by Jim Cortez

Photo by Jim Cortez

It's hard to get different results if you're doing the same things over and over. And yet it's difficult for organizations to learn and work differently, despite the desire for better results.

A new introductory video about Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) was recently posted, and it's a great overview of the framework. Besides describing how LeSS works, it also has an important message halfway through:

Introduction to the LeSS Frameworks

Yep, change is going to be needed if you want agility. It makes sense, and deep down inside, we all understand that. In the moment though, change might not feel right. Or desirable. I am reminded of a quote from Edgar Schein in an interview:

Anxiety inhibits learning, but anxiety is also necessary if learning is going to happen at all.

Change often involves un-learning what we already know and learning something new. Thinking and behaving our way consistently into a new understanding. While this can sound scary and intimidating, it is possible to have established relationships to help us learn and develop our capabilities together--I've found it helpful to have friends on similar learning paths as me who I can turn to for support. Sometimes the best support is someone willing to listen as we work through the messy, confusing process of change.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Inviting Others to the Community

Photo by Timo

Photo by Timo

Working with leaders has given me a deeper appreciation for how hard change can be in an organization. Alignment can be a struggle, and leaders often feel isolated as they face challenges supporting new practices and changing the workplace. Introducing leaders to the larger agile community provides them a sense of comfort. “It’s not just us,” I’ve heard. “Wow, I recognized some of the problems we’ve already solved.” Hearing others’ stories connects them to different thinking than their day-to-day office holds.

Some of my favorite user group moments have come from seeing managers excited about ideas they can take back to their workplace. Maybe they take photos of slides as a presenter speaks, animatedly whisper to a colleague sitting nearby, or send a text to coworkers not present—they’ve gained a morsel of wisdom that has unlocked something new and want to make it real. We’re headed in the right direction, we need to watch out for this obstacle, or we need to try this new thing—they leave thinking and feeling differently about their work.

Witnessing leaders share their stories and give back to the community continues the transformative effects. Authenticity captivates the group. Leaders own their agile journeys, claiming their successes and failures along the way. Learning happens for the leaders who are sharing as well as the listeners, strengthening the group’s bonds. By the end, we recognize one another as being part of the agile tribe.

This was originally published as part of a longer article at Apple Brook Consulting blog.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

@#$% the Dip!

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Photo by Thomas Hawk

In working at various companies, I've come across a common concern from managers when we start talking about their teams learning something new:

"How long will we be in the Dip?"

"When will be out of the Dip?"

"How can we avoid the Dip?"

It seems that we've come to understand that learning something new involves an initial dip in productivity or results, and now managers are trying to decide when is the right time for the learning to happen.

THE TIME IS NOW.

In my experience, delaying learning is a bad choice. Clearly the status quo is not sufficient, which is why the subject came up at all. Typically it's around the technical practices learning needed to become a two-star team. It's often not as bad as we imagine it to be, and empirical methods help us evaluate progress along the way.

Promote learning when there is interest or need. Support it when it's difficult. The Dip was not meant to deter us from trying new things. It's about the journey to mastery.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Software Development--It’s All About Learning!

Photo by Sonny Abesamis

Photo by Sonny Abesamis

Sometimes I learn new things at conferences and training classes. And sometimes I am reminded of things that I already know.

Two events caused me to see something I knew but had lost sight of:

  1. Craig Larman mentioned in LeSS class that software developers are trained in computer science programs to gather requirements, design, code, and test, so doing these activities within a self-organizing team is not a big stretch for them.
  2. Diana Larsen pointed out during the Organization Design Forum that “knowledge worker” is a misnomer for software developers—a better name would be “learning worker” because we are continually learning more about our customers, our business, technology, etc.

Software development is all about learning! That sounds obvious, and in some ways, it is. It is the foundation of our work. Learning is the bottleneck in delivering software. And yet I see organizations try to optimize teams and processes based on knowledge rather than learning. Teams are often designed based on people’s roles, assumed skills, and existing domain knowledge instead of allowing cross-functional teams to self-design based on their understanding of people’s skill sets and social preferences.

I also remembered a few facts about adult learners that further amplified for me why scrum teams can be great learning vehicles:

  • Groups learn faster than individuals
  • An individual’s commitment is proportionate to personal investment in design
  • Highly cohesive groups influence each other more than non-cohesive groups
  • People have to see practical connection

How is your organization design supporting learning rather than knowledge? How is it not?

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Learning and Change Go Hand-in-Hand

Photo by *Psycho Delia*

Photo by *Psycho Delia*

Agile starts with and thrives on learning.  Teams are often introduced to agile frameworks like scrum in training classes, and they adopt practices over time.  The team is learning as a group, and we want to ignite a passion for learning in the individual team members.  Each team member will be going through change at some point in the agile journey—they will probably experience change multiple times rather than as a single occurrence—and a self-motivated interest in learning can facilitate change.  A person going through change is like a trapeze artist: you have to risk letting go of the bar and allow yourself to be suspended in space as you try something new.  And then, with relief and excitement, you find yourself able to grab onto a new bar—you have made the change!  It can be scary to take the leap for change, and a safety net might not always be visible. 

Getting comfortable with change is hard, and as I see it, change and learning go hand in hand.  Change might sound scary while learning seems safer.  An agile team “reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjustsits behavior accordingly.”  The team identifies changes that can be made and tries them; it learns new ways of working, new technologies, new techniques to deliver high quality products… change and learning are continuous.  The team culture includes learning.  When learning ceases, the ability to adapt to change decreases.  Teams become stuck in their ways, conflict increases, and complacency settles in.  Don't let your rituals become ruts.  Agile teams do not arrive at a destination; the goal is not to improve to a point of maturity or high performance and then maintain the status quo.  In the words of Flannery O’Connor:

Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.

As an agile coach and consultant, I am often brought in to organizations to jump-start and facilitate change.  I look for signs of learning in the organization to design the engagement and evaluate success.  If people in the organization are open to learning, then anything is possible.  I can provide training, mentoring, and coaching to incite positive change.  In the end, I hope people realize that success is not in what they know, but in their capacity to learn.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Seven Facts about Adult Learning

Photo by Enokson

Photo by Enokson

  1. Groups learn faster than individuals
  2. An individual’s commitment is proportionate to personal investment in design
  3. Highly cohesive groups influence each other more than non-cohesive groups
  4. People will be more motivated when they know goals and format
  5. The learner is responsible for learning
  6. People have to see practical connection
  7. An appeal to emotions is by far the most effective way to capture attention and memory

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

The Differences Between a Community of Practice and a Center of Excellence

Photo by Celestine Chua

Photo by Celestine Chua

If you are working in an organization, you might be thinking about how to share practices across agile teams.  Agile teams inspect and adapt over time, using retrospectives in particular to change their behaviors and practices with the goal of improving.  A team improving is great, and it would be awesome for that team to share what they’ve learned so that others can benefit.  To encourage good practices across teams, organizations often establish centers of excellence or communities of practice.  What's the difference?

Communities of practice are groups of people with similar interests who share experiences with a common goal of improving.  People talk to one another and learn from each other.  All levels of expertise are welcomed, and all experiences can provide learning.  A community of practice can work together to solve a problem and adopt a common solution if the community agrees to do so.

In contrast, a center of excellence often implies that a smaller group recommends (or even requires) certain practices or templates be used.  The leaders of the center of excellence have authority.  Experience sharing may not be welcomed if it is not aligned with the leaders’ views.  This is unfortunate because it limits the organizational learning and stems from a belief that excellence comes from applying the same behaviors and practices across teams.  An agile center of excellence does not have to be this way! It is entirely possible to start an agile center of excellence that serves the greater organization by connecting people and ideas for better business outcomes.

There’s goodness in sharing experiences and ideas as peers.  The safety of community naturally allows for deeper sharing and exploring of ideas.  A good center of excellence can also support adult learning and promote ownership of ideas—what’s not to love about that? 

"Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I learn." --Benjamin Franklin

Many organizations that I’ve seen are more comfortable creating centers of excellence for consistency and governance purposes, which is unfortunate.  Leaders feel assurance that only the best practices will be spread through centers of excellence.  Self-organizing communities are unpredictable and rely on some experimentation to encourage learning.  And that's precisely where the goodness lives.  Centers of excellence can help connect ideas from those experiments to other teams and support cross-pollination too.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

What Studying Literature Taught Me About Agile Coaching

Photo by Tim Geers

Photo by Tim Geers

I studied English in college.  Many people wonder what someone does with an English degree, and I never gave it much thought since I was also studying computer science and math.  English was my ”frivolous” degree.  The one that fed my creative, side.  As an agile coach, I find that my English degree is enhancing the work that I do in the software development world.

Studying English meant reading a wide variety of literature, picking it apart, and exploring connections.  Discussing and writing about a work on its own and connecting it to larger themes.  Understanding characters’ motivations.  Learning how to convey ideas concisely and clearly as well as how to develop rich stories that evoke a reaction.  You develop abilities to analyze word choices, examine rhetorical devices, and ask questions about the author’s intentions.  Curiosity is encouraged.

As an agile coach, I read individuals, teams, and organizations to understand motivations and how things work.  I explore connections between people and larger themes like behavior, governance, and culture.  Teaching practices so they are clearly understood and applied; sharing my experiences through mentoring in a way that enhances comprehension and creates an emotional connection.  Coaching also involves articulating what’s going on in the moment, asking powerful questions to evoke new thinking, reframing a problem or situation to encourage positive action, and using metaphors to explore abstract concepts and feelings.  Studying English committed me to becoming a lifelong learner—a valuable quality in agile coaches.

How did your education contribute to where you are today?

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Adventurous Learning: cute/pink shoelaces/delighted

Photo by 55Laney69

Photo by 55Laney69

There’s an activity in the beginning of ACI’s Coaching Agile Teams class called Explain/Explore where each person writes a one or two words on an index card that describes his core being.  You explain your phrase to someone else in the class and continue to mingle in this fashion for a few minutes.  As an assistant, I found myself “playing in” during the activity, and I wrote down a word that others have used to describe me.  It’s a quality that is true for me but I often hide it.  

Since I joined the activity a little late, I didn’t get much chance to explain my word—it quickly passed into others’ hands as we were told to swap cards.  The card I received in return was “adventurous.”  What?  I’m not a rock climber or a skydiver or anything like that.  I gave it some thought and found where it is true: I am an adventurous learner.

Normally when I throw myself into learning, I read books and blogs and anything I can get my hands on.  Then I think and think and think about what I’ve read and what it means.  I might talk about it briefly with close friends.  The learning becomes part of my toolbox, and I use it when I need it.  I imagine it’s boring for those on the outside looking in, but it feels vigorous to me. 

At my last CTI class, the instructors asked for a volunteer to be a client in a coaching demo.  I raised my hand slowly.  Then I realized no one else was volunteering.  I was about to have my process coached in front of the class—what was I thinking??  We had seen a demo of process coaching once before, and we all remembered its intensity.  Clients can become messy in process coaching.  Emotional highs and lows were explored in no more than 15 minutes.

I went to the front of the room and sat down.  I listened, I looked, I trusted. Think feel trust talk look listen trust talk feel trust talk.  I spoke the hidden quality.  It was throughout the coaching.  It was in me.  I said that I couldn’t tell who smiled first—him or me.  He called it the Co-Active.

I had put myself out there in a big way for the sake of learning, and it created an incredibly safe environment for the rest of the class.  I struggled as I practiced the new skills, and I kept trying.  Slowly I improved.  Learning to be a better coach has been much more like learning to swing dance than learning agile or scrum.  I think that’s why I like it so much.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Open Space Summary: Creating a Learning Organization

Photo by Enokson

Photo by Enokson

I made my first open space offering!  Below are some of the points we discussed on “Creating a Learning Organization” at Agile Coach Camp Canada 2014.

As a consultant, I am often brought into a client organization to help them go from their current state to a new and improved state. Change is not easy for most people and organizations.  The Satir change model depicts the phases of change, and the change described in the model is positive overall: the performance of the system is improved.  But in the middle there is a drastic drop, the Chaos phase.  That’s where the turbulence is. 

Last year, I conducted an end-of-year retrospective at a client organization and asked people to draw pictures of what it had felt like to learn and change over the year.  There was an image of exploding brain.  A juggler.  And the one that resonated with me the most: a flower sprouting from the ground as rain falls and a rainbow soars above.  Some folks recognized that learning and changing meant rain and storms might happen but something beautiful would emerge in the end!  We called it “Over the Rainbow.”

That image has caused me to give more thought to how I help my clients.  I can help them through the change model and leave them in an improved state, but what then?  Have they simply reached a new plateau, or are they more capable to make future changes?  What if instead of a one-time radical change (like kaikaku) the client also knew how to make continuous improvements (like kaizen)? 

Clients rarely ask upfront for real transformations or to become learning organizations, but as we work with them and continue to explore possibilities, these larger goals may emerge.  Coaches do not define the client’s agenda—coaches help the client to clarify a goal or vision and take action to achieve it.  We help draw out BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) or shining stars, and a learning organization may emerge from incremental steps to achieve the organization’s goals.  Organizations might ask why—why is it important to become a learning organization?  The more capable an organization is of learning, the less likely it is to become extinct.  Given the increasing rate of change in business, learning is a necessity to stay ahead of the competition.

In order for people to continuously improve, they must regularly try new things and learn, which means going through the stages of competence over and over and over:

  • Unconscious incompetence – we don’t know what we don’t know.
  • Conscious incompetence – we recognize what we don’t know.  Practice and making mistakes can be vital here.
  • Conscious competence – we know how to do something but doing it requires concentration.
  • Unconscious competence – we have had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. We may also be able to teach it to others.

The conscious incompetence stage often means people are vulnerable, and an organization needs to provide safety for employees to be in that stage so they are able to stretch and learn.  

So as agilists, what can we do for the organizations we work in to create safety for a learning organization?

  • Introduce “options” – brainstorm multiple ideas about what to do next.  Keeping the status quo is one option.
  • Talk about “experiments” – emphasize that decisions are not permanent.  We learn by trying something for a period of time and evaluating it.
  • Create study groups – form communities of practice or book clubs to emphasize learning together.
  • Celebrate failure – making mistakes is a part of learning, and recognizing mistakes is important.
  • Collect data – observe and analyze your current state.  It is important to understand what is going on in order to determine what to change or improve.
  • Show visible support for discovery – host hackathons, introduce Google’s 20% time or FedEx Days to promote innovative thinking.

Learning is the bottleneck in software development.  Perhaps in order to improve software delivery, the learning capacity of an organization must be increased.

Other resources on learning organizations:

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.