Tag Archive: agility


Just One More Level

TaeKwonDo Practitioners (© Aashish Vaidya)

As transition goes, shedding the old ways and adopting new ones are fraught with doubt and confusion.  This is true of any large organization transition effort as it is for scaling agile practices across the enterprise.  One of the challenges for enterprise transition community leading this change effort is figuring out how to move people with different understanding and different needs from novices to experts.

Many times, a model or a construct of learning helps us classify how to approach people with different levels of understanding and teach them new techniques.  Alistair Cockburn introduced the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri to software development.  Shu-Ha-Ri is borrowed from the martial art practice of Aikido.

Here is how Martin Fowler describes it:

Shu-Ha-Ri is a way of thinking about how you learn a technique. The name comes from Aikido, and Alistair Cockburn introduced it as a way of thinking about learning techniques and methodologies for software development.

The idea is that a person passes through three stages of gaining knowledge:

  • Shu: In this beginning stage the student follows the teachings of one master precisely. He concentrates on how to do the task, without worrying too much about the underlying theory. If there are multiple variations on how to do the task, he concentrates on just the one way his master teaches him.
  • Ha: At this point the student begins to branch out. With the basic practices working he now starts to learn the underlying principles and theory behind the technique. He also starts learning from other masters and integrates that learning into his practice.
  • Ri: Now the student isn’t learning from other people, but from his own practice. He creates his own approaches and adapts what he’s learned to his own particular circumstances.

One of the common refrain you hear from many people who have learned some basics about agile methodologies is to say, ” see we understand the agile practices, but how are we going to do this differently here?”  The questioners, here might presuppose that certain practices just won’t work in their environments and want to start tailoring things right out the gate.  Especially, when they have learned that agile is all about adaptability and change.  So there is this predisposition to jump to the Ri stage.  But, agile practices are supposed to be an experiential process.  You do things, reflect on what worked and what didn’t , in short you inspect and then you adapt.

But, many balk at directive practices in the Shu state as it run contrary to the agile manifesto, itself.  Here is Rachel Davies, co-author of Agile Coaching who takes on other agilists, in a post  called Shu-Ha-Ri Considered Harmful:

I’m uncomfortable with approaches that force students to follow agile practices without questioning. These approaches seem to violate the first value of the Agile Manifesto “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” I question whether introducing agile software development techniques to people is anything like martial arts training. Software development is knowledge work and our aim is to build a team of reflective practitioners. To do this we need to engage with how people think about their work. Are techniques from physical arts that build muscle-memory really applicable here?

For me, agile Boot Camps and Shock Therapy approaches lack basic respect for the team’s unique context and the experience of people on the team. Agile software development is a much looser discipline than a martial art like Aikido. Organizational culture and nature of the product being built are major factors in what agile techniques the team will benefit from most. If we establish a sensei-novice model, we’re not fostering the independent thinking and reflection that will take the team beyond the Shu level.

To some extend this is a valid argument.  You have to respect the individuality of the team members and allow them to question the practices they are supposed to be following.  And invariably boot camps and shock therapy approaches will only have an ephemeral effect like a motivational speech would.  You are pumped up for a while and get a boost of energy, but the sugar high wears off quickly.

But at another level, this is a very shallow read of martial arts and the sensei-novice model.  Even cursory look at history of martial arts would suggest that they are not merely about physical activity, but means to develop deeper connection to moral and spiritual dimensions.  Just as you wouldn’t confuse the practice of yoga to be only about physical well-being.  That is just an aspect called hatha yoga , but in larger context yoga has much more to do with “knowledge work” than building simple muscle memory.  Albeit, the knowledge is different, not software development variety.

The issue isn’t necessarily with the Shu-Ha-Ri construct, but how it might be used within the context, and it is more about its understanding and its implementation.  Further on in the post, Davies calls out the real peril:

Installing a basic set of agile practices by force can be done quickly so the organization starts getting benefits from new ways of working faster. Teams are superficially at the Shu level in the space of a few weeks. Often, the management team considers the agile rollout is now complete. It’s assumed that teams will continue to apply what they’ve learned. But without any experts around to enforce agile practice, pretty soon a team falls back to their old ways or sometimes worse carries on with agile practices that don’t make sense for their project.

I was pleased to see “cargo-cult agile” called out in the new book “Practices for Scaling Lean & Agile Development” by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde. They say “Avoid forcing–When coaching we encourage: volunteering; do not force any agile or lean approach onto people; people should be left the choice to think and experiment…with concentrated long-term, high quality support. The best, the most sticky adoptions we have seen had this approach.”

In a large organization, there is rare chance that you will encounter people who do not fall into all three categories of learning: the complete novice, who just wants to be told what should he do next; the intermediate, who knows agile practices well enough to start digging into deeper underlying theory and principles; and experts, who are adept at reading the context and tailoring their own practices to continually achieve business goals.  For enterprise transition community leading adoption of agile in their enterprise, the goal is obviously to encourage people to think critically, experiment and continuously learn, and deftly deal with people at all 3 levels.  Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist, who developed the popular “ten thousand hours” theory of mastery has a second prerequisite for expertise – “the notion of deliberate practice, which describes the constant sense of self-evaluation and a consistent focus on one’s weaknesses rather than playing on one’s strengths (ref Maria Popova’s blog post).  This notion is something the enterprise transition community and agile coaches need to be aware of, and one which our software brethren who design video games understand real well:

[The “zone of proximal development” is] the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that its’ best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80 percent of the time; more than that, and kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated. The same is surely true of adults, too, which is why video game manufacturers have been known to invest millions in play testing to make sure that the level of challenge always lies in that sweet spot of neither too easy nor too hard.”

The challenge, then is to figure out a mix of practices that you know the teams will be able to take on, and add that 20% “stretch” practices, which allow the teams to flex and get to another “level”.  And hopefully soon, they will internalize what gamers who are hooked – they beg for that 5 extra minute to complete one more level!

Rachel Davies continues:

Learning new ways of working takes time.  As Ron Jeffries once said “They’re called practices for a reason.  You have to have done them. Practice makes perfect.” If you base an agile adoption on Shu-Ha-Ri model, the trick is to remember the goal is beyond the first-level. Your teams need more than training. Allow plenty of time and on-going coaching support for teams to get them into the Ha phase and beyond.

The constant care and feeding of agile teams will be needed at least till the organization moves through the Ha stage.  After all, you come across many agile teams, who have practiced agile for years, but are stunted in their growth.  These teams are upper bound to their organization’s proficiency in new techniques and inextricably linked to its culture, its inertia and change aversion, which doesn’t allow continuous improvements to take place.  So then the Shu-Ha-Ri model can still be useful model, provided that the community understands that you have to look beyond the rollout of initial agile training and project kickoffs.

PS: A parting note, though this was much before my time, if you want to see Ri practitioners in action, then watch the video of these two cats, who delivered a 90% improvised piece, but still based on an underlying musical framework.  They are still grounded in the principles and theory of their craft, but their uniquely tailored performance fits the context, and with their virtuosity, they transcend the rules to create a masterpiece – in essence, they make their own rules.

Department Store - Mall (© Aashish Vaidya)

Last month, like millions of other shoppers, we headed to a department store.  We noticed that the associates were little more cheerful than in the past.  Maybe this was new a crop of temp workers who took to their jobs with gusto or just existing employees, who were spurred on by new spirit of customer service.  Within minutes, an associate greeted us warmly and moments later another one engaged us directly.  Not content with just a friendly hello, he went on to mentioned items that were on sale, especially the wool jackets, which we noticed we were passing by.  When I mentioned that I already had a short wool jacket and a long overcoat, he looked at my wife and said “well, he can always add a third in his wardrobe, right?”  Unlike typical mall-store employee, it seemed like this guy actually knew to appeal to the real decision maker.  Well, the power of suggestion was already at work and we figured that it might actually make an appropriate gift for someone on list.

As I was trying out a jacket, a third associate came by.  “Wow, ” she said, “this really looks good on you.”   When I told her that we were looking for a jacket for someone else, someone older.  She immediately went on to recommend a more conservatively styled, but a considerably less costly jacket.  This was refreshing, she was really trying to help us come up with a gift that suitable, instead of trying to power selling.

We did like the jacket she suggested, but, the store did not have it in the size we wanted.  No problem, the associate assured us, she’ll just look one up in the system and have it shipped.  She was able to locate a jacket, and we proceeded to make payment, partially with their store issued gift certificate and the rest with a credit card.  And this where things got little more interesting with a seemingly ordinary transaction.  Her system would not accept the gift certificate as a partial payment.  No problem, the associate consulted with her teammate and figure out, she can exchange the gift certificate for a gift card.  And then she processed the payment.  Nice, it was admirable to see the associate and her teammate being resourceful and making the extra effort to complete a sale.

But, the very next day, we got an email simply stating that the order was canceled and no money was charged to the credit card and the value of the gift card was reverted back to the card.  Hmmm, hello, that’s a problem!  As the gift card was fully used, so as we generally do in this situation, we had already handed the gift card back to the store associate to recycle it.

Groan – that meant having to deal with the Customer Service department.  After the usual dreadful shuffle of getting through the labyrinthine IVR system, about 30-40mins later, we got a live rep.  This rep, though, had none of the warmth and the level of engagement that the store employees exhibited.  Instead of expressing any type of regret, he told us  that a new gift card to replace our old one should make its way to us in 7-10 days.  And if we were still interested in buying a jacket, we can pick it up at a store that was about 20-25miles away, but it was no longer on sale.  And if we wanted it shipped, there would be additional shipping charges.  None of the compelling reasons of value or convenience existed for us, so we declined his offer of having the nearby store hold the item for us.

About 10 days elapsed, when the gift card didn’t show up, another call to the customer service had to be placed.  Good 45 minutes later, a “friendly” CSR,  said she couldn’t find any record that we had talked to someone about 2 weeks back in the system.  But she would revert the value on the original gift card.  Umm, deja vu, didn’t we just go through this before!  After patiently explaining to her that we no longer have the said gift card, she asked us if we can contact the store to see if they had the card.  Uhh, does she really think the store clerks would really have that particular gift card on their hands after 2 weeks?  We leaned on her, and had her finally agree to send a replacement gift card.

I recount this experience in some what details,  as this  raises a few interesting IT related systems and management questions:

  • Why would the POS (point of sale, not the other type!) system not work with the store issued gift certificate, but work with a gift card?  Did someone put in a weird business rule that no one can fathom and the frontline sales associates are left to fend for themselves?
  • Why did the system allowed overselling an item when it showed there were plenty of units available at the time of purchase?  Was the inventory not real time?  And if so, was this a usability issue where the system should have alerted the sales associate not to make the sale and have a problem until the actual inventory count is confirmed?
  • Why wasn’t the system handling a gift card related cancellation differently?  Did it always presumed that the customers will keep their spent gift card, on which the value could be restored?  Or did a product owner did not hand a properly written acceptance criteria or acceptance tests to the software IT team?  Or that the software implementation team never bothered asking?
  • Was customer service department cluelessness, a vendor management issue (if it was an outsourced vendor)?  And why wouldn’t the company properly empower their CSRs  to actually make a sale when they are in a live, high touch customer interaction?  Many other retailers have already figured this out, their store clerks or their CSRs can ship products from their warehouses or from any stores either to a convenient store location or directly to the customer.  So this was a lost opportunity.

The net effect of this was a dissatisfied customer, who lost a lot of their time and use of gift card for days.  And it was a huge waste of effort for the frontline sales staff, which worked diligently and creatively to problem-solve and make the sale.  And for the retailer, this is still a revenue sapping transaction, as it still might generate more customer service calls (the replacement gift card is yet to arrive at the end of the promised delivery window).

As IT and software professionals, many times we are so removed from actual users of our systems that we don’t provide the type of support the frontline associates need, or we don’t ask the right questions from our business or product owners.  In this particular instance, the value chain wasn’t aligned from front to back.  The system wasn’t aligned with a single focus – make a sale with least waste and satisfy the customer.

But, lest you think this is just another rant (which it is!) on usual poor customer service of a big department store, I will close with a very interesting observation we made at the store.  While we were waiting for the transaction to complete, we saw a few store associates in an impromptu “huddle”, where one of the teammates reminded others to keep restacking clothes and tidying up all the floor space.  There was even a mention to balance the engagement with customers, while at the same time flowing around so other customers feel just as welcomed.  Nice, a wonderful example of inspect and adapt.  Now only if the frontline staff can extend this spirit to their CSR and IT departments.  And if the CSR and IT departments really learn to have their spirited frontline’s back, they will be on to something!

Recently, at work, we have gone through some major organizational changes.  We have moved away from an IT organization that was a collection of functional silos – Architecture, Design and Analysis, Application Delivery, Release and QA, and so on –  to more integrated groups aligned with our business units.  As we move towards more cross-functional, self-organizing agile teams, colleagues have noticed that many of us feel a bit disoriented.  Many don’t know what to do, many have a negative reaction to the changes and then there are some who have already accepted the changes, and are impatient that there team mates are too slow to change.

Reactions to Change

As we experience change, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defined and categorized our psychological reactions to it:

We find  that people react to change differently and they might be anywhere along this change spectrum, including in the “pit of despair”.  And each need different type of support.  For those in shock and denial need information and communication.  Those who have self-doubt and inching towards acceptance, need emotional support.  And those who are exploring and understanding, need direction and guidance.

The Rider and The Elephant

The Elephant and the Rider (credit aashish vaidya)

Another framework to understand and initiate change is developed by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in their book Switch.  They note that our brains have two independent systems at work:

First, there’s what we called the emotional side.  It’s the part of you that is instinctive, that feels pain and pleasure.  Second, there’s the rational side, also known as the reflective or conscious system.  It’s the part of you that deliberates and analyzes and looks into the future.

The Heath brothers adopt the terminology of the Elephant (the emotional side) and the Rider (the rational side) introduced by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis.  This isn’t necessarily a new concept, as you find variations articulated by Plato, Freud and many others.

When we are in midst of change, like moving our software development from waterfall to agile methods, or getting better at adopting and refining agile methodology; or for that matter any other type of change effort, we need to understand both these aspects of our brains – The Rider and The Elephant.  This is how the Heath brothers define it:

The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the energy.  So if you reach the Riders of your team but not the Elephants, team members will have understanding without motivation.  If you reach their Elephants but not their Riders, they’ll have passion without direction.  In both cases, the flaws can be paralyzing.  A reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can both ensure that nothing changes.  But when Elephants and Riders move together, change can come easily.

It is possible to get our rational side to exert control over our emotional side, but that can prove exhausting for the Rider.  To illustrate this point, Dan Heath in this FastCompany video and article, and also in the book, recount a study about radishes and cookies.

Will to Change is Finite

College students (the usual guinea pigs in these types of studies) were asked to fast for 3 hours and report to a study about food taste perception.  They were then led to a lab that smelled amazing from freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.  In the middle of the room were 2 bowls – one filled with cookies and another with radishes.  Half the participants were asked to sample the cookies but not radishes and another half to eat radishes only.  Then the researchers left the room.  The cookie eaters probably had no issues resisting the urge to eat the radishes!  However, despite the temptation, the radish-eaters showed amazing willpower and did not eat any of the cookies.  Here is where another set of wily researchers came in and declared that the taste perception study was over.  But, they were doing another study about problem solving.  At that point, they asked the participants to solve a puzzle.  Unbeknownst to the participants, the puzzle had no real solution.

What the researchers were trying to find out was whether there was difference in a way the cookie-eaters and the radish – eaters approached the puzzle?  Well, it turns out there was.  The cookie-eaters made 34 attempts at the puzzle and persisted for 19 minutes.  The radish-eaters made only 19 attempts and gave up in half the time.  Why is this?  Well, study shows that the radish-eaters who were tempted to eat cookies but did not, simply ran out of self-control.  So when another challenging task – solving an impossible puzzle was giving to them – they were simply exhausted.  Of course, your takeaway from study shouldn’t be , eat more cookies and not radishes.  But, it should be that the will to change is indeed finite.  The Heath brothers say, “what looks like laziness is often exhaustion.”

IT organizations, when they decide to change from traditional waterfall software development, or initiate any other major changes, find many team members, managers and business partners show reluctance to these change efforts.  In many instances, it is because their Elephants are genuinely spooked at the spectre of losing the clout they have built in an organization or potentially losing their jobs, or myriad of other real and imagined fears.  Change induces a fight or flight response.

Many times, we share information about changes, appealing to the rational brain, but we don’t really address “what is in it for me” part of the equation.  That is, we don’t engage the emotional side.  And so the changes simply don’t stick.  Our rational side tries hard, but in the end, the willpower dissipates. This is due to skittishness of  our emotional side, which is “often looking for the quick payoff”, at the expense of long-term gains.  Change management saps our willpower, if we don’t find a way to motivate our emotional sides.

In my next post, I will continue to explore more on the change management theme.

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As I read reports on the Occupy Wall Street and related protests, as a person interested in agility, I am intrigued to find commonality amongst them.  The protests are a collection of individuals with variety of grievances, coming together with a common theme.  These protest essentially are ongoing experiments in self-organization, using consensus as their primary decision-making, and adapting to various changes.  All this, without a command-and-control hierarchy.  These are the same concepts that the software development community, and organizations, are adopting to find better and different ways to work.  Self-organization, consensus driven decision-making and adaptability are all agility concepts.  And this is what makes these protests interesting at many levels, irrespective of what opinion you might hold about them.

Self-Organization

An article on a local tv website, here in Portland, reported that the protests are not as chaotic as many would expect:

On the outside, the protest might seem a bit odd — there’s music, performers and a bunch of different smells.  But a closer look reveals that it’s not the chaos one might expect. Just stop by the information desk, which is one of about 20 committees helping to run the place, to find out more. There’s even a finance committee.

Reporting on the Occupy Wall Street protests, USA Today states the group has received nearly half a million dollars in donation.  And they continue to receive $8k everyday from lock boxes:

The cash has forced changes in the “finance working group” that arose spontaneously among the self-governed protesters. Buckets were once used to collect park donations, and until recently, a 21-year-old art student played a key role in the working group.

It further states:

The amorphous group has no clear plans yet for spending much of the money. For now, the fund doles out $100 a day to each of the dozen “working groups” that keep the month-long protest going — from sanitation and medical to finance and media.

Look at the language these reports use – self-governed, working groups, various level of specialization (finance, medical, media, etc.).  We use similar lingo to describe our own agile teams.  As both of these reports show, Wall Street, Portland and many other groups are self-organizing and provide operational structure and cohesiveness.

Consensus Building and Adaptation

Having organized themselves, these groups are also adapting and managing new impediments as they show up.  For example, the organizers, now are having to contend with those who are there for the cause and those who come there for partying.  The Oregonian says, these groups are using consensus driven decision-making to deal with new issues, like dealing with weapons and substance use:

In an effort to control the Occupy Portland campsite, the movement’s consensus government imposed rules of conduct Monday night for participants, including no weapons and no derogatory language. More volunteers are wearing white strings around their arms indicating they are camp “peacekeepers” with authority to calm disputes.

The groups are coalescing and arriving at organizing principles without any hierarchical decision-making bodies:

Occupy Portland vigorously resists the concept of “leaders” and instead calls organizers “facilitators.” Ethan Edwards, a facilitator who has been at the campsite since Oct. 6, said demonstrators walk a blurred line between protesting the nation’s economic disparities and caring for the chronically homeless and mentally ill who have moved in with a less political purpose in mind — such as partaking of the free meals served daily.

“Ship It”

As the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest gets beyond the one month marker, many have already started writing obits citing various reasons.  Here are some of the reasons Brend Arends at Marketwatch gives: they are in the wrong place (instead of protesting in lower Manhattan, they should be in up in Greenwich against the hedge fund honchos), the weather is turning, big money will eventually drown them out, and that the public at-large will forget about them.

And of course the bigger reason  –  they don’t have an agenda.  All of these reasons are plausible and may prove out to be true and protests may eventually die out.  For Occupy protests  to sustain themselves and to continue to hold people’s attention and support, they will have to develop a larger agenda and a coherent strategy.  In this sense, they have a myriad items or stories in their backlog that needs to be groomed, ordered and prioritized; themes that needs developing, releases to be planned; and they to articulate a sustaining product vision.

It is quite possible, these protests will never get beyond the expression of anger against the inequities that many feel.  They may buckle under impediments big and small, and fissure.  They may never find the cohesiveness and unifying vision to propel themselves forward.  But, for now what started in lower Manhattan has given voice to many who are affected by many incongruities and ill-effects of the lingering Great Recession.  In this sense, they have already “shipped” their first product (angst) by inspiring many such protests across the globe.   Self-organizing teams using consensus based decision-making, operating within constraints, is interesting to watch and witness.

Personal Reflections

I wanted to keep the post as apolitical as possible, but gotta ask, what’s up with Oakland police?  The protests have resonated the world over, even in the egalitarian Netherlands.  Over at Financialagile, Jamie Dobson has a beautiful writeup on reasons why he attended Occupy Amsterdam.

At the most fundamental level, all protests are a form of political theatre.  So about 2 weeks ago, I took my boys (8yrs and 10yrs), to the Occupy Portland protest, which has camped itself into two downtown parks (the pictures are from that visit). I figured this is a good way to show them how citizens exercise their right of free speech and assembly. In a larger context, I wanted my sons to begin understanding that when the protestors use peaceful means to raise awareness of their grievances, they have good company.  That is when they are part of long thread that weaves through civil disobedience of the transcendentalists, to their own heritage of satyagraha, to the civil rights movement of the 60s and the more recent examples of the Arab Spring.

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