Becoming agile

Agile, through the storms

Archive for the category “Human Relations”

That’s the Waze, a-ha, a-ha

On virtually any trip I make by car, I open my GPS APP, Waze. I do this for a number of reasons: It’s social, it’s a learning experience, it is a good investment and, yes, it also helps me get there effectively and on time.

Such investments and learning opportunities are relevant for organization life as well. If you don’t make these opportunities, they will not happen on their own. Just the same way that if you don’t open Waze on every trip (longer than driving to the corner shop) you will not know if you are getting into heavy traffic or heavenly clear roads.

For those of you who are not familiar with Waze, it is a GPS mobile application that provides near-real-time data on traffic. The way it works, is that is collects data from active Wazers on the road, and uses it to calculate traffic speed. It also enables users to report on important events, such as obstacles on or near the road, weather alerts, police presence, and more.

So it is quite clear why it is social. It is also clear why it helps me get to places. The question remains what makes it a learning experience, and what makes it a good investment.

The learning comes from improving my ability to plan things ahead. I learn what routes are better at what days of the week and times of the day. Yes, I can also do it by recording the data myself. But by having some preliminary data at the start of the trip, and validating it as the trip unfolds, helps me make better judgments on the same trip and on subsequent trips. It also helps me realize ahead of time whether I need to make a decision – for example to call a client that I am going to be late or early.

The investment is in contributing continually to improving this near-real-time data. When I open-up Waze I provide this data to others, not only to myself. Likewise, other Wazers help me by merely using the service. In fact, one of the main reasons that I acquired a smart phone in the first place, is to be able to use Waze. That was an investment too.

As it turns out, not surprisingly, the closer I am to the target, the better the accuracy becomes. As someone once told me about product development: The longer it is, the harder it gets.

A long trip is not quite as predictable as a long trip:

Different routes have different speed characteristics and different slowdowns:

Indeed, these kinds of investments are true for other aspects of life, not only for using your smartphones.

It takes a lot of learning to understand that planning is not a one-off activity per release or per product version. It is something that takes place continually. The more planning you do, the more you understand whether you are going to meet your interim milestones (call them iterations, if you like).

It requires making investments in order to build the framework to gather data as you go in order to be able to do your planning: the short, and medium, and the long term.

When driving somewhere, it does not make much sense to look at the map, divide it leg by leg, and extrapolate how long it is going to take based on logic and common sense alone. It requires hard data, even inaccurate, but hard data, to do that.

In order to be able to create such a framework, you will need to learn how to start the project in the first place. How to create a contract with the customer that is not stifling into rigid plans. Such are agile contracts – a framework that helps two companies inspire one another, and not bind into unchangeable scope.

Alongside the contract with the client, you will need to learn which walls that exist within your own organization divert you from increasing the pace of making software. Where do you have ‘traffic jams’ that could be avoided by using another, simpler, route?

In order to do planning continually and effectively you want to be able to collect data about what the road looks like ahead? Where are the technical ‘traffic jams’ that you will meet along the way, and that maybe you can resolve before you get there? How do you measure them? Collecting data about your application’s complexity, and testing it continually provides such data, and provides early feedback, and to fix them before they become complete roadblocks.

The way you architect your product may also need to change. By looking at the map and guessing which parts will be slower you don’t get real data to make good decisions. You have to be out on the road in order to figure out whether your car can make it or not; whether the road is good enough or not. Good architectures are unfolding as you get more data collaboratively, and not by hoping for the best and then starting the journey too late.

And finally, I am sorry to break this to you – it is all about you. If you change, your organization will also change. If you provide others with tools that you can use on your own, maybe they will also change. Ultimately, whatever your role is, developer, tester, architect or CEO, you are responsible to make the change.

Are you the kind of person who waits for other to make all the changes on your behalf? Or are you holding the wheel of the car which is your own professional or personal life?

Agile Practitioners 2013 is a great opportunity to make such investments. Join us for the fantastic star cast we have gathered to make this investment a real learning experience for you and your organization.

The Agile Man-ifesto

I have observed recently that of the signatories of the Agile Manifesto, 17 are men, and the rest are women. This made me think about the relevance of the manifesto, in terms of the intellectual, emotional, and cultural diversity that led to its creation.

I searched if someone else has published articles or works on this interesting fact, that all the signatories are male, and did not find anything about it. I did find, however, and the article Empower Gender Diversity with Agile Software Development by Prof. Orit Hazzan The paper shows that teams with mixed genders present better communication skills and better relationships. Furthermore, gender diversity in teams and in pairs resulted in members significantly reporting on more collaborative work. Did anyone mention Individuals and Interactions?

The Agile Manifesto source:

The paper refers to additional work, and lays ground for future empirical work on the contribution of gender diversity on trust within teams, enhancing cross-functional teamwork and other aspects. This all suggests that encouraging women leadership and involving women in development teams enhances organizations’ ability to produce more and better quality software for their customers.

This got me intrigued. I browsed renowned agile books written be women: Johanna Rothman, Esther Derby, Diana Larsen, Lyssa Adkins – all books I found were published during or after 2001! (Admittedly this was not an extensive research only browsing in online bookshops)

Even the references in Prof. Hazzan’s article above – all referenced papers by herself were published after 2001.

I then contacted Prof. Hazzan and asked her if she has noticed this, and whether she knows of work done in this respect.

The answer came quickly: Read more…

Roles and Irresponsibilities

Organizations are built around structures and boundaries. When you join a new workplace you meet your new manager. Sometimes your manager has another manager, and the other manager has their manager, and so on. This is the structure – in this case a hierarchical one.

Within this structure there are boundaries. You learn pretty quickly what you should be talking to your manager about and what not to. In some organizations you should be telling your manager when you are going to buy a new piece of hardware; in other organizations you might have to ask for permissions; and in others you just buy it, no questions asked. These are examples of the boundaries.

Photo by zigazou at

Boundaries themselves are flexible – they are not a line, a Boolean definition whether you are within or beyond the boundary – rather it is a range. If you are at a customer site, and your manager is unavailable, and you must buy that piece of hardware, you will buy it – even if permission is normally required in advance.

That thing that will normally define your place within the structure and the boundaries within which you operate is your role. And with your role, quite often, come also responsibilities. It even has a nifty name: R&R (and no, it does not mean Rest and Recuperation in this context; R&R stands for Roles and Responsibilities).

This idea is derived from the contributions of Open Systems Theory to social systems, notably the work of Kurt Lewin early in the 20th century, and is still evolving today. In our context, roles and responsibilities that are defined at the organizational level impact the team dynamics – their influence originates beyond the team.

The funny thing is that if you have responsibilities, and others also have responsibilities, this also defines what you are not responsible for.

Take the following example: Read more…

Got lost? Try stopping

One of the anxiety provoking situations working in organizations is getting lost; not knowing what to do next.

Let’s face it, imagine your manager entering the team’s room, when none of you really know what to do next? Not a pleasant moment.

Photo by brewbooks, at

Reflecting on the famous verse from Psalms 121: “A song of ascents.
I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from?” and the answer immediately follows: “My help comes from the LORD, …

This text is translated literally from Hebrew:

שִׁיר, לַמַּעֲלוֹת:
אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי, אֶל-הֶהָרִים– מֵאַיִן, יָבֹא עֶזְרִי.

(תהילים קכא פסוק א’)

But it could be translated differently. Those of you, who are not Hebrew speakers, may find this strange. I encourage you to check it out, if you sense any doubt:

A song, for ascents:

I lift my eyes, lord of the mountains– From void, comes my help.

Now there is no question. So the next verse is not an answer for the above, it is the next statement: “My help comes from the LORD, …“; maybe the LORD will help me find my way through the void.

Ok, so the manager enters the room, and you are lost. You have no idea what to do next. What do you do?

There is a tendency to come up with a solution, any solution, as long as we are making progress.

Further in the psalm we learn that:

“…indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

Once again, the original suggests an alternative:

הִנֵּה לֹא-יָנוּם, וְלֹא יִישָׁן– שׁוֹמֵר, יִשְׂרָאֵל

This interpretations suggests: “…indeed, Israel will neither slumber nor sleep, watching over”

There is, of course, the option of getting help from the manager, from books, from an expert, from The LORD. Those options are always there.

But, hey, from time to time allow yourselves to just Get Lost, watching over yourselves from whatever lies outside.

A few more words on the context: Psalms 121 is about Jacob (aka Israel) running away from his bigger and stronger twin brother Esau. In despair he lifts his eyes to the mountains. Instinctively we imagine what he might think: from where do I get help?!

I guess this is more for you, managers, than it is for teammates. Your team is lost, facing a problem that seems as big as mountains for them, maybe even for you. Yes, they do need your help, but possibly not the kind you are used to. Sometimes they need the space to get lost and build their own help from void, from nothing; to learn from their own mistakes and from their own experience.

There is learning without teaching, and there is teaching without learning. If you notice that you teach your team the same things time and again – try another way. For example, let them learn their own way. In the process you will also learn to contain the team’s anxiety and refrain from automatically offering your help.

Many thanks to my mentor at my studies, Haim Deutsch, staff member in the program, for turning my attention to this notion

Don’t insult me; I’m too good at it myself, thank you!

I was introduced to the three insults by Yossi Triest during my studies, when he first introduced us to Freud.

He started off with the three insults that the human kind suffered in history, namely the Copernical revolution, the Darwinistic revolution, and the discovery of the Unconscious – the Freudian revolution.

The latter, in its own right, insults us multiple times. It was hard enough if it was all about me, but it strikes us at the organization level as well. Here’s how.


The first insult: There is an unconscious

To begin with, there is an unconscious. So what, big deal, everyone knows that, you might say. But is knowing enough? The fact of the matter is, that everyone you interact with has an unconscious, that doesn’t want to be known, yet does havoc to the individual. As members of organizations we have a desire that everything will work according to logic and structure. If not everything, then most. How many times have you heard: “It is acceptable to make a mistake – as long as you do not repeat the same mistake twice”. That statement inherently assumes that once we made a mistake, we can consciously learn the lesson, and assimilate the new desired behavior.

So why is it that people keep ‘forgetting’ to check-in? Or let people ‘push their button’ and they lose their temper? Or they do a lousy job just when they prepare a demo to the CEO, although normally they are top-performers?

More often than not, the reason is that unconsciously some internal process brings this behavior about:

They ‘forget’ to check-in because they didn’t get a pay-rise, they are frustrated, and as much as they try to act reasonably, the unconsciously try to get-back at the organization.

When you talk to them you unconsciously remind them of their mother, and the anger that they do not afford themselves to let out on her, comes out on you

Because they work relentlessly to satisfy customers, and deep inside the fact that the demo for the CEO is really important for you, does not impress their unconscious, the little monster within that cares about their own TLC. If you need TLC of your own, says Mr Id, prepare the demo yourself!

But that is part of the story. Because as much as we think of ourselves, the experienced, rational, as in control of our own mind, the fact of the matter is that…

The second insult: I too have an unconscious

It does not help that you know about the unconscious, you have read all the writings of Freud, Klein, Bion, Winnicott, Kohler, Piaget, and you can read them backwards by heart, you too have an unconscious. So do I – and I don’t need to read 0.01% of the available materials to know it.

I too sometimes forget the most important task, or delay things forever. Some of it I can understand, some of it I don’t, and some of it I am not even aware of. It all happens unconsciously, without me, Ilan the person that I am, knowing that I am doing it.

This is not only frightening – this is insulting! I might, and I will sometimes make the same mistake more than once, despite that I have a strong desire never to repeat that mistake again.

I will sometimes forget to mention the person that made the biggest effort in the last sprint – maybe because I am jealous of him or her and their achievements.

I will sometimes be unkind to my own manager – maybe because he or she pissed me off, and I didn’t do anything about it

And if only it was an excuse for me to feel better with myself. Hell no, I will feel guilt; I will feel shame; I will feel diminished. And why? Because my unconscious makes me feel that way. Damn, is there a way out of this?

Yes there is. But you will not like it because…

The third insult: In order to be made aware of my own unconscious, I need others

The unconscious works overtime, but it is invisible to the individual. For example:

Here’s a hypothetical scenario:

My manager really pissed me off in the last appraisals. Since I think the appraisal process is, pardon me, oxen-dung, I decide not to respond. But it was two months ago, so who remembers? (Guess who!)

  • My manager: “Can you send me the presentation on this and that? I must have it for the management review at 14:00 today”
  • Me (abruptly): “Look, I’m really busy – ask someone else”
  • My manager: “Well, someone’s got a chip on their shoulder! Anything I did to upset you?”
    (Actually, yes, but who remembers? Same guess!)

Without the interaction with my manager, I would not realize that, unconsciously, I still hold grudge. Moreover, it is easy for me to ‘deposit’ the feelings of aggressiveness and selflessness with my manager, not realizing that I am doing it myself.

In this simplistic scenario above, I describe the concept of projective identification, a mechanism that helps individuals not to deal with the negative aspects of their own by finding their expressions in others. Conversely, finding desired behaviors we wish for ourselves in others.

In organizations this takes place all the time. The Pygmalion Effect that causes individuals the way others expects them to is an indication of a gap in the organization which is hard to integrate – unless it is being made visible.

Sometimes these gaps bring tension that causes things to move in the right direction. However, frequently, it is the other way round; and then the organization veers away from the primary task into sidetracking in various ways (“if only everyone gave more attention to our velocity, everything would work so much better” – is velocity really what you are looking for?)

Reflecting that these gaps exist, and working with them towards integrating the ‘good’ me with the ‘bad’ me that I identify with others – this is something that requires intervention; especially if the organization is now in ‘defensive mode’ and is not attentive to such processes.

Now, as you reach the end of this post, seeing that, like others, I need you to acknowledge my own unconscious: What can you detect that I may have unconsciously tried to say?

Group Relations Conferences and Agility

My first encounter with the Group Relations model took place more than ten years ago, in an International conference in February 2002. The conference, nicknamed The Tavistock after the organization that invented the concept, was a turning point in my professional life. It was then that my career path gradually started shifting from the engineering domain to human relations.

Statue of Sigmund Freud and Tavistcok main clinic in the background. Photo by Mike Peel, Source: Wikipedia

Last week, Elad Sofer and I, two of the three partners in Practical Agile, participated in Ofek’s Group Relations Conference, which took place in the Galilee in Israel.

Although I had no idea what will happen during the conference, I had two hypotheses on our participation in such a framework:

  • Early on during the conference, Elad will engage with the model of the conferences and the Tavistockian thinking (which was already familiar for me before)
  • Both Elad and I will have a different type of influence, that will be enhanced by our participation as a pair

Both these hypotheses stem from a belief that while the models of agile software development and of group relations are very different, they have similarities on how they perceive systems, and in what they set to achieve.

In addition, for me it was a first to participate in such a conference together with participants with whom I interact regularly, and I have had ideas on how this might affect our experience.

Here are a few of my observations – Read more…

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