Why AgilePx?

A number of people have asked me in recent times,”Why AgilePx?” and its prompted me to properly put down in writing what has been swirling through my head for years!

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I grew up on the west coast of Scotland in a small village in Ayrshire just a mile away from the haunting castle of Portencross. It mean means literally just that – “Port and Cross” – where “It is said that Portencross Castle was the last resting place of the great kings of Scotland. Legend has it that they were transported via the castle on their way to Iona, for burial.” But burial in those days was not seen as the end, but rather transformation to the next phase of existence in an after life bigger and more important than the one they have left behind.

DSC00708I’m now on the other side of the world in a city with a population nearly larger than the whole of Scotland(!) but to this day I haven’t found somewhere as beautiful – when u can see it through the rain – or as profound and deep with history as the kyles leading up from the Firth of Forth. If you can make it sometime, go to this relatively unknown place in the world , it also has the advantage of distilling some of the best whiskys ever that are worth a visit all on its own…
IMG_20141110_231043So thats the “Px” bit! I have been in the “Agile” space in some form or other since the words agile started being bandied about. I came through the IT trenches in the 1990s after a superb grounding in computer science at Edinburgh University and even then was involved in early pre-cursors like RUP (Rational Unified Process). I was lucky enough to fall into the world of Java when it was still version 1.0 and you could get the whole platform on a floppy disc and a tiny brown book.

I’ve worked in organizations large and small, from Denmark to the USA and now in Australia as a permanent employee but also significant time as a consultant and contractor. Over the last decade I moved out of the IT front line and more into the business side, running large initiatives and realising that there are no “IT Projects” anymore but rather business problems to be solved and customer value to be realised and quickly. I find it fascinating how similar the problems are world wide and how easy it is to move around as with common problems there are also common ‘languages’ on how to approach it. What has changed though is time. Twenty years ago, running an initiative for a couple of years in a single big bang launch into the market works fine and the competition was doing the same. Now you need to be able to bring an idea to fruition in some form or other in months – this has profound effects on the traditional way of running an organisation. Even Microsoft has now abandoned the big release with Windows 10 being the last major release and they are now moving to a fast incremental delivery cycle. So whether its Agile, Business Agility, Lean or Design Thinking or a combination of them all there is a clamor and a need to do things different in a world that has fundamentally changed.

Recently I completed my SAFe Program Consultant (certification and training with Dean Leffingwell (@Deanleffingwell) and Context Matters (@MarkAtScale) in Sydney. SPC-150Probably the main area I had to disagree with him on was that he described the Agile movement as having recently “Crossed the Chasm” and that while a couple of years ago we were standing on one side of the gorge sending intrepid explorers over to the other side, some falling in with their bodies piling up at the bottom of the valley, we were now at the other side and making real strides forward and it was time to up our game. That might be true in the USA, however I think there is a long way to go in Australia before that is the case here. There are a number of large organisations that have made the leap in recent years, some I have been a part of, others many of my friends and peers have (its still a small community doing this!). They’ve had various degrees of success and failure and in some respects its like the waves on a beach that they get so far then roll back and need the next wave to take them forward the next incremental step. I’m struggling to think of a single large organisation in Australia that you could point at and say “yip, thats it, they’ve made it“. Thats not to say it isnt the right thing to do – as it is! – as the world is not going to slow down any time soon and give us all time to sort ourselves out and be ready to engage. It is just that this is really hard, it challenges decades worth of embedded culture and processes and in my opinion is going to take 10 to 20 years to really take hold and become part of larger business DNA. We are still fundamentally standing on the bank looking across to a different world sending pioneers and explorers out on expeditions.

So I believe my role in all this is to be somewhat of the ferryman rowing the boat across that divide to the new way of working and mindset that we need to embrace (harking back a thousand years through my background and culture to a different transformational journey). In many cases I’m working with experts in the field who have far deeper experience than I in their particular areas or are extremely high level leaders, executives and owners, but I try to guide and give them the skills to find a route over to this new way of working. Whether that is individual or team coaching, training, presenting, actually doing the work as an Agile PM, running a large scale transformation or a combination of all of them I try to tailor what I can fit as there are many ways and paths to cross this divide. Its a fun, exciting, frustrating, exhausting but ultimately fulfilling role that I’d highly recommend to people up for a challenge and wanting to do something meaningful.

Thats why its “AgilePx“….

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A Kanban Holiday…

I’ve just returned from holiday to the wind and the rain of Melbourne, the coldest winter in 20 years supposedly. Literally the day we touched down the headlines were “Polar Vortex Hits Australia” – welcome home indeed! So in trying to ignore my current surroundings I thought I’d share my experiences “experimenting” on my family while on holiday. We were so lucky in that five of us went up to Port Douglas in Northern Queensland, my wife and I, our two kids (7 and 2) and the very understanding Grandma putting up with all of our nonsense. For those with young kids, I’m sure you’ll agree that the days of getting to sit beside a pool for a week really isn’t an option, and if you leave them with the iPad to get some peace for more than a couple of hours then they can go completely feral… So the problems was :

  • How do we fill up the time with the right things (we only had a week to maximise what we could do)
  • Who decides what those “right” things are??? Everyone should feel they get a voice on what they do on holiday
  • How do you do this in an engaging way especially with such a disparate group with nearly 60 year timespan gaps between them!?

So what we tried this time… was our own light-weight “Holiday Kanban”, on the first night (over some particularly nice bottles of wine 😉 we tried the following :

The Planning

  1. We cut up some paper into small cards and each of us wrote independently all the things we fancied doing. This only took about 10 minutes with many ideas riffing off each other when we saw what was being thrown into the middle
  2. At the end of that we sorted through the pile and joined up all the duplicates and arranged into broadly “trip” and “activity” groups. So there was things like going swimming and a run along the beach, to big trips as a family out to the reef snorkelling
  3. We then created some headings of the days ahead and initially placed the “big rocks” in first. So the major trips or expeditions – trying to spread them out over the week
  4. Going by the fact that our two year old needs a sleep early afternoon or she goes completely narky by the end of the day(!), we then placed the smaller ones in either morning, afternoon or evening slots. Note, everyone was doing this together, especially our very enthusiastic seven year old…
  5. A couple of gaps we then filled with new ideas, some of the crazier ones we binned and then agreed this was “good enough” and took this photo: (and all of this took less than 30 mins).

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Kick off

So with our plan in place, we went to the hotel lobby the next morning holding our “big trip” cards and tried to book them. We needed to re-jig things a bit due to dates and the predicted weather on a couple of them, but we got it all sorted. We moved the cards up beside the kettle on the side of the kitchen worktop and we were off!
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Execution

So every day we came down in the morning, looked at the cards, reminded ourselves what it was we were meant to be doing and went off and enjoyed ourselves. No need to ask others and no one “in charge”. At the end of the day we had a quick look once the toddler was in bed and everyone really enjoyed moving things to “done”! Watching that pile grow higher was very satisfying for all 🙂

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Summary

So how did it all work? To be honest it was probably the least stressful way I’ve ever done this before. Previously it was all in someone’s head (or many different versions in many heads!) Back at work this week, I was reminded what the definition of a “Story” was originally meant to be in Agile – and that was “A reminder to have a conversation” – I think we got right back to those basics. Having a single point of “truth” that no one person owned , but was still very visible to all was great. It was also quick, inclusive, accessible  and easily changed as different things happened. I think we probably ended up doing far more than we usually do in a week such as that as the final kanban photograph shows – only a handful of things we didn’t make it to (hey, maybe that’s the starting backlog for next year!).
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But the proof is in the pudding though and ultimately it was all about the smiles on the faces at the end of the trip 🙂

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A Meeting of non Agile PMs in an Agile World…

I had a fascinating lunch today with 5 very experience Project Managers, all of them leading large enterprise “Agile” projects, many of them in an Agile environment for the first time. We discussed the challenges we are all facing, our approach to dealing with those issues both at a team and a stakeholder level. What struck me again, was that none of this is that new. Its still all about Time, Cost, Scope and Quality. Its still all about change and how to bring it about. Its still all about *people*. All these PMs have real delivery experience – they know what needs to be done in order to get results and had great stories about what really made the difference landing their success (and most of it was around knowing when to push the right buttons on the right people around the organisation), especially on governance. Governance is a real issue running Agile projects in a corporate environment. They are not set up initially to deal with the different timings and structure of decisions that need to be made, the documentation is all wrong and drives the wrong behaviours. This then leads to the poor handling of expectations (especially around time and money) which I hold my hand up I’ve made in the past in spades.

So this harks back to my previous post on would I rather have a green PM with loads of Agile experience or a very experienced PM new to Agile. If they have the right mindset (and the good ones do) then it really is a no brainer, and this lunch confirmed it in spades.

Leadership – Ange Postecoglou – A Road Less Travelled.

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I had the a fantastic opportunity this week to hear a talk by Ange Postecoglou this week. For those that dont know Ange, he is the current Socceroos (Australian Football Team!) Coach who took the national side to the World Cup and recently won the Asian Cup. An inspirational figure, he took us on a journey of his story to date, and what he has learned about leadership and teamwork.

A Road Less Travelled

Anges’ core principle has been to follow “a road less traveled” and this one aspect of his approach to life has  has made all the difference. What he means is dont do what others are necessarily expecting, constantly challenge the system and look for that road less travelled and attempt to make your way. For him, it started out with his parents who bucked the norm. Born in Greece, they moved to Australia when he was five and worked all the hours they could to give him and his sister the opportunities they didnt have. Growing up in Melbourne in that era there was only one way to truly fit in and that was to follow AFL (for those that dont know it – thats Australian Rules Football! A game played on a cricket pitch with a rugby ball and followed by millions in Australia….).

But his dad wanted him to embrace his own culture as well as those of his newly adopted land. If you were greek, in Melbourne that means two things, church on a sunday morning and football straight after to watch South Melbourne. This was his special time, where he got to bond with his dad, the one time in the week where it was just the pair of them. Through that experience he fell in love with the game and that hasnt changed.

He played professional football, but moved into coaching straight after and thats where he made his mark (and he feels he has never worked a day in his life as he gets to follow his passion every day!). He has rarely chosen the easy path, but rather the challenge and the higher risk. WIth a Football Coach, when you get hired it typically isnt going well! You get brought in with a mandate to change. In fact, at its core its Change Management 101.

Philosophy

Ange has three core beliefs that underpin his approach to leadership and teamwork.

  1. Pro-active style, The Beautiful Game
    Ange believes that you must have a culture of belief that you can play in a style as good as those at the highest level. Dont be afraid. You can be as good as anyone else. Not a step back. Embrace the challenge. Dont set up yourself to lose but every time set yourself up to win. When he leads a new team, he challenges people straight away with this. Those that cannot rise to that usually self select themselves out of the situation very quickly. During the world cup draw, Australia was tied with Holland, Chile and then the anomaly was that Spain (the world cup champions!) werent seeded and came out of the hat in the same group. There literally couldn’t have been a harder draw for this Australian side and the heads could have went down there and then. But as Ange walked towards the press gallery he got a text from his son saying “Dad, this is a chance to be a legend” – and immediately he knew that was it. He would take his raw bunch of young Australians and throw everything at the best in world – not playing defensive but going after them in the same manner that they themselves play. Foolhardy? Naive? Maybe. Courageous, inspiring and leadership that you’d follow off the end of a cliff – very probably!
  2. Cultural change.
    Leadership and teamwork is down to cultural change. It is important to make up your own mind up and not just follow what everyone else is saying. When he joined Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory he had people and players telling him what the problems were – and much of the time these were the very same people who were themselves really the problem… So he changed the environment and saw who fits. Not much, but enough to shake people out of their comfort zone. At the Roar, the team were training every morning at 8am till 11am, the reason was that half the team lived down the Gold Coast and by lunchtime they coud be on the beach and out for a swim! So Ange added an extra small session in the mid afternoon – 5 senior players within weeks asked for transfers away from the club. He doesn’t have rules, or arbitrary boundaries with petty fines to train behaviour, but an expectation of respect and passion. If its not there – you’re gone! The person can be more important than the talent. You want burning desire and not just people looking for a job.
  3. Performance over results
    Now the hard one, he believes in performance over results. Its not that results aren’t important, but that results will come eventually when the performance is there. Australia lost all three games at the World Cup, but in a manner where they went down fighting and were very unlucky in a number of games. He then deliberately took the team to play away games in some of the hardest countries in the world – and games the team got regularly skelped by large margins! This was high risk strategy but he was building a team who were competing at the highest possible level and learning a system right in the eye of the storm. Six months later, Australia came home to play in the Asian Cup, and through their experiences fought through to the final and ultimately lifted the Cup beating the best in Asia.
    On a smaller scale, when Ange took over Brisbane Roar on their third game they came down to his home town and played Melbourn in front of a bumper crowd. He drilled “the beautiful game” into his players which included playing out from the back and keeping possession. Early on his keeper threw it to his young 19 year old defender who tried to play out, lost the ball and Melbourne scored. Five minutes later, the same thing happened, the 19 year old tried to play out lost the ball and Melbourne scored. Again! He did the same thing (because he knew it was the right thing to do). They lost that game 3-1. At the end of the game Ange went into the dressing room and the players expected a bawling out – what he did was praise the team and tell them how proud he was of them and in particular of the 19 year old. They never lost another game that season, and went on to win the minor premiership and the Grand Final.

Threats

There are obviously major threats to this philosophy and Ange is complete aware and embraces them.

  1. Time
    The modern world is all about results he knows that. But if you keep looking at the clock and the scoreboard,  pressure yourself into hasty decisions you will make mistakes (or not make the right mistakes!). Work as if you are there for ever. Make tough decision if they are right, don’t shy away.
  2. Pressure
    Pressure in leadership is constant. Pressure for teams is the same. Prepare them. Make it tough. Take them out of their comfort zone.and embrace it. He hates the phrase, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. If people are comfortable, then that is the time to challenge them again and again to push them to the next level.
  3. Confrontation
    Confrontation goes with the territory in leadership. But dont go seeking it, dont pick fights. It will come to you soon enough. And when it does, be honest,  be calm but be strong. Dont avoid it in a leadership position.

Summary

If you get the chance to hear Ange talk, please go and see him. As he says himself he is not the big showman. When he walks into a room in a social situation its not a place he feels that comfortable in but its the quiet, passionate sense of belief that comes over that really is truly inspiring and its one of the best leadership talks I’ve seen. A Road Less Travelled – If everyone is doing same thing, you are in a single race – do something different, take a risk. One of the reasons that this talk resonated so well with me is that the large scale agile transformations I’m involved in at its core is just Change Management in a similar way to a football coach- all be it with slightly less cheering crowds and media attention! I’ve been thinking how I can apply some of these ideas within my own role, maybe its not all that different.

At the end he said his ambition is to win the world cup – until I heard him talk this week my reaction to that would be that it was laughable. Now? I’m not so sure…

Digital Agency – Interview

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a director at one of the top digital agencies in the UK/USA. It was a fascinating conversation and gave me great insight into the challenges of working in such an organisation. I thought I had worked in similar environments in my career, but, in hindsight, maybe not! This is fast-paced, pressured and not for the faint hearted.

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April 2015

> Many thanks for catching up, can u give us a bit of a background on the agency around its size, number of initiatives / projects, types of clients? 

Easy Stephen, off the top of my head here goes.

We have just over 50 employees in 3 locations across the Europe and the USA. It’s not a typical agency though – we are top-heavy. We deal with Fortune 500 companies and we need that added seniority and therefore blooding the youth is difficult given a) the nature of the work we do (sometimes very strategic) and b) how exposed we and the junior members are to some heavyweight client contacts.

We completed more than 500 projects in the last 12 months. This is the full picture, from creative work only to design/build. Some of these range from the 2k trivial creative briefs through to ~900k GBP design/build. The latter project is going to run for a full calendar year and is still ongoing. A typical design and build job will be around the 80-100k mark.

On clients there is a broad mix: typically though if I was to pigeon-hole them, it would be B2B Tech Sector. Typically they will be more savvy than most clients: they know their customers personally in some cases – this can be good and bad. They are also savvy in technology so there is no hiding behind the mystique of IT!

> Can u talk us through a typical lead time (measuring from initial contact to delivery) and how you manage these initiatives? 

The average lead time depends on the nature of the client, nature of the job, the sub-culture of the internal team working on it. Some we get dropped on us at the last minute in a “this needs to be done for an event next month” which are fraught, unsuccessful and just a downright pain. We compromise quality when we truncate the discovery phase of our design and build projects. If we get a proper discovery phase done, then we have empirical data from competitor analysis, persona development, story mapping, user journeys, IA and UX, through to user testing.

Where we don’t get the chance to do the discovery phase (either through timescales or, normally, lack of budget) this leads to a compromised solution. We use (depending on the client) a typically waterfall type approach, although on the big project mentioned before we are running an agile initiative  which has its benefits and drawbacks – the main drawback being that they want something tangible right at the beginning that they can relay internally on their own reporting. Providing them with that in an agile environment is non trivial.

Agile is obviously better for us, but it requires a confident client, an ability to dedicate enough time to the project to allow it to work properly and, most importantly, trust in their agency. Difficult balancing act and if we had a lead time of 6-9 months, we’d be in clover. That happens for larger projects with us. Recently we just launched a major site that from start to finish, we had a little under 4 months of strategy/planning, design and build, QA/remediation and deployment. And it was one of dozens we were juggling at the same time – thats how manic it gets.

> How successful are they regarding budgets and timescales?

We have just over 60% of projects run on-time and to budget. We really do suffer from the cone of uncertainty and some of our account managers aren’t strong enough to be forceful with clients. Realistically the least we ever know is at the time when the original pitch/scope is done. Which is why agile is the way ahead for us, but see before for limitations and restrictions on the barriers for us to be able to implement it across the board. However, if we take that agile path we should be stronger when scope starts to change to be able to re-forecast the budgets and timescales. Rarely does this happen and when it does it needs a strong PM.  Some project sponsors are superb and know everything – some arent but still wield a lot of power.

> You have worked in large corporates before , do you think you could replicate this environment in an organisation like that?

The crux of it is they need to be able to trust their colleagues and I mean really trust. That is it. If you trust your colleagues and empower them to be able to make the decisions that need made, they’ll succeed. Anything else will fail. Can u create that culture in a larger organisation? I’m not so sure.

To be honest Stephen, one of our main issues, ironically, is one of our major strengths. By only employing seniors, we get a lot of divas: all bright bright people, with years of experience…but all with an opinion. This causes struggles: Alpha personality types who argue with each other all the time and this can lead to inertia. It also means where we have a more junior client who wants to show us who is boss that we end up dissatisfied with the project and it leads to interest just dropping off and energy wavering.

The culture of trust needs to be there, from top to bottom. It really isn’t optional – and it’s why we let go so many people! We need people who can work on multiple projects, sometimes with competing deadlines and really own it, really think things through and have the trust of their peers to be able to deliver their part of the project as required. That’s another reason we have so many seniors : it’s difficult to bring people into that culture without them dying or just leaving….or being sacked!

Some thoughts on Agile PMs…

The role of the Project Manager is a complicated one in an Agile but also a Corporate/Enterprise environment. There is a whole other post that I’ll make going into that in more detail but basically I am of the opinion that there is a crucial role there still to play, where basically the Agile PM manages “outwards” into the rest of the organisation, dealing with the politics, the funding, the reporting etc leaving the IM or the Scrum Master to focus inwards co-coordinating/facilitating the scrum or squad.

What prompted this blog though was that I hadn’t really considered the fact that a great many PMs in a corporate environment are freelance contractors and consultants. Its rare (but not unheard of) to have a dedicated large pool of permanent PMs in place, who get to participant in training, conferences, communities etc. What you are buying in (in theory!) is experienced practitioners already fully trained and up to speed. However, currently there just arent enough experience Agile PMs around in the marketplace. I’d probably prefer an experienced waterfall PM with exceptional backlog of delivery who is flexible enough to pickup the nuances that are needed in an Agile environment (its still all about Time, Money, Scope and Quality after all) than a green PM who has recently picked up Agile techniques.

A good point was made to me recently though by an experienced PM that surely it would make sense to send them on a $3k training course even if they are a contractor if you are relying on them to land a multi-million dollar project?!? The ROI on that should be a no brainer…. Its a very good point, but a difficult one to get over the line in a corporate HR world.

Continuous Delivery on the Grand Scale…

So the reports are that Windows 10 is going to be the last version of windows that goes for the big bang branded release.
http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/may/11/windows-10-last-version-microsoft

So it seems that the mantra of Continuous Delivery has finally even stormed the bastions of Redmond. From now on it will be constantly updated as and when new features are available.

While from a consumer point of view this makes complete sense, and catches up with how virtually everything else that we use these days from mobile apps to browsers, it will be interesting to see how large organisations cope with this (and what policies Microsoft put in place to mitigate the potential effects). Again what seems to be the driving force here is the time to market needs to be dramatically shorter for new features and not waiting until the larger release is in place – ie classic Agile small incremental release strategies.