Archive for the ‘Everything’ Category

butterflies turn into slime

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Butterfly Art from ChileIn May at the World Open Space on Open Space 2013 in Saint Petersburg, Florida, I convened a session concerning one of the official roles in an Open Space Technology conference, the butterfly. This “role”, the butterfly, is quite loose and it is a role one can easily slip into and out of. The butterfly in an Open Space conference is not a session. Instead, a butterfly might be at the food table, or outside the facilities getting some fresh air.

The butterfly role in an Open Space conference invites a great deal of serendipity, as often someone being a “butterfly” will attract another “butterfly” into a spontaneous transformative conversation. My session in Florida was asking those hosting and organizing Open Space events what they thought about dedicating an area in facilities for a such a conference that would intentionally be attractive for butterflies and supportive of their needs, like a “butterfly garden” which contains flowers that draw these beautiful winged insects.

Some of the interesting conversations at that session involved the nature of the butterfly, and the metaphor of the butterfly as used in chaos theory, especially the “butterfly effect” used in the study of weather where sensitivity to initial conditions can mean a butterfly flapping it’s wings in Brazil could theoretically cause a tornado in Texas. But the most important of these conversations involved the path of the caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar digests itself into a soup which feeds the imaginal cells that gradually group and cluster to become the butterfly. Open Space is a wonderfully rich place supporting transformation, both in individuals and in organizations, and the butterfly metaphor is a very potent story.

One of the attendees, MarSea Amani, presented me this poem in Florida which she has given me permission to publish here in my blog.

butterflies turn into slime
a poem by MarSea Amani Nov 12, © 1999. All Rights Reserved.

O humans!
You think it’s so lovely
becoming a butterfly.
You’re fond of saying it.
I wonder why?!

You think it sounds pretty
to do what butterflies do
You think you’ll be pretty
if you change the way butterflies do…..

O humans!
If you but realized
what we butterflies do
to become butterflies
you wouldn’t want to!

stay pulpy worms
hugging the earth
eating all day
for all that it’s worth.

you really won’t want
to do what we do
when we melt into mush
and turn into goo.

O humans!
It’s really quite horrid,
this melting into slime.
it burns and it hurts;
it certainly isn’t sublime.

all that you were
turns into a soupy goo;
and that’s what you eat
to become the new you.

O humans!
You say you will transform
you offer self sacrifice.
wish that such pretty talk
for such change could suffice.

When caterpillars melt
you can’t hear their screams;
our voices have melted
along with our dreams.

we write in the horror
of losing ourselves,
all that we cherished
and all we once felt.

O humans!
for such transformation
you wouldn’t be wishing
if you knew what it took
for all that submissing.

stay a fat worm
eating and sleeping
dodging the birds;
no thought of leaping.

don’t wish for bright wings
to carry you high
into the light
of the limitless sky!

don’t wish to soar
in the clean air above
with no remembrance
of the things you once loved!

stay who you are!
you’re pretty enough!
don’t wish for change!
the way is too rough!

it’s hard enough
to turn worms into goo;
the fire’s even hotter
for creature’s like you.

surely you’ve noticed
that after your prayers
things really heat up
and you’re up to your ears!

surely you’ve noticed
that after you’ve prayed
to be hollowed out
you feel you’ve been slayed!

yes, it’s death you pray for
to be so transformed,
just like us caterpillars
before our new state was formed.

we die to the world
of eating up leaves
of clinging to branches
of fearing bird’s beaks.

O humans!
you say you want a better you,
but you wouldn’t, if you knew
just what was in store for you
what dying to your old self
would do to you

metamorphosis isn’t something
that you do in a day;
it takes all that melting
…day after day.

and it really does hurt.
and it takes a long time
to turn a caterpillar
into a puddle of slime

so that all he once was
is the stuff he can eat
to become his true self.
it’s no small feat!

transformation isn’t something
that you do in a day;
it takes all that melting
…day after day.

O humans! my advice to you:
stay a caterpillar!
life’s easier that way!
your job is just eating!
…day after day.

Fueling the Agile Fire in Tractors @JohnDeer

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Agile Fired John Deere TractorIt’s been months since I visited Chad Holdorf, the agile “ninja” who walks the halls of the John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group (ISG) in Des Moines. Chad also influences all of ISG organization out to Illinois, Germany, India, and more, affecting at least 1200 people.

When I think back on my experience, I’m still in awe. I’m almost speechless. There’s a powerful fire that’s been lit in the minds and hearts of this tractor company and it is being beautifully fueled and maintained. Chad introduced me to coaches he’s brought in to help their unusually successful transition from traditional “waterfall” development practices towards a more agile approach. I met managers and developers he’s inspired and motivated. I even spoke to non-developers who have been impacted. After seeing the improvements, and the fun!, it’s hard not to just wax so effusively that I sound like a crazed rock star groupie. Luckily, time has helped me reflect and be more coherent about what I discovered there.

First of all, a word from our sponsors. One of my mentors, Christopher Avery, introduced me to Chad. Christopher Avery teaches a profound understanding of how to be a leader in your own life and have greater impact on others with more responsibility, effectiveness, and power through his Leadership Gift program. I’d also like to thank my employer, SAP, for their support in making the visit possible. As John Deere is a customer of SAP (as is so much of the rest of the companies on this small blue orb) I could learn how SAP was benefiting John Deere at that location, and how we could benefit them even more, as well as bring back some of the Agile Goodness being spread around John Deere ISG.

Ok, now back to our program. To summarize in bullets, this is what I saw.

  • Meaningful work
  • Catalyst Leadership
  • Servant Leadership
  • Play
  • Vulnerability

So what exactly did I see? The Intelligent Solutions Group provides the brains for tractors and online presence for John Deere. In Des Moines, I got to witness the tail end and beginning of an eight week cycle where all the teams come together to look at what they’ve done, ship something to their stakeholders, and plan the next cycle. Chad also invites representatives from other companies working on agile transitions to view what ISG has done, as well as share their own agile transition processes. More on that later.

Meaningful Work

Chad talks about this right away and even shared with me some of the slides he shows when he starts to talk about what they’ve done. John Deere helps feed the planet. The population of our planet has been growing and is expected to grow much more. The people at John Deere know they make a difference and it shows in their enthusiasm for making things better.

Servant Leadership

Even if you’re not familiar with the late Robert K. Greenleaf’s book of the same name, it’s unlikely you’ve not heard this term. The executive team at John Deere have provided ample support to Chad, letting him introduce unconventional practices. They continue to empower him to make a difference. They keep saying yes, providing funds for coaches, equipment, furniture, and trainings. They’ve not needed to take the credit. Chad too embodies this. He doesn’t have an office. He has no one reporting to him. And he was excited to see others be brilliant in the company, encouraging colleagues to bring in new practices that constantly improve their processes.

Catalyst Leadership

This is a term I first encountered at Agile 2008 in Toronto from the book Leadership Agility by Bill Joiner. But it’s also a term used in the book The Starfish and the Spider, a book about the power of leaderless organizations. Chad has no authority to command obedience, yet he personally and single handedly took on the responsibility for making his entire division jump on board the Agile train. How does Chad catalyze instead of control?


This paragraph will be hard for me to keep short. One of the first things that Chad showed me on arrival was pictures of him covered in mud and dressed up as Forrest Gump when he ran a crazy mud drenched race that required him being hosed off afterwards. He brought that level of fun to his work the whole day. Look what cool things are happening here! Look at the crazy challenges we’ve overcome. It was fun for him that ISG has 50% less warranty claims, 7% higher employee engagement, but even more fun for Chad was seeing how awesome things were happening that he had nothing to do with. Chad uses fun to teach agile practices. Instead of a boring powerpoint presentation, Chad bought hundreds of dollars of legos himself and brings it to groups from 20 to 200+ and tells them to build a city. Then they learn Scrum, Scrum of Scrums, and other agile practices to build their lego metropolis.


Rather than keep things secret, John Deere ISG courageously brings in agile practitioners in from many companies to see exactly what they’re doing. Chad is open and frank about their challenges, and humble. The Brene’ Brown book, The Gifts of Imperfection, helped me understand the power of not just what they’re doing by letting others come visit them, but why. Even though they call it a benchmarking process, there wasn’t a lot of time spent comparing. There was much more time sharing and collaborating with how both John Deere and SAP could do better. Chad’s incredible openness engenders courage and trust in his own company, as well as in others. According to Brene’ Brown, letting go of comparison helps cultivate creativity. And there was much of that evident, including really fun product demos made by teams to show off their work the last 8 weeks.

Chad HoldorfConclusions

The conclusion is I’m not done pondering or thinking about Chad Holdorf’s work. I got to meet him again in Dallas at the Agile 2012 conference, learned more about his dreams and aspirations for himself, John Deere, and the software industry. He’s definitely someone to watch out for. If you’re interested in learning more, or maybe applying to be one of the fortunate companies to witness the power of what they’re doing there, feel free to email me and I’ll put you in contact. And take a look at some of these other blog posts and articles praising Chad’s work at John Deere ISG:


Everything is Changing

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Joe Justice gave the closing keynote at Agile 2012 a few days ago. I’ve written several times about the shifts that are happening in the software industry because of this “agile” stuff. Joe shows how he’s produced in 3 months a street legal safe beautiful car that competed in the X prize and has also been with top auto models at a Detroit auto show between Ford and Chevrolet.

These new methods of building stuff better, faster, and with more fun are coming and changing everything, not just the lives of some programmers. This video will give you a taste of how Joe did it – and why it’s profound – and how he’s also working to bring these techniques for social change. Please, for us all, watch this video!

Jim McCarthy and Culture Hacking

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Culture HackingJim McCarthy, author of the Dynamics of Software Development and co-author with his wife Michele of Software For Your Head, showed up at the Agile Open Northwest conference last week with a protective plastic layer he unfolded on one of the lunch tables. He sat there with blank canvases, paint, and a menu of conversations – and invited people to dabble paint along with him. This post is about the “Culture Hacking” menu item – for which Jim also held a late night 8pm session in the Seattle Center with about 15 other attendees.

If you’re not familiar with Jim and Michele’s work, the best introduction is probably their entertaining “McCarthy Show“, a podcast with years of recordings. And there are more concise writings available there as well, though my experience is the only way to really get the power of their work is to try a bootcamp and feel the power of a “booted” team. But some of this power is evident in Jim’s speech attached to this post.

Jim delivered a rousing and mobilizing talk calling forth those who work with software, and especially those who are reinventing the way that we do work through forward leading organizational and management tools like Scrum, Kanban, and “Agile” and “Lean” ideas in general – to bring on a new Golden Era like Classical Greece, circa 500 B.C. He believes we can do this by programming culture with the same hacker ethos that helped them reclaim the hardware and access to it from mainframe elites of the 60′s and 70′s, and which was moved forward by the Open Source movement.

Jim’s claim is that we’re only at the “pong” level of cultural hacks with tools like Scrum, Kanban, eXtreme Programming, and the other tools of the Agile Software movement. In a short time, we’ll start to see cultural programmed applications that are orders of magnitude from even the leading edge of what teams are doing right now.


Do you know the “Why”?

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

Simon Sinek delivers a powerful message about how great leaders inspire action. Do you know the “why” you do what you do, or what your company or team does?

Discovery versus Judgment

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

I have a confession. I judge that judgment sucks and that exploration, discovery, and growth are better. Before you flip the Bozo Bit on me for judging judgement, let me start by saying that my preference for exploration is leading to a greater understanding of the power and place for judgment and evaluation. But first please let me dump on the Performance Review, the subject of a workshop I’ve already co-facilitated at the North Bay Agile Meetup last week, and which we’ll be leading again at Agile 2011 in Salt Lake City this week.

Since I left college, every year I’ve experienced the pain and the drudgery of evaluating my performance to my employer. The appraisals that I judge were the best were the ones that had the goal setting happen well after the goals had already been accomplished, and that were very appreciatively delivered by my managers. The ones I judge were the worst were the ones made most conscientiously and carefully, with objectives set well before the event and a serious attempt to bring about improvements.

If you’re lucky enough not to have gone through the dreaded Annual Performance Review with a manager in your job, you’ve either been self-employed your whole life or you’re like 13. But if you can read, you’ve almost certainly gone through a massive amount of social induction through the process of being criticized and judged yourself. Joel Spolsky says this with the most humor in a blog post “Incentive Pay Considered harmful“:

Most software managers have no choice but to go along with performance review systems that are already in place. If you’re in this position, the only way to prevent teamicide is to simply give everyone on your team a gushing review. But if you do have any choice in the matter, I’d recommend that you run fleeing from any kind of performance review, incentive bonus, or stupid corporate employee-of-the-month program.

The most depth I’ve seen on this topic comes from American management guru, Dr. W. Edwards Deming. I’ve known about Deming for many years, but it was thanks to Bob Payne’s awesome Agile Toolkit Podcast with Kelly Allan that I found out he’d already chimed in decades ago about my topic. Deming passed away in 1993, but he’s most famous for his work in Japan starting after WWII from 1950 onwards. Many credit the economic miracle of Japan after WWII to Deming. The Japanese listened to his advice and took it to heart. Deming’s work was extremely influential in Toyota Production System which led to the Lean Manufacturing movement. In one of his books, Out of the Crisis, Deming listed performance evaluations as one of the seven deadly diseases, and he went on to say:

Evaluation of performance, merit rating, or annual review… The idea of a merit rating is alluring. The sound of the words captivates the imagination: pay for what you get; get what you pay for; motivate people to do their best, for their own good. The effect is exactly the opposite of what the words promise.

A video that made the rounds quite a bit last year called “Drive: The suprising truth about what motivates us“. If you haven’t seen it – watch it! Then do what several colleagues and I did after that – and read the book – Drive – by Dan Pink. The basic idea is that extrinsic motivators like pay for performance, bonus pay, etc. do not lead to better performance. Extrinsic motivators actually make it worse for anything but the most simple and menial tasks. What does lead to better performance is intrinsic motivation which comes from Autonomy, Purpose, and Mastery. Great book!

To go back to Deming, what makes a difference in performance, what helps trigger and grow the factors that can nurture intrinsic motivation are healthy relationships. Deming said in the introduction to The Team Handbook:

The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.

Bottom line, what will make a difference is building relationships – creating a high trust environment. This has been written about elsewhere and often, such as in Stephen M. R. Covey’s, At the Speed of Trust. But the Annual Performance review puts a kind of power into the hands of managers that does not empower the relationship. It encourages a split agenda with the employee trying to focus on why they should get a raise and a promotion, and the boss trying to get more out of the employee within their limited budget. Samuel Culbert writes eloquently about this in his 2010 book, Get Rid of the Performance Review! His 2008 Wall Street Journal article of the same name caused quite a stir at my company and spurred me on to propose a workshop on the topic. It’s exciting to be exploring this in more depth with the amazing Chris Sims of Agile Learning Labs in just a few days! What seems evident is that managers can have a much greater impact on team performance by both being a coach and encouraging teams to support each other. I’ve taken this lesson so much to heart not just for improving performance, but for becoming a transformational change agent, that right now I’m writing this article on a challenge from a fellow student at my Fulfillment class from the Coaches Training Institute at their headquarters in San Rafael.

But my research into the topic led to a trail of discovery that keeps going deeper, in a way that evaluates evaluation itself. Westley, Zimmerman, and Patton wrote a powerful book titled Getting to Maybe that resonates with my explorer’s soul. The story has nothing to do with employee performance reviews, but it has everything to do with the title of this post even though I’ve only glimpsed the shore of this, for me, strange new land. The book relates multiple stories of normal people instigating enormous changes, accomplishing the impossible, but not by being superheros. I can’t hope to describe this other than through the hints and clues from a friend that led me to pursue the book. In a nutshell, much chaos is caused in evaluating and funding social innovation without an understanding of complex systems. A simple system might be compared to baking a cake. There is a formula and a recipe that will produce consistent results. Then there are complicated systems, which might compare to sending a rocket to the moon. There are many moving parts and teams that have to be coordinated. But if you solve the problem once, you’ll probably be able to solve it again. A complex system might compare to raising a child. The child has a will of its own. Although the experience of raising one helps, it most certainly does not guarantee success for the next child. The answer I have yet to explore in this new land is called Developmental Evaluation.

I have a preference for exploration and discovery. And it seems that my explorations are showing that there is a way to make judgments and evaluations in a helpful way. I’m certainly clear that there are times when choices are necessary. The exploration and discovery continues. There is more ground to uncover before our workshop in Salt Lake City: Undoing Performance Review Damage – Coaching Towards Customer Purpose. But here are some additional places on the map you might want to visit for this topic:

Catalytic Coaching: End the Performance Review – a book by Garold Markle who founded a company that has replaced performance reviews with a coaching process at over 100 companies.

Software For Your Head – a book by Jim and Michele McCarthy about their team development laboratory bootcamp which includes an amazing feedback process called the Perfection Game.

Sense and Respond – The Journey to Customer Purpose – a book by Barlow, Parry, & Faulkner. This book was part of the inspiration for the presentation we did in San Rafael and that we’ll do again in Salt Lake City. Coming from the perspective of Lean Manufacturing ideas implemented at service organizations and beyond, the transformation is multifaceted and involves coaching as well as a greater understanding of what the customer needs to succeed.

[Addendum: The research for my Agile 2011 conference session can be downloaded from the Agile Alliance website here.]

Coach, Coach Thyself

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Coaches WhistleMost of you are probably familiar with the adage, “Physician, Heal Thyself!” The miracle of internet search revealed to me that this actually came from the New Testament as a quote of Jesus from an even older proverb. The meaning might seem to be transparent, which is that healers should use their own knowledge on themselves before attempting to use it on others.

As a student of coaching, this simple meaning was what came up for me on a phone call with a master coach, Michael Spayd. Michael along with Lyssa Adkins, author of the book Coaching Agile Teams, are working together to advance the practice of coaching in the world of agile software development. When most people think of the term “coach”, they probably see someone on a football field or basketball court on the sidelines giving guidance and helping the team perform while not actually playing the game him (or her) self.

But the term “coaching” as intended in this article comes out of the increasingly relevant field of professional and life coaching. The International Coaching Federation defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” There are executive coaches, success coaches, and many other “niches”.

Alright, so I just completed Coaching Fundamentals, the first class of the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), which is one of the leading coaching training and certification organizations. It was inspiring being with such a diverse group of people who wanted to help others – from technologists to teachers to managers to real estate brokers. What strikes me most about coaching as taught by CTI is “nobody gets to be wrong”, which means that the relationship between coach and client works best when you go outside of evaluation. In other words, good coaching is not about handing out grades. We’re not in school any more. Coaching especially isn’t about making judgements. And this can be quite tricky. I wonder if a good researcher has measured how much of most of our self-talk is evaluating and judging whether we’re getting it “right”? And what’s funny, is that judging and evaluating itself isn’t ‘wrong’ either.

So when I thought “Coach, Coach Thyself!”, I think mostly for me that was about doing what the manual of coaching as taught by CTI teaches. Here’s a quote from the beginning of Co-Active Coaching: “Naturally Creative, Resourceful, and Whole – The primary building block for all co-active coaching is this: Clients have the answers or they can find the answers. From the co-active coach’s point of view, nothing is wrong or broken, and there is no need to fix the client. The coach does not deliver answers; the coach asks questions and invites discovery.”

Wow, that’s a refreshing way to look at ourselves too. Imagine if we stopped being the judge and stern schoolmaster to ourselves, and instead we were coaches that were curious, asked useful questions that encouraged discovery rather than self-judgement.

I wonder how I might start asking myself better questions and be a better coach to myself? And maybe how can I put away that ugly free clip art whistle too?




What do you want to promote?

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Missoula BarCamp. It’s happening in a few days. The stomach churns at times. My body rebels with a cold and demands I slow down. But something in the psyche has been crying out for me to express something.

Missoula BarCamp. It’s about Missoula. It’s about art, technology, and change.

These are words I’ve repeated many times. I’ve shared also the story about Harrison Owen and how he used his experience in the Peace Corps in African villages to solve the problem of how to make conferences less dull and boring. He spent over a year organizing a conference that the attendees said the best part were the coffee breaks. So consoling himself over two martinis he came up with the format for Open Space Technology – meet in a circle, let people post their sessions on a bulletin board and let everyone work out the logistics right there.

I’ve repeated that story many times. And right now, it’s not enough.

Missoula BarCamp 2010

Something that has helped has been reading Seth Godin’s latest book, Poke the Box. This project of mine, this conference, has been such a passion for so many years, that at times I just wish I could organize conferences. Seth writes about a friend of his in the book who he calls Jennifer who organizes conferences once given the agenda and attendee list, but she has to wait to be picked. Instead Seth recommends to be the promoter, the one who initiates the conference.

Well I guess that’s what I’ve done. I don’t have a title. No one is paying me. But I’m the conference promoter. What am I promoting? Perhaps a few small stories will help explain.

A few days ago a box came in the mail. It was a little Arduino electronic controller board. I downloaded the open source software from the internet, plugged the device in, changed some lines of code, and fetched some ancient (circa 1983) light emitting diodes from the garage, and watched them flash as I commanded them from my MacBook Pro. I first learned about Arduino before the first Missoula BarCamp as someone suggested doing a session about it back in 2008. And I was disappointed it didn’t happen. But an attendee raised the idea again this year and this time he had actually bought the board. So I’m excited like a boy getting a toy at Christmas to be playing with it with other attendees on Saturday.

Visiting Arizona last year for the Scrum Beyond Software conference – also an Open Space Technology event – I was slowly more and more amazed at the hosting space. GangPlank has done things that seem crazy, impossible. They have competitors sharing their plans openly with each other in a free public collaboration space. Several companies have been born out of their work, and they’re even spreading to Utah. And they’re not the only ones doing it, both in the idea of Co-Working, in Hacker Spaces. And a sizable group in Missoula is engaging with GangPlank to try the same thing here. And many of them are coming to Missoula BarCamp.

One of the people coming to Missoula BarCamp this year, the legendary Jim McCarthy, has been a huge inspiration to me since I went to his software development bootcamp with a number of other amazing people back in 2002. I believe the work that Jim did at Microsoft was a predecessor for many of the wonderful practices I admire in the Agile Software development movement, and that the work he and his wife Michele have done that was documented in their book Software For Your Head goes beyond what the Agile movement has done because it promises and delivers an experience of shared vision in a simple but reliable and repeatable way. I’ve experienced his “bootcamp” several times and fully attest to its effectiveness.

Another person I admire who is flying in just for the conference is Dr. Christopher Avery. He’s done some very deep work into the concept of responsibility which drew considerable attention at the Agile 2009 conference and which has impacted me powerfully since then. Dr. Avery teaches that blame, justification, guilt, and obligation are “below the line” of real power, and that the more we notice and confront these tendencies – the more we can take the lead in our lives and our work. I’ve chosen to work with Dr. Avery since I met him in 2009, and I owe him a great debt in his support of my submitting and being accepted to present at the Agile 2011 conference this August.

Perhaps you can sense the technology and the “change”, but what about art? I’ve usually not needed to “sell” the importance of art, but this blog post is personal, and what is personal about bringing the arts into Missoula BarCamp’s thematic triad? In short, improvisational acting. And Improv plays a role in the world of Agile Software Development as a recurring session topic at conferences. It comes up in the use of games to teach better software development practices. And Improv comes up big time in the concept of Open Space Technology conferences. Especially in the work of Phelim McDermott, improvisor, Broadway and London stage performer, and initiator of the Open Space conferences about theater in both London and New York – Devoted and Disgruntled. And Phelim is also a fellow board member of the Open Space Institute of the U.S.

Were there only space and time to list so many more of the inspiring and transformative conversations I’ve had as a result of attending other Open Space conferences around Agile Software, Leadership, and even Open Space itself. How we can get to a world that is more fair, more fun, and more prosperous? For me, it’s not possible to imagine that without art, change, and technology. What Missoula BarCamp has always been about has been sharing these diverse yet intertwined passions which seem to also resonate powerfully in the heart of this small and beautiful mountain city.

I hope that this promotes Missoula BarCamp to you. What do you want to promote?

Open Minds and OpenAgile

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Paratrooper with ParachuteSome have said that the mind is like a parachute. It has to be open in order to function. Contrasting that, the street wisdom I’ve heard is that if you keep your mind open, people will throw their garbage in it. Certainly openness is a virtue, and in what way and what context?Open Landfill

There have been a number of articles in my blog about Agile Software Development, and in this entry we’ll take a look at the project management framework called OpenAgile, which might help us also understand the meaning and value of “open”.

Before we talk about OpenAgile we need to set the stage. If you’ve been involved to any depth in any human affair, there’s going to be some dirty laundry. It doesn’t matter if it’s a family, or a business, or a charity. Agile Software Development was intended to improve the bureaucratic and oppressive management structures in place in large corporate software development teams. I’m deeply grateful for the changes that this movement has made in my profession as a software developer even if there is still a long way yet to go. The most successful system under the “Agile” transformation umbrella has been by far, Scrum. Now as exciting and juicy as conflict and controversy can be, it can also be tawdry. So rather than digging into the trash for trash’s sake, I’ll only reflect some of what I know to help understand perhaps at least some of my interest in the OpenAgile framework.

Although Scrum appears to have roots that trace back to Japan in the 1980′s, most people credit Scrum for software development to Ken Schwaber, founder of both the Scrum Alliance and the Agile Alliance. Ken Schwaber’s book, Agile Software Development with Scrum, co-authored with Mike Beedle, is the standard reference (although many other books on Scrum have been written.) In 2010, my company SAP had Ken Schwaber speak to its employees and Ken personally claimed the “blame” for Scrum. But in 2009, the board of the very Scrum Alliance Ken had founded unanimously asked him to resign. It is quite interesting to read Ken’s account of his “resignation”, and his reasons for founding yet another organization. Another more recent resignation from the Scrum Alliance came from its Creative Director, Tobias Meyer.

RESIGNEDBoth Tobias’s and Ken’s posts about their resignations speak to a conflict of vision contrasting mission against money. As a member myself of the Scrum Alliance, losing these two visionaries is a clear loss to the organization, and it raises many questions. And although it may be too soon to tell whether OpenAgile answers at least some of those questions, I’m very grateful that they’re trying to do so and that the appearance of the OpenAgile Institute on the scene will at the very least contribute to the conversation about these questions.

According to, the approach evolved out of Mishkin Berteig‘s work as an Agile software development consultant. It was also influenced by his father, Garry Mishkin’s teaching model, called the “Learning Circle”. Mishkin wanted to share this method for any type of work, and he wanted to share it in a collaborative way. He specifically wanted it to be like an open-source software project, thus he named it OpenAgile.

Having read the OpenAgile “Readiness Primer”, and having passed the “Readiness Test”, there is so much to love in OpenAgile. It simplifies much of the structure of iterative development while delineating in more detail many of the virtues required to make a team successful at getting work done collaboratively. I’m eager to learn more, yet this article wrestles with that sticky word, “Open”. How is OpenAgile Open? What does it mean to be Open?

The open-source movement attempted to free software developers from getting stopped by the barbed wire of patent law and copyright intellectual property claims by licensing the “source” code for software in a way that would allow others to copy and alter the “secret sauce” inside the software as long as they passed on the same open source license to all their users. This model has become extremely successful, and much of the worlds computers run this way. It engenders active user and developer communities who write code, find problems, fix problems, and give their fixes back to the community as a whole – usually without even getting paid for all their contributions.

On the face of it, OpenAgile is not “Open Source” in the common way of understanding it. The license on their website allows for people to copy and distribute the content, but not to alter or derive other works from it. In other words, if you see an improvement you might want to make to OpenAgile – you would be breaking the law to do so without getting permission from the OpenAgile Institute. I suspect that within the OpenAgile community, there is much more openness to collaboration. But this openness is not legally granted to the general public.

Before going any further, let’s take a pause and look deeper into openness. When I was going to college, I recall a The Universe is ExpandingWoody Allen movie in which nine year old Alvy Singer stops doing his homework because the universe is expanding, which to him means that everything is going to break apart and so there’s no point to it all. In college there was also for me a lot of talk about entropy and the laws of thermodynamics, which basically says that a system tends towards maximum disorder. Everything eventually falls apart. It seemed a dismal but fundamental law of the universe. But after college I came across the work of Ilya Prigogene which really opened my mind (pun intended). It turns out that, yes, systems tend to fall apart – if they are closed. But all living systems are in fact open systems. They receive inputs in the form of sunlight, air, water, food, and they release what they don’t need. Open systems can in fact become more complex and develop higher and higher levels of order. They can evolve.

Perhaps this is why democracies have been much more vibrant and productive than closed societies, and why collaborative processes like Scrum and OpenAgile work. It certainly plays a part in the success of Open Space Technology about which I’ve written many times such as here and here and here. In an Open Space Technology style meeting or conference, the agenda is fully open to every attendee to talk about whatever they want to talk about. And every attendee is also free to come and go as they please. You can talk about whatever you want to, and you are given a chance to invite all the attendees to come to your session. This kind of openness enables the system to organize itself. It enables it to evolve.

In fact I only know about OpenAgile because of Open Space Technology (OST). It was at the amazing OST event, Scrum Beyond Software, that I first heard about OpenAgile. And then at the OST event, AgileOpen NorCal 2010 in San Francisco last October, I attended a presentation that David Parker gave about it. David is the current Executive Director of the OpenAgile Institute.

If it seems I’m being critical of OpenAgile, perhaps it is because I’m both disappointed by it and excited by it at the same time. I’d been fortunate enough to spend more time with David Parker at Lyssa Adkin’s most excellent Coaching Agile Teams class last November, and his enthusiasm about OpenAgile is infectious. The topics that OpenAgile covers, the virtues its extols, and even the books it recommends are excellent.

I hope that OpenAgile can grow more and more into the “open” that its name invokes. I asked David some of these questions at his session in San Francisco last year. How will the OpenAgile framework evolve? Will they give permission for derivative works to be generated? If not, how will the framework be open to submitted contributions? And how will the board of directors be constituted in the future? Will the membership be able to vote for the board members? Interestingly, the Agile Alliance gives members the opportunity to vote for board members. But the Scrum Alliance does not. This fact does not make me comfortable about the Scrum Alliance.

And here is one last question about the meaning and value of “open”. What place do certifications have in a dynamic open system? The Agile Alliance has made a specific policy not to pursue certifications. Harrison Owen did the same for Open Space Technology. Yet the presence of certifications helped make Scrum extremely popular by helping to spawn an industry of Certified Scrum Trainers. Isn’t it interesting that the financial success of Scrum certifications also seems to have led to the ejection of some of the foundational and creative forces behind Scrum such as Ken Schwaber and Tobias Meyer? Is there a way to have both certifications as well as openness?

Maybe there is no answer yet to these questions. And maybe, that’s also a part of openness – not always knowing the answer.

The Big Questions

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Stonehenge Replica in Washington StateDavid Chilcott has posed an interesting question on a blog a few hours ago, “What is value?”. It’s a big question, a kin to “What is truth?” and “Why are we here?”, that most certainly helped drive the ancients to look up into the stars and wonder, and then help them build artifacts like Stonehenge which was duplicated on a hill in Washington state which I have pictured to the left in front of high tech green energy that also was driven by the big questions.

David is the founder of Outformations and board member of the Agile Project Leadership Network. He was also someone I enjoyed meeting at the last Agile Open conference in San Francisco where he acted as the Open Space facilitator. He has laughter in his eyes that comes out in his interactions, his transparency, and playfulness. It is also refreshing to talk to someone in the software and business world that also has an ear for the deeper questions.

I had a chance to speak in more depth with David after we both attended Lyssa Adkin’s most amazing “Coaching Agile Teams” experiential workshop in the San Francisco Bay Area last month. And we hatched a plan to dive into some deeper questions with an online conversation. And David began this exchange with his blog entry.

The context of David Chilcott’s question derives from the field of Agile Software Development, where the goal of an agile project is to deliver “business value”. What is value? is a very practical question which unfortunately doesn’t always get asked. David reports that people seem to think they know what it is, but they actually seldom agree. Some may answer that business value is just money. Let’s ignore for a second the obvious recent social problems that seem to have arisen from that assumption. Is value just money?Money

If value is just money, perhaps the field of economics is the right place to look. Classical economics had a theory based on the amount of human labor put into goods, called the labor theory of value. This was a fundamental building block of Marxism, but wikipedia reports that it has been replaced by the marginal utility approach. If you wish, you can look at the complicated equations involved with marginal utility. Although I’m sure there’s value in this concept, that the utility (value) of anything diminishes the more you have of it, it’s not very satisfying. It feels like we’re missing something important. Let’s dive back into the world of software a bit to see if we can get someplace.

In the software world, most serious projects have some element of dedicated testing. If the project is large enough, it may even be done by a separate group. These groups of testers have generally adopted the term “Quality Assurance” or some variation thereof.

The author Robert Pirsig wrote a biographical thriller and a rather deep philosophical meditation which includes a philosophy teacher, Phaedrus, who poses this question to his students: “What is quality in thought and statement?” Pirsig describes how the classroom Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenancebecomes “explosive” after they try and fail to fulfill the assignment. Phaedrus is genuinely curious to get an answer and tries to find it with his students. Although Phaedrus confesses he does not know the answer, his students ask him about what he thinks about the question and he replies “I think there is such a thing as Quality, but that soon as you try to define it, something goes haywire. You can’t do it.” The name of Pirsig’s book was “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, with the subtitle “An Inquiry into Values”. Yes, values.

This is profound. Value and Quality are things we know exist, but we can’t really define them. For those with any familiarity with religious thought and metaphysics, the concept of the undefinable should strike a chord. But rather than dive into theology, perhaps this little story can express some of this connection.

In my twenties, I had been agnostic but had for some reason read the Tao de Ching. I was working for Xerox at the time, and Xerox had unfurled a huge program called “Leadership Through Quality” or LTQ, to try to beat back the Japanese who had taken away huge segments of Xerox’ copier market when the original copier patents had expired. David Kearns, then president, trying to combat cynicism and annoyance at this new program, had said that LTQ was not in the way, it was the way. The Tao is often translated into English as “way“, and the first line of the Tao de Ching says “The way that can be spoken is not the true way.” There were a lot of great things in LTQ, but on hearing the Xerox presidents assertion, I joked that according to the Tao De Ching, it meant that LTQ couldn’t be spoken if it were true. I thought I was just telling a joke, but now I think not.

David Chilcott has run workshops trying to help teams answer this question of value – specifically business value – and proposes building metrics around it. It may sound like this article is questioning the “value” of such an excercise – far from it. If value can’t be ultimately and absolutely defined, maybe it can be locally defined. We all seem to subjectively experience value and quality. And values clarification seems to be a large part of any personal productivity plan I’ve ever encountered.

So let’s find ways of asking this question, “What is value?”, both with ourselves, and with each other in our teams. And even better, let’s find ways that we can determine whether we’re achieving our values or not. But always in a local context, and never being satisfied that we’ve answered this question for all time. Perhaps that is what makes the Big Questions Big – that they must be asked, but we can never trust the answers – at least not for long.