Jim McCarthy and Culture Hacking

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.

Jim McCarthy at Agile Open Northwest

Discovery versus Judgment

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

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. The closest people come to coaching regarding sports is probably playing something like fantasy basketball or other fantasy sports and trying to win the league table.

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?

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.

I have always had a keen interest in all things software related and I just know that I would love to use a software development company if I ever decided to create my own software. In fact, my friend is in the middle of doing that now, so of course, I’m doing a lot of research in this area to try and help him in his journey. I just love discovering all the latest types of software testing out there that software developers, such as the ones from Cinq Technologies are using to make sure that their digital resources are working as they should be. One type of software testing that I recently learned about from reading an article on the Parasoft website is the c++ test. Ultimately, achieving compliance with security, functional safety, and coding standards is not always easy, but these types of software tests can make a difference.

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

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”. And much like in software development we help to manage it using software deployment, making it available to everyone, we can understand the 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. Much like how sites like Fileproto.com try to open software up to the world, so too did we want to open up the discussion and integration between the development and the democracy that goes into making said software. To find out what goes into the development of an enterprise app, read Saleforce’s article on the state of development of such applications. That is why so many software developers prefered to work from home through companies such as Clevertech. 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 OpenAgile.com, 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

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”. Software developers also need an effective way of delivering their products to customers which is where ecommerce platforms like FastSpring come in. 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. However, calculating the value of a business is much more complex than this. That’s why a lot of businesses make use of company valuation services in order to get a reliable valuation of their business. This can help them with a number of things, like forecasts and projections. Some may say that value is how well-run your business is, and employee satisfaction. In this case, your business would certainly increase in value with the use of companies like cloudpay.net, which is a global payroll service that manages the complexities of payroll activities. This will certainly make your business run smoother, with no room for human error that could frustrate your employees, and more time to focus on the wellbeing and the frontline of your business.


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 software 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.

A Self-Organizing Presentation

A few weeks ago I had a problem. I had attended a computer conference, Agile 2010, in Orlando this past August which also meant I needed to do a presentation for my colleagues about what I learned. If you have a presentation coming up, take a look at local tech supplies that could help for example commercial av systems bluffton sc, to give you presentation that extra professional edge. It’s important that you’ve prepared everything for your presentation. All things need to be considered. For example, when one of my friends delivered a presentation at his office, he needed to purchase a whiteboard beforehand from somewhere like Writey (HTTPS://WRITEYBOARDS.COM/PRODUCTS/WHITEBOARD) for example. Luckily, we’ve got a whiteboard, but that’s something that needs to be considered because whiteboards are, usually, an essential part of a presentation.

Planning a presentation is always a source of stress, so I thought I’d try an experiment. What if I let the presentation organize itself? I guess anyone with any knowledge of the different types of projector are fully aware of how effective their organizational qualities are.

Agile 2010 Rainbow at the Disney Dolphin Hotel
Agile 2010 Conference Hotel in Orlando

Before I get into the way I let the presentation do the work, you need to know a little about the topic, “Agile Software”. The term was born almost 10 years ago by some amazing software practitioners who wanted something more lightweight than the heavy, painful, and bureaucratic methods that were dominant at the time. The term “lightweight” didn’t really evoke a lot of confidence, so they picked the term “agile”. They did this at a resort in Utah between ski runs where they also wrote and signed the Agile Software Manifesto. It’s picked up a lot of steam since the early days when it was considered heresy, a fad, or even a cult. These days, it’s most definitely well into the Early Majority part of the diffusion of innovation curve, and it seems clear that it will soon be the dominant way humans make software.

Although this might seem to be something purely for the techies, geeks, and their bosses – the values and philosophy behind agile software development methods extend well beyond software. In fact, I got the idea for how to organize my presentation from a conference convened by the Scrum Alliance in Chandler, Arizona called Scrum Beyond Software. What is Scrum? One of the main techniques in the agile toolkit is called “Scrum”. It was stolen from the sport rugby, but the general idea behind scrum is that you let the team organize itself around the work that it is tasked to do. The boss might tell the team what it needs to make for the customer, but the team (not the boss) decides how to do it. For the team, the key phrase is “organize itself”, or self-organizing.

Without diving deep into the term self-organizing, let’s say it contrasts with the old purely hierarchical “command and control” style of management. So what does that have to do with getting out of a lot of preparation work for my presentation?

At Scrum Beyond Software, an organizational guru, Jim Benson, spoke about a new tool in the agile toolkit, called Kanban. Kanban is from Lean Manufacturing. If you haven’t heard about Lean – it’s the way that Toyota beat the pants off of most American automakers. Taiichi Ohno found that Toyota after WWII had few customers for the cars they were making. In an effort to reduce waste, they only built cars that customers were ready to buy. It’s a bit more than that – but one of the things that has been adopted from all the Lean techniques into the Software world is called Kanban. It just means “sign” or “visual card” in Japanese – and the basic idea is pretty simple.

With Kanban, you look at all the steps in your process, and draw those steps as columns on a wall. Then you use a card, or a post-it, to represent all the production parts (or to-do items). All the inventory moves from left to right. When a card moves into the last column on the right, it means the piece of work is complete. Jim Benson explained that the most important idea in Kanban is to get a picture of the work you are doing.

Discussion KanbanNow we’re ready to talk about how I let my presentation organize itself. Jim Benson started the Lean Coffee Seattle discussion group in a coffee shop and he spoke about how he runs the group at the Scrum Beyond Software event. Jim starts each one of these sessions by gathering from the participants all the topics they want to talk about and put the topics on stickies which gather up in the left most column of a large three column table chart. That column he labels “To Be Discussed”. They quickly vote on the topics, and they proceed from the topics with the most votes to those with the least. When they discuss a topic, Jim moves it to the middle “Discussing” column. And when they finish, he moves it to the right “Discussed” column. This helps everyone see what they have coming up, what they’re doing, and what they’ve finished.

So rather than generate a large deck of Powerpoint slides to help people get in a little nap after lunch while I droned on reading my slides – I went to an office supply store, bought some huge 4-6 inch post-its, and put all my topics on the post-its in large letters. I posted those on a large whiteboard in the conference room in a three column table, just like Jim Benson’s Lean Coffee Seattle. Everyone voted, including folks online, by letting everyone vote for three topics. We tallied up the score, which gave an easy ranking order. When I started talking about something, I moved the post-it to the middle “discussing” column, and when we finished, I moved it to the “Done” column.

I guess the presentation didn’t exactly write itself, but rather than make it all about me talking at my audience, I also generated a few questions on each of the topics so that I could engage the audience, and I also provided a Wiki page of links for each of the topics so that the audience could follow up after the talk.

The end result – we had a lot of very engaged people during the talk. I received a number of compliments afterwards. And I didn’t have to stay up until the wee hours the night before creating my slides, so I was a lot more relaxed and a lot less tired and burned out after the presentation.

Doing What You Love AND Making a Prosperous Living

Wendy Keilin came to Missoula from New Jersey for Missoula BarCamp 2010. She gave a warm up talk for which you can find the video. She also convened this very excellent session on how to do make a prosperous living doing what you love.

You can find the full audio for the session in this hour long podcast.

Missoula BarCamp 2010 – Wendy Keilin – How to make a prosperous living doing what you love

Or you can read the session notes, which are part of the Missoula BarCamp 2010 website. Although many of the comments came from the audience, and the notes don’t give full attribution to all the attendees, Wendy Keilin has been investigating this question professionally for 10 years, and she has been living it for longer than that. Her stories and experience and thoughts around this are a really great start for doing what you love, whether it’s in the fine arts, in music, or in geekdom. One of the best comments I remember from the audience stated that the days of the lifetime job and being cared for by “the company” are over. Not just the music industry is broken – and we all need to build our own client lists and multiple streams of income.

BarCamps, Unconferences, & Berlin

Missoula BarCamp t-shirt visiting the Garden of Exile at the Berlin Jewish Museum

This post is really a podcast. I’ll be writing later about the Missoula BarCamp and the World Open Space on Open Space in Berlin, both held May 2010. But this post is a podcast of a recording extracted from my Android phone of the last 30 minutes of a session convened by Jon Harvey and attended by about 18 others, including myself.

Berlin WOSonOS 2010 – BarCamps Unconferences

The picture is of me in Berlin wearing my Missoula BarCamp t-shirt in the Berlin Jewish Museum which a sizable group of the World Open Space on Open Space attendees visited after the conference. The photo was taken in the Garden of Exile by another attendee, Hempal Shrestha.