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Learnings From Organizing an Agile Conference

Well another Gatineau-Ottawa Agile Tour conference #GOAT14 is over, and once again it was a resounding success. This year, the founding fathers who started GOAT and led it for the first two years decided to pass the torch to Agile Ottawa. So this year’s organizing committee was made up largely of self-employed Agile coaches, consultants and trainers. These are crazy busy people, most of them traveling four days out of five. It was not at all clear to me how we would fare.

Just fine, as it turns out. One of the things I love about helping organize GOAT is that I get to work with people better than myself. That’s one of the best ways to learn new things. Here are some learnings that stand out:

Trust and the Self-Organizing Team

Effectiveness was absolutely key to our success. People were already overworked before adding conference organizing to their agendas. We met by Skype for one hour a week and kept a Trello kanban board to manage our tasks. The first time we met in person was the night before the conference. Wow! We were a high-performing team that was fun to be on. But why? What made the team work so well?

  • Trust Trust makes everything so much more productive and reliable. This means having confidence in people’s competence as well as their character. And it means only agreeing to do things you are sure you can do. It means keeping your commitments. And it means asking for help.
  • Respecting Differences Our team was made up of a wide range of personalities, with differing opinions and ways of doing things. While we did not always agree, we never let disagreements slow us down or distract us from the goal of running a high quality conference. We made our differences a strength.
  • Volunteering People volunteered to take ownership of items on the Trello board. People volunteered to help others as needed. Somehow, the work always got covered.
  • Using Tools Both technological, and ways of working. Trello, Skype, Google Drive, Doodle to arrange meeting times, “voting” tools…. We had a huge advantage in that experienced Lean/Agile coaches have large, proven toolboxes to draw from. This year we are making heavy use of Slack and its working out really well.

Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play - Selling With Integrity

Being on the software development side of the house, and being an engineer, business development, sales, and marketing have always been a bit of a foreign land for me. I’ve had the occasional visit (pre-sales support, RFP responses, some product management work, etc) but the land is strange and I don’t speak the language.

So it was a bit of a surprise that Let’s Get Real or Let’s not Play a book on selling and “transforming the buyer/seller relationship” captivated me. I devoured it within a day. The book is by Mahan Khalsa and Randy Illig of the FranklinCovey Sales Performance Group.

If you are in any kind of a position where you are involved in getting and keeping customers, this book is a must read. And even if you are not, you will likely at times be called on to “sell” and idea, project or something to someone, somewhere .. your boss, another group within your company, etc. And if you are dealing with suppliers, you can use the lessons is this book to deal with them much more efficiently.

To quote Mahan:

Sales skills are life skills. What makes us better at sales makes us better in life. And vice versa. As we hone our abilities in sales, we learn to think more clearly and communicate more effectively. We use our time and other’s time more efficiently. We confront and overcome core human fears. We become more alert and flexible. Life is more engaging, more enjoyable.

The authors define “Getting Real” is defined as:

being authentic, saying exactly what you mean, and acting on your values. Getting real means challenging lazy thinking and penetrating facades, games, defenses, fears and illusions.

While the book is geared to people involved in business-to-business sales, and tilted towards the complex sale, I learned a lot from it. Highly, highly recommended.

The Speed and Currency of Trust

“Lean” is a hot topic these days, so its worth asking the the question “What basic characteristics of an organization or team are needed in order for Lean initiatives to be successful?” … What do we need in the soil when we sow a lean initiative for that initiative to be nourished and grow?

Trust has got be be pretty high up on the list. I’ll be blunt - maybe you can “do agile” or “do lean” with limited trust, but you simply cannot “be Agile” or “be Lean”, without a high level of real trust in an organization.

Lack of Trust Slows Down Organizations and Increases Costs

Lack of trust, and its related quality, empowerment, within an organization or team has been empirically shown to significantly slow down process and increase costs. Low trust organizations are less competitive and less efficient. We have all seen the typical examples:

  • micromanaging
  • the need for endless contract negotiations and bulky requirements documents and contracts
  • bureaucratic processes for things like purchase orders, travel approvals, and expense management
  • long, time-consuming status reports and status reviews
  • huge approval chains for seemingly small items

We all have our favorite stories… I had a case where I ordered $5,000 of computers, and when the supplier gave me the quote they got the “eco-recovery fee” wrong. The quote was $2 less that it should have been. The order arrived, and I released the invoice for payment, but accounts receivable refused to pay the invoice because it was for $2 more than the purchase order. Having me explain the situation was no good, I had to go to the purchase order group and stand on my head to get a new purchase order opened and approved to cover the extra $2. It had to be signed off by no less than 7 people including a couple of vice presidents! It took 6 months to pay the poor supplier, and my quick calculation was that it cost the company about $1,500 in extra labor!

Its worth noting that I could have gone to my local computer store and purchased the same computers then expensed them (rather than getting a purchase order) and it would have been $300 cheaper, not to mention all the savings in paperwork and pre-approvals. So lack of trust meant my S/W designers had to wait 4 extra weeks to get their computers, the company paid an extra $300 on the order, plus an extra $2,000 or so total for all the internal processioning and bureaucracy. (Oh… and guess how productive a S/W designer is without a proper computer to do their work .. another waste of time and money)

Is it just my experience, or do others notice that there seems to be a correlation between companies that make a big noise about their Lean 6-Sigma programs the amount of bureaucracy, approvals, and paperwork in the organization?

In terms of Agile, note how these Agile principles directly depend on trust:

  • Prefer customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Prefer individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • The best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  • The 5 scrum values: Focus, Courage, Openness, Commitment and Respect.

Brian Watson has a great blog post on The Currency of Trust where he points out an erosion of trust in Big Corporate, and the high price that is paid.

The thing is though … trust is a complex, challenging thing to create and maintain. The definitive work on Trust in an organization is Steven M. R. Covey’s (the son of Steven Covey of 7 Habits fame) The Speed of Trust. Covey spends considerable time in his book analyzing and defining trust.

Register for the Gatineau-Ottawa Agile Tour Now


The 2013 edition of the Gatineau/Ottawa Agile Tour will be held at Gatineau’s Maison du Citoyen on Thursday Nov 21. #GOAT13 will be, once again, a value-packed conference with 2 amazing keynote speakers and 18 high-quality presentations to choose from during the day! Everyone - whether you’re an experienced practitioner or just embarking on your Agile journey - will find something to inspire and energize. You won’t find a better bang for your buck than this!

I’ve been to a couple of Agile conferences in Toronto and Montreal, and know many of the speakers that will be presenting at the Ottawa conference. I can guarantee you it will be a positive experience. You will learn a lot, be exposed to many new ideas, and have fun. It’s an amazing value for 60 bucks - a great opportunity to step out of the daily grind, get refreshed, and get a great “creative whack on the side of the head”. The $60 includes everything - the keynotes, 18 sessions, the un-conference and meals and snacks,

I’ve learned a lot over the past few months about Agile development and leading Agile teams from many of the speakers that will be attending. I’ve come to realize that I neglected my professional development, and professional networking over the past few years. My advice to is to “just do it”… Pay the $60, skip work for a day, and get connected to some of the leaders in the Agile community in Ontario, Quebec, and the Northeastern US.

You will definitely bring back ideas and knowledge that will be of use to yourself and your company, recharge your batteries, contribute to you own professional development, and have fun!

If you are around Ottawa-Gatineau and involved in S/W Development, you owe it to yourself to register now!

Keynote Speakers

David Marquet: Former nuclear submarine commander (and best selling author of Turn the Ship Around David Marquet’s leader-leader model breaks with the old school of thinking that humanity has carried since the advent of farming; that there are leaders and there are followers. According to that model large portions of humanity are relegated to following. After implementing his approach on the USS Santa Fe, not only did the ship go from worst to first within 2 years but created a highly disproportionate number of subsequent leaders

Jeff Gothelf: In Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improving User Experience, Jeff Gothelf shares his experience in integrating Lean design principles into product design and building successful cross-functional and collaborative development teams in organizations big and small . Jeff is a product designer, blogger and Lean-Agile thinker who is a principal in the NYC office of NEO Innovation Labs.

Your $60 GOAT 2013 Ticket Includes:

How to Stay Focused and Be a Professional

This morning I discovered the writings of James Clear, who writes for the Huffington Post. He has his own website The Art of Becoming Better.

I found his posts on staying focused, developing good habits, and “getting on with life” to be quite inspirational.

How to Stay Focused When Working on Your Goals Gets Boring

What’s the difference between the best athletes and everyone else? What do the really successful people do that most people don’t?

Really successful people feel the same boredom and the same lack of motivation that everyone else feels. They don’t have some magic pill that makes them feel ready and inspired every day. But the difference is that the people who stick with their goals don’t let their emotions determine their actions. Top performers still find a way to show up, to work through the boredom, and to embrace the daily practice that is required to achieve their goals.

Fall in love with boredom. Fall in love with repetition and practice. Fall in love with the process of what you do and let the results take care of themselves.

The Difference Between Professionals and Amateurs

It doesn’t matter what you are trying to become better at, if you only do the work when you’re motivated, then you’ll never be consistent enough to become a professional.

The ability to show up everyday, stick to the schedule, and do the work — especially when you don’t feel like it — is so valuable that it is literally all you need to become better 99% of the time.

Professionals stick to the schedule, amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work towards it with purpose, amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.

5 Tips for Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt

  1. Don’t pick goals where the stakes are low

If you fail inside your comfort zone, it’s not really failure, it’s just maintaining the status quo. If you never feel uncomfortable, then you’re never trying anything new. In other words, feeling stupid is a good thing.

  1. Nobody is rooting for you to fail

Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll fail. For the most part, nobody cares one way or the other. This is a good thing! The world is big and you are small, and that means you can chase your dreams with little worry for what people think.

  1. Just because you don’t like where you have to start from doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get started

  2. Stop making uncertain things certain

Who says you’re going to fail? You’re not destined to “miss that lift.” In fact, maybe you’re destined to succeed. Stop acting like failure is certain. It’s not.

  1. The only real failure is not taking any action in the first place

We all deal with feelings of fear, uncertainty and vulnerability. And unfortunately, most of us let those feelings dictate our actions. For this reason, the simple decision to act is often enough to separate you from most people. You don’t need to be great at what you do, you just need to be the one person who actually decides to do it.

You can enjoy a lot of success by doing the things that most people make excuses to avoid.

Agile Coaching Resources Notebook

I created an on-line notebook of practices and techniques, links, resources, and books for Agile Coaches. Think of this notebook as a “card catalog” of useful tools and techniques. I find I remember things much better after I have written them out and organized them myself, plus I have a lousy memory, and I like to keep cheat sheets, and notebooks where I can easily look things up to jog my memory.

I’ll be adding to it as I get the time to document more practices, and as I learn more.

Coaching Notebook

Montreal Agile Coach Retreat

Montreal Agile Coach Retreat I attended the Montreal Agile Coach Retreat on Saturday (7 Sept 2013). This was an intensive one day retreat where Agile coaches could practice and develop their coaching skills. The Coach Retreat format came about from Oana Juncu and Yves Hanoulle, and is derived from combining two ideas - Code Retreat and Coaching Dojo. In a nutshell, a Coach Retreat is a day long event, during which participants choose a kata, a coaching situation, and practice it in small groups multiple times during the day in various techniques. You can read a full description on the Becoming Agile blog, here.

To me, the operative word is practice. Getting the opportunity to spend a whole day actually practicing coaching skills in a safe and supportive environment was priceless. I noticed how the attendees coaching skills, especially mine, had improved significantly by the end of the day.

We had the privilege of having Oana Juncu, (Oana’s Blog) attend (all the way from Europe) as one of the facilitators! Special thanks also go to Omar Bermudez who co-facilitated and organized the event, and Jesus Mendez who worked with Omar on the organization. The event was generously sponsored by SeedBox Technologies @SeedBoxTech, who paid all the costs, and provided lunch and snacks, in addition to providing first class meeting facilities.

I found the day immensely valuable, and I can’t thank Oana, Omar, Jesus, and SeedBox enough for donating their time and resources to make it happen.

The slide presentation from the day can be found on SlideShare here. And check the following Twitter hashtags: #CoachRetreat #sbAgile

My detailed notes and observations from the day can be found in the rest of the post.