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Portia Tung on Enterprise Gardening and Overcoming Agile Adoption Challenges
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Interview with Portia Tung by Shane Hastie on May 28, 2014 | NOTICE: The next QCon is in San Francisco Nov 3-7, Join us!
13:30

Bio Portia Tung is a consultant-coach, storyteller, and games maker who combines business strategies with play to bring about positive organizational change. Portia is an international speaker, and the creator of concepts such as Agile Fairytales and Enterprise Gardening. She shares her insights and experiences as a coach and parent on her blog Selfish Programming.

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2. And you are employed in that role, you are not one of these coaches that flies in and flies out?

No, I’m an employee and I drink the same water from the same water coolers.

   

3. Ok, that is an interesting situation to be in and I don’t see a lot of the Agile Coaches actually taking that fulltime role, so what is different in that space?

So, it’s funny because I actually started my career as a developer and fell in love with XP and that is why I started trying to do that in places like the Financial Times and then moved on to delivery management in BBC Worldwide and over time I became a consultant and did the Agile Coaching you talked about where you drop into organizations and you would hope to inspire or instill organizational change, and one of the conclusions I’ve come to is really, it’s important to be part of the system you are trying to change because when you are a part of that system you can change it from within. So it comes with many different challenges of course and opportunities, but is certainly something that is keeping me busy.

   

4. You mentioned when we were chatting early on a really interesting phrase, you were talking about doing some Enterprise Gardening?

Yes, so that is a big idea for this year, again it’s an experiment so it’s the idea of transforming workplaces into somewhere we belong. So very often when I talk to people they’ll say, maybe managers they’ll say:” Our people aren’t changing fast enough, they are not improving, they don’t step up”, and then when I talk to the teams, the teams say: “We are so busy, we don’t have time to learn, we don’t have time to improve”, and I think what is interesting is if we start looking at organizations instead of as a battlefield but as a garden, possibly where there is a Jungle gym, where people are creatures of their choice, where it’s an ecosystem and we all have a role to play, we can then identify, the key attributes and strengths we have that we bring to the garden and create a more nurturing environment and I believe that is the ultimate way of bringing the best out of people.

   

5. How is that working, how is that happening?

So it’s really about grassroots involvement and that includes me taking responsibility and taking leadership of making change. So one of the ways you can do this is to create an underground movement, so one way I’ve done this is to get together with people you work with and go for a frozen yogurt, that seems to be the common trick to organizational change if you read things like Fish, if you read things like Gung Ho!, and basically you go off, you have a little chat with like-minded people who are interested in change, who are sick of the way things are and want to make things better, and then you start polling for opinions, so doing more team wide retrospectives across departments starting to share that with managers and leaders and involving other people who would be part of that change, and what is remarkable is when you start seeing people go: “I don’t realize that people in the US (who are also part of the same company) are thinking about the same things in APAC or in London or in Zurich”. Very interesting, and then all-of-a-sudden realize: “Ok we actually hate that same bit of the delivery process, so why not we all change it”, and that is how you start really very small, get like-minded people together and go from there.

   

6. And the Gardening Activities?

Gardening Activities I believe is really about nurture, I’m much better with people than I’m with plants I have to say, luckily for the people I work with, and it’s about inspiring, I think, and giving opportunities, so one of the things I do is invite guest speakers into my community and get them to share their experiences. So for example I took the opportunity of inviting Ola Ellnestam an Agile Coach and he came to speak to my community today about how he does DevOps, and it was fascinating to see the questions that were coming from the floor and seeing community grow around that, and so we have regular speaker series and we invite people to come. One of the key features of our community is volunteer based but it also runs on a gift economy. So what is that means? Yes, so a gift isn’t about exchange, a gift it’s about giving something freely and expecting nothing in return, very difficult to do, and so I contacted Ola and said: “I have this opportunity and you’re a friend, would you like to come and gift some of your time and your knowledge?” and he said: “Yes, why not!”, and so that was very kind hearted of him and it was a fantastic opportunity for him to meet new people and for my guys to learn as well.

   

7. And that mindset of gifting, we know in the Agile Space there is a very strong focus on individuals, interactions people, collaboration and so forth, so gifting just lends from that?

Yes, I think it’s a natural extension, but by all means it’s not something that people naturally do, so we talk about giving stuff, but often we look for something in return, so how many people out there create, work, be it a games or sessions and then make them available for everyone to use through Creative Commons for example and then making share alike and even possibly share by attribution and I think really it’s about walking the walk of Agile and really talking about collaboration, so I think if there is something you are passionate about and you want to share, then give it to the world for free, because you get so much more from it as a result.

   

8. We recently published the Author Q&A on your book, The Dream Team Nightmare, the Choose your own adventure style, really interesting in a business book, why did you go down that format?

So two-fold really, I wanted to encourage people to read a book in order for it to be useful and I also did it because I needed to keep me writing and I’ve tried about twenty attempts to write some kind of book to share my Agile learnings and experiences and it was this one I found the most engaging.

Shane: So fun to write.

Yes indeed, and the book is about Jim Hopper and you play the role of an Agile Coach and every so often you are asked to make important decisions that might influence the outcome of the story. So really it’s a test of your existing Agile knowledge and also hopefully help make you think what you say you do and think you do and what you actually do in reality.

   

9. Great, thank you. So staying on the topic of books, what do you are reading at the moment?

I’m reading ”Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg it was actually recommended by some colleagues of mine and it is quite fascinating. So I think regardless of what we think about Facebook as an organization, hearing a senior woman leader talking about her experiences of leadership and what it’s like, is remarkable and in the book they talked about the analogy of instead of talking about the careers as a ladder think more of it as a Jungle gym. So that playfulness actually appealed to my playfulness because I’m all into games and nurturing and as we all know, children grow and learn best from games and that is no different from adults and I think that is really interesting for me it’s also about talking and being open about the challenges we face in an organization and in your own personal circumstances, so that you can inspire others to take on a challenge.

   

10. Where do you go for inspiration?

So it will have to be when I do the weekly ironing watching Ted.com, so I use Ted.com a bit like an Oracle, the Greek kind of Oracle, where I would ask a question so for example if I’m in pursuit of happiness, I’ll type in “happiness” in the search box or “leadership” or “gardening” or “change” and it’ll come up with a series of talks and that is the way I get inspired.

   

11. And what is the latest inspiration you’ve had?

So it’s the talk by Amy Cuddy about the Power Pose. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but it’s absolutely fascinating, it’s about the idea that if we start changing the way we sit or our physical body, it will influence the way we think, so one of the experiments they did was to sit, hold yourself really straight and open and sit like this for two minutes before an interview and see how affects the outcome of your interview and it’s funny because one of my best friends told me about this and she works in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and she said it was an intriguing idea, right, because she is in the business already but the fact that the video inspired her and she did the best possible she could in the interview and she got the job. So yes, I think Ted is wonderful and it’s full of ideas like that.

   

12. I know you have a story, so what is your most memorable moment as a young adult?

Yes, I think I’ve always put myself in places where I'll be challenged and I think that is because I want to improve, I don’t think it was a conscious thing when you were young but I spent a year in France where I worked as a language assistant. And what was really interesting was I was only twenty one at that time and I would be teaching students ranging from 14 to 21 and I had a class of students who were about 14 and 15 and they were all a mixed bag and they had this hour with me, this strange English Language Assistant who’d come from a faraway place to spend some time with them and we start doing some exercises and one of the young man immediately sticks his hand up and I thought: “One to watch for, let’s see what it’s like talking to him” and he said to me: “Miss, are you going to judge me differently because of the color of my skin?”. So imagine, imagine my reaction as a twenty one year old English Language Assistant who’d had about 2 hours of training at most and I thought to myself: “Wow, what has he experienced that has let him to ask this question?” So I said to him: “It doesn’t matter what the other teachers are giving you, if you strive and you do well in this class, then you’ll get a good grade like everybody else”, and he started to play ball and that was an absolutely fun and transforming experience for both of us I think.

   

13. Coming back to challenges, in the Agile Space we see and certainly we see a lot of organizations adopting, going Agile and not sustaining it. Why, what is happening?

I think many people think Agile is really something that you can wheel into a room, plug it into the socket and then you know, fresh smelling flowers or a scent will come out, everyone will just inhale it, maybe dance a little dance and then we are done. But it’s a continuous journey as a lot of people are now increasingly aware and I think it requires hard work, it’s a bit like going to the gym, you know how in the New Year you make some great New Year’s resolutions, you sign in for the best gym maybe even for the Gold Membership so you can go every day, but unless you go every day it won’t make any difference and what is remarkable, and I’m trying to get fit myself as well because is important to drink your own koolaid, is actually you can test and measure every day, so I get on the scales every day to see how I’m doing and you get the feedback and quite quickly you can adjust or indeed have that piece of chocolate cake and carry on, but I think that personal discipline is absolutely essential to the successful embedding of Agile and that goes back to the Gardening metaphor that there are seasons and there might be times when we think: “Actually you know what? Agile it’s just not for us and we are going to take a break” and that it’s ok, but it’s understanding that the change begins with yourself and nobody else, it's not about management empowering you. Power is there for you to take and to grow and that it’s what it’s about for me.

   

14. How do you get that message across in a large organization?

Talking to people and finding vehicles to do that, so very often in large organizations they will have an entire media department to help film events, so one of the things you could do is invite inspirational speakers, which I’ve mentioned, to come and talk and then actually actively practice what you preach, so you filmed so that you can disseminate it in your global organization, and I once heard in a conference “Sharing is Caring”, and I think people can only be judged by their actions and by what you do you are actively outreaching to people and hopefully they will also reach back.

Shane: Portia thank you so much for your time, it’s been really good to talk to you and we look forward to seeing where you go next!

Thank you Shane!

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