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Q&A with Diana Larsen on her Contributions to the Agile Community and the Agile Fluency Model

Posted by Shane Hastie on Jan 26, 2016 |

At the Agile Open Northwest Open Space event Diana Larsen led some discussions about the utilization and evolution of the Agile Fluency model. Afterwards Diana spoke to InfoQ about her involvement with and contributions to the Agile community over the last 13 years and the fluency model.

InfoQ: This is Shane Hastie for InfoQ with Diana Larsen at the Agile Open Northwest Open Space event with the Agile Alliance. Diana, thank you for talking to us today. Would you mind giving us a very brief precis of your history and your involvement with the Agile movement?

Diana Larsen: I joined the “movement,” early on, I guess. I met people in the community. My entry was through the Extreme Programming door. I had been doing a lot of work-process design and redesign with various kinds of organizations, primarily, with people doing knowledge work, primarily in the technical arena, which brought me into contact with a lot of software development and IT teams. But other folks as well, program managers, other kinds of folks.

I met some of the early Extreme Programming founders and we had conversations about how what I was doing, and what they were doing were very much aligned. That was my doorway in. Then XP got folded in to the whole overall Agile movement, and I brought what I knew from those years of doing team development and work-process design with teams and helping people learn how to manage in team environments all into the Agile world.

I was fortunate to spend a number of years serving as an Agile Alliance board member. Since leaving the board, I have shifted focus to the intersection of what we’re trying to do with Agile and the communities in organization design. Now I’m on the board of the Organization Design Forum, which is a very interesting related community that is out there.

As part of that, I’ve looked back over my history with the community and thought about where have I been best able to contribute. So that I can continue to contribute productively. It seems like it’s been around finding gaps in practices and models that I know are things teams are going to need. Particularly, self-organizing teams. Particularly, knowledge work teams who are so focused on learning. What are the models that they are going to need to best do their work? And the people who support them, what do they need? That’s where the Agile retrospectives framework came from that Esther and I published. There was the 12th principle about reflect and then adjust, and there was a little bit of practice around reflection in Crystal. None of the other methodologies really spoke to that at all.

So Esther and I said, “This is the place where we need to fill in because people are really going to need this.” Ainsley Nies and I, in the same way, thinking about chartering. What does the team need to really get started? So we wrote the Liftoff book, focused on Agile Chartering. That’s also what I’ve done with Jim Shore with the Agile Fluency model and with Willem Larsen with the Five Rules of Learning. That’s been very rewarding, being able to give back to the community that’s given me so much, in terms of interesting work and relationships, and just all kinds of things. That’s where I’ve been.

InfoQ: In many, many ways, you have been and continue to be the mentor of mentors in the community. You are the one to whom, I know from my own experience and talking to many others, you’re the one that we turn to for advice when the coaches are struggling to coach, when the mentors are struggling to provide guidance.

Diana: It’s very kind of you to say that.

InfoQ: You’ve mentioned a couple of the models and the approaches. Agile Fluency is something that you and Jim Shore have been working on and we have actually published a fair amount about it on InfoQ. Where is it going, what’s happening with the fluency model?

Diana: Well, it’s been very interesting. At first, Jim and I just published it as a descriptive model. Here are some things that we have seen teams going through. We had the sense that people were talking about, you’re either agile or you’re not. What we were noticing was that organizations and teams, particularly, could be agile in several different ways, and successful at that. So we created the model that described what we had seen and how we saw that work. Martin Fowler was kind enough to publish it.

That’s been out there now for three or four years. What’s happened over that time is we’ve seen more and more people interested in it. And more and more people have asked us “What additional is there? How can we take this model and do more with it?” Some companies, and groups of coaches have already began to do more with it. Today at this event (Agile Open Northwest), we shared a model/a game that the coaches at Crisp and Spotify had put together around Agile Fluency, Fluency@Agile@Spotify.

They’ve given that back to us. We’ve had a number of things like that happen. Some organizations have embraced it and wanted more for their teams out of that. Since Spring of 2015 we’ve been rolling out a way for teams to self-diagnose around the model. For organizations to get information from teams about where the organizations could best put their investments to support the teams that they have. And we have intention to build a database of anonymous, confidential feedback from those teams about where they see they are in the model.

We’ll have comparative data, and a number of other pieces of material, different kinds of materials, that are all in support of the model. We’re beginning to roll that up into some packages. We now have more of an organization around the Agile Fluency Project. Seeing the interest, and being able to give people some ways of dealing with it, has just been a delight. A surprise and a delight and a real challenge. An interesting challenge, one of those ones that you relish.

InfoQ: It’s just wonderful to see the fruit of your labors returning value to teams all around the world. The other thing that I know that you have in progress at the moment, you and Ainsley Nies with the Liftoff book, something new coming there. Tell us about that.

Diana: Yes. The Liftoff book was first published right at the turn of the year of 2011, 2012. It also has been out for a little while, and that has been a tremendous source of learning for us. As a model builder (or a model uncoverer maybe is more of a way to talk about it), one of the things that is fun is that you work to craft a model. You test it and then you put it out there into the world. And then it begins to teach you. Different people use it. It comes back to you in surprising ways. That has happened with Liftoff and the Agile Chartering model.

We’ve learned a tremendous amount over the past three or four years. We got an invitation from the Pragmatic Programmers to publish a second edition. It is incorporating more of what we have learned about that process of helping teams get started. (Or restarted as the case may be.) Giving them what we call Liftoff. It’s the momentum that helps a rocket overcome the inertia of gravity. Right?

How do we really give teams that initial boost? Or, when they’re languishing, give them another kind of boost to help them really move forward, gain momentum, and accelerate into what they want to do. We’re adding in quite a bit of new material.

My understanding is that the plan is to publish sometime in the first (now second) quarter of 2016. It’s been fun to work with Ainsley again. She and I have very different perspectives on the world, and that makes us great writing partners. Sometimes that means we have the opportunity to really work something through together and that’s fun.

InfoQ: Can you give us any sort of a preview to some of the interesting new changes or new ideas that you’ve put in the book?

Diana: We are adding more into the book about the role of managers–with regard to setting up the conditions to do an effective liftoff and effective agile chartering. We talked a little bit about that in the first edition. We’re making that more robust as we discover the need that’s there for more understanding of that role. We also incorporate additional activities and terms that you might use if you’re chartering or leading a liftoff. We’re adding in some things like that.

Maybe the most surprising thing that’s being added in terms of larger chunks is complex adaptive systems. One of the things that this model has taught back to us is how it actually reflects the foundations, the conditions, the underpinnings of complex adaptive systems–teams as complex adaptive systems. We’re adding information about how complex adaptive systems work when they are teams and when they manifest as a team. What you can look for to help that system flourish. More of that kind of understanding and material, that’s just fascinating to me. We had a tiny bit of that in the first edition. We’re going to have quite a bit more in the second. And we’ll have a couple of new stories. That will be fun.

InfoQ: Diana, thank you very much for taking the time. It’s been great to see you again and really look forward to seeing the book.

Diana: Thank you so much, Shane.

About the Interviewee

Diana Larsen consults with leaders and teams to create work processes and environments where innovation, inspiration, and imagination flourish. She is considered an international authority in the areas of Agile software development, team leadership, and Agile transitions. Diana co-authored Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great! and Liftoff: Launching Agile Teams and Projects.

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