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Olav Maassen, Liz Keogh & Chris Matts on Commitment and Real Options
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| Interview with Olav Maassen Liz Keogh Chris Matts by Craig Smith on Mar 08, 2014 |

Bio Olav Maassen is an experienced project manager and consultant and Chris Matts is a consultant who specializes in developing risk management and trading systems for investment banks. Both are the authors of "Commitment: A Novel About Managing Product Risk" (along with graphic artist Chris Geary). Liz Keogh appears as herself in the book, and is an independent Lean and Agile consultant.

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1. [...] It’s a fantastic pleasure to have you guys here because you are essentially behind I think the best book that I’ve read, certainly in 2013, but actually one of the better Agile books I’ve read in a long time, called Commitment.

Craig's full question: Hi, my name is Craig Smith, I’m an Agile editor at InfoQ and we are here at Agile 2013 in Nashville in Tennessee and it’s my great pleasure to have three people with me today, I’ve got Olav Maassen, hello, Olav, Liz Keogh, and Chris Matts. Now, it’s a fantastic pleasure to have you guys here because you are essentially behind I think the best book that I’ve read, certainly in 2013, but actually one of the better Agile books I’ve read in a long time, called Commitment.

Olav: Thank you very much.

Chris: Thank you very much.

Craig: I think I’ll preface it firstly by saying that it’s actually the book called Commitment but actually I don’t think it mentions Agile anywhere within the book at all.

Olav: That’s correct, that’s actually on purpose. I think that we mention Lean once and that’s about the only Agile word we use.

Craig: So, for those that haven’t seen the book, it’s a graphic novel, tell us a little bit about how the whole project came together, because it’s something that I remember seeing back at an Agile conference many years ago as a prototype, for want of a better word.

Olav: I think it started in 2007, was it, or 2009 when we met Luke Hohmann who recommended the book by Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, as a teaching tool and then we decided that would be a great idea to present the ideas that we were working on. So, then we started looking for a graphic artist and doing prototypes as you mentioned and that’s how we started. Chris?

Chris: It kind of started as a little bit of fun, trying to do an article as a comic, having read the Scott McCloud book, but what we discovered is it’s actually a great medium for the reader because when you have a normal article it kind of feels like the writer is talking directly at you and you kind of have this voice of god hitting you and you have got to think about what’s being said and instead what you find is there is more than one way to explain something, but if you write aan article or a book and you say “well, it’s like this, but hey if you don’t understand it, it’s like this and if you don’t understand it, it’s like this”, it’s very condescending from the writer’s perspective, whereas doing it as a comic you can actually observe the conversation between the characters and as an observer, it’s much easier to parse the information than it is if you are being spoken at about the information.


2. The book follows the story of a project manager and their trials and tribulations that I think probably we can all relate to, the book seems to have been something that took a long while to come out and it did come out in iterations which was very Agile or Lean in the way it was written, but how did the story come about, does it actually reflect real life experiences that either of you had?

Chris: We were very lucky when we were looking for an artist to meet Chris Geary who did the art, but he did much more than that. He was also our coach in writing a story because he knows a lot about writing screen plays and so on. So, he helped us create the structure of the story, so we kind of knew the format of it, but a lot of the little anecdotes and the scenes that occur in the story are real sweet scenes that have occurred over the last few years.

Olav: We actually have one particular scene where people say “that’s not possible, that happens so quickly”, but in real life it did happen so quickly, that’s why we put those kind of scenes in there.


3. Liz, you kind of pop up in the book, I’m just reading through the book and all of a sudden there is a name, not a fictional character, but actually a real character that I come across, how did it all come about that you ended up in the book?

Liz: I’ve been using real options for years, as you know my story appears in there, a story to do with a little company called Eden Development, so that was back in, even before 2009, I think, I was using real options. When Olav and Chris went on Sponsume and said we are putting this book together, we need some money to fund it, one of the options was to appear in the book. Now, they have this mantra as part of real options that options expire, and I was pretty sure that was an option that was going to expire very, very fast so I jumped on it and expired it for everybody else. I am just overwhelmed that the response to the book has been massively positive, it’s without a doubt the best piece of marketing I have ever paid for. And people love it, they’ve been asking me to sign my page and where I am in it and I feel really honored to be a part of it, I didn’t help write it, I didn’t do anything apart from go wow, this book is going to be amazing.

Olav: You did write one page.

Liz: I wrote one page, I gave them a story in which I offered some options to somebody, that’s actually a strategy that I am using all the time at the moment, frequently I found that if you give people four or five options, they’ll pick three of them, which is great for me as an independent consultant, lots of work.


4. That brings me onto, you mentioned real options, the working title of the book was Real Options, but now it’s turned to Commitment. What’s with the name change, because a lot of people I think in the community were aware of real options and may not actually even realize that this is actually the final output?

Chris: I think there’s really two things at work there, and one of them is that whenever we talk about real options, people immediately started looking at financial options which is kind of the origin of the material and kind of looked to detailed into the financial maths that’s going on in there. So we wanted to distance ourselves slightly from that, so that it wasn’t a direct link and people see the title of the book and expect it to be about financial maths and get scared and go away. The other thing is that the real options approach is the way that you create options is to be very deliberate about the way that you make commitments, so it is drawing out the fact that to create options you have to be very careful about the commitments you make.

Olav: Of course, the title has a double meaning, real options is about deferring your commitments and at least being very aware of them and playing with them, at the same time it stands for the commitment that she has to her work place, so it’s also tied to the story.


5. My only issue with the book was that I had it sitting on my bedside table at home and my wife was asking lots of questions about why I’m reading a book about commitment! So Liz you said you’ve been using real options for a while, as an Agile coach or an Agile consultant, what’s really the power of that in the work that you do?

Liz: It gives you a lot of flexibility, I’ve been doing a lot of work with Dan North as well, he’s got what I think of is the other side of the coin which is deliberate discovery, so this act of going out and getting information in uncertain risky situations and then being mindful that you’re doing that so that you can make a decision later, so that you can make that commitment later. I actually run a workshop which I’ve been using as a mini-retrospective format where I get people tell a story where you have encountered a problem or you found something out you wish you had known earlier and then we look at what was the moment of commitment. And there is frequently more than one, but there will be one moment of commitment where you could have opened up options for yourself, you could have allowed yourself to make a better decision later or you could have gone and got some information earlier that would have allowed you to make a better decision.

So, I find that when things are predictable, going and getting information before you make the decision is the right thing, when it isn’t predictable, when you are in these uncertain spaces, you guys have said, options have more value as uncertainty rises, so deliberately going out and creating stuff that allows you to run safe experiments, allows you to try things, that allows you to leave a space, a gap, some slack, so that you can respond to what you find out. It’s very counterintuitive to most of human nature because we hate uncertainty, we like to knowing what it is we are going to be doing next, but I found it’s the more I do it, the more I get used to the fact that it’s not uncertain, it’s certainty that we’re going to be ok. And that’s even more valuable than having certainty of action, certainty of decision.


6. I alluded to before that the book doesn’t mention the A word in there anywhere and you mentioned that was deliberate, have you had any feedback from people saying to you that you are just creating another Kanban or just another framework or do people make the link that they are actually really to be used together?

Chris: All along we’ve always said that real options are complimentary to both Agile and Lean and in fact the first article that Olav and I wrote on real options on InfoQ funnily enough back in 2007 was to indicate that real options are what underly a lot of the Agile principles, so it’s a complimentary thing rather than a competing thing in any way.

Olav: The reason we don’t use those words is to have the book be able to be read by people outside of IT, because if we used a lot of slang words ot would constrain it just to IT, so one of the biggest compliments I now and then hear is that somebody didn’t read the book yet because his wife took it, then finished it and gave it to a friend of hers.


7. I guess that leads me onto another question, what was really the market of this book that you were aiming at, what’s success for you, is it that somebody’s wife picks it up or is there a particular set of folks that you would hope would be the ultimate market for it?

Olav: The idea that we initially had was we would like to create a book that would be readable in one plane ride, so about two or three hours you should be able to get it and get all the material that we have in there. And that’s why we got to the graphic novel format, that’s something that is doable in that kind of time.

Chris: What I would say though is that a number of women have read it and they respond very positively to the fact that it’s two very strong female characters in the book and that’s not our fault, that’s was actually because we were A/B testing everything as we were going along and probably the best feedback we ever got was that we were looking at the two different artists that we were considering and people giving us feedback on them and Ivana at the ALE Berlin conference, looked at it and said “you know what, I’m just sick of stories where the mentor is a middle aged man”.

Olav: Because we had asked the two artists that we were still at that point considering to drop some scenes and there was still the mentor it was a middle aged man, which after that conference we changed that to his younger sister, which was completely the opposite. Liz: Works really well.


8. You guys are here at the conference, what sort of feedback are you getting on the book as you are walking around, are people recognizing you?

Chris: It’s been really positive, it’s been really nice. It’s kind of a slightly niche thing, we have not had the hordes coming up to us and say “oh, my goodness” but it’s been very nice because it’s been people who are aware of us and we know coming up and saying “have bought your book, can can you sign it”, which has been very pleasant.

Olav: Absolutely.


9. At the end of the book, without having any spoilers, it is left open, is there a glimmer in your eye that there might be a follow on to this particular title at some point?

Olav: At the book launch in the Netherlands that was asked and my wife said very lightly no, but yes, there will be a sequel to this, we’re currently in the works with two different books, one will be a direct sequel of this one, but given the time that is needed to create such a thing that will not be in the foreseeable future to be published.


10. I guess the other nice thing about this book and I lead to it before, it was written very much in the spirit of all the things that we talk about here, you mentioned A/B testing, what are some of things you learnt for your own craft along the way of writing it?

Chris: We really tried to push the envelope in terms of what we are doing, in terms of options, even to the extent that we didn’t have a contract with the artist, we kept that option open and what we discovered as a result is that we had to be very careful in our behavior with each other, because this is a big investment and if we’d acted in a way that wasn’t respectful to the artist, he could leave the project and then we’d be left high and dry. Olav: And vice versa. Chris: And the fact that with the publishing we had some criteria that we had specified for which publisher we would choose and we approached several publishers to see if they would be interested in publishing the book and there were a couple of companies that were interested, but they didn’t meet our criteria that we had set, which is the things that we wanted from it and in the end we decided to create a publishing company. They are some pretty extreme example, but it was pretty much all the way through we were doing lots of different things. Olav: We also discovered that the whole creation process of a graphic novel is very much like a step process that we also know in IT and that we had to work with Chris Geary, our graphic artist, to come up with a way of working that would work for the both of us.


11. The book is awesome, you guys are also just here at the conference and both Chris and Liz, you are both speaking, are you speaking this year?

Olav: No.

Craig: That’s what I thought. So, Liz, you have had a couple of talks here.

Liz: Four, by the end of tomorrow.

Craig: They put another one in for you, didn’t they? The one that really stood out for me at the conference from you was the one about growing experts with the Dreyfus model.

Liz: We just did that a couple of hours ago. I got really positive feedback from that, I’m very, very happy with it. It was based off a blog I did a while back, somebody said “oh, you can’t grow experts from novices with the Dreyfus model”, and I am going well first of all you are using it wrong if you are trying to grow them from novices in a period of months, it takes years to grow an expert. But there are some things I’ve been doing that are really helping people on that journey, so I wanted to just give some really quick pointers about how to do it, avoiding some pitfalls, there is some heuristics that I’ve come across about creating models for people so that they have a roadmap to grow, and I just wanted to share that, get it out, give some people a bit of practice. I’ve got a very good friend called Marian Willeke who is into adult learning, she’s doing a Ph.D. on it, and she said it was really helpful for her, we were looking at speaking at conferences as being one of the skills and she said she’s actually taken some really great tips on how to become a better conference speaker out of it. So, it’s one of the most flattering things I’ve heard from this session. Also, somebody gave me their email address in the feedback and said “would you come and potentially do some work for us?”, and that, as an independent right, that’s the best feedback you can ever get.


12. And both you and Chris did a session based around real options?

Chris: No, it was actually on leadership, so it was the behaviors of leaders that actually enhance or destroy learning communities. It was basically a rant by me at the start for five or six minutes about three different types of leader I’ve seen which is trailblazers, people who are out there busy working without a map in whatever format and then after the trailblazers come up with an idea, if it is left to them the idea would die with them because they don’t tell anyone, so thankfully we have our thought leaders spreading the words out there and letting everyone know about it and finally we have the servants of the community, the people who put on conferences like this and interview people for InfoQ, etc. Originally the plan was that I would have a 75-minute rant about things I liked and didn’t like and then helped people work out how to deal with these difficult characters and thankfully Liz suggested that we use the Cynefin archetype extraction process to show people how to do this better.

Liz: One of the things that I should have really explained in the sessionm and didn’t explain very well, this session hasn’t finished yet, I’m going to write up the archetypes so that we can reflect them to the leaders of the community and I am really hoping that some people will be able to see themselves. I think of myself as a pretty reasonable leader, but looking at the archetypes we came up with, there were things I was very close to but bits which were missing, there are things that I am looking at as these nasty, horrible people, bullying and mean and I can see other aspects of their behavior which I do and it makes me want to be better, and want to be more like that and less like that. Richard Hensley, after the session, said sometimes the best tool for these kind of problems is a mirror, and certainly we only had a few ideas about how to help leaders become better leaders, I’m really hoping the archetypes themselves that we came up with reflected to the leadership of the community will really, really help them and help them to engage each other and learn from each other, I’ve seen a little bit too much sniping, not just at this conference, but other conferences, too, and I would prefer that the leadership of our various different communities actually talk to each other with curiosity and openness and respect and develop some different ideas off the back of each others, because everybody’s ideas work in a particular context.


13. If people want to find out more about that, is there somewhere they can go, where are you going to publish the findings?

Liz: I’m going to put them on my blog, simply because the Agile Alliance doesn’t have a particular site, if it did I would put them there. If you want to find out more about the actual process, it comes from Dave Snowden’s company, Cognitive Edge, if you go to their library, they’ve got all their methods are listed and they’re Creative Commons, so you can just go look at them for free, you do need to sign up for it, but it’s free.


14. I appreciate you meeting your commitment to have this interview with me, but we have an option that we need to get to the party, so I am going to allow you to meet that option. Did I get that right? If people want to find out more about Commitment, the Novel about Managing Project Risk, where can they go and find out more about it?

Chris: I think what we’ll do, when this is published, is go into the comments and put the URL so that people can actually find out where to go to buy a copy.

Olav: We have our own site,, but it’s also available on Amazon and for the Kindle.


15. And if they want to find out more about you, Liz, where do they go?

Liz: http//

Craig: Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Olav: Thank you.

Chris: Thank you.

Liz: Cheers, Craig.

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