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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Portia Tung on Hope as the Driver for Change and Improvement

Portia Tung on Hope as the Driver for Change and Improvement


2. Ok, so Agile Coach, what is your favorite aspect of your work there and what’s your daily job actually?

So the favorite aspect has to be I’m working with people and then seeing them grow, seeing them improve, and very often that growth might be so small or that improvement might be so small, that most people don’t notice, but I notice because we’ve had conversations and I can see where people are in the development and when they take on board suggestions and ideas, you know it’s just lovely, it’s like watching a garden bloom. What was your second question?


3. What your daily job is like?

My daily job involves working more with the coaches now than the team, so historically I was helping to coach individuals and teams and now I’m changing my focus to more coaching the coaches and it’s also learning with the coaches, too.

Ralph: Ok, so my next question would refer to coaching teams actually, I hope this is ok, too. Sometimes when I enter organizations and I meet teams and it seems to me that those teams have nothing, the individual team members have nothing in common than the room they share. So how do you really build teams from individuals? I guess that’s something that has to do with culture.

Yes, I mean I certainly still work with teams and teams and coaches as well, teams of developers and software teams, so I think for me you need three key-ingredients. The first one is vision, the second one is purpose and the third is impairment. So by vision I mean, I really clear direction of where we are headed, it’s ok for that direction changes or deviates, it’s absolutely fine, but it’s a bit like this: if you are trying to get from A to B and you don’t know where B is, it could take you forever to get there, and very often we don’t have forever. And then the purpose it has got to be something bigger than just the individuals within the teams and very often it has to be something bigger than even the product owner or the product team themselves, it has to be about adding value.

Ralph: And what’s the secret to really motivate people to embrace change and to follow that vision because everybody knows it’s about vision and the big picture, but nonetheless there are, many, many people that have problems.

First of all I like to talk a little bit more about vision and purpose. We talk about it but I rarely seen a well-defined vision and purpose. So if we looked at you know the very famous American vision of putting a man on the moon, it was to put a man on the moon by the end of the century I believe and then bringing him home safely. That was, if anyone was invited to be on a team like that you say: “Yes, please” that will be no question, right? But that was a really clear and succinct vision that inspired people, whereas very often the visions we come across on a daily basis on projects are so vague and ill-defined and even contradictory that people aren’t really sure where they are headed, so that’s the first part that I think it’s really important to clarify your vision and purpose. And then, in terms of getting people on board, a lot of the books are saying: “You need to sell your vision, you need to find out, you need to tell people what’s in it for them”, and actually I disagree with that. I think it’s up to the individuals who have got together either as teams or whatever, to define their own purpose of “what’s in it for me”. So the way I look at cultural change is that everybody has a piece of this puzzle and you need to find other people who share different pieces of the same puzzle and you need to come together and form that puzzle together, and very often you might find that if your piece isn’t quite fit, you just get your pen out and you re-script and you re-draw your piece as you wish it, so that you know how you fit into the bigger picture and also enable you to achieve what you want to get out of it.


4. Sometimes the problem is really about, well there is some kind of person in the team and he or she just doesn’t think she has some special purpose on the team and that’s why it won’t work after all?

Yes, so I think people begin to feel undervalued or lost when they are not sure where they are going. So if they are able to clarify where they want to go in terms of their career and personal development, then they can see opportunities and other people can help them develop opportunities. So for example, I might be a really good C# developer but I’ve just recently joined the Java team, it’s for six months but because I don’t know, the way projects work I need to just help out this team. But of course you’re kind of like “I know nothing about Java, this is very intimidating. What value can I add?” and then you know people you can tell from their body language, are like “pfhhh” - it’s either this or it’s a bit “well I know everything about C#, Java it’s rubbish, I don’t even know why we have this project” and so those kind of I guess passiveness or aggression as a result. I think the question to ask is: “What value can I add here?” and I think the experience that everyone has, having worked for a certain number of years and even people who are fresh out of University, life experience, has something to contribute and I think if we recognize that everyone can add value, then you start seeing opportunities and options to get people to contribute and they naturally feel a lot better and that lifts the morale of the team as well.

Ralph: A lot about personality and maybe taking a step back and looking at, trying to look from the outside on what I’m doing in the team.

Yes, exactly, so distancing yourself, taking a perspective on yourself.


5. What I have seen in many companies is that Agility is seen as development only. So you build your Agile teams and you introduce working in sprints and stuff like that and lots of paper on walls because that’s supposed to be Agile. But I guess management often thinks is not concerned by Agility, do you encounter this too?

I think it’s a very common challenge and that’s because Agile came out from the IT world and that’s really natural and obviously managers have brought in agile coaches and training and then that’s all for the teams. I think with the maturity of Agile more and more it’s being used as a catalyst for cultural change, so now it becomes a reason and also an enabler for cultural change and I think that changes the game, so historically with Agile from grassroots it’s obviously bottom sort of up if you like. At the same time I wouldn’t say that top-down Agile works either, I think it’s all a combination of bottom-up, top-down and also actually middle-out because I think that’s the key thing it’s about Agility for the organization, not just the individual, and in terms of getting managers and leaders on board, I think we need to talk about different challenges.

Very often we stop learning or we are reluctant to learn because we are afraid to show people we are vulnerable, that “I have no idea what this Agile is, but I’m going to ask my teams to do it because it seems to improve effectiveness and efficiency”. So I would recommend that, if youwere a leader or manager in this situation, ask for help, speak to the coaches that you are hiring and get them to give you one to one coaching.

So I’ve done that before and that’s really effective because then all of a sudden you can start writing a user story for your Agile transformation that comes from a senior manager, which can then be shared with everyone on the ground as well and people can feedback into it, and you can start tracking the progress of such user stories as part of your transformation and it’s really uplifting when you see senior managers getting together for a weekly standup and moving things around, and when they kind of are a bit awkward and they are like: “There is a lot of work in progress, isn’t there?” and then the Scrum Master comes by and says: “Yes, there is, isn’t there?”, and people recognize the challenges of actually working with Agile themselves, you know that’s absolutely inspirational, I feel.


6. That’s right, and does it work in every company, so if you just insist on introducing the managers to Agility or do you think there are some kind of combinations or scenarios where it just won’t work?

Sure, I rarely insist on anything. I think I would recommend play and I would insist on respect but that’s where I leave it, so instead I talk about an invitation, so it’s about inviting people to the party, inviting them to look at Agile and also demonstrating the benefits. Very often with a lot of managers I’ve been encountered, they naturally want to work in an Agile way, but they find themselves in an environment where it’s a bit dog-eat-dog and you are not sure, we talk about collaboration but will that work among senior managers and I think the trick is to find senior managers who are really championing Agile and embodying the actual principles and leading by example, and then you find them and just start talking to them about it and you encourage them to talk to their peers, because the thing is Agile managers are likely to know other Agile managers. So then also you find yourself kind of multiplying and then you get Agile managers to talk to more of the skeptics and then leave them to convince themselves, because at the end of the day if something works and if that something is valuable, people naturally want to adopt it.


7. Do you think that when you try to invite managers to learn about Agility it’s better to make them learn on real life projects or is it better to make them learn on some kind of games just like every once in a while you read about this “we will build a city of Lego bricks” and stuff like that, what’s better?

I think it can be both actually, so I would recommend managers go on training courses just like their teams, so they have two options: they can actually go on the same training courses as their teams, which is again really inspirational because it’s about leading by example, and also you get to see and understand your teams dynamics and the challenges and they you can look at how you can help them -so that’s one way of doing training. Another way of doing training is actually getting the trainer to run the course just for the managers because then they can see the dynamics among the managers. It’s a completely different game play when you have different people in the room. And then thirdly I would supplement that actually with probably one-to-one or small group coaching with an experienced Agile coach with a proven track record, so that you can ask more tricky questions of how to deal with maybe certain people or processes and that kind of challenge.


8. Being a change agent seems to be hard work sometimes, how do you keep yourself going?

It’s always hard work. I think every day when I think about it and try to make a difference, I ask myself how can I improve today? What’s the one small thing I can do? Because I think the impact by leading by example is so vast, because everyone is watching you and I think that’s the key thing. So I spend a lot of time reading and studying, so my favorite topics that I research into are hope and play, so you know, looking at ways to become more resilient and robust so that when change happens it becomes not less painful, so I think that’s part of growing pains, but how to better deal with it and turn it into an opportunity, so I look at those kind of topics to keep me going.


9. Ok, and would you be able to describe the scariest thing that you encountered in your career?

The scariest thing, there are so many scary things, I believe I’m scared quite easily and I think that’s why I learn about hope and things like resilience. So I guess one of the most challenging things I’ve had was actually working with a team that was new to Agile and they had an architect who had been in the company for a long time, and they didn’t want to do the stand up because they said it was a stupid thing to do, why would you want to stand up and talk to each other for 15 minutes in an open plan office whilst everyone was watching. So they refused to do that and this individual constantly challenged every aspect of what we are trying to do whilst everyone else on the team really wanted to be more collaborative. So we started changing the way we did Agile, we started adapting because is my belief that if you offer everyone a place at the table, then they will come along on the journey in their own time. It’s a bit like being back in school, everyone learns how to walk and write and all those things in their own time, you just need to give them the time and space. So we would do our daily stand ups and everyone else would stand and this architect would sit and that would be ok. We didn’t make a big deal of it, we didn’t complain about it, it was just they preferred to sit and we would still stand and that was the important thing. And we also had meetings like you know, I suggested lunches, team lunches, but there was this great resistance of “Oh no, I don’t do team lunches” and so I said: “Well do you eat lunch?” and they’d say: “No, I go to the gym, I do this and the other”. So I went home that night I remember thinking: “This is a really hard problem although seemingly trivial, doesn’t it?” but is so important for team morale, right? So I went in the next morning and I thought “What about team breakfasts?” and their face lit up and said “Oh, I love team breakfasts, especially bacon and eggs on a Friday morning!” So it was really specific. At the stand-up that morning I proposed that we have a team lunch that Friday morning and would everyone be interested and they all said: “Yes, we did” and that became a team tradition and it enabled people to talk a lot more and bond, it’s a slow process but it’s important to stay hopeful.

Ralph: So it’s applying Agile methods to Agile coaching.

Totally and I think that’s the same with Agile transformation, it’s really about retaining respect for people whilst doing change and I think that’s hardest thing, I think if you look around and I’ve said this before, in my experience if you have 100% of people who say they are doing Agile, I think it’s probably between 5 to 10 percent who are really, really trying and getting results, that’s what I’ve seen.

Ralph: You gave a wonderful talk yesterday about hope as the driver of our daily work, of our daily improvements in our personal life and at first I was a little bit puzzled because in German, we say: “Die Hoffnung stirbt zuletzt”, so “Hope is the last thing to die” which expresses somehow that everything based on hope is really your last thing that’s still not tried and which might take you out of your situation or whatever, so it sounds a little bit sad actually, so maybe it’s just related to the definition of hope, so could you tell us a little bit about this?

Sure, I think if I understand correctly the German translation is something like “Hope is the last resort”, it’s literally your last chance at overcoming this, so when I describe using hope on a daily basis or even moment to moment it does sound odd. So the research I’ve been looking at is by Charles Snyder and he is a psychologist in America, he is no longer with us unfortunately, but he describes hope as the combination of willpower and waypower to achieve your goals. So if you look at that, goals is about defining where you want to go, willpowerit’s about the drive to actually reach that goal and then waypower is coming up with ideas to achieve the goal itself. And if you look at that equation, it’s actually an equation for problem solving, right? Because it’s no different from programming, so you’ve got to create a new system for tracking user statistics on your website.

There is your problem, so your goal is to create something that will allow you to track the statistics. So now the next thing is, you are like: “Well, am I going to be able to do this? Will the team manage to deliver?” and then the next thing is “Well, ok, let’s talk about options: what are our options for actually getting these statistics?” And whilst at first most people might go: “Well we need to put all sorts of things in the interface to do all this”. What’s another option? “Well another option maybe, well actually we’ve already got a bit of tracking code in. Did we not remember that? Oh, yes we can or what if we could just reuse that bit of code and just look at the data that we already have and then we can refine it and that leads to another option.” So the way I see Snyder has defined hope actually makes me more hopeful because I think in IT, the professionals I’ve worked with have all been great problem solvers, and especially at a conference like this, there is no problem that cannot be solved, if you were to ask a crowd like this. I mean for the start if they didn’t know, they will whip out the phones and they go Google. And they would search, and they would research the results and they would find you an answer, and there is your option. So I think hope doesn’t need to be only the last resort, it could be something that you live with every day and it can be a skill that you develop and enhance.


10. You mentioned willpower and waypower, so as parts of “My way to reach a goal”, so it has to do with personality again, and are there different stereotypes of people that might be able to reach their goals easier than others?

I don’t think it’s down to personality, I think it’s down to your mindset and the way you see the world. So I think there are certain people who when they encounter a problem would just become blocked, so a brick wall appears and it’s like: “That’s it, I can’t get to the door”. But what if the goal on the other side of the brick wall is so valuable that, without it, your life wouldn’t be worth living, then I’m sure they’d find a way to get around that brick wall, and that’s why the goal is so important and I think the goal becomes a motivator and if people get used to recognizing “That’s a brick wall, it might take me a bit of time to take it down brick by brick, if that’s the only way I can do it. But that’s one option, what’s another option? I can ring my friend who has a bulldozer and he can bring that around or I can ask another friend who’s specialized in I don’t know, dissolving cement, we bring them around” and I think I really believe it’s not so much to do with personality as a skill and I believe most things in life are a skill, which all of a sudden makes it possible for people to improve.

Ralph: Much about learning and changing oneself.

Definitely, yes.

Ralph: Am I supposed to reach my goal at once or is it just like in Agile development to break down my over the top goal into baby steps.

I think that’s the only part of the hopeful thinking research, if we can take a big goal, especially big hairy audacious goal, it’s very scary, you are not sure how you do it. The first thing I would do is embrace the goal, wrap your arms around it and it would be way too big and you just hold it for a minute and go, ok. There’s a lot of fear, a lot of uncertainty, but when you let that moment pass then you’re like: “Ok, now we take this big goal and let’s see how we can break it up into small pieces, so that we can achieve it.” And then quite quickly you look at only the pieces you need, because you come up with lots of ideas of how you would reach it and all the different steps but you might want to find the shortest route, and then the next thing is just look at the next smallest steps, like you said, the baby steps you can take, and then do that one at the time and it might be one step a day, but all of those baby steps will add up to bigger and bigger goal and each time you achieve a goal, then you’ll be able to achieve a bigger one because you’ll have the confidence and the ability to do that.


11. That’s right. So it’s sounds really like applying stuff that we do as developers and in our IDE’s and our notebooks to our personal lives and it’s not the first time that I encounter this, so Agile seems to be everywhere. Is it just because it’s a trend and you need to apply it everywhere or is it just because it’s a very natural way to solving problems?

I think it’s both those things, I also think for me it’s a philosophy and I’d go so far as to say it’s a way of life because when I first came across Agile I was a developer and I thought I need all the practices I can get to get good at this, how do I get more practice in, so I thought why not? What if I tried to do this once I was washing the dirty dishes at home. So then I started tracking my process steps for washing the dishes and I start looking at how can I optimize that, what is that I don’t need, what is that I do need and whilst that make seem a little bit geeky, the benefit of doing that is the you start understanding the practical application of theory, but also you get much more time to do all the fun things in your life, whereas previously it might have taken you much longer to do the dishes. So I think sort of the practice and having it really in the way you live, that is the most successful way I’ve seen Agile endure, especially in organizations it’s when the people who practice Agile really live and breathe it, and many of my coaches agree with that.

Ralph: So it comes from inside and you have it in your DNA.

Well that suggest that you were born with it and I think it’s something you acquire.


12. You also talked yesterday about excellence, so many of us I suppose, think that they have to be excellent in whatever area they are working or what they are focused on, is this a good thing?

Yes, so I think I’ve had a love-hate relationship with excellence. I think it’s important to separate it from perfectionism. I think the problem with perfectionism is it means you can’t get anything wrong, whereas with excellence you can strive to improve. So that’s the key difference. And in terms of excellence I was attracted to programming because you can just get things just so. If you were writing an English essay, there was always a debate on whether or not you got an A or an A+, and the subtlety was just invisible to me because that was such a subjective judgment whereas when you write a program it’s much easier to see what’s following a better practice or what’s not, is it compiling and all these things, and I think we almost overfall in love with that notion of everything being perfect, and instead what if we could write piece of code, recognize that the piece of code is never finished, but merely abandoned like a good poem, then the next time we write something similar we can make it better, and when we’ve done that that’s great, we love it still, but the next time we do it how can we make that better and I think that’s what I mean by excellence.

Ralph: It’s excellence for me in my perspective and not related to other people.

Exactly, it’s about yourself and your own personal achievement.

Ralph: So if I was to improve myself applying those studies about hope and reaching goals, what would be the worst thing that could happen to my improvement?

As in something negative?


13. How could I get stuck and get over it?

Ok, so for me I actually discovered hope after reading and studying a lot about vulnerability and shame, and I learned things like perfectionism comes from shame, which when you take a step back you think: “Oh dear, what is that mean, I feel ashamed about being ashamed”, which is ridiculous but it might very well be true for many of us, and I think that’s a common experience especially when we start going to school. You know, your parents loved you before you went to school, they still love you now, but when you start going to school you are in an environment where competition was there and if you didn’t know an answer, your friends or other people might laugh at you and then you start discovering this thing called shame and then you start being exposed, so over the years you build this armor around you and if you are really good and you are really smart, your armor is really thick. And I think for us to really be Agile and for it to work, you need to take off the armor.

Now obviously if you take it off and all in one go it’s really very scary and you run back and just put it on and the hide under a rock. So for me it was more about baby steps again, knowing that my goal was just to be a better human being at the end of it, whenever the end is, and I would just slowly take one slitter of armor off at the time and try to connect and try to share and it might be something that scary about myself, and it’s just a story or a challenge that I find difficult to overcome, such as losing weight for example, and you start connecting with people and when people realize that you are prepared to share some of your vulnerability with them, they will put some on the table as well and I think that’s the emotional journey that builds a team to achieve great goals.

Ralph: It sounds really interesting and very creative way to change our lives I guess.

And again I think if you talk to IT professionals and programmers especially, our minds are full of metaphors and stories and we should use that, so for a lot of people it won’t be an armor, it would be something else, but use that and work with those metaphors and see how you can transform yourself with the stories.

Ralph: So hopefully a lot of people will listen to you and just try it.

I think that’s the most important thing, to give it go.

Ralph: Give it go and have fun.

Yes, exactly, have fun.

Ralph: Ok, thank you very much for having the time, it was very, very interesting, thanks!

Thank you Ralph!

May 18, 2015