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Chris Matts on the Agile Community as a Learning Machine

| by Dan Mezick on May 06, 2010. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes |

Chris Matts is a very interesting member of the Agile community, and is based in the UK.

First, Chris is a proponent of real options analysis, which is a quantitative method of decision making under uncertainty. His ideas on using real options in Agile practice appear on InfoQ. The first InfoQ article is Real Options Underlie Agile Practice and the second article is "Lean + Real Options = [Reduced Complexity].

Second, Chris seems to know and connect everyone in the Agile community.

Lastly and of some import: he is a truly prolific writer of provocative, in-depth commentary on many InfoQ articles.

Chris' ideas on real options, the Agile Manifesto and more can be found at his blog.

Note: Chris collaborates actively with Olav Maassen to create the total content found at

OK Chris...what is the one thing you want the Agile community to know? Be specific and detailed.

I want the the Agile community to know that the community is in fact a learning machine..... and it is broken. If something is not done to fix it, it will only last another couple of years before it fragments and something else will rise to replace it.

I recently wrote a blog post where I state the Agile Manifesto is actually a call to arms to create a software learning community. This is not a recent view of Agile although it is a recent reflection on the manifesto.

So the worldwide Agile community started out as a "learning machine"?

Yes. I was lucky enough to attend the first two Agile Development Conferences in Salt Lake City. They were amazing learning experiences; I learned so much. In fact the first discussion on Real Options took place in an open space with a small group that included Steve Freeman, Eric Evans and Rebecca Wirfs-Brock. It was great to discuss my half-formed thoughts with a band of great minds who gave me a great deal to think about.

It was like a bunch of kids exchanging baseball cards, except instead of cards, they were exchanging ideas. The crowd was so confident in their abilities that they were able to take on the ideas and try them out, feeding the experience back through blogs and written experience reports.

Did you go to Denver in 2005?

I skipped Denver but to Agile 2006 in Minneapolis. What I saw dismayed me greatly. Bil Kleb ran an open space on "Cognition, Learning and the Scientific Method". I presented my two favorite models, Kolb's Model of Learning and the Conscious-Competence model to the group. I then mapped them to the Agile Community. Helen Sharp said something like "Oh my Goodness, Agile is a Learning Machine". Unfortunately some of the behaviors I saw in Minneapolis worried me.

Which behaviors?

The world had changed since 2004 in Salt Lake City. The APLN had created the declaration of incoherence (which Tom Lister famously lampooned at the APLN summit). A leadership manifesto that famously omits the word "listen". Agile was starting to become commercially successful...


...and, a lot of the great conversations that happened in Salt Lake City were no longer happening.

The commercial aspects meant that the "elders" of the community were sensibly focusing on generating business. People were just too busy to talk. We had discussions in the bar but open space was dying. People were starting to claim "thought leadership" in areas and unfortunately there wasn't much listening. After all, how can you be a leader if you are listening to others?

What was the impact?

The impact of this is that experienced practitioners started to stay away from the conference. They now flit in and out but unless they need to be at the conference for commercial reasons, the people who go to learn, attend once or twice and then stop turning up. So the experienced practitioners are starting to stay away. I know a number of people who cannot be bothered to attend anymore because "there is nothing interesting happening in the Agile space". The people who are confident enough to try new ideas are staying away.

In summary, the learning is slowing down and will stop.... or rather, find a new home. I realized that the reason I come to the Agile 200x conference is to meet up with friends... a holiday rather than training. Realizing that, I've decided to spend the week in which I would have been at Agile2010 with my family and friends on a beach somewhere.

Are you saying the Agile Alliance conference is less important, not just to you ...but to everyone?

Meeting new people is always a huge pleasure at the Agile200x conference. The Agile Alliance has a simple task ahead. To create a conference that satisfies the commercial aspects of the Agile Community but also supports an on-going software learning machine. There is no "O" in "Agile", but there is an "A". The conference should be about "AND" rather than "OR". Applying agile principles might help.

Why are you so passionate about this "learning machine" topic?

Software development is one of the most important industries of the 21st century. To date, it has been plagued by theory and opinion of academic thinkers who have taken us down dead end after dead end.

The Agile Learning Machine started out as an alternative that promoted practices that ACTUALLY WORK! Unfortunately since then we have seen quite a bit of theory and untested ideas make it into the mainstream as "thought leaders" come up with new innovations to show they are still at the cutting edge.

I earn my living in software development. I use Agile tools to make my life easier. They have made my life a lot easier. I would like to see the continuation of more ideas. Agile is not a destination, it a journey. As someone at Agile2008 said "Agile is a personal commitment to change as well as a corporate commitment to change". ( I wish I could attribute the statement ).

What's up with this comic book you put together on real options?

The Real Options at Agile 2009 is not about project management or business analysis. It is manual for how to set up a group learning machine or a "distributed cognition system" as I refer to it. ;-)

If there is one thing in the world you can make happen, what is it and why?

I would like the world to understand that we stand on the eve of a glorious age. An age where everyone on the planet has access to food and information. A world where the restraint is not capital, but rather where the limit is our imagination.

A world where everyone has options, real options. ;-)

Watch for Part 2 of the Chris Matts interview. It covers "early commitments", choice, group-level decision-making, why Chris comments on InfoQ articles so frequently, and more.


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Thought Provoking by Dave Rooney

Very interesting interview - can't wait for Part 2.
There is no "O" in "Agile", but there is an "A". The conference should be about "AND" rather than "OR".

I like that... a lot!

Members of the Agile Alliance board make it quite clear that the conference is its primary revenue source. In turn that revenue funds other smaller conferences (and the not so small XPxxxx series in Europe). The growth in conference attendance indicates the growth in the adoption of Agile in the mainstream. There is still a very significant contingent of people who are brand new to any form of Agile. I've been around this Agile thing for a pretty long time now, and I do have to remind myself that many of those I work with and speak to are at the same point I was back in 2000.

So, I'm not quite ready to dismiss the Agile 201x conferences. While the original thought leaders may have moved on or commercialized their participation, new thought leaders are among the people who are attending for the first time. I see that as good for the Learning Machine, not bad.

Dave Rooney
Westboro Systems

Avoid hubris... by Jonathan Woods

"Software development... has been plagued by... academic thinkers who have taken us down dead end after dead end": careful! It's always a danger, when you're deeply involved in the early stages of a new paradigm, to fall into the trap of thinking (i) all that went before is rubbish, (ii) the New Thing is the last word. As 'meta' as Agile seems to be, it won't be the last word; and if there's one thing that agility has taught us, it's that we should rejoice in this!

Re: Thought Provoking by Chris Matts


I agree. Its the people turning up to the conferences for the first time that will have the significant insights that drive it all forward. The existing "thought leaders" can help this process by finding these people and promoting them so that others are aware of them. Thats less likely to heppen if no one hears them speak.

The new people are important, but so are the experienced members of the community. Mot every experienced person wants to get up on stage and speak. Some want to come and hear new ideas and engage in interesting conversations. This is the group that I feel has been neglected/ignored.


Re: Avoid hubris... by Chris Matts


I could not agree more. I think there is a lot of stuff that Agile has ditched which is of great value ( I am a Business Analyst sitting on the rubbish dump myself ). The point I was making is that Agile is grounded in the "By doing it" bit. Theory is great as long as it works. An important point. I said "academic thinkers" and not academics. Great ideas come out of the universities all the while. By "academic thinking", I'm referring to the "If we assume a perfectly spherical chicken" variety that ignores the fact that s/w dev takes place in the real world. There are a few "academic thinkers" in the agile space.

Agree on the last word. There is a lot we can learn from the past. Most new ideas are simply old ideas interpreted in a new medium. I think practitioners, by which I mean people who use Agile to get their day job done, delight in new things. I think the "last word" agile types are those who are selling themselves as experts in agile.

As for hubris, the one thing I do know with certainty is that a lot of the time I'm wrong.

Different types of project require different treatment by Udayan Banerjee

Software projects are of different type and I can broadly classify into 5 categories. They have different measure of success. How agile is to be applied will also vary - and learning from one class of project is not transferable to another class.

A pratical an example by Luca Minudel

Hi Chris,

here is an example that I think match what you are describing.

Agile uses an empirical approach, if this is true:
- experience reports should be first class sessions at the conferences
- new ideas reported at the conferences, at some point in time should reach a level where more teams try them and reports data/experiences with it
but it is not what I see.

What would you do differently? by Pollyanna Pixton

What would you do at the Agile conference to return it to learning?

Maybe the machine isn't broken but just needs a tune-up by Dave Nicolette

"So the experienced practitioners are starting to stay away. I know a number of people who cannot be bothered to attend anymore because 'there is nothing interesting happening in the Agile space'. The people who are confident enough to try new ideas are staying away."

That's an interesting observation. Seems a lot of people find the informal interactions between sessions to be more valuable than the formal program. I ran into a few people at the last Agile conference who didn't register. They just came to hang out and talk to people between sessions. They came to learn from their peers...they just didn't see much chance of that in the formal program. Also, there are usually some very interesting activities in the open areas where people create ad hoc sessions.

I do see your point. The formal program seems to be mainly about selling cookie-cutter agile solutions based on a theoretical understanding of "first generation" agile practices. Any questioning of assumptions tends to be treated as sacrilege. I submitted a couple of proposals questioning the trend you've mentioned to Agile 2009 and the submissions did not seem to be understood by the program committee. They accepted proposals about conventional topics like pair programming and metrics, but did not see the value in questioning the current state and future direction of the community itself. I tried again with Agile 2010 and this time there was strong agreement that the time has come to address these questions. If anything, commenters on those submissions seemed eager to find a forum where they could explore these issues with peers. I take this to mean the community is aware of the "broken learning machine" problem and is ready to face it. IMHO this is heartening.

Also keep in mind the Agile conference is not "the" agile conference. The same people you say have given up on the Agile conference are active in local user groups and smaller conferences. There is a lot more activity at the grassroots level today than there was, say, five years ago. Coaching camps, code retreats, and other events are gaining momentum. User groups that are mainly centered on technologies (Java, .NET, Ruby, Oracle, etc.) routinely include agile and lean themes in their meetings. Leadership in the community is emergent and bottom-up. Doesn't that suggest agile values are alive and well?

Smaller conferences often offer greater opportunity than larger events for rich peer-to-peer interaction that results in mutual learning. This may be a natural characteristic of small vs. large events. When there are 2,000 people and 1,500 of them are new to agile, the dynamics of the event are bound to be different from an event in which 150 experienced practitioners come together to learn from each other. I don't think people have given up on the values and principles.

Agree by Michael Dubakov

I share Chris's vision.
To me latest Agile Conf. was quite boring in terms of new ideas.
The only mind blowing session was about UX...

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