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Chris Matts on the Agile Community as a Learning Machine

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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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