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Agile India 2016 - Leadership Day Summary

The Agile India 2016 Conference was held in Bangalore last week.  This year there are over 1450 people attending over the five conference and three workshop days.  Each day has a different theme, with attendees able to register for a single day or multiple days.

The theme for the first day was Agile Leadership with two keynote talks and 22 sessions over four tracks.  

This reporter attended a number of the sessions on the day, these are described below.

The conference opened with Richard Sheridan, Chief Story Teller from Menlo Innovations and author of the book Joy, Inc talking on Build a Workplace People Love – Just Add Joy.  He recounted his own story of working within a large IT organisation progressing from programmer to VP, and realising that the way people worked was fundamentally wrong and ineffective.  He was empowered to make changes and was an early adopter of eXtreme Programming.  This resulted in a more humanistic workplace producing more effective outcomes.  He went on to found Menlo Innovations with the goal “to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology™”. 

He explained the motivation behind the Menlo way, their focus on respect for people and creating an environment of productivity and achievement.  He described their way of working, from High Tech Anthropology™ to “high speed voice technology” (talk to each other) to the simple planning process where work is assigned based on the actual capacity to deliver available in an iteration, using pieces if paper of differing sizes to show the stories to be worked on, and how they must fit on the page to be accepted into the plan.

Richard Sheridan showing how Menlo builds a weekly plan

He explained their rigorous approach to quality and professionalism in the development process.  All work done in pairs, TDD as a continuous practice and strict definition of Done.  Discussing some of the common reactions to quality issues in software he said:

When a programmer says "It worked on my machine" - grab that machine and ship it to the customer

He told the story of how they first adopted the idea of having parents bring their babies to work, how nervous he was and how well that has worked.  He ended his talk with the message “run the experiment” – be bold and try new things, inspect and adapt.

Run the experiment


Evan Leybourn gave a talk titled “If you need to start a project you’ve already failed: #NoProjects”.

Evan started his talk by stating that the current project-based approach to funding and working on products used in most organisations is broken and leads to sub-optimal results and many failed or challenged projects.  Problems with projects include the short-term thinking they result in (finish on time vs maximise value) and the disconnect between projects and maximising team flow (temporary teams vs long term product ownership resulting in deep knowledge of the product and domain).

He proposed an alternate approach based on the ideas of stable teams, the flow of value and outcomes-based planning.  He defined #noprojects as:

The alignment of activities to outcomes, measured by value, constrained by guiding principles and supported by continuous delivery techniques

He went on to explain how all of these aspects are necessary and how they collectively contribute to the ability of an organisation to derive maximum value for the time and money invested in initiatives.

He presented the idea of defining outcomes in clear and measurable terms as a starting point for any product development, providing clarity for everyone involved about why this is worth funding and how it will be measured.   He suggested the Outcome Profile as a tool for conveying this information:

Outcome Profile

He emphasised that while constraints are important the funding authority for the product needs to understand that every constraint added to a product increases the cost of delivering that product.  There are a number of necessary constraints which are worth the additional cost and it is important to take a lean-thinking perspective and make sure only the necessary constraints are imposed on the product development.

He emphasised that the value of a feature in a product, and of the whole product, degrades over time, and that value and cost are unrelated – ask “so what” for every piece of work requested and ensure the answer shows the value of doing that work, otherwise don’t do it.

 He presented a simple tool for evaluating items of work – the Activity Canvas  

Activity Canvas

By evaluating any work request against the canvas the team and the organisation are able to ensure that the right level of effort is spent, commensurate with the likely value the activity will return.

An important message he emphasised is that stopping work is as important (if not more so) as starting on an initiative.  When to stop needs to be driven by the value being returned, not the initial planned schedule.

What to fund needs to be decided based on whleat the initiative is worth in terms of outcomes and value, not what it will cost.

He emphasised that the ability to work in this way is dependent on having a “continuous culture” which embraces all aspects of the continuous delivery mindset and utilises automation and agile techniques to make the feedback cycles short and provide confidence in the quality of the underlying product, making change easy and low-risk.


Sanjiv Augustine gave the closing keynote for the leadership conference.

Titled “The Joy of Agile Work: Managing Performance and Sparking Innovation” in he explored the state of organisations today and presented an alternative to the dreaded performance management systems which cause many problems for managers, teams and individuals.

He started by quoting Kent Beck from the first book on eXtreme Programming –

              The role of a manager on an XP team is to remove impediments and bring pizza

He then explored the current state of engagement in organisations worldwide where only 13% of employees are highly engaged and 26% are actively disengaged, only 54% of employees would recommend their company to others and how this impacts both management and employees equally.

One of the areas he pointed to that contributes to these issues is the current performance management system which tries to combine three objectives in a single tool, doing none of them well: feedback, compensation & merit pay and legal cover.  By attempting to combine these three things into a single tool the goals for all three get lost and the system doesn’t work for the employees, their managers nor the organisation as a whole.  He suggested an alternate approach which seperates these three areas of concern.  His area of focus is the feedback element which is crusial to effective growth, when done well.

He referenced Daniel Pink’s work on motivation and pointed out that knowledge workers are motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose.

He suggested an alternate approach which starts with a Personal A3 that has space for all three of these motivational factors

Personal A3

He described a process (Agile Performance Management) which uses the Personal A3 as a framework for regular conversations between a mentor and a mentee rather than as a checklist to be filled in.  This requires rethinking the way we engage with people in our teams, creating the opportunity for these conversations and helping people achieve their goals rather than measuring them against a corporate yardstick.

He went on to talk about how the layout of our work spaces impact motivation and performance, recommending a “caves and commons” design which has space for collaborative work as well as space for quiet thinking and individual work. 

He also discussed work hours – if people are professional adults they should be trusted to define their own working hours based around their own preferences and needs and the needs of the people they must collaborate with.  He spoke about the need to allow for slack time – time for creative thinking, he used the example of “20% time” which is in place at organisations like Atlassian and previously at Google.

He challenged the current bonus/merit pay structure in place in most organisations which places emphasis on individual performance and thus destroys teamwork.  He strongly recommended that any merit pay should be given to teams not to individuals.

He ended by talking about the importance of creating opportunities for people to achieve mastery – creating an environment where people can get into the state of “flow” and support them in becoming craftspeople, increasing their skills in their areas of interest.


Additional talks on the Leadership theme covered a wide range of topics, including: [Note – the links include references to the slides and videos of the sessions if they are available]

  • The seven habits of highly effective organisations
  • Measuring team performance at Spotify
  • LiquidO – people driven disruption
  • The fundamental rationale behind agile
  • Moving from traditional performance management to iterative performance flow
  • 3 minute Improv games to improve teams
  • Develop agile managers or agile dies
  • A leadership journey to organisational agility
  • The building blocks of a knowledge work culture
  • Applying the agile mindset to tough business problems
  • To estimate or #noestimates
  • 7 things agile executives should do diferently
  • Continuous improvement with the Toyota kata
  • The decline and fall of agile – antifragile to the rescue
  • Small conversations lead to big change
  • If you need to start a project you’ve already failed

There were also some experience reports presented and a fishbowl discussion around the #noestimates topic.


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