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Diana Larsen on the Origins of Agility and Agile Fluency

In this podcast recorded at Agile 2019, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Diana Larsen about the origins of what became agile development, where business agility is header and the agile fluency project. 

Key Takeaways

  • There is a deep history of business improvement initiatives that predates the agile manifesto
  • It was a part of a cultural movement that was moving more toward more humane workplaces that could deliver more value
  • When you give people a good environment and good support to do their work, you get better work and better products
  • The ideas of business agility predate the work in agile development – engaging support structures in organisations to enable change
  • You can't change one part of a system without it having effects on other parts of the system
  • The Agile Fluency Model is a tool to help teams diagnose themselves and to expose the system to leadership 

Show Notes

  • 00:25 Could you give us the two-minute overview.
  • 00:27 Yes. I think maybe, I had a career in work process redesign and organization design. For a while. When in 1997 I bumped into some guys, Martin Fowler and Ron Jeffries and Ward Cunningham and Joshua Kerievsky and some other folks like that. And they started telling me about what they were thinking about right then and I started telling them about what things I had been doing then and we decided there was some resonance.
  • 00:55 And shortly after that I started presenting at agile conferences and writing and doing coaching and consulting. And I've been in the agile community ever since - I found my tribe. It was my home. So part of that was writing the book on Agile Retrospectives with Esther Derby and writing the Liftoff book with Ainsley Nies and developing the Agile Fluency Model, with James Shore. and just trying to find ways that I can make my best contribution back to the community because it's given me so much.
  • 01:26 One of the things in terms of your contribution to this particular event is you gave an introduction to a little bit of history and it's probably a useful thing for us every now and again to step back and think about where did these ideas come out of? I know there's often a perception that Agile leaped into being on, what was it, the 15th of February, 2001 and nothing had happened before then. We know that it wasn't that case, but maybe with your background and research, tell us a bit of the story
  • 01:58 I started thinking about it and you know, Frederick Taylor gets kind of a bad rap, but really he was the first one to say, "I want to take a systematic look at what it takes for work to work". Right, and he was focused mostly on time and motion and efficiencies and those kinds of things. But he really was the first one to sort of take, at least the first one that we know a lot about, to actually take the time to study that what was going on. And he kind of kicked off a whole movement of people who did that.
  • 02:31 And that led into the twenties and thirties where Elton Mayo was doing the Hawthorne Effects studies, you know, where, you know what really will help these women be more productive. And what if we turn the lights up? Oh, that seems to work. What if we turn the lights down? Oh, that also seems to work. And then looking at it more deeply and saying, Oh, when people are working, they appreciate people who were trying to help them do better work. And so that was the actual, result that came out of that. And then we rolled into world war two and lots of things were going on then, the training within industry in the U S. Where the idea of employee development and training and helping people really understand how to do a good job and how to be successful in their jobs that started and giving them the skills that they needed.
  • 03:24 And then over in the U K. Fred Emery, Eric Trist, and Elliot Jacobs, were looking at the coal mines because the coal was so central to the UK war effort and they noticed that some coal miners were doing better than other coal miners and they wanted to figure that out and they went down into the mines with them and discovered self organizing teams. Right? Whatever the managers told them to do, once they got down there, they made some of their own autonomous choices about what was the best way to get the work done that day and who is best equipped to do which kind of work. And then that kept rolling along. And you know, after the war, we got Theory X and Theory Y and a lot from the coal mine studies turned into what we call sociotechnical systems study, which is how do we blend social systems and technical systems and work, and how does the environment affect that? And that was the Tavistock model. And that took off for a long time. And also out of that came statistical process control that had started during the war and after the war, Edwards Deming discovered that nobody had any interest in that anymore because there wasn't a war.
  • 04:35 So he took it off to Japan and then we got quality circles and more emphasis on Total Quality Management, which for a while we were just calling Japanese management. Nobody knew where it came from. And that ended up in the Toyota Production System, which became Lean Manufacturing, which also floated into the 80s as Business Process Reengineering.
  • 04:58 And then that gave rise to Theory of Constraints. And so, now we have DevOps and we have Lean and Kanban, and then there was also the technological improvements that were made during the war. Bletchley Park and Grace Hopper and her crew. We began thinking about how do we work with these machines and software development life cycle came to be, and Winston Royce's paper and everybody got the wrong idea about waterfall, right?
  • 05:29 And then improvements started being made in that, and we got Evolutionary Project Management. And then Jim Highsmith's Adaptive Software Development and all of that rolled up into how we got Agile. I mean, all of those ideas were in the wind. Now, whether any of the manifesto signers studied any of that stuff or not, I don't know.
  • 05:53 But I do know it was a part of a cultural movement that was moving more toward more humane workplaces were places that could deliver more value and I saw that those went hand in hand. That lot of work going into understanding that when you give people a good environment and good support to do their work, you get better work and better products.
  • 06:17 So that was just fun. And I was stimulated by a couple of things that I really want to give credit to: Kevin Behr did a talk at Lean Agile Scotland a couple of years ago called something about coal mine in DevOps. I've got the citations in my slide and it really got me reflecting on some stuff I already knew, but I started thinking about it in a new way and its connection to software development, the kind of work that we do.
  • 06:45 And then a couple of months ago, Jessica Curr, did a talk at the J On The Beach conference. About something she called somastamy, which is what happens when you make a space for people to do learning together in a creative way. And what results from that. And she went all the way back to the Florentine Camerata.
  • 07:12 And came forward with that different groups of folks who got together for the express purpose of how can we be creative and how can we support each other in our creative efforts, and then of course, she was able to apply that to teamwork and software teams. And so it just seemed like there was a lot going on that was really interesting to me, and I've been thinking about this a lot because as James Shore and I have been working on Agile Fluency, I think we talked about this a year ago in March, we gave a whole update of the article. We expanded it quite a bit, added a lot more material to it that we had learned over time.
  • 07:52 And what I've noticed about the model is, you know, we wrote the model. We researched it from like 2009 through 2011 and then really wrote the article in 2012 and that's when it was published, the original one, and I've been pleased and amazed as new ideas have been coming into the agile world that they just fit right into the model.
  • 08:18 We talked about focusing teams and delivering teams and delivering teams could release at will and did continuous integration, and we talked a little about pairing, but mobbing fits there too, and none of us had been thinking about mobbing when we were writing the article and DevOps, you know, and where does that fit in?
  • 08:35 And the emphasis on UX and design now, and, all those things that there's place for them in the agile fluency model, even though we didn't know there was going to need to be a place for them for anything, you know? And so that's been a real joy for me to watch as that happens, that it absorbs and we intended it to be a very inclusive model, and it's turning out to be inclusive in ways that we didn't even anticipate, you know? And that's been great. Yeah.
  • 09:01 If you step back a tiny bit and look at agility. What is the state of agility? What are the things that are happening in the world today?
  • 09:10 Well, I mean certainly the movement toward business agility that you've been so much a part of, and that is true and way back in my work process design days, where we always started was we went and talked to the HR people and the facilities people long before we ever talked to people that we suspected would form themselves into a team.
  • 09:30 And we would get those folks on board. And I think one of the things is that that awareness, that agile isn't just something that happens in the it department or just to teams, or that's becoming more and more, I mean, there was even the Harvard business review article, I think it was last fall, about when ING and some of these other big companies have started to initiate an agile effort, they're discovering that it cannot succeed without the involvement of other parts of the organization. And that, of course, fits into open systems theory perfectly. Right? You can't change one part of a system without it having effects on other parts of the system.
  • 10:10 And so we are seeing that more clearly now. And business agility is a piece of that, you know, the desire of the organizations to just take advantage of that resilience and that quickness in their marketplaces. So that's a really important one. The other thing that we're noticing, we're just beginning to notice because we pay attention to this from these weak signals because of our strengthening zone.
  • 10:34 You know, it's like there's something out there that's the future of agile and we're not exactly sure what it looks like, but we have some glimmers. Some of those things are things like team self-selection teams that are more devoted to the overall health and wellbeing of the company than they are to their own product, that they're willing to make adjustments in the work they're doing on their product so that the company can survive.
  • 10:58 And things like companies making spaces, I've been hearing about this more and more, companies making spaces for startup incubators because they know that if there's a free flow of ideas, they're going to get good ideas from those startup incubators and they can give them mentoring and so there's a really nice quid pro quo going on there and so just those kinds of things, software becoming more aware that it's a part of a larger community. And I think as it has been less just embedded in pockets, you know, I mean, it was just Silicon Valley and then Route whatever, 68 or whatever it is, outside of Boston, , there were just these few places that were the software places.
  • 11:40 Well now Seattle, Portland, Demoine, Iowa. I mean, all kinds of places are becoming the software places in their regions and Austin. And so I just feel like there's more of a sense of, we aren't separate from our communities. We are a part of them. And the obvious way is by giving space for user groups to have meetings, community groups, to have meetings, those kinds of things.
  • 12:08 So that feels like the edge of something new to me.
  • 12:12 Tell us about the Agile Fluency Model, perhaps a starting point, a very quick introduction for the audience that haven't come across it before
  • 12:19 The Agile Fluency Model is a way of thinking about the needs of a business for agile. It's a model of team behaviours, and we use the metaphor of language fluency that depending on your need, the fluency that you might need to speak a language that's not your native tongue is going to be different. If you're traveling, just touristing, you need one kind of set of language, be able to ask and answer certain kinds of questions, be able to use greetings, those kinds of things, but if you're going to stay longer, if you're going for an extended homestay or something like that.
  • 12:58 You gotta be able to tell stories about what you did last week and, that gets a little more sophisticated. And then if you're there to open a business or teach at a university, that's a whole other level of fluency. What we saw was that fluency in agile, the proficiencies that teams need to develop to be able to work in agile ways had the same thing.
  • 13:20 And so we named those different kinds of fluency, Focusing, Delivering, Optimizing, and Strengthening. If your need, for instance, for your business and your kinds of products is something that serves your customer, but maybe overall only in the short term, but you still need to be able to shift with the marketplace. The team's work needs to be able to be redirected, but the team is really devoted to what is going to bring customer and business value. That's a Focusing team. And those teams don't have to worry so much about technical debt, because maybe their products aren't long lasting and maybe they're working with the marketing department and they roll out a new web design every three months or something, new functionality every three months.
  • 14:10 So, that has a very different need or some internal IT projects are like that. They're very different need than, a Flikr that needs to be able to release. That's an old example now, but that needs to be able to release several times a day and has to be able to do that with confidence that nothing's going to break.
  • 14:28 So that's what the model is, is it looks at what are these areas of fluent proficiency that company needs from its teams. And then the other piece of that is in order to get that, what do they need to invest? And so we sort of codify that. What are the benefits, what are the investments? And then what impacts can you expect from that?
  • 14:51 So it's a model that assesses where the team is, right? But the organization invests.
  • 14:57 Yes, because it has enormous organizational implications. Along with the model, we now have some additional tools that we use. The first part was the model, but since then we've developed a diagnostic instrument and we've developed a, we call it the improvement cycle.
  • 15:13 It's kind of a protocol for how can you effectively help an organization transform. And what we look at is if you can get three to five or better than that, even more teams themselves do a diagnostic and they get the benefit of their own diagnostic, but then you aggregate that and look at the overall picture.
  • 15:34 Then you have something to give to the organizational leaders as a picture of their system. How is their system working? Not how are a bunch of individual teams working, but in an aggregate altogether, what is that like?And that enables leaders and managers to better manage the work system . And also to spend their investment dollars or their investment of attention more wisely as opposed to, Oh, "we always approach agile transitions or agile transformations in this way, you have to do all these steps". Well, maybe you don't have to do all those steps and maybe you don't have to have all these various trainings for your teams. Maybe they already have some fluency in some of that, but where don't they? And where can they use help? And it helps to amplify the team's voice.
  • 16:21 They get an opportunity to ask for what they think they need. And if we see that as reflective of a broader impact, or then we will recommend to the leaders, you know. You've got great team members here. They're doing great work. They're doing these kinds of practices. They could do so much better if they were co-located, if they weren't spread across all the cubicles in your whole open office area.
  • 16:46 Or if you have remote teams, if you give them an adequate electronic team space that they can own and they can work in without the noise of everything else that's going on in the organization. So those are the kinds of things or better access to business information. How do they really get to know what's the next most valuable thing?
  • 17:06 Some organizations have very strong product ownership that really communicates well with the team. Other organizations, not so much. And so it helps us pinpoint where would be the best place to invest what you have to invest, and to give some choices around tradeoffs. If you don't have enough to invest in everything, well, what are the most important things you want to invest in?
  • 17:28 Where are you going to get the most leverage? Because we know any place you make a change, it's going to cause other changes. So yeah, that works there too.
  • 17:36 Many teams, many organizations are going through the diagnostic process. Are you consolidating that information and using it to look at trends?
  • 17:45 We'd love to be able to do that, and we do not demand that those companies disclose their outcomes to us.
  • 17:53 We thought about doing that at one point in time, but it's very difficult to ensure that you're getting that back from all the people who are using our tools. So it's hard to gather. A lot of companies feel that that's proprietary in nature and they don't really want to share it. Even if we shared it all anonymously, it would show some trending for folks, , potential benefit.
  • 18:16 But, there's such privacy issues now in our world that we've just let go of that for now. But we do hope that they keep their own information in their organizations so that in a number of months after they've made some investments, they can run the diagnostic again with their teams and they can tell what impact has that had.
  • 18:38 And now what's the next thing to do? 'Cause there's always going to be more to do. but that way you can sequence, we're going to try this first and then see what kind of an impact we have, and then we'll try that.
  • 18:50 Inspect and adapt.
  • 18:51 Yes exactly. On a grand scale. Yeah.
  • 18:56 Shane: 18:56 What else is happening with the agile fluency project?
  • 18:59 Diana: 18:59 Well, so we formed a project. We now have a business and an organization, and we were getting enough demand from folks to be able to use our things that made sense. In this last year, we've actually gotten our own office space. I mean, it's an interesting thing, when all of a sudden I find myself in what some people would call their retirement years, and I've got a startup as my retirement project. So, we're going through all those same kind of startup things, and it's very different from gardening or boating or golfing, or, I mean, it's not that different from some volunteer things that some people really seriously get involved in. But I've always loved the work I do and so this was a logical extension of that.
  • 19:40 We are continuing to expand that community of people. We have a couple of things. We've got what we call the licensed facilitators. Both Jim and I had come out so strongly about certifications over the years. We knew we couldn't run a certification program, but we do license people to use our materials and if they've gone through the training with goodwill, which is an extensive training program and have completed it and had done all the work and had all the discussions. It's a lot of application. Then we give them a license and then they can go and use the materials with whomever they want. And so we're growing. We had licensed people before, but it was a much more lightweight process.
  • 20:21 So two years ago we started something new. So last year, at this time, there were about six licensed facilitators, and now we're moving up toward more like 60 worldwide. So the trending is more and more and so we've got a community of people who can support each other and speak the same language, and I'm very proud of them.
  • 20:42 And then we have another small group of people who are carrying the word about the agile fluency game and using that simulation of two and a half years in a software project to help educate people, help educate teams about what practices they might be missing, but then also other folks in the organization.
  • 21:01 Just last week, I played the game in an organization where I was working with the business leaders and the product development leaders. So, the engineering, product management, marketing, sales, and customer support, all the leaders of all those came together. And we ended up with four games going at the same time.
  • 21:24 And they played the game and they all did not win the first time, and then we talked about why that was. And then we played the game again. And this time they all did very well, and we talked about why that was and how some of that reflected what's happening in their organization and how they might want to change what's happening in their organization.
  • 21:47 It's a very powerful tool. One person told me it was like they got nine months of agile training in three hours, or four hours. So that is also a powerful tool.
  • 21:56 They're two separate trainings, but we're just finding that they both add richness on their own and they are very powerful put together.
  • 22:05 So I'm interested in what trends and new horizons you're seeing, Shane. I'd like to add that to my bucket of things that are going on in the world.
  • 22:16 Shane: 22:16 Perhaps it's a personal bias, but what I'm seeing is coaching and what we call agile coaching is something that needs a lot of help.
  • 22:28 Diana: 22:28 Yeah. I've been hearing in different places in the world that the need for that function is growing and there are not enough folks who have skilled proficiency, enough fluency in being an agile coach.
  • 22:42 To do that a couple of months ago, I put out a thing on a LinkedIn group. For agile coaches and on the LinkedIn group that's called lean agile development. And on both of those, I put the same question. "When you think of the coach, the agile coaches that you really admire, that you think are really superior, what are the couple of qualities that come to mind", and I was really interested. I'm going to write about this because it was just such an interesting collection and it didn't necessarily match what I had sort of predicted would come out, but there were an awful lot of responses like, Oh, they must have empathy, or they must have good communication skills.
  • 23:23 And I thought, you know, those are sufficiently vague that how does that really work? And I think you're right. I think we aren't clear about what it takes to do that really well, yet. And it's different from management consult. I mean, I've been a management consultant. It's different from that work. It's certainly different from executive coaching or life coaching or those kinds of things.
  • 23:48 It's not sports coaching, but it very definitely has elements of that.
  • 23:56  Lisa Adkins’ model gives a really nice overview, but it's got to go deeper.
  • 24:02 Personally, I've been exploring the professional coaching areas and all of the professional coaching bodieshave a requirement that you align with a code of conduct. And you can become an agile coach by printing a business card
  • 24:23 Pretty much.
  • 24:23 There is no requirement to put yourself under the discipline of a professional body and coaching can do harm. Well, I think that this is a gap.
  • 24:34 I agree with you. I agree with you. And I know the need is out there. Absolutely. The need is out there. People are still trying to figure out, well, who do the scrum masters report to at our organization? And they very often end up reporting to someone who’s wildly inappropriate just because there just isn't any place else for them to go. I mean, there has to be someplace and then, you know, I think that's a really interesting line of inquiry that you're on. I would support you in that for sure.
  • 25:03 Diana, thanks so much it’s been great to talk to you.


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