Friday, August 29, 2008

Agile and Beyond – The Power of Aspirational Teams

At Agile 2008, Tim gave a talk on appreciative inquiry. Tim starts by defining appreciative inquiry as the study and exploration of what gives life to human systems when they function at their best. It suggests strengths, hopes and successes are transformational. We control a lot more of our destiny than we are aware of. Agile is similar. It is not just about process and practices but is a belief in achievement. Software development always brings up bad news. We need to think of what we do good in software.

Next Tim asks who defends the honor of the agile manifesto and principles. It’s easy to just adopt some of the principles and skip others. It is easy to assume that we cannot do all the practices and then not aspire for more. The best teams adopt all practices because they know that all the practices are dependent on each other.

Tim then covers several areas to influence appreciative inquire:

1. Working together: Pulling the load together, having fun, being excited about achieving.

2. Project chartering: It helps team understand the parameters you work in like defining success and determining who is part of the community. It also helps self organize over a common vision and goal and forms a contract that binds together the rules of the teams/practices.

3. Group sharing: encourages new ideas, gets more people involved in work.

4. Story cards and planning boards. Puts focus on collaboration. Use magnetic boards, make it fun, try magnetic avatars. Also, instead of statuses of in development, in test, in QA, use started, in progress, done which encompasses the different roles. Story cards are placeholders for a bigger conversation. Important to follow format of Story cards “as role, I want, so that”. Also get good pens to encourage good card writing (dark and thick ). Physical cards much better than huddling over a spreadsheet. If not hand written, print them out.

5. Visualize progress - Burn down chart vs. burn up chart. In general we like to see thing go up kind like a profit graph. For forecasting, simply counting story cards done vs. story cards not complete can be enough. Graph can still be drawn manually.

6. Gold cards: give 2 per developers to use for working on areas where they can innovate.

7. Monitoring your health (mental, physical and spiritual) Create a burnout graph that tracks things like peacefulness, family and friends, spirituality, etc., and track it to get a better work life balance.

8. Retrospective: be careful what you ask for. Try not to unleash negative thoughts. Try drawing current status of project without using words. Present an agenda, Have a safety check using private ballot (1-5 about how safe I feel about having open conversation) and ensure result is a 3+. Stress that it is not about knowledge of the project but about comfort in talking in the room and that all exercise are optional and you can say pass. Have a timeline and have people put dots indicating how they felt along the timeline and then review it.

9. Futurespective: Go into future (2 yrs) and brainstorm success of your project, step back a year and see what steps you need to take to reach that future stage, then step back again to present and see again what steps you need.

10. Practicing happiness. It is easy to think about negative side. Be positive.

11. Appreciation: Aim for a 5:1 ratio. Have 5 positive comments for 1 negative comment. Be genuine about it. Do not fake it. Give it in an informal context (stickers, stars). Also learn how to accept appreciation and say thank you. Practice receiving it.

12. Constructively sharing and measuring feedback: Define different levels and help team member take steps to reach the highest level (excellent, does well, does somewhat, unaware, poor).

Tim recommends avoiding applying Scrumbut or XPbut. Don’t limit yourself. Appreciative inquiry says have an affirmative topic and discover what you are capable of doing and imagine where you want to go, then you can design a way of getting there. This starts to influence your reality. Your team can actually become better.

Tim then presents the assumptions of appreciative inquiry:

1. In every group something works

2. What we focus on becomes our reality

3. Reality is create in the moment

4. Act of asking questions can influence the group

5. People have more confidence when they carry forward some of their past.

6. If we carry the past it should what is best

7. It is important to value differences

8. The language we use creates our reality

Tim wraps up by describing how to go about it by understanding what you can achieve with having restrospective and practicing happiness, developing a vision of what you want by having futurespective, framing an affirmative topic and conducting appreciation interviews, setting up a new belief system with chartering and gold cards, getting moving, and setting up a support mechanism like burn down chars and knowledge sharing conferences. Appreciative Inquiry is just one way and you might be interested in looking at other like Kanban and industrial XP.

This presentation is available on InfoQ at