Sensemaking in Organizations: Creating a practical process that leverages Cynefin and sensemaking

The Cynefin sensemaking framework (created by Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge) has grown in popularity in the agile community in recent years. Used to its full potential, sensemaking and the Cynefin framework are powerful and effective approaches to informing action in complex, dynamic, and uncertain situations. Tony Quinlan and I led a workshop session at the XP2020 conference where we introduced a practical, effective approach based on our work applying complexity techniques in large global technology organisations.

The slides from our workshop are available here. This workshop is based on years of experience with dozens of sensemaking projects. We covered the fundamentals of using micronarrative-based sensemaking and the Cynefin framework to foster transformation, resilience, and agility. This session focused on use of sensemkaing to support transformations. We covered sensemaking in organizaitons, the Cynefin framework, how to determine appropriate action in a given context, how to design experiments for navigating complex situations, how to tailor a sensemaking framework for a particular purpose, and how to integrate sensemaking into your organizaiton.

Some insights from working with Flow-based product development

Software product development organizations operate in an environment of ever-increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The pace of change is accelerating, business and technology complexity is growing, and organizations are struggling to keep pace. The software development industry has a $300 billion productivity problem, according to one study. Value is not flowing as it should. Flow-based software development is part of the continued evolution of contemporary software development approaches contributing to addressing this problem. It builds on agile and lean software development approaches and incorporates lessons from Deming’s management method, the Toyota Production System, Lean Product Development, Theory of Constraints, Operations Management, and other influences. Flow-based development is foundational to modern systems approaches, including DevOps, Continuous Delivery, Site Reliability Engineering, and more. Creating and sustaining flow in organizations is a challenging problem. Drawing on insights developed over many years working with multiple global product development organizations, this session presents a framework for establishing, understanding, and sustaining flow in organizations.

I presented this session at the XP2020 conference. The slides are available here.

This session addressed the following questions:

  • What is flow?
  • What is the relationship between flow, lean, and agile?
  • Why do organizations adopt flow?
  • Where to get started?
  • What contributes to flow happening?
  • How do we measure flow?
  • What makes flow difficult to achieve?
  • How can organizations overcome these impediments to flow?
  • What is the role of culture in determining how effective flow can be?

Understanding and applying different decision models for increasing organization agility

Agility implies responding to change appropriately. Every response is a decision. Sometimes we choose among several competing options, sometimes not. Some decisions demand immediate action, others require us to step back and think and weigh our options. There are many decision models that can support how we respond. Often, our decisions are part of a series of interrelated decisions that influence each other. From this perspective, the agility of an organization can be viewed as an outcome of decisions made over time.

Rebecca Wirfs-Brock and I held a workshop session at XP2020 on this topic. In this workshop session, we discuss how to apply three specific decision styles and models that are useful in different circumstances.

Some of the models we use in this workshop come from the field of Naturalistic Decision Making (NDM), which has the goal of studying how people actually make decisions in a variety of real-world settings. Settings in which NDM is appropriate are characterized by time pressure, high stakes, experienced decision makers, inadequate information, ill-defined goals, poorly defined procedures, context, dynamic conditions, and team coordination. In this session we explore NDM in the context of organization agility.

The slides are available to download here.

Learning outcomes from the workshop include:

  • Learning about Decision Models and how they apply to Agile Software Development and Organization Agility.
  • Understanding of how to apply and combine different decision models in different contexts. Specifically, we explore analytical decision making, naturalistic decision making, and recognition-primed decision models.
  • Understand the role of heuristics and experiments in making decisions and taking action.
  • Understand the role of expertise and how it influences decision and action in organizations.
  • Understand the circumstances under which decisions are best taken by individuals, and those where decisions are best taken in groups.
  • Understand how decisions influence each other and compound over time.
  • Approaches for when and how to record decisions.

Improving Flow in Large Software Product Development Organizations: A sensemaking and complex adaptive systems perspective

For my PhD research I studied several large software product development organizations to get a better understanding flow and impediments. Flow-based development is a rich and growing field with many concepts; the specific focus for this study is impediments to flow. This study takes the perspective that organizations are complex adaptive systems. This research uses sensemaking to get a richer, more-informed understanding of flow, impediments, and the context and culture of the organizations that are experiencing impediments to flow. The organizations that are part of this study are all large software product development organizations. The focus of this study, then, narrows to managing impediments to flow in large software product development organizations, using a sensemaking and complexity perspective.

More details, including a link to my thesis, can be found here.

Sense of Place within the Virtuous Circle of Architecture Decision-Making

Rebecca Wirfs-Brock and I developed a workshop on decision making in software architecture. This is an extract from a paper from the IEEE International Conference on Software Architecture (ICSA 2019) that describes the workshop. The final version is in the ICSA proceedings. A preprint of the full paper is available here.

Abstract

First, we shape our architecture. Then, our architecture shapes us. As architects we bring part of ourselves to the systems we work with. We evolve with our architectures. In this tutorial we consider the metaphor of “terroir” to understand architectures and their sense of place. Terroir comes from the French word used to describe the set of all environmental factors that affect the observable characteristics of an organism, e.g., the unique set of contextual characteristics of place that influence food crops, coffee, tea, or wine. So too in systems, architectures are uniquely shaped by the culture and context of a place. Factors include people, organization, culture, technology, and tenets shared among the architects and makers. Understanding an architecture is a first step towards evaluating it. The set of concepts and practical tools covered in this tutorial are well suited to being used in conducting architecture analyses and reviews and integrate with any other processes an organization might be using.

Structure and Outline

  • Part 1: Making sense of system architectures. The tutorial begins by introducing some concepts that help people to make sense of a system architecture. The outcome includes insight not just into the architecture itself, but also the wider context, including culture, decision-making processes, attitudes, constraints, and assumptions that contribute to the architecture. We will demonstrate how to see and interpret patterns to understand architecture context and understand the decision-making landscape of which architects are part.
  • Part 2: Decision models for architects. Having established a sense of place for the architecture, we will move into discussing decision models. Different kinds of decision are necessary to evolve our architectures. Sometimes we need to make high-stakes decisions under conditions of uncertainty, with insufficient information, and too little time. Other times we need to balance deep thought, collaboration, and trade-offs among different architecture qualities.
  • Part 3: Taking action to evolve our architectures in conditions of uncertainty. Once we have a sense of place, and we have decided how we will make decisions, we will move into action. In this tutorial we focus on making decisions and acting in conditions of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. We explore the roles of heuristics and experimentation for making decisions under such conditions, and how this influences the evolution and evolve-ability of our architectures.
  • Part 4: Practical considerations for the dimension of time in architecture decisions. In this section we will look at the temporal dimensions of architecture decisions. We will look at the time factors that affect our architectures. These include when decisions are made, the cadence of decision making, the impact of decisions over time, and challenges around ensuring follow-through and consistency of decisions over time.
  • Part 5: Summary and closing activities. Summary of concepts, decision models and tools; Q&A. In this section we spend time to ensure participants have at least one or two practical things they are ready to try when they get back to the office.

Understanding Architecture Decisions in Context

This is the abstract and recommendations from a paper on understanding the context in which architects make decisions that I co-wrote with Rebecca Wirfs-Brock. We presented the paper at the 2018 European Conference on Software Architecture (ECSA 2018) in Madrid. The full paper is available in the ECSA 2019 proceedings, published by Springer. A preprint version is available here.

Abstract

Many organizations struggle with efficient architecture decision-making approaches. Often, the decision-making approaches are not articulated or understood. This problem is particularly evident in large, globally distributed organizations with multiple large products and systems. The significant architecture decisions of a system are a critical organization knowledge asset, as well as a determinant of success. However, the environment in which decisions get made, recorded, and followed up on often confounds rather than helps articulation and execution of architecture decisions. This paper looks at aspects of architecture decision-making, drawing from an industry-based case study. The data represents findings from a qualitative case study involving a survey and three focus groups across multiple organizations in a global technology company. Architects in this organization are responsible for multiple products and systems, where individual products can include up to 50+ teams. The impact is not just on others in the system; architecture decisions also impact other decisions and other architects. The findings suggest recommendations for organizations to improve how they make and manage architecture decisions. In particular, this paper notes the relevance of group decision-making, decision scope, and social factors such as trust in effective architecture decision-making.

Recommendations

  • Consider the space-time separation of teams, and how that impacts architecture de- cisions. When dealing with teams who are separated in space (through multiple ge- ographies) and time (through multiple time zones), make an effort to compartmental- ize the scope of responsibility of teams such that coherent architecture decisions can be made in each location.
  • Establish clear decision-making boundaries. Articulate who is responsible for which type of decisions. This can be based on scope of decision (product, system, compo- nent, etc.), nature of decision (product, technology, etc.), or something else.
  • If your organization is using an agile development approach, then take the time to articulate how architecture fits.
  • Understand who is impacted by decisions made by architects. Establish a feedback loop so that architects understand that impact in a timely manner.
  • Start with why. Architects in this study expressed a much higher degree of success in decision adoption when other people understood why a decision is being taken. This is an important part of the context of architecture decisions.
  • Take the time to foster trust among architects and those impacted by decisions.
  • Consider how architecture decisions are retained and communicated. We see a need for retaining and communicating architecture decisions and their rationale, espe- cially when decisions have broad impact. Documenting decisions, to be effective, should fit into existing processes.
  • Some decisions are necessarily made for short-term expediency, e.g. to address an immediate customer need. Perhaps there needs to be some mechanism to flag these types of decisions and manage them, perhaps in a product debt backlog (especially those that will incur architecture debt) for periodic review.

Sensemaking and Complexity in Large-Scale Lean-Agile Transformation

This is the abstract from a paper I wrote about my experiences using sensemaking in large-scale transformation efforts. I presented this at the 49th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS 2016). The final paper is available as part of the HICSS proceedings. A pre-print is available here.

Abstract

For organizations undergoing agile and lean transformation, it can be difficult to get meaningful, actionable insights into progress and impediments. Teams and organizations are best understood as complex adaptive human systems. Understanding what is happening in such systems requires approaches grounded in the complexity sciences and social sciences. This paper describes an approach using complexity science and sensemaking that helps an organization understand its culture, how it is progressing with its strategic initiatives, and the types of impediments that are holding it back. It provides a means of qualitative and quantitative analysis that helps teams and organizations improve. This paper also correlates the experiences of the people in the organization to its goals of being a more agile organization.

Organization and Business Agility: Managing the Portfolio Backlog in Large Organizations

This is the abstract and summary of lessons learned from an experience report I wrote and presented at the Agile 2015 conference in Washington DC. The full paper is available here. Among other things, the paper talks about using A3 problem solving, Cynefin, and the Containers, Differences, Exchanges model from Human Systems Dynamics in the context of portfolio management in large organizations.

Abstract

Working in a multi-team, multi-program, multi-product environment brings several challenges. One of those is providing a smooth flow of work to teams, and incorporating their feedback, while staying responsive to the needs of the business in a changing environment. Managing the portfolio backlog is a critical piece of the solution. This Experience Report documents several years’ experience working in such environments. The focus of this Experience Report is specifically on managing the portfolio backlog, not the full scope of what could be considered under a portfolio management strategy and implementation. We have found that getting the portfolio backlog management strategy right is a key element in the success of the overall portfolio management approach.

Summary of Lessons Learned

This section summarizes some of the key lessons learned in managing portfolio backlogs. Some general lessons related to solving problems in organizations include:

  • Understanding the nature of the problem helps us to take appropriate action to solve the problem. The Cynefin framework helps with this.
  • Make sure you are solving actual problems and causes, not just symptoms. A3 problem solving helps with this.
  • Understand how to create a balance between agility, self-organization and coherence. HSD and the CDE model helps with this.
  • Focus on the end-to-end flow of value through your organization, and on actively removing anything that impedes the flow of work. Lean thinking helps with this.
  • Understand what success and failure could look like before running your experiments. This will help you pay beselective about the patterns you pay attention to.

Some specific lessons related to managing portfolio backlogs in large organizations include:

  • Define the focus of your portfolio. In general, it is good practice to base the portfolio structure on your product line rather than organization structure. The former is what your customers care about; the latter more temporal.
  • Understand what content goes on the portfolio backlog. Define different types of items, e.g., features, initiatives, architecture items, etc.
  • Focus on the flow of work from portfolio to teams. The portfolio backlog management approach is an enabler of flow. Define policies for centralized portfolio-level decisions and localized program- and team-level decisions.
  • Set up a portfolio backlog management meeting at a regular cadence with the right participants. Create a Definition of Ready for portfolio items. Focus the meeting on feedback from the development teams, and on moving portfolio backlog items to a ‘ready’ state. Do not let it become a status or strategy planning meeting.
  • Create conditions that encourage a strong relationship between product managers, engineering leaders and architects. Together they bring multiple important perspectives to creating the portfolio backlog items. Consider also adding user experience design leaders to this mix, depending on the nature of your products.

Finally, this is a process of continuous experimentation and improvement. While some things can ultimately be moved to the obvious domain of best practices, or the complicated domain of good practices, we still operate within an ever-changing and complex environment that requires continuous awareness, experimentation, learning and adaptation. We continue to experiment and make improvements.

A Metric-Based Approach to Managing Architecture-Related Impediments in Product Development Flow

This abstract is from a paper I co-wrote with Kieran Conboy for the 37th International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE 2015) in Firenze, Italy. The final paper is available in the conference proceedings. A pre-print version is available here.

Abstract

Contemporary lean thinking, especially in knowledge work areas like software engineering, begins with understanding flow. Architecture plays a vital role in enabling the flow of value in software engineering teams and organizations. To date there has been little research in understanding impediments to flow in software engineering organizations. A focus on enabling flow through removing impediments is a useful perspective in creating a more agile, lean thinking software engineering organization. Particularly so when supported by appropriate metrics. This paper presents a case study of how architecture-related impediments impact the flow of work in software engineering teams and organizations. The key contributions of this paper are centered on the concept of flow and impediments in modern software engineering, and its relationship with architecture. We develop an understanding of how a focus on flow and removing impediments, supported by appropriate metrics, is helpful in identifying architecture-related challenges . Drawing on research of one company’s practices the paper presents an example of a scenario where flow analysis using specific metrics reveals architecture-related impediments and shows how addressing these impediments improves effectiveness and productivity in ways that would not otherwise have been revealed.

Metrics for Understanding Flow

This is the abstract and conclusions from a paper I presented at Agile 2014. The full text is here.

Abstract

When adopting agile and lean approaches in our company, one goal for teams and organizations is to achieve a smooth end-to-end flow of work through the system. This paper presents a useful set of metrics that reveal how work is flowing. It describes four metrics we find useful: Cumulative Flow, Throughput Analysis combined with Demand Analysis, Cycle Time and Lead Time.

Conclusions

These metrics help you understand Flow in your teams and organizations. In particular:

  • CFDs give deeper insight into what’s happening in queues or workflow states, and help diagnose problems.
  • Throughput Analysis shows how work is flowing through our system over time. It is even more useful when combined with a Demand Analysis that shows the proportion of work flowing through the systemthat is Value Demand versus Failure Demand.
  • Cycle Time analysis shows how long it takes for work items to pass through one or a subset of workflowstates. This enables teams to make predictions about how long it takes to process planned work items.
  • Lead Time analysis shows how long it takes for work items to pass through the entire organization. This enables the organization to make predictions about how long it will take to process requests. We generally use Lead Time to understand the time it takes work to pass through all states, from the moment there is arequest or idea, to the moment the work is complete and in the hands of customers.
  • All these metrics can be used to indicate the presence of impediments to Flow in your system. The combination of these metrics offers good insight into what’s happening in an organization. They provide insight and visibility on status, and inform forecasting around when specific content might be delivered.

Social Contracts, Simple Rules, and Self-Organization

This is the abstract and conclusions from a short paper I wrote and presented at the 15th International Conference on Agile Software Development (XP 2014) in Rome, Italy. A preprint version of the full paper is available here.

Abstract

Teams and organizations are complex adaptive systems. Self- organization in complex adaptive systems evolves through a set of Simple Rules. Self-organization is a core tenet of agile teams. Self-organization does not mean everyone gets to do whatever they want to do. Team members create contracts with each other. These contracts create boundaries, or containers, within which self-organization can occur. Teams also create contracts with other teams, the wider organization and other stakeholders. The contracts are both implicit and explicit. Social contracts in complex adaptive systems are more effective if they are based on Simple Rules. Social Contract Theory acts as a lens through which we can better understand these social contracts in agile teams. This paper represents ongoing research that examines the role of Simple Rules and Social Contract Theory in fostering self-organization in agile development teams. The paper discusses four examples of social contracts in agile teams: definition of done, definition of ready, working agreements, and retrospectives.

Conclusions

This paper described the connection between Social Contract Theory and agile teams, viewing agile teams as complex adaptive systems. The field of Human Systems Dynamics provides a suitable lens through which to view teams and organizations as complex adaptive social systems, and defines necessary conditions for self- organization using Containers, Differences and Exchanges. The social contracts in agile teams and organizations are based on the Simple Rules that govern emergence and self-organization.

Simple Rules support coherent behaviors in a system. Definition of done, definition of ready, and working agreements are all examples of social contracts, created using Simple Rules, in agile teams and organizations. In addition, there are examples of social contracts to be found in retrospectives, including the prime directive, second directive and ground rules. These Simple Rules and Social Contracts support emergent behaviors and self-organization.

Teams own their own Simple Rules. As teams adapt their Simple Rules, new patterns are formed in the system. These patterns are governed by the social contracts created by the Simple Rules. Violating the Simple Rules creates a tension in the system that can be resolved by the team enforcing the rules or altering the rules (an Exchange intervention), or by the team membership changing (a Container intervention).
Social Contracts exist within agile teams, between agile teams, between agile teams and management, and within management teams.

Software Engineering Research in Product Development Flow

Research

Good research is critical to building the body of knowledge of software engineering, and understanding the principles on which our industry is built. Even more, without the solid foundation of theory that comes from research, it is difficult to scale the practices we use in industry beyond a limited context. Lero, the Irish Software Engineering Research Centre, hosted an Industry Research Day today, to highlight and share some of the great software engineering research work that goes on at the Centre.

There are some great talks from partner companies including IBM, Intel, and St. James’s Hospital, Dublin. There are keynotes by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the current European European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, and Seán Sherlock, the current Minister of State for Research and Innovation. It is great to see the richness and variety of software engineering research going on in Ireland, and the support available at both an EU and national government level.

My talk is a short summary of my ongoing PhD research work. I talk about learning and feedback cycles, learning to see impediments to flow, and some examples of how to see impediments in your team and organisation. I also talked about some preliminary research results, including how to tell who is really influencing flow and impediments in your organisation, what reaction time can tell us about threats and opportunities, and how to empower teams and engage management through an impediment removal process.

Slides from my talk are available here:

Portfolio Management and Organization Flow

I’ll be speaking at RallyON Europe this September on the topic of Portfolio Management and Organization Flow.

Complexity of product development increases as we move from a single team or product focus to a cross-organisation portfolio focus. Organisation Flow is about achieving the Lean concept of flow at an organisation level, not just at the level of a single product or product line.

This session will look at an approach to portfolio backlog management, and describe how to manage the flow of work through a portfolio of multiple products delivered by 50 teams in 6 locations across the US, Europe, India and China.

We will include examples of some core metrics that help understand throughput and flow in the organisation. These metrics tell a story about what is happening in the organisation. Lessons from these stories include understanding impediments to flow, and understanding who and what in the organisation is influencing flow.

I did an interview last week with Hannah Shain from Rally. The recording from the interview is here:

There’s a great lineup of content for the conference. If you’re in London I hope to see you there!

Update: Here is the slide deck I used at the conference:

Understanding the Impact of Technical Debt on the Capacity and Velocity of Teams and Organizations

This is the abstract from a short paper I write for the Managing Technical Debt workshop at the International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE 2013) in San Francisco. A preprint of the paper is available here.

Abstract

Understanding the impact of technical debt is critical to understanding a team’s velocity. For organizations with multiple teams and products, the impact of technical debt combines non-linearly to impact the organization’s velocity. We can think of the capacity of a team as a portfolio. Not all of that capacity can be invested in new features or defect fixing, without incurring negative consequences. A portion of the team’s capacity needs to be invested in the ongoing management and reduction of technical debt. This paper describes a simple technique for visualizing, quantifying and tracking a team’s technical debt as a portion of their overall capacity investment. The knowledge and insights gained through this technique help with better capacity planning, improved forecasting, and helps to justify the business case for investing in managing and reducing technical debt.

Conclusions

This paper described a technique for considering the capacity of your team as an investment portfolio. Investing in technical debt management and reduction needs to be a part of a healthy portfolio. If neglected, a team’s Technical debt will mount over time and impact their feature velocity. Consider the different ways a team could invest its time as Real Options. Make investments in debt reduction explicit and visible, and track actual investments at regular periods. Taken to an organization level, the organization needs to be ware of the amount of technical debt it has, and the overall strategy for investing in managing and reducing that debt.

Slide Deck

Lean Startup in Large Organizations

I gave a talk today at a Lean Startup event organized by Enterprise Ireland and ITAG.

The topic of my talk was Lean Startup in large organizations, and specifically talking about lessons learned from applying Lean Product Development and Lean Startup principles at Cisco.

The three specific lessons I talked about are:

  1. Learning to manage batch sizes and limit Work in Process (WIP)
  2. Customer Development
  3. Learning to see and manage waste

The slide deck is available via Slideshare:

Lean Systems Society

Lean Systems Society

As of May 2012, the Lean Software and Systems Society has officially re-branded as the Lean Systems Society. As part of the launch, a number of founding Fellows have been named. I am honored and delighted to have been invited to be a founding Fellow of the Lean Systems Society.

Purpose

The purpose of the Lean Systems Society is:

to improve the world by improving its systems. The Society organization will be modeled on the United Kingdom’s Royal Society and its “Fellowship of the world’s most eminent scientists.” The Royal Society was created to actively encourage thought leadership in the sciences by honoring original thinkers as Fellows, and encouraging their collaboration and debate. It has succeeded in this mission for over 300 years, and is an ideal model to emulate.

The Lean Systems Society Credo

From the Lean Systems Society Web site:

The Lean Systems Society believes that excellence in managing complexity requires accepting that complexity and uncertainty are natural to social systems and knowledge work. Effective systems must produce both better economic and sociological outcomes. Their development requires a holistic approach that incorporates the human condition. The Society is committed to exploring valuable ideas from all disciplines, and fostering a community that derives solutions from a common set of values and principles, while embracing specific context and avoiding dogma.

Fellowship of the Lean Systems Society

You can see the full list of current LSS Fellows at the LSS site. As of May 2012, the founding fellows are:

David J. Anderson Jeff Anderson Markus Andrezak
Jim Benson Barry Boehm Bjarte Bognes
Bob Charette Alan Chedalawada Steve Denning
Israel Gat Hillel Glazer Siddharta Govindaraj
Russell Healy Chris Hefley Richard Hensley
Curtis Hibbs Kenji Hiranabe Greg Howell
David Joyce Michael Kennedy Liz Keogh
Corey Ladas Janice Linden-Reed Hal Macomber
Ryan Martens Peter Middleton Benjamin Mitchell
Frode Odegard Greg Parnell Ken Power ( me!! 🙂 )
Don Reinertsen Chet Richards Karl Scotland
Alan Shalloway Sarah Sheard Chris Shinkle
David Snowden James Sutton Jean Tabaka
Richard Turner Alisson Vale Yuval Yeret
Greg Yezersky Jason Yip

The Fellowship was officially launched at the LSSC 2012 conference in Boston.

Press Releases

The official Lean Systems Society press release can be found here. There are additional press releases on Yahoo News, InfoQ and others.

Looking to the Future

I’m looking forward to continuing to contribute in whatever way I can to the Lean community, and to helping the Lean Systems Society to grow and flourish. The Society’s purpose of “improving the world by improving its systems” is a stirring and timely call to action for all of us.

Enjoy a Lean Coffee

What is Lean Coffee?

Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith founded the Lean Coffee movement in Seattle in 2009. Since then, Lean Coffee events have sprung up around the world. The basic idea is for a group of people to get together to discuss topics around which they share a common interest, specifically around agile, lean, kanban, lean startup, etc. There is also an OpenCoffee movement, founded by Saul Klein in 2007. The intent behind OpenCoffee is to provide an open forum for investors, entrepreneurs and developers to come together, meet, discuss ideas, and find opportunities to work together.

The Lean Coffee format is essentially an approach to facilitating learning and collaboration through group discussions. The ‘Lean’ part of the name has its roots in Lean Thinking, and related areas of Lean Production, Lean Software, Lean Startup, etc. The ‘Coffee’ part of the name obviously comes from that nice drink that some of us are partial to. Meetups typically take place in the morning, at a local coffee house, at the same time and place each week.

Lean Coffee events are increasingly becoming a fixture at many conferences, in a similar way that Open Space has. We had a great Lean Coffee event at LESS2011 in Stockholm last year.

How it works

The Lean Coffee format has a lot in common with Open Space, particularly in the sense that you are asking people to move away from an agenda-driven gathering to a more open, collaborative, dynamic, emergent type of gathering.

The protocol, borrowed and modified from the Sydney Lean Coffee group and Limited WIP Society, is as follows:

  1. Everyone offers topics they are interested in discussing by writing them on index cards (or sticky notes).
  2. Everyone presents his or her topic as an Elevator Pitch (max 1 minute per topic).
  3. Use dot voting to vote on each of the topics.  Each person gets two votes. You can only vote once per topic.
  4. Prepare three columns on a table or wall. Call them “Planned”, “In Progress” and “Done”. Add all topics to the “Planned” column, with those that received the highest votes at the top.
  5. Discuss each topic in turn. Move the index card for the topic into the “In Progress” column. Initially, ask the proposer to explain the topic, then go round the table to give an opportunity for everyone to provide an initial comment, then open discussion.
  6. When the topic is done, move on to the next one.  The topic proposer decides when the topic is done, and moves the index card to the “Done” column.  If someone disagrees, then s/he can raise a new topic.  Expect to discuss 3-4 topics over the space of an hour or so.
  7. Consider time boxing each topic to 15 minutes max.
  8. At the end of the overall Lean Coffee session, run a quick retrospective.  What did you like? What didn’t you like? What are ideas for improvement?

As a variation, particularly if you have a large group, consider splitting into sub-groups if people are particularly passionate about specific topics. Then get back together after the topic discussion to present highlights to, and get feedback from, the wider group.

Lean Coffee at work

The idea and format for Lean Coffee is very simple and effective. It can be used in work too. For example, consider hosting a Lean Coffee event every week in your office. It can be a great way to share experiences and challenges across teams and gather interested people who don’t normally get to discuss these topics together.

If you find your retrospectives are becoming routine, then this is a good way to break out of the rut. There is no leader or facilitator required. The team can self-organize a Lean Coffee style event without any preparation. The team decides which topics to discuss, and how long to spend on each topic.

The only prerequisites are a set of index cards or sticky notes, a set of Sharpies, and some interested and willing people.

References

Some sites for Lean Coffee Meetups around the world:

Writings about Lean Coffee

Obstacles to decision making in Agile software development teams

This is the abstract from a paper I co-wrote with Kieran Conboy and Meghan Drury. It was published in the June 2012 issue of Journal of Systems and Software. The full paper is available from Elsevier.

Drury, M., Conboy, K., and Power, K. (2012). “Obstacles to decision making in Agile software development teams.Journal of Systems and Software, 85(6), 1239-1254.

Abstract

The obstacles facing decision making in Agile development are critical yet poorly understood. This research examines decisions made across four stages of the iteration cycle: Iteration Planning, Iteration Execution, Iteration Review and Iteration Retrospective. A mixed method approach was employed, whereby a focus group was initially conducted with 43 Agile developers and managers to determine decisions made at different points of the iteration cycle. Subsequently, six illustrative mini cases were purposefully conducted as examples of the six obstacles identified in these focus groups. This included interviews with 18 individuals in Agile projects from five different organizations: a global consulting organization, a multinational communications company, two multinational software development companies, and a large museum organization. This research contributes to Agile software development literature by analyzing decisions made during the iteration cycle and identifying six key obstacles to these decisions. Results indicate the six decision obstacles are unwillingness to commit to decisions; conflicting priorities; unstable resource availability; and lack of: implementation; ownership; empowerment. These six decision obstacles are mapped to descriptive decision making principles to demonstrate where the obstacles affect the decision process. The effects of these obstacles include a lack of longer-term, strategic focus for decisions, an ever-growing backlog of delayed work from previous iterations, and a lack of team engagement.

Happy Memories of the ALE2011 Spouse and Kids Program

I was having lunch with Jurgen, Olaf and others at XP2011 in Madrid earlier this year. The details for what would become the first ALE conference would start to be worked out later that week. Jurgen asked me if I had any thoughts about what we could do that would be a little different. I thought it would be good to find a way to include spouses and children in the conference program – not just bring them to wherever city the conference was going to be in, but actually integrate them into the conference.

The Spouses and Kids Program

Monika KoniecznyOlga Woronowicz and Christiane Lewitz took on the job of leading the Spouse and Kids Program and did a great job organizing the program. Mornings were filled with games and other activities in the conference hotel. There was a trip organized for each day after lunch. On Wednesday, there was a visit to Berlin Zoo. On Thursday, it was the Berlin Communications Museum. On Friday they had a dinosaur tour at the Natural History Museum.

Post-It Art

Last week I wrote about Post-It Wars, and how we tried it out at work. I had the chance to hang out with families of other conference attendees (and my own family) at ALE2011, so I got them all to play too. We started off in the room that was reserved for families. The kids had a great time. After some negotiation, they quickly agreed on the music, picking out the Beatles and Bob Marley. Music blaring, they got to work. It was amazing to watch as a group of kids who had never met until a few hours earlier came together to create pictures using Post It Notes.

ALE2011 Kids Making Post It Art
ALE2011 Kids Making Post It Art

While the other conference attendees were in one of the sessions, we broke out into the coffee break area (bringing music with us) and used the windows there too (top left). The parents got in on the action too, and had fun with it. I got some pictures of the work-in-progress from outside the hotel (top right), and their work attracted the attention of some passers by (bottom center).

ALE2011 Post-It Art Collage 1
ALE2011 Kids Make Post-It Art
ALE2011 Kids Making Spongebob
ALE2011 Kids Making Spongebob
ALE2011 Kids Making Spongebob
ALE2011 Kids Making Spongebob
ALE2011 Kids Making Apple Logo
ALE2011 Kids Making Apple Logo

The hotel windows provided a great canvas to work from, and fortunately the hotel staff were very understanding 🙂 Here is what their work looked like from outside the hotel:

ALE2011 Kids Make Post-It Art

Afterwards, we went outside to admire their great art work. Never one to pass up on some fun, Mike came too 🙂

The ALE2011 Post-It Wars Team
The ALE2011 Post-It Wars Team

Some of the kids put their new skills to good use at Thursday night’s dinner.

Marshmallow Challenge

The Marshmallow Challenge is a fun game that I often play with teams. You can play it with friends and family too. At ALE2011 I played it with the ALE families. This time they picked Red Hot Chilli Peppers, U2, Bon Jovi and the Beatles. Rock’n’Roll!

ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge
ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge
ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge
ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge
ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge
ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge
ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge
ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge

Other Games and Activities

Oana Jancu, whose kids were also there, taught everyone ‘Where Are Your Keys?“, an amazing game for learning new skills, particularly new languages. The kids used the game to learn some Portuguese, French, and Irish. Monika played lots of games, arts and crafts activities.  Christiane spent all day Wednesday and Friday with the families. She taught them origami and brought them to the Zoo and Natural History Museum.

ALE2011 Spouse and Kids: Zoo Tour -The Elephants at Berlin Zoo
Learning About Elephants at Berlin Zoo

That’s an elephant’s tooth the tour guide is holding.

ALE2011 Spouse and Kids: Zoo Tour - Watching the Monkeys at Berlin Zoo
Watching the Monkeys at Berlin Zoo
ALE2011 Spouse and Kids: Zoo Tour - Feeding the Monkeys at Berlin Zoo
Feeding the Monkeys at Berlin Zoo

Why Include Spouse and Children in a Conference?

There are at least three big reasons why I think its important to include a Spouse and Kids Program in the conference:

  1. Some of us attend a lot of conferences. That’s a lot of time away from home and family. Being able to bring them with us and hang out during and around the conference is a good thing. Even if you go to only one conference, it’s still nice to be able to bring your spouse and kids. Of course you can bring your family on any trip; the difference with ALE2011 is they were an integrated part of the conference. I like that my wife and children could meet some of the people I have come to know and consider friends. It’s fantastic that my kids can have the opportunity to make friends with other kids from around the world. Vasco tweeted that it made his quality of life better; I concur.
  2. It gives our families a chance to see what we do at conferences. It can be hard sometimes to explain to our families what we do for a living. This gives them some insights.
  3. It is an opportunity to inspire kids to consider a career in our industry. Many countries are struggling to find people with the right skills to fill job vacancies, and there is a growing shortage of children (particularly girls) taking science, maths and engineering courses in school and university. This is a real crisis for our profession. Attending a fun conference can leave them with positive feelings and memories. If they can see that what we do can be a fun and rewarding path, and spread the word to their friends, that can only be a good thing for the future of our industry.
ALE2011 Kids Post-It Art Team with Ice Cream
ALE2011 Kids Post-It Art Team with Ice Cream

Looking Ahead

It was a great pleasure to meet and spend time with the families of Oana, Vasco, Kurt, Andrea and others. I hope this is a tradition we can continue at ALE conferences, and maybe even extend to some other conferences. Based on feedback so far, including the retrospective output, it seems to have been a positive experience overall. Let’s see how we can make it even better for next time.

The Marshmallow Challenge

The Marshmallow Challenge is a game for learning about innovation, creativity, teams, collaboration, as well as the value of early prototyping and incremental delivery. Part of the real power of the game is in helping people to identify the hidden assumptions that every project has, and to recognize the value in diversity of team membership.

I came across the Marshmallow Challenge last year, but I didn’t get a chance to play it until I attended the Play4Agile Conference in Germany earlier this year, where Michael Sahota facilitated a great session one night in the hotel bar (which was full of conference attendees, all taking part). Since then I’ve run the Marshmallow Challenge several times.

Running the Marshmallow Challenge Game

Materials

For each team, you need

  • 20 sticks of spaghetti
  • 1 meter of tape
  • 1 meter of string
  • 1 marshmallow
  • 1 large envelope (optional)

You will also need one measuring tape.

I use my iPod and speakers to provide a soundtrack while the game is in play.

Preparation

Just to add to the mystery I like to prepare in advance the envelopes containing the spaghetti sticks and string, and hand out the envelopes before explaining what the game is.

Playing the Game

  • Hand out the envelopes to each team. I ask them to wait until everyone has one before opening them.
  • Explain the objective of building a tower.
  • Explain the rules.
  • I often hold back the marshmallow until this point. Up until now they know they have to build a tower. Adding a light, fluffy marshmallow is no big deal, right?
  • Everybody starts building their towers at the same time.
  • I like to play music during the game play, something upbeat to add to the atmosphere. I have a few playlists created that are approximately 18 minutes long.
  • Repeat the rules out loud a few times during the session. People will ask for clarification anyway.
  • Draw attention to teams that are doing particularly well (or poorly) – create a little friendly competition.
  • The winner is the team that has the tallest free-standing structure at the end of the 18 minutes. So, if, for example, a team decides to stop building after 10 minutes, their tower must still be standing at the end of the game.

There are more detailed instructions over on the Marshmallow Challenge home page.

Review and Wrap up

The review is where the reflection happens. Think of it as a retrospective of sorts.

Where to use it

I’ve used this at project kick-offs, at the start of release planning sessions, in retrospectives. You can use it in just about any situation where you have a group of people who want to gain insights into working together.

In this picture, I am running a Marshmallow Challenge with 50+ people at the kick-off for a new project.

The Marshmallow Challenge with 50+ People

The winner that day was an impressive 34.5 inches.

The Winning Marshmallow Tower

Here is a TED Talk video by Tim Wujec describing the Marshmallow Challenge:

Bringing Your Work Home With You

I’ve played the Marshmallow Challenge at home too. My kids were with me when I was shopping for supplies, so of course they wanted to know that the marshmallows were for. When I told them they were for a game, they wanted to play too. We had a full house that night, as their cousins were visiting too, so we had enough for three teams, slightly bending the rules on numbers. They were quick to catch on to the value of early prototyping and working as a team. It was a lot of fun – one of the better ways to bring your work home with you.

References