Reflections after Agile Greece

· September 22, 2018

I’ve just attended Agile Greece Summit which was a wonderful event. Many awesome speaker, met a few of my heroes (Linda Rising, Michael Feathers, David Snowden and Mark Schwartz) and met new friends (Portia Tung, Alison Coward, Lisi Hocke, Gary Crawford and Gwen Diagram, just to mention a few) and finally had many interesting and challenging conversations throughout the conference.

All in all it was a very good event to attened, expertly organised by an awesome team and I consider myself lucky to have been here.

As with many conferences an underlying theme starts to emerge from the different talks. I suspect we take inspiration from other speakers and conversations, but I’ve observed this too many times to think it’s a coincidence.

I wanted a few reflections that I got during this conference. It can be summed up in a few very strange sentences:

It’s all about people, and they are complex systems working in complex systems. So you cannot trust their experiences or facting them into do what you want. But you can put down your sword and listen, and that will open new possibilities that you didn’t have before

Let me explain how I interpret the messages of the two days.

It’s all about people

The first day ended with a very interesting and fun talk on Play by my friend (yah!) Portia Tung. Too many good things that stands out there - see it yourself as soon as you can, but it underlined what we talked about in many sessions and conversations the first day.

Although we are doing techincal things, with methods and processes - it is all people.

Every story, every point made or even tools shone light on the people in the team. How they could (or not) cooperate and thrive together. The space made for them to be awesome - or not.

Even the first keynote by Michael Feathers, that was more techinal, talk mostly how people would interact better or worse by the structures we put in place to help them do so.

This is obviously not something new (see Agile Manifesto for starters) but I sense a move away from stats, diagrams, simulations and calculations (a little bit - I still use and propagate for these things) to celebrating the creativity and innovation hidden within each human being. And how a good process, great tooling, great understanding of the enabling constraints can help them become the best version of them.

And they are complex systems in complex systems

Well, this positive feeling was almost taken out of me with the “professional sceptic” (his own word) Dave Snowden, in his keynote. His points are often dressed in pretty complicated english and generally so deep that I have to think for about a minute per sentence… But I got this:

Social systems are complex systems. That means that if you take it apart and put it back together again it’s not the same system. Because there are humans in them.

Hence, you cannot take a method or process that worked for one complex system and apply it to another and expect it to produce the similar result.

Example; the Spotify model has under many (since 2012) been cited, used and asked for as a great way to scale agile.

Well… unless you are Spotify back in 2012 and have the same set of challenges… It will not work equally great for you, my friend. It will not work for you. Here. Now. With the people in your organisation.

Psst - even Spotify has evolved long beyond that model. Obviously. They evolve, does mistakes, change, tweaks and learn.

Also think about other prescriptive methods. Where were they invented? What challenges did they face? What opportunities did they have? Are you the same?

So you cannot trust them your experiences

Further more, Prof Snowden told us, people are notoriously good in remembering and forgetting parts of the actual chain of events. If something great happen we interpreted our actions as things that helped that result. When things goes south it was bad luck.

This is highlight in many places in Daniel Kahnemans book Thinking Fast and Slow too.

At this point I got chills down my spine. I have just published a story about a hospital in Indonesia and how we used a method and process to help them survive and improve. And I can almost guarantee that I’ve forgotten, painted a better (or worse) picture than the actual facts. In any case I’ve told the book from my perspective and how I perceived it - there was at least 100 people more in the hospital.

Am I a baddie? Do I tell people to do that and succeed?

Well, I don’t. In fact, I always try to ensure that the Bungsu story is an inspirational story that by all means is true. But I also suspect that you have a very different context and cannot apply the tools in the same way as we did; when the roof falls in, on a hospital running with loss and no renewed operational permit. And even if you did - you didn’t have Dr Lillian, Ibu Elsye or a crazy Swede.

Read the story (DO IT!, DO IT NOW!), be inspired by others but don’t apply their concepts straight off. Think about why they did what they did and apply those prinicples to find your practices, when they make sense.

Or facting them into do what you want

The best keynote was left for last. I’ve never cried before at an IT presentation (saved my own when I too emotional about the … people … that was restored) - but the last keynote by Linda Rising had me in tears.

Her topic was about meeting resistance and convincing others. And this was topic that came up again and again in the questions. “How do I tell them to…”, “What if they don’t want to …” or “What do you do with people resisting change?”

She started with a very revealing thought experiment:

Imagine that you have a debate with someone you don’t agree with. It can be something simple as Trump or very very sensitive as #NoEstimates. Now imagine that you use FACT to fence them to the ground. Your arguments are wastly better. They shred you opponent to a puddle and they (metaphorically) lies on the ground looking up to you. Bleeding. Now do you think that they will say: Thank you! I now see the light. You showed me how stupid I was and I regret that. But thank you. You knew best.

Newflash: that will never happen. If anything they will believe even more that they are right. You strenghten (or even frighten) them more.

This is bad news for anyone like me that are hired to do transformations (shrug) and turn peoples mind. Linda just said that I cannot. Facts will not change our mind

But you can put down your sword and listen

So what can we do? I was at a loss.

We can put down our sword of facts. We can stop and convince people into think my way is better.

And listen.

(That’s how the keynote ended and I was sobbing. Feel free to sob with me.)

Listen. That is the trick. They want to be heard. How am I to know what they were thinking when they wrote something angry or lashed out on me? How am I to have the right to interpret their tone? Maybe I could just listen to them.

And that will open new possibilities that you didn’t have before

Linda related two stories where she was so taken by surprise by a comment that she didn’t know what to say. So she just listen. And that was the thing that made people go:

We can try your idea first and then we’ll see how it works

Linda doesn’t like Trump, like I. But that’s ok. Because she listens.

And from that point the trust was established and new level of cooperation was found.

By listening we create a stronger social understanding and bond between us, and we can up with a better way to work together. Yes, even better than the one that MARCUS (TM) (Ltd) (R) had envisioned at first.


Yes, it might be a bit touchy feely, but for me it all ties together nicely.

If it’s all about people and people are complex systems (as indivuals but even more in groups) it means that we cannot prescribe solutions from before and expect it to work. Our fancy facts and/or stories will not make a difference. Not only that; we cannot use it to convince others either.

But we can listen. Not with the intent to convince. But with the intent to learn.

Imagine what we can learn. Imagine how much better the future will be when are using more perspectives on an issue.

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