Reflections on learning and training (and dyslexia)


German readers might recognise the image above as a Nuremberg Funnel. For the rest of you: the Nuremberg funnel represents the idea that a teacher can simply open a students head and pour in learning.

First off, a warning: this blog entry might be more for me than for you, but its my blog!

Still, I expect (hope) some of you might be interested in my thoughts and reflections on how training, specifically “Agile training” sessions. More importantly writing this down, putting it into words, helps me think, structure my thoughts and put things in order.

Shall I begin?

I’m not naive enough to think training is perfect or can solve everything. But I have enough experience to know that it can make a difference, especially when teams do training together and decide to change together.

One of the ways I’ve made my living for the last 10 years is by delivering “Agile training.” I don’t consider myself a “trainer” (although plenty of others do), I consider myself more as a “singer songwriter” – it is my material and I deliver it. I’ve actually considered renaming my “Agile training” as “Agile rehearsal” because thats how I see it. I haven’t because I’d have to explain this to everyone and more importantly while people do google for “Agile training” nobody searches for “Agile rehearsal.”

Recently I’ve been prompted to think again about how people learn, specifically how they learn and adopt the thing we call “Agile”. One unexpected experience and one current challenge have added to this.

A few months ago I got to sit in while someone else delivered Agile training. On the one hand I accepted that this person was also experienced, also had great success with what he did, also claimed his courses were very practical and he wasn’t saying anything I really disagreed with.

On the other hand he reminded me of my younger self. The training felt like the kind of training I gave when I was just starting out. Let me give you two examples.

When I started giving Agile training I felt I had to share as much as possible with the attendees. I was conscious that I only had them for a limited time and I had so much to tell them! I was aiming to give them everything they needed to know. I had to brain dump… Nuremberg funnel.

So I talked a lot, sessions were long and although I asked “Any questions?” I didn’t perhaps give people enough time to ask or for me to answer – ‘cos I had more brain dumping to do!

Slowly I learned that the attendees grew tired too. There was a point where I was talking and they had ceased to learn. I also learned that given a choice (“Would you like me to talk about Foobar for 30 minutes or have you had enough?”) people always asked for more.        

Second, when I started out I used to include the Agile Manifesto and a whistle-stop-tour of Lean. After all, people should know where this came from and they should understand some of the theory, right? But with time I realised that the philosophy of the manifesto takes up space and isn’t really important. Similarly, Lean is very abstract and people have few reference points. To many (usually younger) people who have never lived “the waterfall” it can seem a crazy straw-man anyway.

Over the years I’ve tried to make my introductions to Agile more experiential. That is, I want to get people doing exercises and reflecting on what happened. I tend to believe that people learn best from their own experience so I try to give them “process miniatures” in the classroom and then talk (reflect) on the experience.

These days my standard starter 2-day Agile training course is three quarters exercises and debriefs. My 1-day “Requirements, User Stories and Backlogs” workshop is almost entirely exercise based. I’m conscious that there is still more stuff – and that different people learn in different ways – so I try to supplement these courses with further reading – part of the reason behind printing “Little Book of User Stories” is to supplement “Agile Reader” in this.

I’m also conscious that by allowing people to learn in different mediums, and to flip between them they can learn more and better.

My own thinking got a big boost when I learned about Constructivist learning theory. Perhaps more importantly I’ve also benefited from exploring my own dyslexia. (Reading The Dyslexic Advantage earlier this year was great.)

Why is dyslexia relevant here? Well two reasons…

Firstly, something I was told a long time ago proves itself time and time again: Dyslexics have problems learning the way non-dyslexics do, but the reverse is not true. What helps dyslexics learn helps everyone else learn better too.

Second: dyslexics look at the world differently and we have to construct their own meaning and find our own ways to learn. To me, Agile requires a different view of the world and it requires us to learn to learn. Three years back I even speculated that Agile is Dyslexic, as time goes by I’m more convinced of that argument.

So why am I thinking so much about all this?

Well, I’ve shied away from online training for a few years now – how can I do exercises? how can I seed reflection?

Now I’ve accepted a request to do some online training. I can’t use my existing material, it is too exercise based. I’m having to think long and hard about this.

One thought is to view “online training” as something different to “rehearsal training.” That is, something delivered through the online medium might be more akin to an audio book, it is something that supplements a rehearsal. But that thinking might be self limiting and ignore opportunities offered online.

The other thing is the commercial medium. As my training has got more experiential and better at helping people move from classroom to action it has actually covered less. The aim is to seed change, although the classroom is supplemented the actual material covered in class is less; learn less change more! – Thats a big part of the reason I usually give free consulting days after training.

In a commercial setting where there is a synopsis and a price tag the incentive is to list more and more content. One is fearful of missing something the buyer considers important. One can imagine a synopsis being placed next to a competitor synopsis and the one with the most content for the least price is chosen.

So, watch this space, I will be venturing into online training. To start off with I’m not sure who is going to be learning the most: the attendees or the presenter! (O perhaps I shouldn’t have said that, maybe I’m too honest.)

If you have any experience with training (as a teacher or student), and especially online training, I’d love to hear about them. Please comment below or email me.

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Friday throughts on the Agile Manifesto and Agile outside of software


While I agree with the Agile Manifesto I’ve never been a great on for defining “Agile” in terms of it.

As time goes by I find the manifesto increasingly looks like a historic document. It was written in response to the problems in the software industry at the turn of the millennium – problems I recognise because I was there. I worked on the Railtrack privatisation, ISO 9000 certified and so much paper you needed a train to move it. I worked at Reuters as they destroyed their own software capability with a CMM stream roller.

The manifesto is a little like Magna Carta or the US Constitution, you sometimes have to read into it what would fit your circumstances. It was written about software and as we apply agile outside of software you have to think “what would it say?” the same way the US Supreme Court looks at the Constitutions interprets what it would say about the Internet

Perhaps a more interesting question than “What is Agile?” is “Where does Agile apply?” or, even more interesting, “Where does Agile not apply?”

One can argue that since Agile includes a self-adaptation mechanism (inspect and adapt) – or as I have argued, Agile is the embodiment of the Learning Organization – it can apply to anything, anywhere. Similarly it has universal applicability and can fix any flaws it has.

Of cause its rather bombastic to make such an argument and quite possibly anyone making that argument hasn’t thought it through.

So the definition of “Agile” becomes important – and since we don’t have one, and can’t agree on one we’re in a rather tricky position.

Increasingly I see “Agile” (and so some degree Lean too) as a response to new technologies and increasing CPU power. Software people – who had a particular problem themselves – had first access to new technologies (programmable assistants, email, instant messenger, wikis, fast tests and more) and used them to address their own issues.

The problems are important. Although people have been talking about “agile outside of software development” for almost as long as agile software development it has never really taken off in the same way. To my mind thats because most other industries don’t have problems which are pushing them to find a better way.

As technologies advance, and as more and more industries become “Digital” and utilise the same tools software engineers have had for longer then those industries increasingly resembled software development. That means two things: other industries start to encounter the same problems as software development but they also start to apply the same solutions.

Software engineers are the prototype of future knowledge workers.

Which implies, the thing we call Agile is the prototype process for many other industries

“Agile outside of software” becomes a meaningless concept when all industries increasingly resemble software delivery.

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Tax the data


If data is the new oil then why don’t we tax it?

My data is worth something to Google, and Facebook, and Twitter, and Amazon… and just about every other Internet behemoth. But alone my data is worth a really tiny tiny amount.

I’d like to charge Google and co. for having my data. The amount they currently pay me – free search, free email, cheap telephone… – doesn’t really add up. In fact, what Google pays me doesn’t pay my mortgage but somehow Larry Page and Sergey Brin are very very rich. Even if I did invoice Google, and even if Google paid we are talking pennies, at most.

But Google don’t just have my data, they have yours, your Mums, our friends, neighbours and just about everyone else. Put it all together and it is worth more than the sum of the parts.

Value of my data to Google < 1p
Value of your data to Google < 1p
Value our combined data to Google > 2p

The whole is worth more than the sum of the parts.

At the same time Google – and Facebook, Amazon, Apple, etc. – don’t like paying taxes. They like the things those taxes pay for (educated employees, law and order, transport networks, legal systems – particularly the bit of the legal system that deals with patents and intellectual property) but they don’t want to pay.

And when they do pay they find ways of minimising the payment and moving money around so it gets taxed as little as possible.

So why don’t we tax the data?

Governments, acting on behalf of their citizens should tax companies on the data they harvest from their users.

All those cookies that DoubleClick put on your machine.

All those profile likes that Facebook has.

Sure there is an issue of disentangling what is “my data” from what is “Google’s data” but I’m sure we could come up with a quota system, or Google could be allowed a tax deduction. Or they could simply delete the data when it gets old.

I’d be more than happy if Amazon deleted every piece of data they have about me. Apple seem to make even more money that Google and make me pay. While I might miss G-Drive I’d live (I pay DropBox anyway).

Or maybe we tax data-usage.

Maybe its the data users, the Cambridge Analyticas, of this world who should be paying the data tax. Pay for access, the ultimate firewall.

The tax would be levied for user within a geographic boundary. So these companies couldn’t claim the data was in low tax Ireland because the data generators (you and me) reside within state boundaries. If Facebook wants to have users in England then they would need to pay the British Government’s data-tax. If data that originates with English users is used by a company, no matter where they are, then Facebook needs to give the Government a cut.

This isn’t as radical as it sounds.

Governments have a long history of taxing resources – consider property taxed. Good taxes encourage consumers to limit their consumption – think cigarette taxes – and it may well be a good thing to limit some data usage. Anyway, thats not a hard and fast rule – the Government taxes my income and they don’t want to limit that.

And consider oil, after all, how often are we told that data is the new black gold?
– Countries with oil impose a tax (or charge) on oil companies which extract the oil.

Oil taxes demonstrate another thing about tax: Governments act on behalf of their citizens, like a class-action.

Consider Norway, every citizen of Norway could lay claim to part of the Norwegian oil reserves, they could individually invoice the oil companies for their share. But that wouldn’t work very well, too many people and again, the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts. So the Norwegian Government steps in, taxes the oil and then uses the revenue for the good of the citizens.

In a few places – like Alaska and the Shetlands – do see oil companies distributing money more directly.

After all, Governments could do with a bit more money and if they don’t tax data then the money is simply going to go to Zuckerberg, Page, Bezos and co. They wouldn’t miss a little bit.

And if this brings down other taxes, or helps fund a universal income, then people will have more time to spend online using these companies and buying things through them.

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MVP is a marketing exercise not a technology exercise

… Minimally Viable Product

Possibly the most fashionable and misused term the digital industry right now. The term seems to be used by one-side-or-other to criticise the other.

I recently heard another Agile Coach say: “If you just add a few more features you’ll have an MVP” – I wanted to scream “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” But I bit my tongue (who says I’m can’t do diplomacy?)

MVP often seems to be the modern way of saying “The system must do”, MVP has become the M in Moscow rules.

Part of the problem is that the term means different things to different people. Originally coined to describe an experiment (“what is the smallest thing we could build to learn something about the market?”) it is almost always used to describe a small product that could satisfy the customers needs. But when push comes to shove that small usually isn’t very small. When MVP is used to mean “cut everything to the bone” the person saying it still seems to leave a lot of fat on the bone.

I think non-technical people hear the term MVP and think “A product which doesn’t do all that gold plating software engineering fat that slows the team down.” Such people show how little they actually understand about the digital world.

MVPs should not about technology. An MVP is not about building things.

An MVP is a marketing exercise: can we build something customers want?

Can we build something people will pay money for?

Before you use the language MVP you should assume:

  1. The technology can do it
  2. Your team can build it

The question is: is this thing worth building?and before we waste money building something nobody will use, let alone pay for, what can we build to make sure we are right?

The next time people start sketching an MVP divide it in 10. Assume the value is 10% of the stated value. Assume you have 10% of the resources and 10% of the time to build it. Now rethink what you are asking for. What can you build with a tenth?

Anyway, the cat is out of the bag, as much as I wish I could erase the abbreviation and name from collective memory I can’t. But maybe I can change the debate by differentiating between several types of MVP, that is, several different ways the term MVP is used:

  • MVP-M: a marketing product, designed to test what customers want, and what they will pay for.
  • MVP-T: a technical product designed to see if something can be build technologically – historically the terms proof-of-concept and prototype have been used here
  • MVP-L: a list of MUST HAVE features that a product MUST HAVE
  • MVP-H: a hippo MVP, a special MVP-L, that is highest paid person’s opinion of the feature list, unfortunately you might find several different people believe they have the right to set the feature list
  • MVP-X: where X is a number (1,2, 3…), this derivative is used by teams who are releasing enhancements to their product and growing it. (In the pre-digital age we called this a version number.) Exactly what is minimal about it I’m not sure but if it helps then why not?

MVP-M is the original meaning while MVP-L and MVP-H are the most common types.

So next time someone says “MVP” just check, what do they mean?

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