Pandemic in the digital age

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It was hoping to keep this blog virus free. Indeed my “Conflicts in coaching” was going to be the first of several on agile coaching (what else could I do in the air going to and from Agile on the Beach New Zealand?) But…. the world has changed, I’ve changed…

It is a very scary time. Both health wise and economically: I know at least one software engineer who has lost his job as a result of the slow down. But I also know random (inappropriate) coding jobs still appear in my mailbox, I continue to see job adverts on Twitter and LinkedIn and I know one company that has landed work and had to hired contractors to work on a corvid-19 project. So some observations…

Observation 1: Covid-19 will go down in history as the first digital health crisis.

Digital technology has a big role in fighting the virus. Decisions and actions are being driven by software models of what could happen. The famous Imperial model is now OpenSource and Microsoft engineers are reported working to improve the model. (At a few hundred lines of R code there isn’t that much to refactor – although there are some very long functions and I can’t see any unit tests.)

Apps are being created to track contacts and you can bet that the search for antidotes and vaccines is utterly dependent on software. Digital powered home delivery networks and internet shopping have made closing the economy just about possible.

Those who are not directly fighting the virus are continuing to work because of digital technology. Zoom, Skype, and the like might be the most obvious beneficiaries of the virus but many others will benefit too. Although the virus is simultaneously putting a strain on our digital infrastructure and necessitating human action – witness the search for Cobol programmers in the US.

Not only have most IT, sorry digital, workers decamped to home but so too have many others – in fact almost any occupation that can. Schools are delivering lessons and distributing home learning kits online. Industries which can’t move to online working will suffer the most. (Except those which put themselves in harms way like medical staff and, to a lesser degree, delivery staff.)

And when not working online media like Netflix, YouTube and BBC iPlayer keep us sane.

For us digital folk this is no big deal. It is an extension of normal life: we are at home 5 days a week not one. But for other folk, this is big. Even the most digitally inept lawyer is having to get with the technology. As people are forced to become familiar with digital technology …

Observation 2: Digital technology adoption will be accelerated by the virus

Which means, while some technology companies (like my friend’s) will not survive, those that do are set for a boom. Post virus swaths of the economy will be destroyed but technology is in for a boom.

That boom is driven by the three forces above: 1) unlike others, our industry is not destroyed, 2) technologist continue to work remotely, and 3) non-technologist will learn to use more technology.

In particular digital healthcare – both back-office big data background analysis and customer centred applications – will play an oversized part. This field was already growing rapidly but the experience gained during this crisis can only help the sector.

But also…

Observation 3: The economic devastation caused by the virus will open up many new opportunities for digital companies to enter markets and thrive

Companies which fail create opportunities for new companies – either a like-for-like replacement or a new type of company. Previously, while those companies were active, digital technology had to compete with the existing providers, the incumbents. With those companies gone the way is clear for new digital technology companies to enter the market.

I’m not saying this isn’t going to be horrible; company failures will be painful and it new entrants will take time to get established.

And what of Agile?

Observation 4: Covid-19 is the ultimate test of agility

Forget arguments about what is agile and what is not agile. Forget ScrumBut, Wagile and the other insults hurled at those judged to be less agile than thou.

Forget agile assessments and agile maturity frameworks; forget ticking off ceremonies and declaring yourself agile. In the new world the more agile you are the greater your chances of survival.

On paper you may have the most agile team in the world but, if that team, and your organization, cannot now demonstrate how it changes rapidly it just isn’t agile.

Every single plan that existed before March 1st is now invalid. Right now companies need to pivot like never before. Agility helps companies pivot. Those who can’t pivot, or can’t pivot fast enough stand to loose the most. If you can’t pivot you aren’t agile, QED.

Companies which still operate in hierarchal command-and-control mode will find it more difficult to switch to distributed teams and remote working. When everyone is remote you need to delegate decision making. Companies which don’t trust employees, companies which constantly check what employees are doing will find home working incredibly difficult and expensive.

Individuals and interactions are more important than ever before. Processes and tools are essential but few heavy weight processes will survive the instant shift to completely distributed working. Any tool which doesn’t help now is an impediment.

Those companies which are still struggling with technical liabilities (aka technical debt) will find the cost of living with those liabilities just increased.

Observation 5: Test driven medicine

Day after day I read in the papers that the UK is not doing enough testing. It seems that countries like South Korea which do a lot of tests and base their strategy on knowing who is infected (and therefore who is safe) and then tracing the virus are doing best.

That means testing needs to be rapid – a short feedback loop.

And testing needs to be cheap so it can be done at scale.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

The cost of not testing is precautionary isolation. That cost is not sustainable.

If you could test anyone, and everyone, instantly the offices, shops and schools could reopen: you would just test everyone who arrives.

The testing strategy agile has been advocating is now needed to fix the world. And in the UK the Government seems to be as resistant to a test first approach as the most obstinate software manager or engineer.

As much as I hope the world will shortly return to how it was it will not. It will never be the same, we don’t quite know how it will be but it is already clear that digital technology and agility will be part of it.

(Test tube image taken from PublicDomainPctures.net)


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Allan’s online offerings

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I admit it: I’ve been scared of running online training workshops for years.

I just didn’t see how they fitted with the way I liked doing things. Online training I’ve joined in the past has been boring and I’ve found it difficult to keep my attention. So I assumed that everyone was like that and all online training suffered from the same failings.

But like so many other people in the last few weeks I’ve been forced to reconsider.

And I’ve had really positive experiences. In fact, I’m wondering if online might actually be better suited to my preference for interaction and discussions. Although I’ll admit, it makes designing exercises harder.

Last week I delivered what was a 2-day agile course as four half-day workshops. This seems like a win-win: it is less disruptive for the team undertaking the course, avoids days spent on video meetings and provides more opportunities to adjust content to suit need – plus its cheaper!

So, as of now I have two workshops redesigned and tested online. In addition I’m making myself available for online consulting/coaching. In the past it was only feasible to provide consulting and coaching to companies who could buy whole days. Delivering this online makes it possible to work with individuals.

Improving with Agile
Based on my existing and much delivered Agile Foundations course this four half-day online workshop looks at how teams can use ideas from the agile toolkit to work better. This could mean going from “no agile” to “agile”, or from “existing agile” to “better agile.”

Stories and Value
Derived from my long standing Requirements, Backlogs and User Stories 1-day workshop this is now delivered as four 90-minute workshops. This revised version continues to look at how to write good user stories however now the emphasis is on understanding and delivering business benefit, i.e. value.

I’m part way through delivering Stories and Value to those who signed up to my free workshop offer a few weeks back.

These are on my website now.

I may well offer both of these workshops as public (open enrolment) courses in the next few weeks – although this time I will need to levy a charge. If history is a guide I expect private deliveries to existing teams will be the main customers.

If you are interested in either – joining a public workshop or having this workshop for your own team – please contact me. Who’s interested?

I’m still finalising my plans for personal coaching and consulting, so again, if you are interesting in getting some of my time please get in touch.

And if you have suggestions for workshops or tutorials I should offer I’d love to hear your ideas!


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Coaching conflicts

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Last year I was coaching a team. One of the big problems the team faced was excessive work in progress – and tendency for developers to start new work when they hit a blockage. Eventually, with the help of the Product Owner who saw the problem too, we starved the work pipeline. The team actually ran out of work. We saw this as a great success. It had never happened before and meant we could really focus and prioritise work.

Unfortunately, this happened when the two of us were not instantly available. You can argue that we should have been instantly available. Or that people should have made more of an effort to contact us. Or that we should have left a secret stash of work to do. Or that the team should have self-organized to fix the problem. That is easy in retrospect but really, I still don’t see it as a problem.

A few hours without work? I see it as a momentous moment, the start of something great.

But that is not how others saw it. The team, the Product Manager, another Agile Coach on site, and anyone these people could tell were quick to tell us how awful it was: “the team ran out of work.” Word spread quickly that the team had run out of work. My name was dirt.

Doing good by one group isn’t always seen as good by others. When you work as an agile coach conflicts occur daily. But some are bigger and more persistent than others.

For most of the last 10 years I’ve mainly worked as a “drop in” coach (“light touch” I like to call it). I visit clients for a short period of time, talk about improvements, problems, solutions, give directive or non-directive coaching and don’t return for days or weeks. I’m not the same clients every week, maybe I drop in a few days a month and talk to people.

Last year was different, I spent almost all of it with one company, mostly embedded in one team as an official “Agile Coach.”

Comparing these two approaches to coaching has left me with a lot to reflect on. In particular I found a number of conflicts which troubled me, I’m not sure I ever worked these out and I’m sure others find the same things. So I’d like to share…

Responsible to the team, accountable to the organization

I was lucky, it was one of the team members who called me in but it was the bigger organization that was paying my fees. While I felt responsible to the team I was accountable to the organization.

That organization wanted things and expected me to deliver: they wanted a team which performed better (delivered more stuff and more value!) They wanted the team to share common practices and ceremonies with other teams.

For the organization I was the bringer of change to the team. But I could only do that if I was accepted by the team. That limited my ability to push through changes. Even if nobody else saw that conflict I felt it every day.

At one level team did want to change but they also wanted the organization to change and I had very little power there. Both sides, the team and the organization had no-go areas. More conflict.

The organization restricted my ability to do things I thought would improve the team. Things the team accepted would help: like spending money on training. So I was bearer of bad news to both sides: one side saw me asking, then arguing for money while the other saw me failing to deliver.

That organization also expected me to operate within the organization: join coaches meetings, sign up to shared coaching goals, complete team assessments, etc. None of these things were necessarily bad in their own right but it meant I had two masters: the team and the organization.

When push came to shove I prioritised the team but I know some coaches who prioritised the organization. I know some team members mistrusted their coaches because they believed their coach would put the organization first.

Honouring self-organization but creating change

So an agile team is self-organizing. That gives them the right to self-organise to work exactly as they do today. Self-organization gives them the right to not change anything – something I wrote about way back in Changing Software Development.

But, almost by definition, the (agile) coaches role is to bring about change, to help the team do better. Conflict is inevitable.

Sure you say “its a question of motivation … the coach needs to create the motivation to change and do better” and I would agree, but, even in creating that motivation one is creating change, one is intervening. Which brings us nicely to….

Leading without authority

Agile coaches lack authority – if they had authority they would be managers, I’ll blog about that in future. In a way not having authority is liberating, one can’t use the whip no matter how much one wants to! But it is also difficult.

The organization, and the coach, wants to create change but without authority even the smallest changes can become massive efforts. When the team is divided themselves, or even when one team member objects to implementing a change becomes like wading through treacle. That can be demoralising for the coach.

Yet a little authority can go a long way in pushing through change and overriding objections.

And on occasions I did reach for authority, but that creates a conflict within oneself as a coach: was I right to do it? am I honouring the team? the team members? am I creating a learned dependency?

Accepted while pushing the unpopular

Nowhere is that conflict clearer then when pushing through an unpopular change in the face of opposition – even minority opposition. As a coach one risks loosing future changes because, most change the coach “initiates” is done with the acceptance of the team, pushing through an unpopular change – even with a majority, even with leadership support – risks future acceptance.

One is constantly asking: how far can I take this team right now?

And: if I take them too far will they trust me tomorrow?

And, most of all: am I right to do this?

Hardly a day pasted last year when I didn’t agonise over these questions. And as I write this I imagine one of those teams members reading this and saying “Huh, and you got it wrong.”

Who gets the credit?

As a coach your job is to make others perform better, but really, only they can perform better. You can’t make them, you can only help them. The final decisions rest with them.

So who should get the credit? – surely it is them, they made the change, they did something different.

That creates an inner conflict. It also creates a conflict with the organization: why should they keep me employed? After all I didn’t make any difference, they did it.

We know the value of positive praise and acknowledgement, but when there is nobody to praise you, when the team don’t recognise the coaches role (which can be hard if the coach is doing a good job) then one becomes demoralised and that saps ones strength to carry on.

As people we need acknowledgement, as a human we all have needs. But the coaches role so often demands that we forego acknowledgement, praise and recognition.

Conflicts exists

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the conflicts I’ve encountered and hopefully as you read this you can see solutions – I can myself! But what I want to say is: these conflicts exist, I’m sure other coaches have them and even when there are solutions those solutions need to be applied.

Living with these conflicts can be hard, mentally and emotionally. Burnout happens to coaches.

And organizations get fed up with coaches who don’t deliver change, don’t turn up to non-team meetings, keep asking for money, don’t crack the whip or exceeds their (none existent) authority.


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