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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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Want to join a (free) online workshop?

 

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Consider this a gift, its also an experiment. Numbers are limited so if you would like to join please e-mail me today – if it goes well I’ll repeat, although I might ask for money next time.

I’m going to tun an online workshop entitled: Stories and Value.

Participation is limited to a 16 and its going to be first come first served – blog/newsletter readers are getting the first chance to sign-up.

This is based on my existing “Requirements, Backlogs and User Stories” workshop which has itself mutated into a discussion of stories and value. The workshop will run as a series of 90 minute sessions, one a week for four weeks online.

I want the workshop sessions to remain interactive, I’m sure I will use some slides at some point but I want to keep it interactive. So I’m going to limit participation to 12.

The draft schedule is:

  • Workshop 1: How value influences our thinking
  • Workshop 2: Good and Bad User Stories
  • Workshop 3: Estimating story value
  • Workshop 4: Time value profiles and closing discussion

I plan on using exercises throughout and I think I know how to run them online. And I want discussion! – I may even set a little homework between sessions.

But in all honesty, it’s an experiment. So, I’m not planning on charging for this – it is Free!

If you find it valuable you can make a payment – like those “pay what you like” restaurants. That will itself be feedback.

I’m thinking Wednesday, 3pm UK time so those in mainland Europe could join too (sorry US and Asia, maybe next time); on a Zoom conference. Start next week, April 1 ? – once I know who’s in we might debate this between ourselves.

My thinking is still developing on this so let me know if you have any ideas to contribute. (And if you can’t join but want to let me know, feedback is valuable too! Likewise, if you are tempted but want to see something different please tell me and I’ll see what I can do.)

So, if you want to join these sessions please e-mail me, allan@allankelly.net.

This is a minimally viable experiment so its all a bit crude.

#NoProjects everywhere

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After years of shared #NoProjects advocacy I finally for to meet Evan Leybourn exactly two years ago. Over lunch in a Melbourne cafe we talked #NoProjects and how we were both moving on. It may have been a little pre-emptive and some might call it arrogant but we felt #NoProjects was triumphant.

Two years on and projects are still with us, projects aren’t going away anytime soon but the ideas behind #NoProjects are mainstream. The leading thinkers in the software/agile/digital space generally support the thesis – certainly nobody is arguing the case for projects. Cutting edge teams don’t use projects. The language of projects remains (unfortunately) but the supremacy of the project model increasingly looks like a historical footnote.

Two years on from that lunch and it is clearer than ever that the (digital) world is moving away from projects. This was really brought home to me last week when I joined an unconference organized by the McKinsey consultancy. Nobody said “#NoProjects” but nobody was talking projects. Nobody was advocating more project managers or new project management approaches. The CTO of a bank came pretty close to saying “#NoProjects” but why bother? – not saying it meant it was accepted.

#NoProjects is in your face. #NoProjects is an invitation to start a flame war. #NoProjects is confrontation in itself. #NoProjects is very negative. #NoProjects doesn’t tell you what to do only what not to do.

Back in 2013 #NoProjects needed saying, Josh Arnold, Steve Smith and myself started Tweeting it to death – Evan came later. (I think it might have been Josh who first used the tag.)

As much as I’d like to take all the credit we were just the public face of #NoProjects. We were far from alone. Woody Zuill and Vasco Duarte started the #NoEstimates movement about the same time. While in my mind #NoProjects and #NoEstimates are different things many people see them as two sides of the same coin.

I’d first heard Mary Poppendieck talk candidly about problems with the project model over dinner at Agile on the Beach 2011. Many, many, other people were reaching the same conclusion. Once you start looking at the project model, especially in an agile environment, the problems are easy to see.

The logic against projects can be overwhelming but exposing it was a career threatening move. Even today being an open advocate for #NoProjects means there are jobs you cannot apply for. None of the original names will ever be considered for a project management job.

Look around you today: The Project Manager role is being replace by the Delivery Manager role.

SAFe is a #NoProject model.

Spotify is a #NoProject model.

Continuous Delivery is a #NoProject model.

And my own entry: Continuous Digital is certainly #NoProjects (it was written to tell you what to do instead of projects).

Sure masochists can add projects to SAFe, Spotify and CD but why? These models work well enough without projects.

Even Government departments suggest funding teams not projects.

Today, at every conference and event you will hear people say “Products over projects.” There is a realisation that products last, projects end – who wants to work in a business that plans to end?

Again, to be clear: I’m talking about the digital world, what we used to call software or IT. I don’t know about construction, transport, policing or whatever other discipline you might want to draw a parallel with. I’m sure, some projects will always exist. Somethings do end. Even I will end one day.

That the IT/software/digital world can do better than projects is now recognised. Other management models create more valuable outcomes.

One might say that #NoProjects is heading into retirement. As Josh said:

“The first rule of #NoProjects is not to talk about #NoProjects.”

So don’t wave the red flag of #NoProjects and rub peoples noses in it. For your own benefit understand where the project model goes wrong. Use that knowledge to watch for problems such as goal displacement, commitment escalation, imaginary triple lock contracts, undercutting quality, control through planning, value destruction, cost of delay ignorance, Diseconomies of Scale of course, and unlearn the project funding model.

(If you haven’t already check out my own Project Myopia or Evan’s #NoProjects book.)

Then, set a course for a better world: call it SAFe, Spotify, Products, Continuous Digital, Continuous Delivery or whatever you like. Aim to harness the power of early release, evolving design, requirements and learning. Retool your governance process and management models.

Use the carrot not the stick.


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All about Agile on the Beach

This week has been a bit of a feast about Agile On the Beach. So here is a list of this weeks writing and some previous posts.

And some older entries that explain us:

This possibly shows that AOTB takes up far more of my life than it should! 🙂

Mimas is OpenSource

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That picture above is Mimas, one of the moons of Saturn – yes, I’m still a bit of a “geek”. Mimas is the name I chose for the Agile on the Beach submission system I started developing about four years ago.

I am a bit surprised that Mimas has grown to over 10,000 lines – mainly Python and HTML, a very small amount of JavaScript and a super tiny bit of CSS. O, and 239 unit tests which now take about 8 second to run. (Like so many other systems the front end isn’t covered by automated tests. This hasn’t been a big problem, the tests I have giv great confidence.)

I’m not completely surprised by the fact that four years later we are still using it.

The code has lots of failings – doesn’t every system? – but I’m immensely proud of it as more than I’m embarrassed by it. I’m particularly proud of the way the system held up to 300 submissions and 55 reviewers this year. This was the most use it has ever had.

As of last month the system is also OpenSource – MIT License. You can browse the code – and tell me about all my failings: Mimas on GitHub.

The system itself runs on the Google App Engine here. Anyone can log in and create their own conference. Although this being the post-review period, and me having some time, I’m taking the opportunity to make some improvements. If it is down it won’t be down for long. Unfortunately Google are forcing a database upgrade (NDB to Cloud NDB) on a move from Python 2.7 to 3.x (which I should have done a while back.)

Once upon a time I thought that other people might like to use the system for their conferences but nobody ever has. The offer is still there.

I’d love it if anyone else wants to help with development on the system – but I’m realistic to know this is unlikely. (If you want to help there are a lot of places in the UI where a little JS or CSS could improve things. In the backend I know a few places that could do with changes too.)

For the record this is what Mimas does:

  • Conference organisers create a conference and accept submissions.
  • Speaker details are retained for future conferences as are talk details.
  • Submissions are accepted into tracks, they can have co-speakers, formats and duration are configurable.
  • Two rounds of reviewing are supported, these are configurable. AOTB uses scoring for round 1 and ranking for round 2.
  • Reviewers can volunteer and be assigned (random) submissions to review.
  • Conference permissions allow for different users to have different capabilities.
  • E-mail acknowledgements, acceptances and declines are handled via SendGrid – you can also define custom messages via templates.
  • Half a dozen or more types of report plus export to Excel capability.
  • OAuth login currently supporting e-mail, Google and Facebook via Firebase.
  • Share reviewer feedback and comments with submitters.
  • Some conference branding.
  • (There is an open speakers directory and tagging mechanism, I should either improve this or scrap it.)

I’m currently building out a scheduler so the accepted submissions can be organised in the system too. Its half done.

There are bunch of ways I could develop it further: it could support paper review rather than conference review, it could support shepherding, it could be used for reoccurring events, and a whole lot more.

Finally, it is surprisingly cheap to run on the Google App Engine.

Anyway, its OpenSource, its live, let me know what you think.

Why does AOTB have its own submission system?

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Anyone who has submitted to Agile on the Beach in the last few years will have used our submission system: Mimas. Like so many other conference we, or rather I, created our own system.

“Why does AOTB have its own submission system?”

Flippant but true answer: because nobody else (yet) has decided to share out system. I’m more than happy to host other conferences

Perhaps the actual question should be:

“Why create your own system when there are others out there?”

Yes, good question. Well, two (plus one) reasons really.

One: About five years ago when I got fed up of the Heath-Robinson combination of Excel sheets, Google sheets, HTML and a little Python that I was using nothing fitted. If I recall correctly Papercall was just started. While many commercial conference management systems had a synopsis module most of these didn’t do public call for papers and they cost money. I thought about using CyberChair/EasyChair but these are quite off-putting and needed hosting.

Things have changed a bit now so I might not make the same decision today.

Two: I was really very keen to give submitters feedback on their submissions and this was missing from most systems. This is an agile conference and agile is all about feedback so we should give feedback shouldn’t we?

Hillside’s Pasture can do this but is quite a niche system and I’m not sure it could handle the load we get. Similarly the Agile Alliance have a system for their conferences which gives feedback but having submitted I wasn’t impressed.

So that was then. What about today?

Having our own system has allowed us to do things we wanted: like a public review with over 50 reviewers this year. Or changing the voting system.

Of course that comes at a cost: my time to change the system, my stress in keeping the system up (a lot lately). O, there are some charges for the Google Cloud but these are trivial, a less than $1 a year and most of them are down to one report I run repeatedly during the review processes.

Those might be reasons for keeping Mimas but really my overhead should encourage me to kill it. Of course, I’ve grown to love my code and while I admit is stinks in places (the look of the UI) I’m proud of it.

But, the over whelming reason right now for not moving to Papercall (or similar) is: Speakers.

There are more speakers and potential speakers than conferences. Possibly the money to be made from a conference submission system is not from the conference organisers but from the speakers who want to submit to conferences. A bit like advertising the service could be provide for free to conference organizers if submitters paid a subscription.

And I have met speakers who tell me the go to Pepercall (or whatever) and submit to conference X. Then look down the list of other conferences they fancy and make the same submission multiple times. That is valuable to potential speakers.

But, that ease of submission is a problem for organizers. Particularly organizers who want to give feedback.

Easy submission for speakers means more work for reviewers.

As a conference organizer I don’t want every Tom, Dick and Harry submitting to my conference. AOTB already has about 300 submissions a year, and as I’ve noted before some of these smell as if the submitter really doesn’t know much about us and hasn’t thought through the submission.

The interests of speakers and organizers are not aligned.

One way of solving this problem would be for conferences to share reviews. So if a speaker submits, say, to AOTB and Agile Cambridge and Agile Alliance then each conference can see what others thought of the submission. I could imagine that working.

I can also see obstacles. First of all: data privacy.

More troublesome I wonder if that would actually make it more difficult for new speakers to break in. The same old hands, with the same good reviews, would come to dominate the conference circuit and new ideas wouldn’t get in.

So there you go. AOTB has its own submissions system and I’ll tell you more about that next time.

Notes on Agile on the Beach submissions

More notes on Agile on the Beach – this is going to go on all week, sorry but there is a lot to get on the record. Maybe only conference-geeks and those thinking of submitting to AOTB will find useful but I’d like to get it on the record and this is my blog 🙂

First off the Agile on the Beach is pretty much the same every year. Unfortunately it has grown over the years as we try and share more information with those submitting. I expect most conferences have the same problem.

Problem #1 the call for submissions is too big, problem #2 people don’t seem to read it. Actually, it is not just that people don’t read it but some people who submit don’t seem to know much about the conference.

The wrong track, Gromit

For example: lots of submissions are put against the wrong track. Many people seem to just submit to whatever track the system defaults to (and this year it looks like Agile Business was the default.)

While we can, and do, move sessions between tracks we don’t do this methodically. With nearly 300 submissions it would be too time consuming to review every session and decide which track it should be in.

Plus, some people deliberately want their submission in a particular track. Last year we had a talk on technical debt submitted to the business track. Before I moved it I happened to ask the submitter why he had gone there not software. His reply: “We deliberately did this because we want to raise the issue with managers.”

Some reviewers will mark sessions down because they are in the wrong track. That is a little unfair but understandable.

Where is Falmouth again?

One problem that seems to growing is people not knowing where the conference is. To be clear: Agile on the Beach is in Falmouth UK – lookup Falmouth on Google maps.

Falmouth is five hours by train from London. Seven hours from Manchester. Nine from Newcastle Upon Tyne.

You can fly into Newquay airport from several UK airports but you are still nearly an hour by taxi from Falmouth.

Both last year and this year we’ve accepted people who then, when they look at how long it takes to get to Falmouth pull out.

What is your conference about?

But that is not the worst.

Every year we get a few submissions, mostly from the USA , which are totally inappropriate, something like “Calisthenics for a younger look.” OK, I guess calisthenics helps make your body agile but did they stop reading at the conference name?

Mostly with some hint that the person who filled in the form is not the speaker. I suspect the semi-famous person has a PA who just submits to everything they can find.

We don’t pay

Similarly we get a clutch of submissions – again mostly from the USA – where in the synopsis the speaker say: “My feed is $1,500 plus travel expenses.”

AOTB only pays speakers a travel allowance, and we say that in the call for submissions.

OK, we do actually pay keynotes. But we choose the keynotes, usually in advance of the call for submissions. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

During the year we get a few people – again largely Americans – who e-mail us to say: “I can keynote you conference blah blah blah…. my fee is blah blah.”

I can’t blame them, they are only trying to make a living. One day someone who we find interesting might even contact us!

(Ummm… maybe I should do it myself rather than waiting to be asked to keynote…)

I am …

A new one this year: round 1 was blind, no bibliography details. The hope was this would help new speakers and increase our diversity.

Some speakers chose to self-identification: they gave their names in the synopsis “I this talk Adam Jones will be talking about…” or even a mini-bio in the synopsis: “Sally Smith will draw on her long experience working as Agile Coach with companies such as blah blah blah”

True we didn’t tell people not to do this. Blind reviewing was an experiment so we didn’t really have any rules. But, some reviewers took a dislike to this – I can see comments which say “Would vote higher but speaker gave their name”

Please please please answer me when I call

Finally, AOTB has a two stage acceptance process.

If you get accepted you get a mail from me saying:

“Congratulations… here is the boring admin details, now confirm you can speak by clicking on this link….”

We know that a) some people can’t get to Falmouth, b) schedule change between submitting in December and acceptance in February, c) people forget they submitted, d) something in the admin details isn’t to their liking, d) some other reason.

Result: some people who submit can’t make it. That is why we ask for confirmation.

If you are accepted I need your reply. And the quicker I get it the better.

If I don’t get a reply after a few days I chase: repeat e-mails, Twitter, LinkedIn, SMS and if I need to I will pick up the phone and call you.

This year one speaker was impossible to contact, no phone number, no Twitter, no LinkedIn. My e-mail may have been going to spam. With a heavy heart I switched them from accept to decline.

Apart from this taking up my time it also delays the work of the rest of the committee, the website, the publicity, ticket sales and everything else. Until we have the programme in place a lot is on hold.

Your submission is important to us, please hold

Plus, we don’t say: “Sorry, your submission was not accepted” until we have our programme in place. When we loose a speaker we make an immediate substitution. It doesn’t seem right to tell a lot of people (about 240) that they are not speaking at AOTB and then a few days later say to one or two “O sorry, can we have you after all?”

We only send the sorries once we have all our speakers confirmed. So, if someone doesn’t reply, and we can’t get hold of them, we have no choice but to wait and try again. Which means everyone else has to wait which is not fair either.

Overall our system works. It is not perfect but I don’t think any system is perfect.

Agile on the Beach – update on review process

294 submissions
54 volunteer reviewers
2,400 votes
2 rounds of review
40 accepted submissions

Over the weekend I did the hardest thing I do all year: I sent the “sorry your submission to Agile on the Beach has not been chosen.” The declines.

I have explained how we review sessions for AOTB before but things have changed a bit so I owe it to submitters an explanation. So here goes…

This year, as usual, we had nearly 300 submissions to speak at Agile on the Beach. There are only 40 speaking slots – the exact number varies a little because we make minor changes to the schedule.

We have two review rounds. In round one reviewers score submissions from 1 to 5 – with 5 being the best. From this we create a shortlist for each track. Rule of thumb is the shortlist is twice the number of available slots (5 slots for Thursday tracks, 4 for Friday and 9 for two day tracks, so 10, 8 and 18.)

The first change for 2020: round 1 was done blind. That is anonymously, speaker bibliography details were not shown to reviewers.

Now on the one hand this is fairer: it gives more chance to new speakers, it stops the same old names dominating the conference and hopefully promotes diversity.

On the other hand: reviewers have often seen speakers previously and know who is good and who is not so good. It also has a commercial hit because a programme with more known names is likely to be more attractive to ticket buyers. So 2020 was an experiment.

I think blind reviewing worked. Although it does mean a few regulars did not make it and I feel bad about that, they are my friends. I also think we were right to look at speaker bios in round 2.

While we set no rules about speaker self-identification (i.e. some speakers used the synopsis to give their name or even mini-bios) a few reviewers didn’t appreciate this and in their comments noted they scored such submissions lower.

Back to shortlisting… when shortlisting we look at the mean score in reviews and the median. Usually the first few, highest scoring, sessions are easy to pick. It is the border line ones which are hard to decide.

In round two reviewers are asked to rank the shortlist. There can be only one number 1. The lowest score depends on how long the shortlist is, this varies by track. (So oddly, round 2 reverses scoring, 1 is top.)

In both rounds reviewers are encouraged – but not compelled – to write an explanation of their score. This is used by us as reviewers when deciding border line submissions and provided to the submitter as feedback.

In the past this process has needed reviewers to review 70 or more submissions. A few reviewers look at everything, all 300. I stopped doing this myself about two years back. Our submission system (Mimas) tries to ensure that submissions get an equal number of reviews.

Because reviewers were reviewing so many sessions feedback declined, I suspect attention to submissions decline too but I don’t know for sure.

The other big change for 2020: we recruited more reviewers. Actually, we invited everyone who had already bought a ticket, and everyone who attended in 2019 to review for round 1. 54 people volunteers and were allocated sessions to review. About a dozen people didn’t do their reviews but we still had plenty of scores.

This created more work for me than expected. While Mimas was updated to cope with this is wasn’t completely smooth. Whats more some reviewers left it to the last minute to review which created problems and meant I had to chase people.

Round 2 reviewing was more limited. Only about 12 reviewers picked including some AOTB committee members.

Over the years, and especially since I wrote Mimas, AOTB selection has become more score dependent. This has its good and bad sides but it does mean we get it done faster.

Once round 2 is done we look at the average (mean and median again) ranks and count of from the top to fill the track. Then we apply some judgement: people who submit in two tracks normally only speak in one. We would like a male/female balance but we don’t have any hard and fast rules plus, we don’t know if we are being fair on other diversity criteria. Are dyslexics fairly represented? Ethnic minorities? and so on.

We also have a financial consideration. AOTB pays a travel allowance dependent on how the speaker travels. This year when we completed selection and looked at the costs we were in budget. That doesn’t always happen, some years we have to cut back on long-haul speakers. Some years we argue and get more money.

Finally, we send acceptances. We ask everyone who is accepted to confirm they will attend and speak. Hopefully everyone says Yes and says so quickly. However we often loose people for one reason or another. Hence there are quick substitutions – that is why we hold off sending declined. Once we have the lineup settled we send the declines.

Every year we decline some amazing sessions that we would really like to host. We only have so much space. Every sessions we accept means another we can’t accept. We have enough good material for two conferences but only have one.

Whether you have been declined or accepted for 2020, whether you are thinking of submitting in 2021 or just trying to find out how conferences operate I hope that helps.

You might also want to look at:

Finally, you can see and try Mimas our conference review system – this is now OpenSource on GitHIb. I’ll blog more about this soon.
(Now reviewing is over I have a bunch of updates to do so the system may be up and down randomly this week.)


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Framing the question frames the answers – my crown jewels

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Today I’m giving away my crown jewels. Once you have read this post I can’t run my favourite exercise with you. There is a bit of experiential learning I can’t give you. So if you’ve rather have the experience stop reading and go and book yourself on my May workshop.

I’m describing an exercise that models what happens in “the real world(tm).” Plenty of the people who have done the exercise recognise it was a real life problem. The insights are many, and some a little disturbing.

Dozens of teams and the answers are always the same. I live in dread that someone will guess and ruin the exercise but it never happens. Now I’m telling the world that might change.

On screen I put a story something like:

As a widget maker I want an online store to sell my widgets so that I can make money

I separate the room into teams. Each team represents a technology supplier – an agency, an outsourcer, whatever. I want each team to competitively bid on a piece of work. Each team gets to think about the problem and estimate the work. At the end I want each team to be ready to name their price, how long it will take and how many people they need. They may add any more details they like, e.g. staging, design, technology, etc. (and most do).

The teams on the right get a story which says:

As an international widget maker I want to sell direct to customers so that I can cut out distributors. I anticipate $10million turnover within 3 years and have budgeted $1.2m for this project.

15 minutes later the teams on the right read out their bids. They always want a million give or take. They want months, if not years. They want teams of half a dozen or more engineers, testers, UXD, analysts and project managers. They may propose an ongoing maintenance contract too.

Very disconcerting for these teams is that while they are answering and taking questions the other teams, those on the left, often burst out laughing – literally – when they hear these proposals.

What neither side knows is that they have different stories. The teams on the left get a story saying:

As an artisan widget maker I want to sell my widgets to customers so that I can give up my day job. When I make $100,000 a year in sales I can live my dream. My accountant tells me a WordPress website will cost $5,000.

These teams want a week or two, an engineer or two and perhaps $10,000 tops. In some cases they say “We can do it this afternoon, we’ll set up Etsy.” Even if they don’t want to use Esty or eBay they probably propose an OpenSource solution.

So what do you think?

True, it is a semi-artificial set-up but I would argue that these situations happen all the time in “the real world” work environment. However they are usually well disguised and hard to see. Maybe now you will spot them.

That aside there are many potential lessons this exercise illustrates, almost everyone is worth a discussion in its own right. To keep things brief I’ll just highlight some of them:

  • Anchoring (cognitive bias): individuals are anchored to those numbers, bigger number lead them to frame their answers as bigger numbers.
  • Assumptions: people jump to assumptions, people automatically fill in the blanks when they lack information and the information they fill in flows from the numbers mentioned. Few questions get asked.
  • Different solutions: the key lesson for me, confronted with similar problems, people (especially engineers) are capable of formulating very different solutions. Those solutions have different time and cost implications.
  • Problem bounding: presenting the same problem with different bounding constraints results in massively different solutions.
  • Effort estimates, and therefore cost estimates, flow from value: whether through anchoring assumptions or solution designs the estimates (time and money) flow from the value available NOT the other way around.
  • Prior experience often goes out the window. In one run a low-end teams told me: “We did this last week. A digital consultant showed us how to install WordPress and Magento for online retail in the morning and in the afternoon we did it ourselves.” While this team came up with a low cost proposal their colleagues who were given the $1m story forgot everything they learned last week.
  • People don’t ask questions: I answer questions while teams are creating their answers but people rarely challenge what is asked for. Maybe its because I’m usually in some position of authority as a consultant or workshop trainer and my word should be followed.

Occasionally a team with the million dollar story say “We could do this with eBay/WordPress/Shopify.” I keep a poker face and let them be. Inevitably left alone for long enough they talk themselves into a much more complex and expensive bid.

In fact, the longer I give teams the higher the estimates go. I heard a team in Australia say three times “Those estimates look low, lets double them.” And they did. (Again, planning has diminishing returns.)

So far nobody has offered two solutions: you could offer up a Shopify solution and a custom build solution but nobody has.

While we are going through the exercise the minimal viable product idea often gets mentioned – usually by the teams on the right. So recently I introduced a third story. This read the same as the international widget maker but has an extra paragraph underneath:

MacAllan consulting has advised the company to take an iterative and agile approach to this work using a minimally viable product model.

How do you think teams respond?

Think for a minute… your answer is?

It makes no difference.

Or rather, so far I’ve not had any of the million dollar teams propose anything close to the $5,000 solution. In one case a team with the MVP story actually came in more expensive – and longer – than the million dollar team without the MVP clause.

My learning here: talking MVP makes no difference. If you want an MVP you have to impose constraints. (Hence try an MVT.)

People continue to fill in the blanks after the charade is exposed. I’ve heard software architects argue forcefully they these are different problems because of the money involved and therefore require different architecture. They clearly feel cheated and want to justify the proposal they have made. I suspect they feel I’ve made them look silly and want to undo that impression, I’m sorry if I’ve made anyone feel silly.

I wonder how often that happens in the work place? How many of us would back down in real life? I’d like to think I would but I would probably first try and justify my position.

The architects have a point, in many ways the stories are functionally the same but the differences lie in the non-functional requirements: load, throughput, security and so on. But all of that is inferred by people from the price tag without question.

It makes me sad that teams ask so few questions. People easily see themselves as a tailor not as a consultant (my Tailor or Image consultant post.)

Then there are the questions about the bidding process and companies bidding on the work.

Imagine you are the buyer: one supplier bids really low, the others were much higher but inline with your expectations. Would you trust the low bid? Have they blow their credibility?

And as a bidder: if you know the client plans to spend $1,000,000 why bid lower? The engineers cost estimates and designs aren’t relevant. Ideally you bid just below the competition. You are the lowest price with all the credibility and maximum revenue.

For that matter, should you be bidding on this at all?

If you work for a small e-commerce provider in rural Cornwall you may never know about, let alone, bid on a million dollar piece of work from an American multi-national. And if you did, would anyone take you seriously?

Suppose you got your big break: you walk in and offer a quick, low cost solution based on something like Shopify. Would they take you seriously? Would they want to listen?

Do corporations increase their own costs simply by being?

Conversely, if you work for a big consultancy and bid on million dollar deals every week will you be interested in bidding on a $5,000 piece of work? Of course not!

But that also means that if a corporation approaches you for a million dollar online shop, even if you could deliver it in a week’s time running on a third party platform do you have any incentive?

I don’t have answers to these questions. Indeed, there aren’t any right answers. All answers are valid, just some answers are “better” in some places than others.

Ultimately the lesson I take away from this is: we craft solutions within constraints.

More specifically: Engineers engineer within constraints, that is what engineers do.

That reinforces my belief that one needs to really understand benefit (value) and how that changes with time. From there we can work back to a solution.

If you would like to see this exercise for real then book yourself my Requirements, Backlogs and User Stories workshop. If you are in London Learning Connexions are running this again in May.


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Dear customer, the truth about IT

Dear Customer, the truth about IT projects” was originally published in The Agile Journal way back in 2012. Unfortunately the essay has stood the test of time and is still regularly re-discovered online.

A couple of weeks ago I recorded an audio version of Dear Customer which I have now posted online. You can find links to the original publication and of a PDF of the essay at the same site.

O, and the essay forms the prologue to my Xanpan book, but newsletter subscribers probably know that because they downloaded a free copy of Xanpan when they subscribed!