Getting to grips with Agile in the real world

By The App Business under Agile, Insights 24 July 2015

Many organisations are beginning to feel the urgent need to get leaner and more nimble in order to better adapt to an uncertain world - a world where technology is creating new behaviours and new competitors at incredible speed.

And what they are also discovering is that transitioning a team - let alone an entire organisation - towards more agile ways of working is no easy feat. It’s precisely this challenge that has led many of TAB’s own clients to seek our input and guidance on the right way to ‘go agile’.

Every organisation responds and takes on the agile transformation challenge differently, but nevertheless, as TAB's Agile Coach, I see, time and again, many facing the same common challenges, blockers and lessons learned. They touch on the big and obvious - like the challenge of driving cultural change - to more subtle themes, like what makes the ideal physical space for an agile team

That’s when it hit us: what if we brought together leaders striving to drive the agile transformation agenda within their organisation, and gave them the forum to share and learn from their own experiences? This is where our idea for an un-workshop was born.

What on earth is an un-workshop?

Normally when you arrange a meeting or a workshop, the agenda and the content is something you define and create up front - after all, you want to create a high quality event that is relevant to your attendees and often, you want to control the message.

But if we were going to make this event really worthwhile, it had to be about our clients' challenges - not our perception of them. There is no rule book for agile transformation, and we never pretend we have all the answers. What we do know is that sharing knowledge openly, and getting the chance to experience agile first hand, is critical to success. So, since agile transformation is experienced very differently, setting an agenda and pulling together lots of preset content seemed presumptuous, and too didactic.

With this in mind, we decided to go for a improvisational format that would leave most event planners feeling pretty nervous: an open space, with no preset agenda, no speakers and no particular topics beyond our overarching theme of agile transformation. It relies on the attendees becoming agile themselves - an extra bonus, because we get to show them first-hand agility in action.

So how do you run a workshop without an agenda and make it worthwhile?

In our experience, the concept of an agenda-less un-workshop is a very powerful way to engage a group of people through self-organisation - getting them to own discussions about subjects they really care about. But it’s a mistake to think an open space un-workshop doesn’t have structure or guidelines - it does. These include:

To set the agenda, we asked everyone upon arrival to write down all the challenges, misconceptions and frustrations they had with ‘going agile.’ Not only is this cathartic, but getting the group to cluster these notes highlighted the fact that despite coming from a wide variety of industries, many are in the same agile transformation boat.

With a backlog bursting at the seams, we needed to choose the priority topics to discuss. The prioritisation was done using another common agile technique of dot voting. This enables a group of people to very quickly and democratically choose what is most important simply by adding 3 dots to the issues they care most about - and the issues with the most votes made it onto the ‘marketplace’.

This marketplace then forms the agenda for the un-workshop - and it was amazing to see that in less than twenty-five minutes, a room of thirty people had seamlessly structured their own event.

Capturing visual minutes

Rather than take notes, or send a hefty set of follow-up content, we stayed true to the un-workshop format and instead relied on graphic facilitation to capture the key points of the session. With three artists working alongside our attendees in real-time, we watched in mounting fascination as a blank white board become filled with wonderful insight, vibrant colour and memorable points.

Graphic facilitation is much more than just a pretty picture. Working with the artists, groups fed in their thoughts and watched as each point was visually captured and conceptualised.  In this way, it is transformed into something memorable and collaborative. It’s created not through notes, or lists or - in terms of software development - requirements, but in face-to-face communication. For me, this powerfully reinforces the principles of Agile and - as I discussed in my previous blog post - it’s also fun, and therefore much more tangible and likely to be remembered.

In summary

As an Agile evangelist, our very first un-workshop was an inspiring event. It was wonderful to see organic discussions develop that dealt with highly relevant questions about agility, whilst at the same time an emerging acceptance about the vital role Agile plays in the development of quality products and services.

At the same time, it highlighted the work still to be done to ensure agility it correctly understood, and that its value is communicated accurately to business leaders. All too often, we know agile transformations fail as a result of these misconceptions.

In the coming months, we will be focused on helping ambitious leaders driving agile transformation to convey some of the core concepts and help them tell a better story inside their organisations about the value of agile.

If you are experiencing the challenges of agile transformation, we can help: drop me a line and let’s discuss.