"It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change!" - Charles Darwin

Thursday, 10 November 2016

A conversation with the CIO community

Leadership quote by photosteve01 / CC BY 2.0
Last June I had the pleasure to get my interview published on Netweek, the biggest magazine for the Greek CIO Community (the Greek IT Managers are both readers and editors). 
I am thankful to George Fetokakis, Editor-In-Chief of Netweek to make it possible and for the interesting questions.

Since I realized that the interview was only published in Greek, I decided to post it here in English and share it with a bigger community.
Trust you will find value in it.
Looking forward to your feedback and comments.

1. How did you get started in the Agile world?
Interesting enough, I actually started my Agile journey in Greece. At the end of 2009 I got the chance to be part of kicking-off the Agile transformation in a big development organization of around 2000 people. So I got to spend 3 months in Patras, together with other 18 apprentice coaches from all over the world and 9 consultants among the most knowledgeable Agile coaches and trainers at that time. Every single day of those 3 months was an incredible learning experience and that still remains the most exciting and fun period in my professional career. Which better place to start a life-changing journey than the place which gave birth to the Western culture?

2. What does success mean for you in this world? 
In my opinion success in this context for a company or an organization means: effectively leveraging on Agile values and principles to achieve your specific goal sustainably in the fast changing world we are called to live right now.
For a development team success means delighting your customer with products that actually solve their problems. For me personally success means contributing to transforming our world of work in something more meaningful for human beings.

3. What are the top skills that an effective Agile coach should have?
The two coaching skills which helped me most in my 7-year experience as Agile coach are: empathy and situational awareness. Empathy is a crucial skill for coaches and leaders.
I learned that people want to feel themselves valued and appreciate when someone is truly listening and not judgmental. This doesn´t come easy: it is a skill to practice to be able to listen for potential, namely listening to people not for what they are, but for what they can become in the future and be committed to help them become the best they can be.
With situational awareness I mean the ability to be really present, observe carefully and understand what is going on around you: the ability of “reading the room” or “smelling the room” beyond what is said.

4. How Agile (and Scrum) has changed the way that the developers think and work?
Agile and Scrum are incredibly effective change engines: they trigger a paradigm shift in everything. Not only in how we develop products and services, but in how we lead, in the way we collaborate with each other, in the way we interact with customers, in how we consider ourselves as professionals. Embracing agility means embracing continuous change, which in turn simply means embracing reality. Someone said: life is what happens while we are making other plans. Believing that things will stay still just to please our plans is the ultimately insane wishful thinking.

5. Scrum is simple but not easy.  How difficult is to make a company Agile?
Being simple is definitely one of the strengths of Scrum but also one if its pitfalls: it is so simple that many managers fall into the trap of believing it can become a magic wand for the company´s problems. A famous quote from Ken Schwaber, co-inventor of Scrum, is: “Agile development will not solve any of your problems. It will just make them so painfully visible that ignoring them is harder”.
And that´s where the tough part starts! Scrum is not plug-and-play! It´s not just a SW methodology upgrade. It changes some of the basic assumptions about how products get developed! It´s like installing an iOS 9 app on an iOS 4: it won´t work! You need to upgrade the Operating System! Only courageous leaders, who are willing to make an impact, dare to start the journey to upgrade their company´s operating system.

6. What should companies do to achieve a successful transformation in the Agile world?
The first step is about asking “Why?” What is the problem we are trying to solve? There must be a clear need for any improvement change: imagine how crucial it is to start off such a dramatic change. So any successful Agile transformation implies a top-down approach, in terms of Company values, leadership culture, business goals and management support. However, there are aspects that need to emerge bottom-up, like practices to be selected by self-organized teams. It has to be a sandwich strategy! Given the importance of the top-down part in the enterprise change, one of the initial steps is to educate managers, for them to understand the why, be able to share and communicate the vision, embrace Agile values and be ready to support people with a new leadership style. Many times this critical step is down prioritized, if not even neglected.
Finally it is extremely important that teams are organized so that they can deliver value to customer as fast as possible, replacing functional teams organized around the system architecture. Effective teams are cross-functional and have all the competences needed to transform a backlog item in a product increment within one Sprint.

7. What words of advice would you give to people who are just getting started with Agile themselves?  
Every context is different: so simply copying from others will not work. Scrum is a good way to start, it is a great teacher: if you have never tried Agile development, Scrum can give you the framework to be able to start. At the same time, you need to know many things outside Scrum to make Scrum work effectively: having an experienced Agile coach to guide you through the first challenges can be a key differentiator between success and failure.

8. What are the biggest challenges that they have to confront, what are the biggest mistakes that they should avoid?
I have seen few recurrent failure patterns: Product Owners without authority, knowledge or time, superficial knowledge and lack of coaching on Agile practices and principles, complacency as opposite to a culture of continuous improvement. Well, avoiding these failure patterns is one of the biggest challenges to confront. One of the biggest mistakes is considering Agile as something to implement: Agile is rather something you are or can be. Agile is an adjective, not a noun.

9. What should people and teams do to make their workplaces and lives more productive with Agile and Lean?
There are few things that helped me become more productive and I have seen also helping individuals and teams I have coached:
  • When you have a question to answer, spend time in understanding the question before jumping to the answer.
  • Do not make assumptions: genuinely ask why. If you have to make assumptions, try to validate them as soon as possible.
  • Challenge how things have always been done.
  • Work on your strengths, more than your improvement areas.
  • If you wish to succeed at anything, have a clear vision of what you want to achieve and consistently take baby steps in the right direction.

10. Where do you see things going to Agile in the future? What changes are coming?
I see contrasting things. From one side I see more and more “Agile” instances which have nothing to do with agility, where people and especially managers have lost or probably never got the original meaning of Agile manifesto: where, for instance, individuals and interactions are in service of processes and tools rather than the opposite. This can be also considered a normal evolution. When an innovation reaches the hype, it starts getting late majority or even laggards in the game: they probably accept Agile just to look fashionable or to please their boss. On the bright side I see a convergence of researches, theories, methods and practices coming from really different domains (Entrepreneurship, Neuroscience, Psychology, Finance, Management, Non-profits, even Military and Government) which are collectively creating a very visible red thread. And this red thread is all about coping effectively with fast change by using an empirical approach, embracing individuals as whole human beings not as resources to exploit, being mindful, decentralizing power, and creating meaningful relationships. That´s really exciting and resonates a lot with agility. On a broader scale, our generation is experiencing a growth in our consciousness as human race (let’s take for instance social responsibility) and that´s going to create benefits not only to our industry but to the entire world. 

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Psychology of continuous improvement

Abanico en el mar by Ollui Samall Zeld / CC BY 2.0
I am an engineer! We engineers love well-crafted solutions.

Most of us studied Operations Research: we are excited by finding the optimal solution to problems and we like to fix all at once and even design future-proof solutions.

Sounds great to feel so powerful, doesn´t it?

But why is it so difficult to solve problems when they involve human beings?
Why can’t we make things happen even when the solution and the benefits appear so obvious even without analysis?

For instance:
Why can’t people simply quit smoking?
Why don’t most of us parents manage to get their teen-ager son to clean up his room?
Or why don’t we simply manage to increase the test automation level in our team?

Don´t they look like much simpler problems than many technical issues we face every day?

When it comes to challenges involving people, the issue is that human beings are not as nice creatures or as beautiful systems as the ones addressable by mathematical sciences, such as mathematical modeling, statistical analysis, or mathematical optimization.

God could have done a much better engineering work! Too many bugs J
  • We are the least rational creature on earth: we are driven by emotions and gut feelings at least as much as by rationality, but feelings take the lead many times
  • When the rational parts takes the lead instead, we usually got stuck in analysis paralysis
  • We are reluctant to change: we like our current way of doing things
  • We are programmed to save as much energy as possible: changing our routines  requires effort
  • We are blinded by cognitive biases: we interpret the reality not for what it is, but by comparing it with the maps we have been creating in our brain since we were born
  • We are addicted to the now and not very much used to accept delayed gratifications

So how can we ever achieve anything with such a flawed baseline system?

Imagine when you have multiple individuals together forming a team or even a bigger constellation: an organization!
Still surprised that up to 70% of all change initiatives fails? Can we ever succeed?

The good news is that human beings have also great properties and very effective strengths to use as leverages.
People are able to go straight to the point if they feel that the goal is clear and within reach and can be moved by incredibly powerful intrinsic motivators if they perceive the goal as meaningful and desirable.

All successful football coaches, for instance, know the trick very well.
How many times have you heard a journalist asking about possibilities of a team to win the championship?
And what was the answer from the coach every time?  “We want to play one match at a time”.

Good coaches do not ask their team to focus on the ultimate goal, but establish goals which are within immediate reach and clear criteria for their players to know when they have fulfilled those goals: by playing and possibly winning one match at a time, they get into the habit of winning and eventually win the championship.

Cheap and Dan Heath report in their book “Switch” that psychologist Karl Weick, in a paper called "Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems," said: A small win reduces importance ('this is no big deal') , reduces demands ('that's all that needs to be done'), and raises perceived skill levels ('I can do at least that')." All three of these factors will tend to make change easier and more self-sustaining.

That´s why the Lean concept of Continuous Improvement (or Kaizen) is so effective and resonates so much with the way we as humans are wired: consistently taking baby steps in the right directions makes big goals appear more feasible to achieve.

However, being social systems classified as Complex Adaptive Systems, usually it´s not a smooth path of small wins.  More probably it will be about taking one step forward and two steps back, then three more steps forward and then five steps to the side. 
Nevertheless, by taking the vision of what we ultimately want to achieve well defined and in sight and, by coupling Hansei with Kaizen, meaning practicing Continuous Reflection at every step, we are much more well equipped  to achieve anything.

Instead, when a task is too big, the effect on human brain is overwhelmingly scary.
The book “Switch” reports also that Alcoholics Anonymous challenges recovering alcoholics to get through "one day at a time". To an alcoholic, going a lifetime without another drink sounds impossible, but going 24 hours sounds doable.

Small targets lead to small victories, and small victories can trigger a positive spiral of behavior.

Human brain has no trouble achieving baby steps, and as it does, something else happens. 
With each step, you feel less scared and less reluctant, because things are working. 
With each step, your brain starts feeling the change. 
A journey that probably started with anxiety and skepticism evolves slowly, toward a feeling of confidence and pride. 

And at the same time the change is happening, you as a person grow.