Are you agile? Do you care?

How do you recognize agility?

Portia asked me this question last week. I get that question regularly. I usually give two answers.

1. Look at the values and principles

I don’t care if you write user stories. Do you really collaborate with your customer? I don’t care if you pair. Is your team learning and spreading knowledge? I don’t care how long your iterations are (as long as they’re not too long). Do you regularly provide value to your users and do you get valuable feedback? I don’t care if you have burndown charts and walls with index cards on them. Do you provide visibility and honest status updates to all involved in your project?

Ask a few questions about values and principles. Ask about the status of the project. Look at the way the team behaves. Ask “Why?”. “Because the book/guru says so” is not an acceptable answer. Look for a systems thinking answer.

It’s so easy to spot the fakes.

It’s easy to see if there is fun, passion, honesty, openness, enthusiasm and a desire to do things that M-A-T-T-E-R.

But Portia knows that already.

2. Why do you care?

What’s so interesting about ‘being agile’? Is that a useful goal?

Some time ago, I got a call from a company to “help them to do Extreme Programming”. As a fan of XP, my reaction was “Why would you want to do that?“.

Turns out they didn’t want to do XP at all.

They wanted to have a solid demo version of their new product, ready for the industry event a few months later. They wanted to improve their software quality to decrease the time between idea and sale. They wanted more visibility into the state of the product/project, so they could make better business decisions.

Those are useful goals. Achieving those goals would be a good acceptance test for my involvement.

I’m going through these same questions with a potential new customer. They want to be agile. I keep asking why. We agree on acceptance tests that show that my involvement improves their business. Tests that show that my involvement brings them value.

Some people find it strange that I don’t emphasize (or even talk about) agile with my customers, when I start projects. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I hide agile: it’s on my CV (next to other stuff) and a simple google search will turn up lots of agile-related pages with my name on them. Agile works better than anything else I know of.

But, I only talk about agile after we have gotten results. It’s only XP if it succeeds. 😉

Business-IT alignment? Surely you’re joking!

I fully agree with Dave Nicolette’s assessment of the CIO concerns Top 10. There is a conflation of ends and means, similar to the one above. If these are the things that keep CIOs awake at night, I suggest they take a sleeping pill and snooze on, like they do during their workday.

Whenever someone mentions business-IT alignment I have trouble not to burst out laughing. It’s a phrase I only hear in organisations where there’s an antagonistic relationship between business and IT. “If only we could do without the other party“, they both exclaim wistfully. As one project manager said: “If only there were no customers, IT would be great!“. At which I replied: “Yeah, but unemployment benefits suck”.

In these organisations, IT people talk about “The Business”. I won’t repeat what The Business calls IT, in case young children read this blog.

On the successful projects (in those same organisations) we didn’t call them The Business.

We called them “We”.


Zen presentations

Presentation Zen

Presentation ZenGarr Reynolds has changed my world. By writing a blog. The wisdom in the blog is now collected in a handy book.

I remember a time when (Powerpoint) presentations were dull, mind-numbing things with bullets. Not much infomation was conveyed, but they were perfect to combat insomnia.

Except in some backward places, boring your audience is frowned upon these days. Real presenters have a message, a story, emotion and meaning. Presenting has become performance art. Presentations have become interesting and exciting.

The ideas that Garr promotes (“Simple ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery”), the examples he gives have inspired so many presenters to become better presenters. These ideas have inspired me to become a better presenter and have more fun doing it.

Playing with presentations

Presentation Zen introLast Tuesday, Stien and I hosted a “Presentation Zen” night at The Hub Brussels. Simone and Dieter again provided the excellent location and organisation.

The session was similar to the one Vera and I had given at XP Days Benelux. We first show clips of presenters using different presentation techniques. We let the audience analyze the presentations and note what they like and what they would do to improve the presentation. No negative feedback allowed!

Then, the participants form in groups and make their own presentations. Each group presents what they made and the other participants analyze and give (positive) feedback. The groups then improve their presentation and present the final result.

The teams at work

Team 1 at work Team 2 at work

Stien and I put some skin into the game: I presented an excerpt from the “Toyota Way“; Stien and I did a “Go Naked” presentation, where we talked about our preferences and approach to presenting; we also did a “Pecha Kucha“.

Pecha Kucha

Pecha Kucha is a presentation format with very simple rules:

  • You get to show 20 slides
  • Each slide is shown for 20 seconds. The presentation auto-advances, the presenter is not in control.
  • After 20 slides, the presenter(s) sits down and shuts up.

You can get a ‘taste’ of a lot of different presentations on a Pecha Kucha Night. If the subject or presenter isn’t interesting, another one will be along in 6:40 at the most. There are ‘Pecha Kucha Nights’ in most major cities. Go to one of these nights to get some new ideas.

The strict format forced Stien and me to be really clear about what we wanted to present. Our subject was the “creative process” from “Creativity Today“. We applied the process to come up with the presentation. The participants could use this process to come up with their presentation.

We had a lot of fun making the presentation. We played with the conventions of the format. We tried out all sorts of ideas. We included music and silence. We had a lot of fun doing the presentation.


Pecha Kucha is a scary format. You are not in control. The slides move on inexorably. You can’t hesitate or think too much, you have to present. You have to be present. You have to “throw yourself” into the subject, go with the flow and don’t look back. You have to trust in yourself. You have to trust the other presenter. You have to keep an eye out for your partner’s cues and build upon them.

Stien is a scary co-presenter. And I mean that in the nicest possible way 🙂

Stien is not afraid of improvising, of going with the flow, of trying something else, of moving off script (“Script? What script?”). I’m more the structured, rehearsed type. Our presentation content and delivery played on those differences. The creative process requires both. One without the other is boring or chaotic.


For me, it all comes down to passion. Talk about something that you are passionate about and let that passion shine through. Use personal elements and stories to connect with the audience. Apply Kanso (simplicity), Shizen (naturalness) and Shibumi (elegance).


Two days later I went to a concert by Wim Mertens. The music was enthralling and moving. The setup was simple: a piano player and a violinist on stage. After a nervous start (this was the premiere of the tour) the playing was natural. The stage setup was simple and elegant. Both players were completely “in” the music, while being intent on the each other’s cues.

When not playing, Wim Mertens seems shy and uncomfortable on stage dealing with the audience’s applause. He looks as if he’d rather not be there, but at home composing or recording some new piece. He seems to play his music because he must. His passion for music makes him go on stage again and again.

If you’re going to do a presentation, do it because you are passionate. Do it because you must.

Pictures by Cyriel.