Pictures from Agile North mini-conference

The Agile North mini-conference on April 26th featured the Real Options presentation and “Space Game” by Portia and me. Pictures and slides are now online.

The handout for the Real Options session is not yet online, but you can download it from our site.


XP Days France 2008 – Paris, je t’aime

I’ve written before about XP Days France. Time for an update.

The conference will be held on 5-6 May in Paris (not 12-13 May as announced previously). That’s only a few days away. Book now if you haven’t yet.

I’ll be there. I’ll co-host two sessions and attend fun, interesting and useful sessions.

Les neuf cases pour bien comprendre son client

This interactive session will be hosted by Bernard Vander Beken, Portia Tung and me. In the session, groups of 3 participants learn how to interview customers to help them to understand their problem and to write user stories. It’s a re-run of the successful session Bernard and I hosted at XP Days Benelux. Fun and learning guaranteed.

Real Options, l’ultime frontière

Portia Tung and I host this space game simulation to teach participants all about Real Options.

What are Real Options? They are a technique to make better decisions, by giving us more time to gather information and by considering more options. They are an underlying principle of Agile and Lean. This is an improved version of the presentation and game we ran at Agile North and at a tryout in London. At both events, players discovered some important lessons. They discovered that common sense is not so common, especially when we are under pressure.

A bientôt!


London, the final frontier

The Space Game

Royal Festival HallPortia and I have been working on a Real Options game, with the help of Vera. Last Friday, we held our first tryout.

We set up shop in the friendly environment of the Royal Festival Hall with our game props: a galaxy game board, space ships, planets, sweets, maps, stories, news items, stuff to play with… The usual motly, colourful items that signal to participants that this is safe, ‘just’ a game.

Portia told the story behind the game: participants had to fulfill a mission to preserve peace across the galaxy. We explained some of the rules. Participants had to ask us more questions to discover what this simulation was all about.

We played the game in several rounds. In each round, the teams had to plan their move and then execute their chosen move on the game board. Along the way we introduced real options concepts. The players were really ‘in’ the game, fully absorbed. Near the end, they discovered an important concept.

I can’t tell you what, you’ll have to play the game yourself!

After the game, we held a retrospective with the players. This was the most important part of the evening for us, because the first rule of game and session development is:

Space shipsTryout, feedback, improve, repeat

If you want to create a great game, session or performance, iteration is essential. You gather your ideas, create a structure, bring in all the props… and then the real work begins. You get valuable feedback from the participants and by observing, you improve the game. And then you do it again. And each time the performance improves.

Yes, release often, iteration, feedback and simplicity are useful for game design too.

And courage… We were a bit nervous. Would the game work? Would the concepts be clear? Would the participants like it? The participants did have fun and learned something. We learned a lot. There’s a lot to improve.

Come out and play

If you want to have fun and learn more about real options you can play the game at Agile North on 26th of April and at XP Days France on 5-6 May. See you there!

A big T-H-A-N-K Y-O-U to David, Daniel, Maria, Sharmila, Matt, Chris and Henry for being such great players and for the excellent feedback.


Drawing your process. Backwards.

Draw me a process

Rob and I made a small, but useful change to the “I’m not a Bottleneck! I’m a free man!” session at Agile North. During the second half of the session, we ask the participants to draw their process. Many participants have difficulty doing this. Where do you begin? Where do you end? Where are the boundaries? What to include, what to exclude?

At least now we know where to start…

Start at the end

My idea of funWe now tell the participants to start with the customer. Our work only generates “throughput” (value to the company) when the customer pays us in some way for something of value we give them. So, start by drawing the customer.

From the customer, work backwards. What does the customer receive, that they value? A piece of running software? Where does that come from? And so on, up the value stream. We noticed that the participants didn’t get stuck drawing their process. It did take some effort to get started. We are so used to thinking forward. It may take a while before you switch from “The customer gives requirements” to “The customer receives running, valuable features”.

The idea comes from the practice of Lean consultants to walk and map the value stream backwards, from the customer to the source materials. This helps you keep the customer perspective and see opportunities for “Pull” scheduling.

In Will Self’s novel “My idea of fun“, the main character and his evil guru (“The Fat Controller”) take a mental voyage from a cotton shirt they bought, all the way back to the cotton pickers near the Nile. Will Self invented the term “Retroscending” for this exercise. Next time, you think about your software process, try to retroscend.


Agile North

Agile North I spent a nice day at Agile North in Preston, on Sepember 20th. The Agile North group organized this one day Agile conference.

Rob Westgeest and I met at Manchester Airport with Kevin Rutherford, who drove us deftly to Preston, just before the approaching traffic jams.

The conference started with a keynote by Rachel Davies, current chair of the Agile Alliance. The talk told us how Rachel got into agile software development and her advice on moving to agile software development. Her theme was a common one among experienced agile practitioners: it’s about the values and principles. You’ll have to tailor the practices to your own situation. Start with a documented agile methodology, any methodology, the one that seems to fit your environment best. Start delivering and reflecting upon what you do. Adapt the method. And again. Use retrospectives for the reflection part (more about that later).Charles Weir

The first session was a goldfish bowl, organized by Charles Weir (on the left of the picture, seated on the table) about “Dealing with Customers”. Unlike most goldfish bowls I attended, this one was relaxed and featured some interesting discussion and tips on how to work effectively with customers. The audience had a nice mix of experienced people who could tell stories of success and failure, and people new to agile, looking for ways to improve their customer relationships.

The session was not about great ideas and breakthroughs. Most of it were small, simple ideas that everyone could apply, few of them specific to agile development. It does take sustained effort to create and maintain a great customer relationship. And again, the advice was to solve your worst problems (or bottlenecks) and to adapt to local circumstances.

I would have liked to attend the Rails session too, but you can’t be in two places at the same time…

Kevin RutherfordAfter lunch, Rob and I organized the “I’m not a bottleneck! I’m a free man!” session. In this two hour session, we first introduce the “5 focusing steps” in a simulation, where the participants are asked to implement a paper boat and hat folding company. The workers got paid in chocolates.

In the second hour, some people come forward with a process that they want to optimize. The other participants act as Theory of Constraints consultants, coached by Rob, Kevin and me.

In the picture, Kevin proudly displays the result of his team: at least one way each to “exploit”, “subordinate to” and “elevate” the bottleneck of the customer. This particular system has a loop in it: software is tested and if it is defective, it is fixed and tested again. If you’re going to map this process to find bottlenecks or make a “value stream map”, it’s easiest if all the loops are unrolled and you get a linear process. How do you unroll the loop? You could take the average situation (e.g. it takes one fix-retest cycle on average); you could take a specific examples (e.g. feature XYZ went through 3 fix-retest cycles); or you can put a fork with probabilities in the diagram (e.g. 80% of all cases do not need retesting, 15% need one fix-retest, 5% need two fix-retest cycles).

The last session of the day was about agile in large organisations. I was quite interested, as I currently work for a largish organisation myself. The presenter didn’t get to finish his story, because there was a rather large amount of push-back and questioning from the audience. I didn’t get the message of the session. I’m still interested in the subject, so I’d like to see the rest of the slides.

Finally, we had a panel, where the audience could ask the “experts” questions. Rob and I had to decide which one of us would be on the panel. Rob lost, so he had to answer all the difficult questions 🙂

Agile North ended with a quick pint at the pub (kindly sponsored by Kevin) and an even quicker drive back to Manchester to catch our flight back to Belgium. All in all, a good conference, nice turnout, well-organized, interesting sessions and discussions with other participants. Thanks to the organizers for inviting us. I’ve enjoyed the conference, hope you have too!