Quarterly Technology Briefing, Melbourne Q3 2009

This morning I attended the Thoughtworks Melbourne Quarterly Technology Briefing event at the Westin.

It was an interesting sessions with 2 key speakers. The format was basically 2 by approx 40 minute presentations, each presenter giving their take on a single topic of ‘Agile Governance’ and how adoption of it improved their respective organisations; to delivery improved quality products and achieve their specific needs of process improvement. The speakers were introduced by Lindy Stephens, Professional Services Manager at Thoughtworks, and she gave a 10 minute introduction to some history around Agile.

First up was Nigel Dalton, GM IT, Lonely Planet whose presentation focussed on how agile was the most logical and most valuable shift Lonely Planet was able to undertake a few years ago. Nigel was a terrific presenter with solid and interesting metaphors for the process.

His first slide made reference to a historical event involving the action of a “Burning Boat” with a nice image of a large ship engulfed in flames. This extreme situation was a metaphor and served as an to parallel to committing soldiers (consultants/developers/resources) to a battlefield (client engagement) and burning the transport mechanism to prevent a revolt (no choice, no turning back, keep going forward). This has some scary truths in how an organisation will commit extensively making it next to impossible to withdraw (pause and regroup) even if the logical and wise choice is to withdraw and try again. Of course not always at the highest level (i.e. entire project) but aspects, features, deliverables.

As a side note the burnt boats scenario was a reference to a documented historical event by a Conquistador Hernán Cortés during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. The concept was summed up well in a discussion with my friend the Urban Mariner:

Conquistador’s were different from regular armies, as that they operated more like Privateers. They were motivated purely by the promise of a share of the spoils, rather than service to the crown. As such, a captain maintained control only by exerting control over the prize. Cortés ‘burning’ his ships motivated his men to keep their eyes on the mission, as that was their only hope of escaping and claiming their share.

Nigel went on to discuss one of the greatest hurdles to overcome, on the path to successful agile adoption; combating ingrained “illusions of control“. His recommendation for this is to attempt to prove to stakeholders that the improved transparency of agile will be of far greater benefit. In that there will be more timely and accurate information, and no forced ‘spin’ on the results in a single monthly status meeting. A downside of this (initially) is the level of criticism invited by having everyone able to see detailed concepts, such as; daily burn-down and velocity metrics. But this should not be a disincentive to proceed with agile adoption. The advice here is be patient and bring those willing to be involved in as deep into the process as you can spare time for.

A key concern for those resisting agile adoption is often the question: Where are the guarantees? In particular the lawyers and bean counters (accountants). Nigel described a (still not completely resolved) situation of a long standing practice of accountants is the desire to classify a project/product as “Finished” and “Final” only to simplify their accounting practices; to begin the accounting process of depreciating the value of that asset. The challenge here is to shift the understanding and help revise the practices of other business processes to better suit what is required under an agile methodology, which is at its heart forever iterative.

The final comment from Nigel was a ‘yes’ to a simple question of using outsourcing in conjunction with an agile delivery model. Proven in their situation for their style of product making use of technology to still perform the necessary aspects of running agile; scrum, storyboards, cards, etc. They were able to successfully work with a team with a 2 hour time delay, potentially larger delays could hinder necessary activities, like scrum sessions.

The second speaker was Josh Melville, Executive Manager, Suncorp. Josh was discussing how a large complex corporate consolidation of Suncorp involving 9 separate divisions obtained through various mergers and acquisitions was undertaken. How adopting a corporate wide agile approach to all aspects of their business allowed them to consolidate and improve key processes. The scenario for moving a large corporate mesh of business units into 1 single method, required buy-in from all levels outlining that the greatest challenges were in-fact people. People in a sense were also a concern for Nigel making a bold but accurate statement as a key issue was “quality of talent”.

The approach Suncorp took was to allow their business units to be self-organising and self-directing in line with a larger business plan. Josh went further to outline how buy in from typically resistive parts of businesses i.e. “Risk & Compliance” departments was essential. To support the claim made by Nigel, once these departments were made aware of the increase visibility it allowed for much greater risk assessment. Through such agile tactics as; investigate, build and test the components with greatest risk first, allowing artefacts of a project that will not succeed or haven’t been thought out well enough to be dropped before they cause damage (waste resources). As a result Suncorp was able to get a more extensive buy-in from a broader base of their business.

Key Takeaways:

  • Agile will work if there is complete buy-in.
  • People need to be made aware of the benefits and allowed to adapt in time to the changes.
  • Old thinking of “final deadline”, “total cost” and “total time” are no longer valid.
  • It is absolutely necessary to have people questioning the flow and hitting an imaginary alarm button to get attention.
  • Stay lean.
  • Illusion of control is dangerous and detrimental.
  • There is immense value in true transparency.
  • Just like the coding practice; fail early, fail fast, and fail cheaply, recover and move forward.

Published by Nick Josevski

Software Engineer at Octopus Deploy

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