To be, not to be seen – Inspiration from AgileEE

Last week I went to speak at the Agile Eastern Europe conference in Kiev, Ukraine. My talk was about the Impostor Syndrome with a focus on the importance of a humane work culture and how agile processes can support people with being themselves.

The first thing that struck me about Kiev is its enormous size. Officially there live 3,5 million people in the city, unofficially (whatever that means), 5 million. On the way to the hotel from the airport, I drove past what felt like endless large apartment complexes, each one housing more people than my entire neighbourhood in Iceland.

Ukrainians are very hospitable which was apparent in the atmosphere at the conference which was very friendly and inviting. The theme was To be, rather than to seem which fits my talk perfectly. I dutifully attended talks on the first day but started to feel I wasn’t getting much new out of them, although I agreed with what was being said. Agile (with a capital A) has started to focus more on management and to stick to predefined processes instead of focusing on agility. A culture where people have the freedom to control what they do and at the same time take responsibility for it, where people feel safe and are able to communicate with honesty is much more important than following some certified instructions. I’m not sure if this is a new realisation to people in Eastern Europe or just in the Agile community itself but this is something I have been thinking of for some years now. Anyways, I’m glad to hear that people are coming to this realisation. I’ve worked in strict Scrum where the team didn’t see any benefits of some processes, like estimating story points, and it was the cause of so much frustration and wasted a lot of time. When we finally realised that being agile meant iterate and improve the processes as well as the product, everything started to work so much better. And more importantly, everyone started to feel much better.

That being said, I heard some inspiring talks and was reminded of how strongly I feel about having a humane working culture and that you need to nurture it. When writing this article I also realised that I gained more from the conference than I realised at first. Then I had many inspiring conversations with amazing people from all over the world, which is priceless.

Invitational organisational growth

The conference started with a keynote from Michael Sahota where he talked about agile being for teams, not for organisations. The agile community is failing by trying to force changes on an organisational level instead of focusing on creating a good culture within a team. Teams should be in their culture bubble, don’t advertise it and people who find it interesting will come. Then remember to communicate with people outside the bubble in ways they are used to. “They want a Gantt chart, give them a Gantt chart”.

I agree that Agile shouldn’t be forced in an arrogant way to an entire organisation, but there are many problems as well with being in a cultural bubble within an organisation. There is always communications between departments, and it can cause a lot of problems when people are working in very different ways. At Kolibri, we often experience that culture clash when we are working in an agile team within a waterfall organisation. This makes you often feel that the rest of the organisation is working against you and you are forced to work in ways that go against your better senses. I would never make anyone a useless Gantt chart, I’d rather initiate a conversation about the reasons for it and the expected outcome. But it always needs to be a conversation, and that can be an exhausting task because it takes time. But how to present agile and your culture to others without being arrogant and work out a solution for both parties is something I’m very curious to know more about, so I was hoping to get more actions or broader insight from this talk than I did. During the talk, I was also trying to get over my slide fetish and ignore the comic sans that appeared every now and then between almost unreadable scribbled notes. The talk ended with encouragement to meditate and figuring out who you are, which I liked because that’s a big part of my life, but it wasn’t presented in a flow with what came before, so I’m not sure how people took that in.

Visualising culture

Next up Philipp Engstler showed an awesome visualisation of the culture from where he worked as head of engineering. They decided to do this really cool nerdy picture that displays their values and principles. It’s crucial to clarify what elements the company culture consists of so everybody is on the same page on how they want to work together. But it’s worthless unless it’s done in a bottom-up way like Philipp and his team did. We at Kolibri have also made our culture values and working agreements very clear in words, though not in an as cool picturesque way. This is both introduced to new employees, clients we work with and people outside the company. We also take it up every now and then to spark a conversation about if they are still viable and make sure everybody shares the same understanding. One of my favourites from their manifesto is We care about our PRODUCTS not our EGO.

Values in words vs. in hearts or “How to f*ck up with building processes without culture”

When the latest Scrum guide was released with the emphasis on values, instead of having more detailed processes as some people were hoping for, people asked whether Scrum is a framework or religion. Artel Bykovets had a nice talk about this issue and how he asked himself that very question at first, but came to appreciate the values and see that they are actually more important than to have very specific processes. I agree with him and really like these values and think it’s good for all agile teams to talk about what they mean to them.

All work performed in Scrum needs a set of values as the foundation for the team’s processes and interactions. And by embracing these five values, the team makes them even more instrumental to its health and success.

Focus: Because we focus on only a few things at a time, we work well together and produce excellent work. We deliver valuable items sooner.

Courage: Because we work as a team, we feel supported and have more resources at our disposal. This gives us the courage to undertake greater challenges.

Openness: As we work together, we express how we’re doing, what’s in our way, and our concerns so they can be addressed.

Commitment: Because we have great control over our own destiny, we are more committed to success.

Respect: As we work together, sharing successes and failures, we come to respect each other and to help each other become worthy of respect.

Rethinking agile leadership

Andrea Provaglio’s talk about rethinking agile leadership was well carried off and in line with the culture change theme, talking decentralised decision making. There were many good points there from Seth Godin’s book Tribes which I read recently and has many good points though it’s not the best I’ve read by him. Seth puts it very nicely with saying Leadership is about creating the change you believe in. In a self-organising team, there shouldn’t be a specific leader, but leaders should emerge from different people when they are needed. It’s important to have a non-self mindset and not just know how to lead, but also to know how to follow.

In old fashioned management, people were referred to as resources but let’s not do that, people are human beings and must be treated like so, in words and in action. Andrea also had a great point about how good communication is important and how it’s impossible not to communicate since we do that with body language and our every act. Not talking is not the same as not communicating since that can also send a message. Then he talked about the Responsibility Process which shows how all people mentally process thoughts about avoiding or taking responsibility. This is really useful to have in mind when you are processing your feelings when something fails and helps you not to get stuck in the first five emotions before you can take responsibility.

Scaling is on aggregation — How to reach the “C” level

Despite the cryptic name of Dave Snowden’s talk, it was the one that wowed me the most. He started with criticising the whole certification fascination that is present in the Agile community. I agree with him wholeheartedly, though I do feel that in Iceland agile coaches can have too little training at all, but people have to start somewhere I guess. The ability to understand how people are feeling and help them communicate is more valuable for an agile coach than a certification of knowing Scrum.

Snowden mentioned how people flock to where the money is, as in agile certifications, even where there is no real value there. This can lead to the Cobra effect. At the time of British rule in colonial India, the government was worried of the multitude of venomous cobra snakes. Their solution was to offer rewards for dead cobras to get people to kill them off. This lead to people starting to breed cobras to get the money until the government realised this and stopped the reward program. The bred cobras were released and the end result was an even worse situation. The point is that by getting more certified agile coaches, agile might get worse by being stuck in processes.

Snowden then made some points which I’m still pondering over. I feel they are very true, but the question is how best to address them.

  • Retros are determined by the present so they might reflect accurately what actually happened.
  • In light of the Hawthorne effect, single stories of change that improved the situation don’t really tell us anything.

But what was Snowden’s talk really about? It was about the Cynefin framework he’s developing, which can be used to help managers and others reach decisions. The Cynefin framework shows organisational complexity in different domains, so you can better know how to handle things when you’ve specced out in which domain the problem is. As cool as it sounds, it is complex and I’m not sure how to use it in my daily work. What stuck with me from his description of it is a method they use to collect data from people. They go to 10% of the people and hear out their stories by asking, what story would you tell your friend about your workplace? From this, they mathically (magically with math) draw up landscape models that show you where problems lie. This will have more realistic data than from surveys for example. People tend to answer surveys like they feel they are supposed to. This sounds really cool, but again, I’m not sure how to make use of it.

There are other practical things as well I took away from this talk, like having in mind that creativity only happens when people feel safe and can think freely. Total transparency will hinder innovation. Then instead of teaching how things work out perfectly, teach how failure happens. That’s when people actually learn.

Take back the space

The conference ended with a well fitting keynote from Tobias Mayer where he encouraged the makers to take back the space from managers. It reminded us again to develop with agility instead of “Agile”, referring to Dave Thomas article, Agile is dead, long live agility where he states the basic steps:

  • Find out where you are
  • Take a small step towards your goal
  • Adjust your understanding based on what you learned
  • Repeat


Other talks worth mentioning is Gil Zilberfeld’s talk about agile DevOps and Roland Flemm’s talk about remote team facilitation. I was so exhausted in the end of the first day that I missed Olaf Lewitz’s keynote about surprisability which I heard was very good. There was also a talk about Holacracy I would have wanted to go to since Kolibri uses that organisational structure, but it was unfortunately in Russian. Then there was a surprise talk about Teal organisations I‘m also very interested in (I’m currently reading Reinventing organisations), but I didn’t know about it until afterwards. The second day I decided to take people over processes to heart and connected with people instead of attending talks. I got great questions and feedback from my talk which were very useful and will help me make my talk even better. My next talk will be at NextBuild in the Netherlands 20th May.

I could write more about the culture in Kiev, Finland, Israel, South Africa, Netherlands, Russia and Spain from all the great conversations I had, but that must wait another time. Going to AgileEE was a great experience that pushed me back to really think about improving communications and how people work together, so they love to come to work and grow from it. It’s so easy to forget that on a day-to-day basis where there never seems to be enough time. Even though Kolibri is on the forefront with running the company with agility, there are things we can still improve on. It’s good to take a step back like this and get insights from others to be able to focus again on what really matters.

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