I recently had the pleasure of spending a weekend in Antwerp, at the hands of Happy Melly and their DARE13 conference. The conference was designed to bring an eclectic blend of Lean, Kanban, Agile, Scrum, Improvement, happiness theorists and anarchists together in a refurbished shipping hangar on the Western Scheldt. I was pleased to be able to present my experiences from this conference at the Connecting Improvers community monthly call (a community that I created for fellow improvers at OpenText), the slides of which can be viewed at the bottom of this post.
It’s fair to say that I was not a typical delegate. Not being a software guy, nor an Agile coach, nor did I work for an SME or a web startup. I also have no grand ambitions to change the world, unlike Happy Melly found Jurgen Appelo (@jurgenappelo) who, in the absence of Jim Benson due to plane trouble, kicked off the conference with his manifesto for creating tribal businesses. It was a good way to start and really set-up the rest of the conference by being energetic, purposeful and slightly goofy. I was struck by his observation that “we don’t learn from mistakes or from best practice, but from engaging in experiments”, this is pretty controversial seeing as the old business maxim of “best practice” still holds sway, and also the vast number of articles released recently encouraging people to fail fast etc. Business, management and Leadership in its current form is still too much of an art, for it to become a science it would do well to borrow scientific tools like hypothesis testing, building experiments and the like. This chimed quite neatly with another speaker (Paul Klipp) who said: “Organisations don’t teach non-scientists to conduct experiments”
The rest of the conference can be summarized through a helpful 4 box grid I composed.
Scrum’ers, Kanbanista’s, the cult of Seddon and the free spirits. These titles aren’t meant to be derogatory, merely illustrative. Before attending the conference I was unaware of the schism in the software world between Scrum advocates and Kanban supporters, suffice to say I am not the best person to outline their respective philosophies. But I will echo the words of Dean Leffingwell, who is an avowed Scrum’er, when he explained to those that mock developers using waterfall techniques, that “without it we wouldn’t be here today”. Both methodologies seek to reduce the batch sizes of features or bugs that can be resolved during a certain period, hey just disagree over what the size and the time period should be. What did I learn from this? Well my company uses a customized version of Agile, and I can see the difficulties we have in mastering this skill at an enterprise level, which makes me think Agile isn’t scalable (many other presenters would disagree). What I definitely heard loud and clear was that the world had moved on to exploring Kanban, and that whichever method I chose there were plenty of companies that could sell me software programmes to make it easier to use.
I’ve been exposed to John Seddon before (not in person, sadly) but via YouTube and the systems thinking study during my MBA. And it is core, it makes sense to me; you can’t affect change on anyone part of the system, you need to step back and assess the system in its entirety. I don’t particularly enjoy his criticisms of Lean Six Sigma (hey it’s how I make my living!), but I like people and ideas to challenge my thinking to make sure it doesn’t become fixed. Richard Moir’s presentation was by far and away my favorite. It was simple, practical (looking at Aviva’s IT department’s issues to completing features) and had me reflecting on some of my current projects and whether I was- “Solving the right problem”. I wasn’t by the way, but I struggled to see how you could balance making essential small improvements without killing them off by saying you have to investigate the whole system.
The Free Spirits infuriated me a bit. I think it was the juxtaposition with such detailed and technical material that didn’t compute for my overloaded brain. I like innovative thought, I like to be provoked by unusual and innovative ideas, but I also need to be convinced. Most of the ideas spouted by the free spirits were untested, and so the evidence of practical application producing a positive result was missing. However in the spirit of the DARE to try something motto of the conference there were a couple of ideas I liked, and may even try. I urge you to run out and read Jurgen Appelo’s book “How to change the world”, it is essentially a packaging of all the change management stuff you’ve ever heard, but with all the bits that don’t work removed. Although I was put off by the new age core of Peter Moreno’s talk but was able to accept his message around understanding and controlling emotional reactions at work (deep breathing helps), and I will adopt Laurence Vanhee’s tactic of solving sticky issues in a maximum of 3 meetings.
The best thing about the DARE13 conference wasn't the lunch, or the incredible barista crafted coffee’s, or the time we had for breaks, or the BBQ on the second day. It was the Lean coffee sessions. These are pretty simple to run and ensure that the participants share their experiences and solve problems in a collaborative way. The session starts with a Kanban board (with columns labeled- Prioritized, In progress, Completed) and post-it notes with ideas for discussion. Each person gets to put up their ideas and they get 3 votes to use how they chose to indicate priority. Once prioritized the group takes the top topic and agrees to talk for 8 minutes, at the buzzer there is a simple thumbs up, down neutral to indicate if the conversation should continue or whether the group wants to move onto the next discussion. It was a simple and effective networking, problem solving and sharing device that was an excellent way of regulating discussion and get the most value for the participants.
On a final note, like with many conferences, some of the speakers “didn’t do what it said on the tin”, in that the title and blurb for their talk bared little resemblance to what they actually spoke about. This is a conference peeve for me, especially when I have turned down a choice of two other talks that might do what they say. Also, and this is timeless advice to any presenter- walk the room you’ll be in. It wasn’t until the second day that presenters realized that the stage set-up meant they were walking in front of the projector, also don’t be awed or inspired by having access to conference technology…. Keep your presentations simple and ensure that you can still get your message across in the event of a power cut.
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