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A Tale of Two Conferences: Agile on the Beach and Agile Business Conference

Had a year really gone by since my maiden experience of Agile on the Beach? 52 weeks since I was awoken to Farley’s Laws? 26 sprints since the concept of Mob Programming entered my vocabulary?

Well, yes, actually, so it was time for me to return to the West Country for this year’s conference.

Whilst the passage of time never ceases to disturb me, I can say that a year of fighting the scrum fight on the frontline has probably watered down the pure concentrated agile high that I left last year’s conference with.

No doubt I’ve fallen into some bad habits along the way too, so a chance to go and hear from the leading proponents of the Agile community was probably coming at just the right time.

Unlike last year, I also had the added benefit of visiting the Agile Business Conference in London for the first time a few weeks later, so I was really spoilt with these opportunities to brush up my skills and knowledge.

It was the best of times…

Firstly, it really has to be said what a good experience I had at both conferences. Conferences serve as fantastic opportunities to experience validation and reinforcement of all of the Agile principles that we embody here at Siteset, whilst also casting a new light on any areas of improvement by hearing from and networking with like-minded individuals and organisations.

Both conferences also have very nice nuances and idiosyncrasies that define them as unique and therefore effective:

Agile on the Beach has its inclusive, community vibe with its opening Pint and Pasty night, Beach party on the second night and Retrospective boat ride to close the conference.

Agile Business Conference has its Round Tables, which are an abundance of smaller, conversation-led slots in addition to the main speaker tracks, where, as a delegate, you can really customise your experience by choosing which of the many Round Table discussions you might like to attend.

...it was the worst of times…

The two conferences have very different atmospheres, subject matter and target audiences. You could say that this demonstrates Conway’s Law in action, if you consider the entities behind each conference.

  • Agile on the Beach has a laid back, informal, collaborative environment which is reinforced by its idyllic location by the coast, at the end of summer. It is run by a committee of Agile practitioners, many of whom are based in the West Country, for people that are “being Agile” on a daily basis. It is by the people, for the people.
  • Agile Business Conference is in London in autumn, it has a ‘business casual’ dress-code and the word “Business” in the title. It is run by the corporate Agile Business Consortium (formerly DSDM Consortium) and is targeted at Enterprise business owners and management. It is by ‘the man’, for ‘the man’.

Consequently, Agile on the Beach can sometimes feel too ideological, where Agile Business Conference feels too cynical. Where Agile on the Beach might say “we don’t need Project Managers”, Agile Business conference might say “but if we do away with Project Managers, who’s going to manage stakeholders, maintain budgets, assess risk, and plan and report on progress?”

I may be being overly critical, but Agile on the Beach seems to be a destination for the Agile developers and lean start-ups of this world to go, blow off steam and say “aren’t businesses clueless?” whilst Agile Business Conference consists of business owners and senior management scratching their heads and trying to work out how to remain relevant in an Agile landscape. There really doesn’t seem to be a platform for these two worlds to come together and have a conversation. Perhaps there should be.

… it was the age of wisdom …

For me, the best thing about attending these conferences is the opportunity that it presents to get innovative and exciting information and anecdotes from our peers in the Agile community. This year, I was enlightened to the following causes:

From Agile on the Beach

1. Fizzgood (Frequent, Small, Good, Decoupled)

Jon Terry, from LeanKit, regaled us with a story of the key learnings from a traumatic project that quickly snowballed into a waterfall-esque programme of work with a big bang release, and how that led to the company adopting their Fizzgood (FSGD) approach, ensuring that everything they do is:

  • Frequent
  • Small
  • Good
  • Decoupled

2. Time and materials contracts

During his ‘Case Study: Seven Years of Agile’ talk, Paul Massey of Bluefruit recollected how his organisation has transitioned from undertaking projects on Fixed Scope/Fixed Cost contracts, to Agile Contracts, to Time and Materials Contracts with just-in-time planning. The latter approach has seen a real breakthrough in transparency and managing client expectations.

3. The strangler pattern

The second day’s keynote speaker, Dr. Rebecca Parsons, mentioned ‘the strangler pattern’ as a framework for undertaking a legacy application migration or rebuild with value being delivered more frequently than the traditional approach to a project of this nature, where value is not delivered until the ultimate big bang release of the fully rebuilt application.

4. 10% time

Following in the footsteps of organisations such as Google, LinkedIn and Facebook, there is a concept of n% time whereby ‘x’ amount of a workforce’s time and resource is reserved for working on whatever they want to, within the confines of being something that directly or indirectly benefits the company. This seems like a great opportunity to pursue important things that all-too-often get deprioritised at work, such as research, continuous professional development, bug-fixing, side projects, etc.

From Agile Business Conference

1. Epic wall to sprint wall

Since the conference was targeted more at Enterprise level organisations, a common theme was how to elevate some of the grassroot Agile principles to the wider organisation. One such concept was the idea of having very visible ‘Epic walls’ at a level above ‘Sprint walls’ whereby a Scrum team, and any other stakeholders in the business, can have visibility of what epics are on the horizon. Epics then transition from the ‘Epic wall’ to the ‘Sprint wall’ as they become a more immediate concern for the Scrum team.

2. Upside down business model

There was an inspirational talk from James Timpson OBE, Chief Executive of Timpson. Agile is so commonly discussed in the context of software development, so it was really refreshing to hear of Agile principles being applied in a completely different sector. The ‘Upside Down Business Model’ puts those that directly interface with customers at the heart of the business, with all other levels in the organisation’s structure serving to help and support that delivery of good quality service to customers. The levels of empowerment from the bottom up are vindicated by high staff satisfaction and retention rates.

3. Prince2 Agile

For a long time I have heard people in the Agile community denounce Prince2 and claim that it is the antithesis of Agile. I have always disagreed and felt that the Prince2 principles can be transposed into an Agile environment, so I was pleased to find that one of the Round Table discussions was also on this subject and echoed my sentiments exactly. Prince2 and Agile can coexist, and there is even a book on the subject to boot.

4. #NoProjects

I first heard of #NoProjects on the schedule for the 2015 Agile on the Beach conference, but I missed the talk, so I was keen to go to this talk to find out what it is all about.

My initial observation is that it is an idealistic, sensationalist and provocative description of a concept that actually has some good principles behind it. There was a palpable buzz around the conference regarding this topic, and the talk was well attended, which supports the suspicion that, as clickbait, #NoProjects is very effective.

In a nutshell, the #NoProjects movement is aligned with the concepts of Continuous Improvement and Continuous Delivery, in that its focus is on continuously delivering value without the confines, constraints and challenges of satisfying project artefacts such as timelines, deadlines and progress reporting.

It simply states that, for products, a backlog of areas of improvement and change exists and we can only realistically proceed with implementing that change on a just-in-time basis, rather than taking the traditional project model approach of bunching these changes up and planning, reporting and delivering on these together in bulk.

It argues that, where projects are concerned with outputs, #NoProjects is concerned with outcomes, i.e. a user has a need to change a product to gain a specific value or benefit, and so by implementing that change the outcome is the realisation of that value/benefit.

#NoProjects promotes the notion that, since we are only human, estimates are just guesses and the planning horizon is a lot sooner than any organisations and clients like to admit. We shouldn’t invest such time, effort and stress into contriving arbitrary project goals, budgets, timelines, deadlines and progress reports. Instead, we should focus on what is immediately in front of us, which can be more easily estimated, planned and delivered than the less well defined requirements that might exist on a traditional project roadmap.

I can see a lot of benefit and appeal in this ideology, but suggest that the journey to re-educate organisations that are so ingrained in following traditional project models would be far from smooth.

…it was the age of foolishness…

There was unfortunately one key distinguishing factor between the two conferences, above all others, which had a more negative effect than positive.

At Agile on the Beach, I didn’t feel like I was being sold to; however the same cannot be said of Agile Business Conference.

I do not wish to speak for all delegates, but I do know that some others shared my view that at least two speaker slots were a bit uncouth and shameless in self-promotion: one was given by a sponsor of the event; the other by the organisers of the event (formerly DSDM Consortium) as they capitalised on the opportunity of having all delegates assembled in the main conference room for the final keynote by unveiling their rebrand as the Agile Business Consortium, complete with their plans to implement (or impose) frameworks on the Agile community, supported by their own suite of training courses and qualifications.

I found this to be an unrequited and alienating sales pitch, and fear that it was an abuse of their position and power as organisers of the event, not to mention the distain that I hold for the concept of Agile practitioners attending courses and gaining pieces of paper whilst they could be out there, at work, living, breathing and being Agile… but what do I know? I'm only a humble ScrumMaster!

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