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Agile Coaching – Calibrating the MachTeam

  • 28/03/2017
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  • Posted by Derk-Jan de Grood

As many know, I encourage test professionals to have a π-shaped profile. Personally, I do a lot of test consultancy, but have Agile Transition Coaching as my other specialism. In my latest assignment I am Agile Coach with one of the most innovative banks bank in the Netherlands, who’s branch office teams are adopting an agile way of Working. The primary goal is to increase the output of the teams. Since I‘ve just started and met a lot of new colleagues; team members, product owners, team leads and managers. Many of them were very interested in my approach and the strategy behind it. I got reactions like; ”We are really glad that you are helping us to become more Agile, but what are you going to do?”

 An interesting aspect of Agile is that there is not one solution. As I stated in my book Agile-In the real World-Starting with Scrum (Techwatch 2016) ,agile is not an out-of-the-box solution. Different organizations have different ways of working and within a single organization, teams may organize themselves differently. This holds for teams that are working in the same department and especially when the teams are working in different locations or branch offices. When the optimal working methods differ per team, its only logical that starting teams wonder how they are going to find their optimal modus operandi.

Steam Engine

The answer is of course by doing, learning, experimenting and failing forward. To explain how I accompany the teams in this process, I like to use the image of a complex steam engine. This weekend I outdone myself by drawing the illustration for this column. As you can see this machine consists of numerous pipes, control valves and pressure gauges that are interconnected. The challenge is to find the right setting of each of the valves and balance the pressure. If we succeed in that, we have found an effective way of working that produces a lot of value for the organization. We could than say we have calibrated the machine, eh… team (let’s call this the machteam). Unfortunately, at the start we don’t know the all of the valves, let alone their correct settings. And since we do not know yet how the machteam is working, it’s risky to completely turn a random knob all the way. Things might blow up in our face.

 When I have to explain my approach as Agile coach, I explain that agile coaching primary consists out of two activities. One is keeping an eye on the goal. This goal might vary for each team, but high over it will most likely be consistent with the agile principles; delivering value. The other activity is stimulating the team to improve itself. By observing the way the team is working and suggesting an improvement we start optimizing and learning.

As I told you the machine is a complex one with many valves, knobs and pressure gauges. Correspondingly, there are many things where we can start; the stand-up, the demo, Refinement, defining and using the Definition of ready, the way we collaborate and give each other feedback and how the testing is done. The variables are numerous.

Small Changes

 As an agile coach I try to keep all these possibilities in my head and use my understanding of agile to help the team to decide where they are going to make their next improvement. I encourage the team to make these improvements small. Small changes have a low threshold and result little opposition. They are Do-able. On our steam engine we select the corresponding valve and give it a slight twist. By re-adjusting the valve, the pressure will probably drop in some places of the machine and rise in other parts. When this happens new sub-optimality’s and problems will surface. I like to solve problems only when we have detected and experienced them. This saves us from inventing complex solutions for problems that might not even be there and keeps the process simple. Thus by turning one knob we learn where the process is failing and the pressure is rising. So what’s next? We find the next valve, slightly re-adjust it and read out the other dials to see where the pressure getting too high. And so on. By doing this the team is continuously learning, improving itself and discovering new dials and valves.

 So you might see me at work and spot me grasping in the air and turning imaginary valves. Then I am probably explaining how I visualize agile adoption, how I encourage the team to make small adoptions and help them to learn and understand how the pipes in their machine are connected.  Like said, it’s important to experiment, improve and make small adjustments. While doing we need to keep an eye on the end goal and increase the output step by step.

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Derk-Jan de Grood

Derk-Jan de Grood was chosen as the European Testing Excellence Award winner at the 2014 EuroSTAR Conference! He works for Valori as senior test manager and product manager. His drive is to improve the visibility of testing in both agile and traditional organizations, by sharing his knowledge and experience by means of training, presentations, workshops and publications. He is a regular speaker at conferences like EuroSTAR, wrote several successful books on software testing and publishes articles for the major testing magazines.

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