Learning can be accomplished in many ways, including with games. I signed up for my first Agile Coach Camp U.S. and Agile Games Day, held in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 23 – 25. I like conferences with an Open Space format – a format that allows for self-organizing conference tracks – and I knew the facilitators, Olaf Lewitz and Mike Sutton, would make sure we all learned plenty. Many of the most respected US and Canadian Agile coaches attended. My expectations were high, and ACCUS exceeded even those high expectations. I’d like to share some of my takeaways.
Why we play
Research on how we learn has revealed that we learn much by doing, by engaging in physical activities, and by engaging with each other. The first Agile game I played was the XP Game, a game to facilitate communication between the business and development, back in 2001. I’m always looking for games that will help participants in my own tutorials and workshops learn the value of the whole-team approach and other Agile testing techniques.
Sometimes games don’t teach what I expected. The Kanban ball flow game facilitated by Olaf Lewitz and Gerry Kirk is designed (I think) to demonstrate the value of Kanban practices such as limiting work in process. What a roomful of Agile coaches learned instead was the value of small experiments and incremental change. We took a fairly successful process and changed everything at once, instead of just changing one thing to see how it worked, and failed miserably! However, we did recover and start refining what worked well instead of re-inventing the wheel.
In Mike Sutton’s improv session, I learned the rich resources that the improv world provides to help teams improve communication, build trust, and appreciate diverse viewpoints. For example, we played a game where each team had to draw and name a picture by taking turns using the marker – without talking or otherwise communicating about WHAT we were drawing. Each person had a different idea of what was being drawn. That definitely relates to software projects!
The value of diverse viewpoints was reinforced in a session I held to get help developing a new game. I wanted to teach the value of tester-developer collaboration by constructing shapes using a plastic straw construction kit. As everyone played with the kit and built shapes themselves, the ideas started to flow. At first there were lots of unrelated ideas, but eventually they started to jell together. I could never have come up with these ideas on my own.
An interesting aspect of diversity at ACCUS was having people from outside the software world participate. We found that their games and techniques apply to software development, and conversely they found our games and techniques apply to other domains such as education.
Related to diversity is the power of influence. Tobias Meyer facilitated a “swarming” game for all 100 of the conference participants demonstrating that you don’t have to convince everyone in an organization to change – a few people can influence the many.
Eva Schiffer taught us her technique of Net Mapping to diagram the various players and entities that have influence on a project. Net mapping has been used in a wide variety of projects, from fighting cattle diseases to implementing new projects in government agencies, and it can also be used to strategize an Agile transition. You can make influences, both positive and negative, visible, and decide whom you need to get working in your behalf.
Learning by doing
I’ve learned the value of practicing my coding and testing skills, via testing dojos, code retreats, and by participating in Weekend Testing. How do you practice coaching skills? Michael Sahota facilitated a coaching skills dojo. We divided into teams of three, and did several rounds where each of us took turns as coach, client and observer. I learned so much from observing the experienced coaches on my team, George Dinwiddie and Andrew Fuqua. Seeing experts in action motivates me to continue practicing my own listening, questioning and observing skills.
Even if you’re like me, and you don’t make your living by being an Agile coach, you’ll learn a lot by attending an Agile Coach Camp. It expanded my horizons and gave me new ideas to get my own team to try out. New skills like net mapping will help me personally as well as professionally. Most importantly, I reinforced existing relationships and forged many new ones. This was the “huggiest” conference I’ve ever attended! The Agile Coach Camp experience reminded me that software development is all about people and relationships, and we can’t and shouldn’t try to separate our personal and professional lives.
Agile Coach Camp 2012 will be held in Minneapolis. The date isn’t scheduled yet, but watch the website for details.