The secret to Agile problem solving? OpenSpace Agility

Even Agile organizations get stuck sometimes. What to do? OpenSpace Agility is a bold new way to work through problems, but it can be tricky. Expert Jennifer Lent explains.

OpenSpace Agility is the latest in a long line of techniques intended to help software teams get unstuck. I learned about it from Agile coach Deborah Pontes, who defined OpenSpace Agility as "a repeatable technique for rapid and lasting Agile adoption." I asked her for examples of Agile problem solving her teams achieved with this approach, and she gave me two.

The first was a meaningful shift that removed an impediment and helped the team move faster. The team switched to relative estimates. Instead of estimating the time software development tasks take in hours, the team simply designates each task as small, medium or large. "Estimating is not a valuable use of time, so let's do it quickly and move on," Pontes, co-author with Daniel J. Mezick of The OpenSpace Agility Handbook, said. "We move faster now."

That type of Agile problem solving grew out of an OpenSpace Agility session, where the participants grappled with the estimating process, asking whether that time could be better spent getting real work done.

The second was a more sweeping change from another session, in which a team member stood up and spoke the truth. "'We don't have the right vision for the product,'" she recalled he told the group, which included business executives with a direct stake in the product's success. "It was really about calling out the elephant in the room," Pontes said.

I love the vision question because it hones in on what every software team needs to know: Are we developing the right the thing? Do we have the right people in the room to inform our vision and our process?

Get the boss to show up

Getting the right people assembled is crucial to the OpenSpace Agility approach, where participants gather in -- what else -- an open space, without a predetermined agenda. It's not the kind of meeting most of us are accustomed to. Participants decide what they want to talk about. That means any topic can get air time, provided the person proposing the topic can get the group to go along.

When it comes to Agile problem solving, Pontes admitted that getting the boss to show up can be daunting. "But how else is the CEO going to get their info on what's happening on the ground?" she said. "Otherwise, it's a ridiculous game of telephone." She often coaches an executive team on OpenSpace Agility before the request is made. It's not uncommon for CEOs say things like: "What do you mean we let people talk about whatever they want?" When that happens, she tells them: "It's scary but there is no other way to work."

That truth is not going to sway every boss. The business of getting the right people in the room -- whether it's the CEO or a division senior vice president -- is a challenge. But if you don't work at it, nothing else matters.

The elephant in the room

The OpenSpace Agility approach treats all participants in the space as equals. In theory, an intern's concerns can carry the same weight as those of the CEO. But is that actually true in practice? I asked Pontes. "People are apprehensive to start with. But once the flow starts, people start talking," she said.

Speaking up takes courage. The guy who raised the vision question in the OpenSpace forum knew he was taking a risk. "'This might be a career-limiting move, but I think we have a problem with articulating our vision for the product,'" he told the group, which included the boss. "People laughed initially, but he was respected for it," Pontes recalled. "It wasn't a career-limiting move."

If fact, it enabled the group to have an open Agile problem solving conversation about a situation that had been festering for a long time. Here's how Pontes explained that situation to me:

There was a lot tension around a team that took six months to implement a feature. [The business stakeholder] believed the feature -- a change in the way users searched the application -- was simple and should take two weeks to implement. He kept asking why it had it taken so long. "What's wrong with the team? Are they lazy?" The team, for its part, didn't understand the vision for the product. Why were they being asked to implement a change now, when a major overhaul to same application was planned in the near future?

Because the search function touched so many pieces of the application, the "simple" change management wanted was a highly complex undertaking. Management lacked a full understanding of what it really entailed. They wanted this "small change" in two weeks and to the big website overall later that year. The software team did not grasp that management valued this change only if it took two weeks -- or even two months -- to implement, but not if it required six months of work.

It was a breakthrough for all involved. They understood what had happened, and how consistent, open communication could prevent future misunderstandings. In other words, the OpenSpace Agility forum enabled everyone to finally talk about the elephant in the room and then focus on Agile problem solving.

Pontes said her teams are working hard to "keep the culture of OpenSpace Agility alive and act on proposed changes that result from the meetings. Suspend your disbelief and try it for 90 days," she said. "You have to continually look at how the work gets done."

Will OpenSpace Agility work for you? I don't know. But if your team is stuck, try it and let me know how it goes.

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