Agile in the City Bristol 2017

Agile in the City Bristol 2017

I was delighted to attend and speak at this conference recently. I saw some fantastic speakers, filled up my brain with awesome new knowledge, and met some fine people. So I wanted to provide a brief post about who and what I saw.

I’ll mention everything I attended - I would stick to the highlights, but there were so many, it was difficult to pick out a shortlist! The speakers were of a consistently high quality, the subject matter was always relevant and I found a couple of really compelling themes emerging, which meant insights were plentiful…


The conference kicked off with a great keynote from Jenny Jepsen, talking about Your Brain on Agile. This keynote was a full-speed start to the day, diving into the role of your pre-frontal cortex as the engine for your creative side. This part of your brain is worn down quickly when stressed, leaving the limbic system to pick up the slack - an older, more developed but also more defensive and uninventive part of the brain. What was really useful to learn, was that there is a sweet spot for pre-frontal cortex efficiency. Essentially, stress can be caused either by too much work, information, or detail; or by too little stimulation, allowing boredom to creep in. The balance between these extremes is where you experience the least amount of stress, therefore getting the most from your brain. So staying in this spot will enable people and teams to be at their most creative and agile.

After running a successful workshop on WIP limits and flow efficiency, I attended Claire Ashcroft’s tutorial on The Power of Questions. Across all of our senses, each second, we can only process between 5 and 9 discrete pieces of external stimuli - so what could we be missing? Asking the right questions (and being guided to the right questions) can help us to make more sense of our situation, and focus better on the most relevant information. A particularly useful insight from this talk was the notion of secondary gains. When deciding to make a change, we look at the potential gains and also the current benefits we risk losing (and of course, loss aversion tends to bias our thinking). We can try to reframe our choices to provide us with a better perspective by focusing on the current gains we could retain too.

Next, Matt Hosking’s case study In Agile We Trust? posed some thoughtful questions about the importance and impact of trust in agile environments. Trustworthiness in a specific capacity is judged by your honesty, competence and reliability in that capacity - and you need to score in all three to gain that trust. Trust is gained gradually, via specific events and interactions between people - and the difficult truth is that trust gained by delivering to expectations, is outweighed by that which is lost by failing against them.

A very effective tutorial session followed, by Alan Furlong and Matt Roadnight - The Science Behind What Makes Us Tick. This included some great advice on identifying early signs of burnout, and key guidelines that can help us prevent ourselves from burning out. There was more on the role of the pre-frontal cortex, and how context-switching and distraction are also causes of stress. Alan and Matt also led us to discover the various positive drives that push us to achieve and succeed - some clearly connected, such as engagement, meaning and wisdom, and some more esoteric, such as relationships, exercise, and psychological safety. The theme of physical and psychological health and healthiness was clear throughout, and highlighted an area that is not always given the most attention in our working and personal lives.

Wednesday ended with the always-great Kevlin Henney, refuting the “Move fast and break things” ethos with an alternative mantra - Move Slowly and Mend Things. Among other things, Kevlin talked about codebase as a knowledge base, the true definition of velocity (speed with direction), the nature of group intelligence, and the point of optimum efficiency in a team as it grows over time. A very entertaining and engaging way to finish the first day, although I must confess that my brain was fairly full by this point!


A clear sign that my brain was not going to get any time off for good behaviour, Thursday kicked off with a mind-bending keynote from Simon Wardley - Crossing the River by Feeling the Stones. As with Kevlin’s, this was a hugely detailed, intriguing and insightful talk, covering a multitude of subjects, and to which I cannot do justice in a quick blog post! Suffice it to say, it’s well worth spending the effort to find out more about Simon’s Wardley Mapping technique - a way of visualising the value chains in your business, and how these are likely to change over time.

Following this, I attended Jenny Martin’s case study on Collaboration Driven Development. This was a great session about the art of balancing your efforts between up-front design and emergent design, by using the right tool to help you drill down to the right level of detail at each stage of a project’s development. Deferring the deep dive into detail until the relevant point means that you are always taking the leanest journey towards delivery=ing tangible value. It gave me plenty to think about in terms of how we approach higher-level planning and design in my own company, and a lot of ideas and techniques to explore and experiment with!

Next, Thomas Guest shared his experiences with working with distributed Agile teams in Agile at a Distance. Thomas suggested many useful technologies and tools that could be helpful when working with geographically diverse personnel, for example Jamboard, Duet, Retrium, Gitlab, and more.

Darci Dutcher was up next, with a workshop on .. workshops! Facilitating Better Workshops offered some valuable information about how to get the best out of your workshops, from macro details about the role of the facilitator (think of yourself as a movie director - your job is to get the best performance from your talent), down to some excellent micro hints and tips - such as the best way to open a pack of Post-Its!

After my talk on Failing Towards Victory, I listened to Helen Lisowski tell a story of dealing with extreme unforeseen events in Playing the Chaos Lottery. This was a very relevant story to me - as you would expect, since Helen is a colleague of mine at NewVoiceMedia!

Thursday finished with a storm of Lightning Talks! We were treated to a series of mini-presentations, with subjects that ranged from Dave Legge’s concept of the Dolphin Model, to Dan Jones on how Scrum can make you Dumb…


The final day started with a great keynote from Joanne Molesky, Are You Doing Agile or Being Agile, in which Joanne described the current position of a lot of “agile” companies today: slow to make decisions; suffering from disjointed strategic thinking across departments, leading to conflicting priorities;anchored to a culture of risk avoidance, and an unwillingness to experiment with processes and practices. However, you’ve got to start somewhere, and the best way to move from doing agile to being agile is (of course) incrementally. One key way to help an organisation improve is to consider the One Metric That Matters - the single metric that best captures the core value that your product delivers. Defining this, along with check metrics that ensure that the key metric is being pursued in a sustainable way, can be a solid basis for experimentation and improvement.

I then heard Daniel Young and Emma Jane Hogbin Westby share their contrasting experiences of working with people locally and remotely, in Humane Teams at Home and Around the World. They had some very compelling war stories from their very different environments, and described the spectrum of personalities they have worked with - from the kind and respectful at one end, to the unpredictable and chaotic at the other. These experiences helped them to form instincts for successfully adapting the standard rules, to fit the location of the teams and the situation on the ground.

Craig Livings’ experience report about Why I Broke the Rules was a tale of how and why he chose to depart from the best practices suggested by the agile manifesto, and the results that he got. For example: deliberately seeking to build distributed teams; using conversation over documenting user stories, and limiting automated test coverage to live issues. Craig presented a well-defined explanation of his reasoning for breaking from the rules, and his validation techniques that allowed him to determine the levels of success. It was a great reminder that in Agile, no process or doctrine should be above scrutiny, including the core tenets of Agile itself! Everything can and should be a subject for experimentation.

John Barrett closed out the day for me with some great tips on running Retrospectives for Distributed Teams. He covered some useful techniques and tools to help plan icebreakers, polls, distributed retros, and various retro formats. Loads of ideas to go away and try out!

This just left the small matter of the biggest Ball Point Game ever…!

Themes and summary

Overall, this was an outstanding conference - friendly, inclusive, well-organised and in a great location. I haven’t even mentioned all the sessions I wished I could have attended (still waiting on cloning technology), for example: a pair-programming workshop complete with roleplay and wigs; a practical implementation of prioritisation using Cost of Delay, and a fireside chat about the most powerful or motivatinal books, featuring a selection of speakers. Equally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the excellent evening events that were run by the organisers - in particular, the beer, boardgames and pizza night at The Beer Emporium was fantastic fun, and a great way to meet some of the other conference dwellers. There was beer. It was awesome.

To close, here are some of the key themes I took away from the conference:

You can find out more about Agile in the City Bristol, plus slides from the presentations, at their website, and at @agilecitybrs.

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