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From team self-organization to enterprise self-organization

I had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion table at the “Déjeuner-Causerie” in Montreal (last week) and in Quebec City (this week) where over 50 people gathered in each city to share their experience with Agile adoption.

From team self-organization to enterprise self-organization

Before I get into the main topic covered during the 3 hour breakfast, the participants shared with the group their topics of interest. Though the participants were at various stages of their Agile transformation and had different experiences with Agile, they shared common interests and as such asked interesting questions:

  • What is self-organization and what does it really mean?
  • Can self-organization really work?
  • How far can you push self-organization?
  • How do you get management on board?
  • Can this work in any culture?
  • How can people be motivated to work together?
  • We are only starting with Agile, what do you recommend I read?
  • and many more!

This post is a quick summary of the various conversations. Since most of these topics require further explanation, I will expand on some of them in upcoming posts (and conferences). For now, I wanted to share some of the discussions.

What is self-organization and what does it really mean?

Self-organization is one of the basic pillars of Scrum and is often misunderstood. People (and in particular managers) assume that letting a team self-organize is the equivalent of complete chaos. To avoid getting into such a situation, self-organization requires some constraints.

Self-organization is the process where a structure or pattern appears in a system without a central authority or external element imposing it through planning. This globally coherent pattern appears from the local interaction of the elements that make up the system, thus the organization is achieved in a way that is parallel (all the elements act at the same time) and distributed (no element is a coordinator). – Wikipedia

In his book, Jurgen Appelo wrote,

No self-organizing system exists without context. And the context constrains and directs the organization of the system. – Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders

As I already mentioned, Pyxis is an experimental laboratory and as such we have attempted to let people self-organize without (or with very minimal) constraints. In an upcoming post I can share some of the conclusions of that experiment but for the sake of this post, I’ll leave it as a “failed experiment”.

So back to constraints. In our context, the constraints are as follows:


Though we apply it at an organizational level, the concept of constraints can be applied at an Agile project team level where the Vision is the equivalent of the Agile project charter, the Finance is the equivalent of the project budget, the Strategies can be replaced with the project’s objectives or outcomes, while the Culture remains.

Can self-organization really work?

Yes, it can but it isn’t easy. Self-organized teams tend to go through various stages and success isn’t immediately achieved. Unless an organization is willing to invest into building a successful team, self-organization won’t really work.

How far can you push self-organization?

That’s really up to each organization. For instance, we have successfully pushed the concept as far as letting employees determine their own salary. Sounds crazy? Sure does, but that’s only because you haven’t factored in the organizational constraints.

You have probably imagined people getting together and giving each other huge raises. That’s what would happen if there were no organizational constraints. Once the constraints are well determined and understood, the team members can determine who deserves what as long as they fit within their team’s budget.

How do you get management on board?

That’s a difficult one to answer. The first question managers typically ask is “What will my job be?”. People managers are used to controlling what their team does, when they do it and even how they will be delivering the work. As Dan Pink mentioned:

  • People are more motivated when they are self-organized;
  • People take their own commitments more seriously than the commitments made by others on their behalf;
  • Teams and individuals are more productive when they are not interrupted;
  • Teams improve when they can settle their own issues;
  • Changes in the composition of the team affect the productivity of the team members;
  • Face-to-face communication is the most productive way to share information. – Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

That’s the reason why Agile managers need to alter their leadership style in order to success in an Agile context.

Can this work in any culture?

Probably not. Well, not without some organizational commitment. During last year’s Agile Conference, Michael K. Spayd explained that some cultures are more likely to adopt Agile than others. As such, true self-organization is more likely to succeed in a Collaboration culture or in a Cultivation culture. William E. Schneider’s book (The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work) is very useful to help determine the 4 different types of cultures. Fortunately for us, Pyxis is a cultivation / collaboration culture.

How can people be motivated to work together?

Unfortunately, they can’t! Contrary to popular beliefs, people can’t be motivated – only they can motivate themselves.

To improve the team’s performance and the project’s results, we suggest that Agile project teams be staffed by asking people to volunteer for a project. Projects are typically staffed when project managers or people managers select the people who will take part of a specific project. Although that might seem like a good idea, it is much more powerful to seek volunteers. As one of the participant highlighted “I used to be bored to death in my normal job until one day, I asked (begged) to be part of a specific project. I’m so glad they granted my wish. I now work 55 hours a week! I am super motivated and nothing is going to make me want to leave that project”. Still think letting people select their project is a bad idea?

We are only starting with Agile, what do you recommend I read?

There are so many great books and blogs to help you get started with Agile. A while back, I published a getting started guide. I also read the following blogs:

I referred to the following books during my presentation

Upcoming events

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Attending Agile Conference 2010 – Want to talk about Agile Organizational Coaching?

I finally registered to attend the upcoming Agile conference in Orlando. Just like last year, I’ll be posting my thoughts on the various sessions I’ll be attending.

An invitation for my fellow bloggers or to people who are passionate about Agile Organizational Coaching. Drop me an email (mproulx [at] pyxis-tech [dot] com) if you would like to chat or meet for lunch.

I’ll be there with Eric and Jean-René, two great coaches.

The Pirates’ Game (part II) – Solution

The solution to the challenge published a few days ago can be found here. Wikipedia provides more details on the allocation.

The intersting learning from this game is that to come up with the ideal solution, the proposing pirate needs to think in terms of the other
pirates (want would they need to accept this deal) instead of focusing on his perspective and as such, the optimal allocation is:

A: 98 coins
B: 0 coins
C: 1 coin
D: 0 coins
E: 1 coin[1]
  • A: 98 coins
  • B: 0 coins
  • C: 1 coin
  • D: 0 coins
  • E: 1 coin

The Prisoner’s Dilemma: Applying Game Theory to Agile Contracting

Behavior of the Homo Economicus

Behavior of the Homo Economicus

At Isabelle’s request, I agreed to attend Simon Bennett’s session on The Prisoner’s Dilemma: Applying Game Theory to Agile Contracting. Before getting into the content of the presentation, I must say that after recently reading slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, Simon’s visual presentation was outstanding. It has been a while since I attended a presentation with such quality visual material – too bad I can’t link to it.

Through a series of games, Simon demonstrated how traditional software development contracts are not appropriate for Agile projects and since I don’t have his legal (Corporate Law) or Economics (Behavioural Economics) background, I will quickly jump to the games that were played during the session.

The Prisoners Dilemma

If you are not already familiar with this game, here are the basic rules. More information about this game can be found on Wikipedia.

Requirements: Two people are required to play this game.

Scenario: The two of you have been arrested with regards to a crime. You are both kept in isolation for interrogation and have no way of communicating with each other.

How to win: In order to be released from prison, both of you need to say that your accomplice is innocent.

Rules: If one of you says the other person is guilty, the innocent person walks away while the guilty person stays in prison. If both of you say you are guilty, you both stay in prison.


While the optimal scenario would be that both of you say you are innocent, chances are you (and most probably your accomplice) will say the other person is guilty in an attempt to be released from prison. Unfortunately, this behavior leads to the worst case scenario which has both of you staying in prison.

This game is interesting and demonstrates why contractual agreement has the potential to results in an optimal deal but leads most of the time to the worst possible scenario.

The Pirates’ Game

If you are not already familiar with this game, here are the basic rules.

Requirements: Five people are required to play this game.

Scenario: As a group of pirates, you have just found a chess than contains 100 gold pieces.

How to win: The objective of each of the pirate is to maximize the number of coins they will receive and the decision to split the coin is democratic – each pirate gets to vote and the majority (or tie) proposition will be accepted.

Rules: Each pirate has a seniority level – pirate A is the most senior pirate while pirate E – the fifth pirate – is the most junior pirate. In order of seniority, each pirate proposes to the group how he wishes to split the coins and then asks everyone (including himself) to vote on the proposal.

When a proposal receives 50% or more of the vote, it is then accepted BUT if the proposal receives less than 50% of the votes, the proposing pirates is thrown overboard to the sharks.


While pirate A would wish to keep the 100 coins, there is no way for him to make this proposal without being thrown to the sharks. His challenge then becomes how to please other pirates in order to keep as many coins as possible, without risking his life.

Go ahead and try this game to see what happens. The solution to the game can be found in this post that will go online on September 8th.

The Bidding Game

I unfortunately do not have the documentation (and permission) to share the details of the bidding game but the conclusion are once again very obvious. People trying to maximize their compensation or reward always leads to less than optimal and sometimes to the worst possible outcome for both parties.

As is stated in the Agile Manifesto – “Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation” would almost always give better results than aiming to maximize individual rewards. Unfortunately, our irrational (and sometimes greedy) nature doesn’t allow the maximum outcome to be reached.

The 6 Types of Attendees at a Conference Exhibition Hall

After spending 4 days helping out manning our booth at the Agile2009 conference in Chicago, I came to the conclusion that there are 6 types of visitors to the exhibition hall where various companies have a booth showcasing their products and services. Below is my summary of the various types. It is obvioulsy impossible to tell in which category an individual falls in unless you spend time talking them. The list below should help you qualify your potential leads.

  • The Genuinly Interested: Having a booth at such events represents an important expense for many organizations and most people expect (at least hope) to cover their expenses by getting people to purchase their products or services. The Genuinly Interested attendee is exactly the type of individual companies target when they choose to rent a booth. The Genuinely Interested attendee demonstrates a positive reaction to your presentation, typically followed by one or more questions about the product. If an individual spends more than 10 minutes in your booth talking to you about your product, then requests further information and even offers to give you their business card – see our thoughts in opt-in marketing – you have a good potential. Needless to say, although this never guarantees a quick or even a direct sale, it is a great opportunity to educate your visitors who may potentially become a spokesperson for your product which would eventually lead to sales generation.
  • The Skeptical: The initial behavior of the Skeptical is similar to that of the Genuinly Interested individual with the exception that the Skeptical is a little more difficult to handle as he seems more interested in pointing out the weaknesses of your product than he is in purchasing it. Although you may not enjoy the experience and you may wish the Skeptical to go away, that would be a mistake as the Skeptical is actually providing you useful market information. Let’s face it, people don’t have time to waste so when someone stops by your booth and actually spends time prodiving feedback, you should take advantage. As with the Genuinly Interested who may not purchase right there, the Skeptical will most probably talk about your product and the way you handle his feedback will likely have an impact down the line on your sales.
  • The Toy Collector: These individual come in various shapes and forms. The more benign Toy Collectors simply walk to your booth and ask an attendee for the goodies – “I would like a t-shirt please”, “Can I take a mug?” – and then walk directly to the next booth with the same request. The trickier ones are those who stay to listen to your elevator pitch, node, might ask a question or two and then wait for or simply ask for the goods. It is only at the last minute you realize your visitor was simply interested in getting promotional toys. Once again, this behavior might be disappointing but you are also missing an important opportunity here. The main purpose for promotional items is to give visibility to you product or service and anyone who walks aways with an item that displays your company name, your company logo, and your web site should be welcomed at your booth.
  • The Pesty Competitor: After you have been in your booth for a while, you start to see competitors come by and ask questions about your product or service and although you may wish to keep your competitive advantage hidden from your competitors, information exchange is a normal part of doing business – shame on you if you aren’t doing it. The Pesty Competitor is someone who takes so much of your time and attention that you are no longer able to talk to Genuinly Interested attendees. You could think, once again that this is a bad thing. Quite the contrary. You certainly don’t want competitors to take all of your time, but otherwise this is an amazing opportunities to discuss cooperation and potential partnership – assuming you are not competing for the exact same market segment.
  • The Friend Seeker: This individual comes to your booth with no interest in your product. The Friend Seeker starts with simple questions and then moves on to more personal questions – “Where do you live?”, “Do you have any kids?”, “What are you doing after duty?”. Based on my experience, these individuals are rare and explaining to them you need to be working typically takes care of the visitor without any negative consequence unless, of course, you are also looking for friends to share dinner with.
  • The Zombies: Finally, the Zombies are individuals who may walk through the exhibit hall at a fast pace while avoiding eye contact or simply do not even come near the exhibit hall. Needless to say, unless they already own your product,  they are unlikely to become customers in the short term.

Meeting so many people is always interesting and pleasant and making sure we deliver the most compelling messages to capture our visitors’ interest while remaining transparent is critical to stay true to our values and commitment toward the customer experience.

As a final note, exchanging stories and experience with so many people during the conference has proven to be interesting, informative, and thought-provoking. Once in a while, we need to remind ourselves that such events are great opportunities to bring back great ideas then it’s up to our organization to decide how we will deal with these ideas.

Urban Turtle Booth at Agile 2009

Urban Turtle Booth at Agile 2009

Why aren’t you collecting email addresses?

Many of the exhibitors at the Agile2009 conference in Chicago are using the traditional scanner that lets them scan the attendees’ badge (access card). One of the nearby exhibitor (who meant well) approached us asking “Why aren’t you collecting email addresses?“. He couldn’t understand why we weren’t using such a device to obtain the email addresses of hundreds of attendees.

If you are not familiar with the badge scanning concept, here’s how it works. In exchange for letting an exhibitor scan your badge, they will typically offer you to participate in a draw to win an iPod, a Wii, or any other potentially appealing gizmo’s. So for the cost of the reward (usually less than $300) they obtain a large number of valid email addresses that they can later use to send relevant (?) documentation, promotional offering, information about upcoming events, etc.

While this strategy may sound appealing, the fact that we don’t use such scanning devices could appear counter-intuitive. The reason we refuse to scan badges is that we do not believe in building a “spam-list” – let’s call a spade, a spade! We do not believe that the names of people who simply agreed to participate in a draw to win something should be used for other purposes. These people weren’t specifically asked to opt-in an e-marketing campaign and since we truly live our values to treat our customers (even the potential ones) with respect, we do not collect email addresses unless the individual explicitly agreed to be contacted by our organization in the future and we do this with a simple question. “Would you agree to give us your business card so we can send you information about our products in the near future?“.

In our opinion, people who knowingly agreed to provide personal information are more likely to pay attention to the incoming emails they would receive from our organization.

Call it counter-intuitive if you wish, we call this “the customer experience“.

Agile 2009 in Chicago

Attending Agile 2009 in Chicago

Attending Agile 2009 in Chicago

A few of us will be attending Agile 2009 in Chicago. If you also will be attending and would like to discuss Agile, Scrum and Business Intelligence, drop me an email.

You might want to follow me on Twitter. Just like last year, we will organize an outstanding evening so you may want be informed…

4e Salon Business Intelligence in Montreal

Yesterday, Dominic and I attended the 4th Business Intelligence Conference held in Montreal (4e Salon Business Intelligence in Montreal) and despite the situation with the economy we were pleased to see that the number of attendees was fairly similar to previous years. Talking with people who have been attending this yearly conference since the beginning, the organization of the conference was better this year and the quality of the speakers has apparently improved.

While visiting the various booths in the exhibit hall and talking to other attendees, we were very surprised to see how few people actually thought of using Agile principles in the Business Intelligence / Data Warehouse arena. Interestingly enough, those who knew a little about agility were convinced that Agile and Scrum could not be applied to BI, yet they couldn’t explain why.

As I was reconciling this perspective with an interesting statistic presented by Jean-François Ouellet from HEC Montreal (only 12% of the companies in Quebec are satisfied with their Business Intelligence application) I realized that an Agile Business Intelligence practice will be an uphill battle but I believe the industry needs a better approach in order to increase the success rate of BI projects. I am confident we have something good to offer.

Agility and Alignment at TDWI’s Summit

A few of us will be attending TDWI Executive Summit on February 23 – 25 to see what their perspective is on Agility and Alignment – the next wave in BI.

If you will also be attending this summit and would like to share your thoughts on the topic of Agile Business Intelligence, drop me an email.