Continuous Improvement – 10 Ways to Help Your Team Learn (plus 6 more)
Not long ago I went to one of the Agile Coaching Exchange’s meetups in the lovely asos offices in London. Speaker for the night was none other than Rachel Davies who I worked with about a decade ago when she was a freelance agile coach. My god that decade has gone quickly. Anyway, her talk was about the techniques that they use at unruly to encourage learning in the workplace, and as you’d expect, it was really interesting stuff. So, I decided to take some notes and even give some of her ideas a go. Here’s what happened:
At one point Rachel asked us, the unsuspecting audience, to come up with a list of different learning techniques we’ve used in the workplace. It was a trap. No matter how many I thought we’d covered off, we were nowhere near the list that Rachel came up with. Basically we’re just not as cool as those kids over at Unruly, that’s what I learned. Anyway, keen to learn more about learning (woah, Learning Inception!) I decided to list the learning techniques I liked the sound of, and I’ve added a bunch of others that hopefully you’ll like the sound of as well (because, you know, lists are way cool):
- Attending meetups
- 20% Time
- Tech Talks
- Book clubs
- Coding Dojos
- Team Swaps
- Tech Academy
Workshops – I use these a lot in my work. I mostly try to keep them hands-on, encouraging the attendees to physically get involved. If I was any good at marketing I would probably describe them as “Interactive”. If necessary, I’ll use hand-outs, but I’ll never just stand there talking through a bunch of slides – that’s seriously uncool and you’ll never get into the Secret Inner Sanctum of the Workshop Magic Circle if you do that. The objective is for the attendees to be actively involved in the workshop, rather than to simply be an observer. I run workshops on Agile Product Ownership, Kanban, Flow (Theory of Constraints), and Sprint Planning & Estimating. Remember, using the term “Workshop” isn’t just a way of making a 4 hour meeting sound more interesting 🙂
Attending Meetups is not only a great way of learning from whatever the speakers are talking about, but also from chatting with the other people at the meetup. I regularly attend the London Continuous Delivery Meetup group (where you get the chance to pick the brains of people such as Matthew Skelton, Steve Smith and Chris O’Dell), the London Devops Exchange, the London Devops Meetup (where you can casually run your devops problems by Marc Cluet and Matt Saunders and then listen while they give you a solution) and the Cardiff DevOps Meetup (hosted by the DevOpsGuys, so you can be guaranteed some top-notch speakers as well as the best beer in the business – I kid you not, at devopsguys we have our own beer!)
Pairing – Like other programmers of my particular skill level (pisspoor), I get very self-conscious whenever I’m pairing. Not only when I’m the one driving, but also when I’m observing, because I ask stooooopid questions. Below is a picture of me pair programming with my son, who, despite being unable to speak yet, is clearly getting annoyed at my stupid questions (I think I just asked him what nested ternary operators are). However, there’s no denying it’s a fantastic way of learning. The technique we’re trying below involves me writing some ruby function, and then my son will refactor it and embarrass me.
Retrospectives are a way of reflecting on your latest sprint or release, and talking about what you did well, as well as what you didn’t do so well. The trouble is though, that you have to actually take these lessons on-board, and start implementing changes if necessary. It’s all very well reflecting on your performance, but it won’t improve unless you actually do something about it. This could be a whole blog post of its own, bust basically I’m seeing a lot of people in this situation where they rigorously do retrospectives, but nobody every implements the lessons learnt. Quite often it’s because there’s no agile coach involved with the team (and without the agile coach, nobody else has the time to implement the relevant changes themselves, let alone feels responsible for doing so).
Mobbing – Another picture coming up. This time another member of my family is joining in a mobbing session, which is basically a bunch of people all working on the same problem simultaneously (usually around the same screen). Like pairing, it’s a great learning technique. In fact I think it’s superior to pairing, because there are more people and therefore more minds on the job. But of course it can be costly to tie up multiple people on the same task.
Hackdays are like a geek-off for devs. I once spent the first 4.5 hours of a hackday trying to install LAMP before basically throwing my PC out of a window. Hackdays are where you get a bunch of devs together and give them all a problem to solve, or some objective to reach (you can be a specific or as vague as you like – often the more vague you are, the more creative your devs will be). 24hrs and a lot of pizza later, you’ll have a bunch of interesting creations – some more complete than others, but all of them creative, geeky, and in their own way very cool. I guarantee you’ll never see a passionate software developer work harder than during a hackday. What do you learn from a hackday? As a dev, you learn how to concentrate after 8 cans of Red Bull, and if you’re in a team then you learn how to work as a team under a high-pressure environment.
Devdays are something I really like to encourage within my teams. The idea is that for at least one day a sprint, 1 or 2 of your delivery team can work on something outside of the sprint commitments. I would aim to make sure everyone gets to take a devday at least once every 3 sprints. Of course, it needs to be relevant work, and it needs to be scheduled ahead of time (get into the habit of asking if anyone’s planning on taking a devday during sprint planning). If your team aren’t doing devdays, it’s a sure sign that you’re either too busy (and will end up experiencing burn-out) or your devs are disinterested. Devdays are a great opportunity to learn a new tool or to start spiking a new idea, perhaps using a new language.
20% Time is fairly similar to the devdays concept, in that people are encouraged to spend up to 1 day a week working on something that’s not on the backlog. I think the idea came from Google, but I’m not sure if they still practice it. Basically devdays, gold-card days or 20% time, call it what you will, are all designed to encourage learning and innovation and keep people feeling fresh and engaged. During her talk, Rachel spoke a little about Gold Cards, which I’d love to tell you more about, but I had to go and take a call just as she was talking about them, so you’ll just have to go and read more about them here.
Tech Talks are like little mini meetups, usually within an organisation, but companies like Facebook also do public tech-talks as well. Great for learning and eating free pizza and doughnuts. As a general rule, if there are no free nibbles, don’t go. Facebook had exceptionally good nibbles at their tech-talk. Just like at meetups, they’re a great place for tapping into the brain power of your fellow attendees as well as the speaker/presenter.
Book Clubs are one of the most underrated and under-used tools for learning, in my opinion. I ran a book club last year in an organisation that was trying to transition to Agile. The book I chose was called The Agile Samurai by Jonathan Rasmusson, which was a big hit with everyone who joined in. The format I use is for the group to read a couple of chapters of a book over the course of a week, and then have a review session where we all discuss what we’ve learnt. It’s a great way to share what we’ve learnt (which helps to make sure we’re all on the same page) and it also ensures that everyone is progressing at a reasonable pace.
Coding Dojos – These are coding-centric programming clubs, basically. They involve a bunch of eager coders getting together and working (usually on their own laptops or in pairs) on a particular challenge, with the purpose of learning more about a particular language (Ruby, Go, Erlang etc) or technique (BDD, TDD etc). Suffice to say you usually need to have a reasonable amount of programming experience to be able to get the most value out of these, but don’t let that put you off. There are plenty of coding dojo metups available to cater for most levels, or you could of course run one yourself within your own organisation.
Team Swaps are where one team swaps with another for an entire day, or possibly longer. The idea behind this is that if you’re going to hand your codebase over to an entirely different team (and not be around to help), then it teaches you to write clean, self-documenting, simple code. On top of that, it also helps you learn more about other team’s coding styles and techniques.
Rotation – If I had to pick one concept and make it a mandatory part of software development, I would pick rotation. Here’s how it works: you take Danny the developer and put him in QA for a couple of sprints. Meanwhile, you take Tammy the Tester and put her in Dev for a couple of sprints. At a later date, Danny the dev will have to do a stint in the helpdesk, while Tammy does a couple of sprints working with the BA or Product Owner. Until eventually, everyone in your sprint team will have done stints in each of the following teams: Dev, Test, Helpdesk, Infrastructure/ops, Architecture, Product (Product Management, BA or whatever you have in your org), and possibly even Sales. It can take up to a year to complete the full set, but the amount you learn is invaluable. It’s not just skills that you pick up, but most of all it’s the different perspectives you get to see. Eventually, this experience will make you a better software delivery professional.
Tech Academies are becoming quite popular, and we’re seeing an increasing demand for help in setting these up within organisations. The idea is to create a number of internal training courses, tailor-made for the challenges that are unique to your organisation. These could be anything from Agile Coaching courses to Database Administration courses (and everything in between). It’s even quite common to see organisation-specific “certification” as well. People can enrol in one of these academies by choice, or you can make them mandatory, it’s up to you – but the key thing is to make them specific to your organisation’s needs. I think these are exceedingly valuable, and they have the added advantage over external training courses of always being 100% relevant, plus you can also ensure that everyone is getting the same standard of training!
Blogs are a great source of information, and a great way to keep up to date with fellow professionals in your technical area. But don’t just read them, write one for yourself! Keeping a team journal or a company blog is a great way of promoting the cool stuff you’re doing, and is also a great way to encourage and develop people’s technical writing skills (not to mention their written communication skills).
Conferences are a great source of free T-shirts, pens, hats, stress-balls, stickers, key-rings, laser-pointers and other things that you quickly get bored of and leave on your desk at the office. But did you know that you can actually learn stuff at conferences as well? It’s true! Some conferences have really, really clever people speaking at them, (other conferences have me), and you’ll usually find the speakers are more than happy to have a chat with you over a drink after their talk. In all seriousness, the Pipeline conference this year was brilliant – a great crowd of very smart professionals from all walks of life, an inspiring keynote from Linda Rising, and a chilled atmosphere. So, get along to a conference (even if you have to take a devday to get away with it), write down what you learn, make a blog out of it, do a tech-talk to your team about it, expand that into a workshop, maybe include some pairing and/or mobbing, and then head on out to a meetup to chat to more like-minded professionals. 🙂 Learning Level: Einstein!