Agile & Change
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Agile & Change

How to change a company — one class at a time

Meet Jeremy. Jeremy started attending an unusual English class two years ago and has been a participant in subsequent semesters ever since. The class itself was different because it was dedicated to presentations on agile (in the wide sense of the word) and knowledge sharing. It later evolved to include a tutor’s corner where people learned how to use English language more intently and how to better connect with their audience. It stood as a way to change the organisation and develop people from various parts of the organisation under the umbrella of a language class and… it worked.

The class was established to foster language skills on international meetings, conferences and on a day-to-day basis. It was first devoted to a small group of people (Agile Coaches) in the organisation and later was extended to Product Owners (to foster AC — PO collaboration). Here comes Jeremy. As a PO, Jeremy had some problems with passing on knowledge and doing it in a rather chaotic form, he also fidgeted and had hard time enchanting the audience. Brick by brick, feedback after feedback (which was an essential part of the class) he gained his confidence and the form improved greatly. Jeremy also learned about few other things like “The art of self-deceit” or an exchange with Spotify that some of the Agile Coaches did. He had also taken part in several discussions on local issues in the company. This was also the time when the initiative got a co-owner to divide the work and got more formalised to set its mark within the company.

The class followed to another season. It got opened to all groups of specialists inside the company and, among those enrolled, there was an HR representative and a Java developer — Laura. In total there were 7 participants (8 was the intentional limit for the group). Jeremy got to know what is “mob programming”, how he can craft his own role in the company to meet his expectations as well as how to hold meaningful 1:1's. Laura benefited too, learning how to devote less time needed to prepare a presentation and did an experiment with mob programming. Laura also got to know some “behind the scenes” aspects of the other roles and was able to better understand the context of them and, as an outcome, support them during meetings.

In one of the surveys the participants mentioned: “training language skills not to forget how to speak English”, “fixing your pronunciation”, “inspiring presentations”, “tips & tricks regarding presenting”, “motivation for presenting, valuable guidance from tutor”, “feedback after presentations” as some of the valuable elements they cherish in the class.

On subsequent season few new elements were introduced. Wanting to push the class to another level the organisers introduced Delegation Poker, a practice known from Management 3.0. Additionally, they wanted to maintain diversity. More things started to be in the hands of a slowly forming team. The schedule of presentations was to be managed by the team and, if someone could not make it, he or she had to exchange with somebody else. Most elements were “fully delegated” or on “I will advise but they will decide” level. There were very few “I will tell them” like the structure of feedback (a “lobby experience”) or the requirement of giving two presentations. One of the chosen topic and the other on a topic not related to their field of work but connected with other participants profession. The last rule one was to foster collaboration among group members also outside of the class. This was the time when Greg joined.

Greg held a position outside of IT and was eager to participate. His first presentation at first glance was not related to any of us. In the middle of it though discussions arose, we discovered that his knowledge on “sourcing” (finding, evaluating and engaging with suppliers) was something that we should actually all know. It enabled us to create better solutions to internal and external customers. It also encouraged others to talk more together.

The semester had came to an end. On the last class we revisited all “features” of this initiative and reprioritised in terms of delegation poker as well as the form and schedule.

The plans ahead look interesting. We have two more participants enrolled: from marketing and from PR. This mix of roles, divisions within the company and gender is working out well. We have already planned the next season starting in August 2017.

Wait, but what happened with Jeremy and Laura? Well, last presentation by Jeremy was a true storyteller. Confidence, no fidgeting, interesting plot and engaging examples. Laura has cut her time of preparing a presentation by half with a more concise plot and can better target her audience. She is thinking about appearing on a local Java community meeting.

What you’ve read above was a sample of what we’re doing on Agile English in Allegro. It was not as rosy as described. I mean, it’s true and it really happened. What I did not mention was the stamina and vision needed to build a community and show the value to (prospective) participants as well as taking care of attendance, inviting new members, growing outside of IT, lack of presentations and few more. Yet, we’re slowly getting passed those problems each season with the “presentations conducted” factor jumping from 40% to 75%. Some of the topics that were presented and discussed:

  • “Non-violent communication” — participant later had first appearance on a national conference in English.
  • “The Do’s and Don’ts in conflict management: How to use the energy of the conflict to thrive” — participant helped a team to more constructively deal with conflict and make them more aware of their behaviours.
  • “Continuous everything” — on continuous integration; participants were more aware of the current state of continuous integration and how to go to the next stage.
  • “Google Design Sprint approach” — a recap of an experiment and how, with a positive outcome, merge GDS in 2–4 hours and when does it work and when it doesn’t.
  • “Dev Ops” — the origins and flavours of devops culture.
  • “Merit-money” — a management 3.0. practice, the participant later appeared on an international conference in USA.
  • “Meaningful 1–2–1s” — how not to waste time on meetings.

In terms of the tutor’s corner we learned (among many):

  • Emphatic pronunciation
  • Assertive feedback
  • Engaging the audience — Polishism
  • Connected speech
  • Cultural Awareness
  • Scaffolding — the MVP of preparing a presentation
  • Intonation
  • Pitching + Storytelling

There were quite a few people who broke their inefficient patterns in terms of presentations. Another value that was intended was that various parts of the organisation inspire one another in terms of working practices — especially in terms of IT. Often IT has this laid back atmosphere with agile practices being used quite often whereas, in some companies, other departments work in an old fashioned way. On the other hand there surely are experiences that might be vital for the IT to try out that are known only in finance or HR fields. From our experience, these classes make those elements come to light. We now hold a retrospective in the middle of the season as a checkpoint on if the class brings the most value to the participants. Below you can also read the long-term vision of the experiment which, at this point, as rather become a product.

Long-term vision:

Create a new standard for classes that strive for group work and the process of interactive with one another as the cornerstone of leveling up (it touches a bit on the idea behind Seth Godin’s altMBA).This includes the creation of long-term groups of maximum of 8 people that self-organise and decide on the shape of class themselves. They make things happen in the company, learn from one another thanks to the diversity of the class (department and gender) and act as beacons of change and inspiration in the organisation and their primary teams.

We plan to continue changing the company one class at a time and maybe starting to slowly scale to push the revolution, so to speak, forward. How do you influence positive change in an organisation? What ideas have you tried?

PS. Big thank you to David and Stephen for their involvement in creating and shaping this endeavour!

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Marcin Konkel

Marcin Konkel

I write about hyper-productive teams and focused organisations where people and products flourish. I also shoot documentary work at https://marcinkonkel.com