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Meeting with Agile software pioneer Alistair Cockburn

UPDATE January 2010 - Alistair has posted his comments on SF and how to use punchier language at http://alistair.cockburn.us/Solutions+Focus+aka+Delta+Method. Go and check it out, and see my comments there.


As you will probably know, I enjoy meeting people who have led developments in other field which seem to have some resonance or connection with SF practice. (See the Karlstad Group section of the site for more details.) You also have have heard me talk about Agile methodologies, fact, flexible and emergence ways of developing software (and also running projects) which embrace and use continuing change and interaction rather than try to prevent it. So I was looking forward to meeting Alistair Cockburn (pronounced Coe - burn in the English style) in London. More about Alistair at http://alistair.cockburn.us/. Alistair is a US citizen with extensive British roots, hence the name thing.

We met at a Turkish restaurant in Pimlico, thanks to one of the British Agile guys, Andy Pols. Once Alistair had found his way there via an interesting morning of healing and the Tate Britain, we got talking about Agile and the way this movement has developed (more about Agile at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agile_software_development). The Agile Manifesto (http://agilemanifesto.org/, written around 2001, was a key point for the movement to gel around, in a somewhat that the SOLWorld community emerged at around the same time. I really like this - it's punchy and crunchy, and gets to the point. The main section is:

Manifesto for Agile Software Development

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Alistair confirmed that this had indeed been a great success - some 10,000 people had signed up to this over the years. Indeed, Agile was now being accepted as 'part of the way that things should be done' rather than the radical departure it was at the time. He commented that this left them better able to get on with the really important business - developing code well etc - rather than preaching the agile gospel all the time.

We moved to talking about SF and how it might be connected with agile. Alistair said he learned well by stories, so I went through some tales of SF coaching in action including some very recent ones (like asking someone wanting to be more credible as a consultant to scale their credibility and then do 'how come it's that high?' 27 times - the first 8 things had come quickly, then there was a struggle, and then number 9, number 10, 11 12 13 .... faster and faster). Alistair liked the idea, shown the classic 'Albert model' diagram, had some very interesting comments.

The first was about the 'gradient' - he saw the idea of the direction (towards what's wanted) as a gradient, which acted as a focus for action around 'where we are now' both in the past and in the near future. It took me a moment to figure out what he meant - in all the years of drawing this model (which I always do at an angle, so it does indeed look like a hill being climbed), I hadn't thought of this as a gradient. Very interesting. How can we use this idea?

His next thought was around the power of the 'ant country' gap - the empty space between the next small steps and the better future. He said that there must be some better language around the power of this gap - putting all the energy into the direction (of the better future) and the next steps - and not worrying about the unanalysable bit in between. He liked the ideas of SF very much, but said the language we had at the moment (as seen in The Solutions Focus book at any rate) was 'la-la' - not compelling and punchy. Very interesting reaction! He rated the language at about a 4 on a 1-10 scale and challenged me to come up with something better. I, of course, accepted the challenge, and he's happy to respond to some new ideas when we come up with them. What's the metaphor? Alistair commented that businesses often had wat metaphors in their language - what can we come up with that's not war, and also gets our big ideas across in a compelling way? I mused about the challenge of developing something in $5 words that sounds powerful and expensive (as compare to Appreciative Inquiry and other latinate academic sounding titles). Alistair said that, in his agile manifesto experience, small words were indeed very powerful, and challenged me to use this aspect of SF to come up with something.

So, comments and ideas below please!

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Comment by Hans-Peter Korn on January 7, 2010 at 17:52
This meeting was a starting point for this "emerging piece of work":
"Solutions Focus aka Delta Method"
http://alistair.cockburn.us/Solutions+Focus+aka+Delta+Method

Alistair created this page & discussion on his website based on comments from Mark, me and some others.
Comment by Klaus Schenck on January 7, 2010 at 13:21
Agile & SF - a lovely "narration with the neighbors", indeed! Only with some delay, and thanks to Hans-Peter's posting on the "old" SOL-listserv did I become aware of this emergent conversation, and I'm especially struck by three aspects: 1. the opening-up to neighboring fields in the first place, 2. the explicit link to "metaphor", and 3. the special metaphor of a "gradient". Let me try and briefly explain:
1. Opening-up to neighboring disciplines and areas of interest / thought always seems like a welcome sign of maturity in any "school of thought". In the earlier days of SOLworld (as I perceived them ...) trying to investigate SF's relations to, for example, "systemic" traditions seemed not well received. Maybe SF then was still too much busy with defining its own identity, its own "center of gravity", with "settling in", to be ready and self-secure enough to "look around". The "Karlstad-Group" was the first major sign of increasing openness. Last year's conference theme "Connections" was another one. I'll be curious to see what will happen re further opening at this year's conference in Bucharest - the desire has been inspired already! ...
2. "Metaphor", as a special aspect of art- and helpful usage of language has become an intense focus of my own curiosity. It was much to my surprise to find how much has been written about the topic, from Aristotle's days to "clean language", and I was glad to see Judy Reese make connections between the worlds "Metaphors in Mind" (a booktitle on clean language) and SF. Another "narration among neighbors" ...
3. As part of Kirsten's and Ingrid's one-day congress on SF in Munich, Germany, last November I offered a workshop on the use of metaphor in SF consulting. We used SF's "scaling" as a starting point. Taken literally, the word might be derived from the latin "scala": a traditional means to help you move "up", with a stepsize that can be handled (or "foot-led"? ...;-). (By the way, it is a well described "conceptual metaphor" that in everyday perception "better" correlates with "up" in a spatial understanding - as in Mark's and Jenny's sketches of the "Albert Model" ...)
If the "distance" between say "3" and "4" on the ladder is too big for a client's confidence in the next step, you can put the "rungs of the ladder" closer together. Then the step is only from "3" to "3.1".
The stepsize can be narrowed down further. What you get with a series of infintesimally small "steps" is - a gradient! Just like in Alistair's poem (linked to above), many "littles" result in: a lot. But a lot with a direction within, a gradient, a kind of a lot - of progress.
Strange enough, back in the eighties I did my diploma work (in developmental neurobiology) on: gradients! The "morphogenesis", the emergence of defined shape from quite homogenous beginnings during the development of any organism then was explained by various gradients of shape-ing substances, like hormones or neurotransmitters. And it was surprising to see with how few such "morhogen gradients" how many different shapes could be generated.
Simple beginnings, iterative interaction, emergent variety ... - a biological metaphor for SF, isn't it?

Thanks again for the food for thought!

Klaus
Comment by John Nicol on November 24, 2009 at 5:14
Thanks for posting Mark. Interesting read. Been (loosely) applying the 4 Agile manifesto bullets above in a recent telecoms operations project in North America. By helping focus the team efforts on getting software working and then sharing the 'step by step' results widely, we have generated a lot of excitement and fresh thinking.. We called the project NEON - i.e. all about shining lights into the gaps and dark corners. Being able to show 'what is working' in a software-centric workplace releases a lot of energy. Soon enough solutions emerge.

Thinking about the gap you mention above. In the latest project, I experienced a sort of 'stop - start' gap. Like a traffic light phase. Could the gap be the time it takes for an individual or team to realise that it is better to stop doing what doesn't work and begin to focus on what they are already doing and what works.. just thinking out loud here..

Aren't the most compelling metaphors the ones that work? :-)
e.g. in the USA, automobile/truck metaphors worked well. Our project made use of 'Getting the logs of the truck' = stop doing things we do not need to, 'test driving' the software and 'top coating' i.e. final coat of paint = finalise the software interface according to user needs
Comment by Hans-Peter Korn on November 23, 2009 at 15:03
Hi Mark, interesting thoughts, indeed!

Concerning the "gradient" (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gradient):
To see the step-by-step-improvement towards the "solution" as a path following a gradient (and - ideally - the gradient with the greatest value, that is the path where the most important changes are happening) indeed is a useful picture. And I would introduce an additional idea: In SF and in "agile development" as well the "goal" or "solution" is not clear enough in the beginning - it becomes more and more clear during "going step by step" following the gradient. That means, based on this illustration: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gradient2.svg (LEFT pucture): The "solution" is the black area (the gradients are the blue arrows) - BUT at the beginning the location of this "black area" is not clear... there is , maybe, no clear "black spot" but somewhere a "grey shade" covering a greater area ... and so, there are only small gradients ... pointing to different directions within maybe about 60 degrees .... And, going ahead step by step following some of this gradients, the position and the "blackness" of the goal becomes more and more clear ... and the clear direction and magnitude of the gradients increases.

Concerning the "more powerful language" to deal with the "empty space between the next small steps and the better future":
Well, in Project Management this "magic word" is "Agility" and - even much more "empowering" - the word "Scrum", see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrum_%28development%29 and http://www.scrum.org/storage/Scrum%20Guide.pdf#view=fit
And, interesting, both words don't stay for some intermediate places within this "empty space" or for the "better future" but they stay for a specific kind of ACTIVITY how to deal with this "empty space".
"Agility" means, to act in this empty space in a way which is in contrast to the "traditional" management approaches based on "very broad and deep analyses of requirements" / "working out a detailed plan how to fulfil the requirements" / "delegating and controlling the tasks based on this plan". And "Scrum" means, to act in this"empty space" by making use of the power of self organizing teams.
What we, in SF, maybe can learn from this is IMHO: Instead of "Solution" (which is a word standing for a "stable" and "finite" situation) we should think about a word standing for those specific kinds of activities how we work within this "empty space" between "now" and "the better future".
Some words pop up in my mind:
>> simple
>> brief
>> successful
>> positive
Maybe not the best words describing how we ACT .... more suggestions are welcome!

Cheers
Hans-Peter
Comment by Mark McKergow on November 23, 2009 at 13:19

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