Agile Fluency Model: Past, Present and Future

Diana Larsen is Chief Connector at the Agile Fluency Project, co-author of “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great” with Esther Derby, and a respected thought leader in the Agile community. An Agile Amped regular, Larsen sat down with us this time to talk about the evolution of Agile, how millennials are bringing “every dimension you can imagine of inclusivity” into the workplace, and the recent recognition that different Agile models don’t necessarily conflict with each other.

Diana also shares the history and vision of the Agile Fluency Model.

Accenture | SolutionsIQ’s Leslie Morse hosts at Agile2019 in Washington, D.C.

Learn more:

  • Agile Fluency Model – Agilefluency.org
  • “Liftoff: Launching Agile Teams & Projects” by Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies

Full Transcript:

LESLIE MORSE:  Hello, and welcome to another edition of Agile Amped. I’m your host, Leslie Morse, and we are podcasting from the Agile 2019 Conference in Washington, D.C. Today my guest is Diana Larsen. She is the chief connector at the Agile Fluency Model, and a prolific writer of many books, including Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. As founder of the Agile Fluency Model and co-creator of the model, or the Agile Fluency Project and co-creator of the model, Diana works with coaches, consultants, and leaders to build their proficiency in shaping environments for productive Agile teams that thrive in times of change. Diana, thanks for being with me today.

DIANA LARSEN:Thanks for inviting me, Leslie.

LESLIE MORSE: I love that word thrive. I think it’s a great descriptor of really what we’re trying to do with teams and organizations, kind of in that quest to just make everybody happy at work. A lot of times, that’s what I think of when I think of the word thrive.

DIANA LARSEN: Yeah. Happy, and getting the results that you want.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah.

DIANA LARSEN: Feeling successful is thriving, right? So both of those things I think for businesses and teams, so important.

LESLIE MORSE: So important. Yeah.

DIANA LARSEN: So important.

LESLIE MORSE: And I love that you got to be in the Agile Foundations track this year at the conference. As someone that everyone has always looked up to for guidance and shaping where we are from an Agile industry perspective today, having your voice in that room inspiring the next generation of Agilists is just so lovely. How was that session for you?

DIANA LARSEN: It was great. And it was such an honor to be invited to do that talk. I gave the Introduction to Agile talk, and we talked about where did Agile come from, and where is it going? Evolution includes what’s next, right?

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, absolutely.

DIANA LARSEN: And so it was fun for me to put together my ideas about the history, where Agile didn’t just spring full-blown into somebody’s head.

LESLIE MORSE: Was it a big bang?

DIANA LARSEN: No. Yeah, it wasn’t a big bang. It wasn’t a new expression of ideas that had been permeating organizations and business for a long time. So, these things are a long, slow kind of adoption cycle for things that are societal. But it really is the continuation of paying attention to what helps people be productive and thrive and contribute to their organization, and do their best work. And feel a part of something bigger than themselves as well.

LESLIE MORSE: Absolutely. That’s so important.

DIANA LARSEN: There’s a long history of how we got there and different people who did different kinds of studies and came up with different kinds of models. I started with the dim recesses of time, and then we jumped to Frederick Winslow Taylor and then World War II. And then we talked about what is the state of Agile today? We went through all of the manifesto principles. And for every principle, I asked folks in the room, how many of you routinely see this in your organization now? What do you stretch into? But, from how many of you are these things everyday work?

LESLIE MORSE: Right.

DIANA LARSEN: And I always laugh when people say, “Oh, isn’t Agile dead or shouldn’t we revise the Agile manifesto.” It’s like we’re not there yet.

LESLIE MORSE: No, we’re not. There are still aspirational values in many ways.

DIANA LARSEN: They’re still very aspirational. And I understand people’s desire to extend those values to other parts of the organization. And I think that’s often where that call to should we update it comes from.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. When I find myself when I talk about even the very first line, we’re uncovering better ways of delivering value is how I talk about it. Because it’s not just software anymore. It really is any type of value in the organization.

DIANA LARSEN: Right. And the awareness that the folks who are writing software are part of a larger system, and what they do affects the larger system, and what’s going on in the larger system affects them. Provide some times restricting constraints and sometimes enabling constraints. It’s important to kind of understand that and understand … I think it’s important not to forget our history.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, I think that’s really true. And then you talked about the future, right? And the great teams that are building software, being impacted by the organization and vice versa. But it’s really those organizations being impacted by the world. And our market conditions are changing and there’s more volatility and competition in adjacent industries, all these things. Data breaches, whatever. So when you think about the growing complexity of the world we live in, the need to truly inspect and adapt faster. What do you see is the future of where we’re going?

DIANA LARSEN: Yeah. One of the things I thought about was kind of right after the manifesto in those first 10-15 years up until now, really. You know, what’s changed? And it is our awareness of complexity, and it’s things like Google’s research project on effective teams to high performing teams. You know, learning, “Oh, there are these five keys to what it takes,” the psychological safety and so on.

And so those things have all been introduced, and now we’re looking ahead at, well, what might be coming next? And one of the things that pleases me the most about what might be coming next that I see on the horizon are that there are ideas out there like the BOSSA nova, that Jutta Eckstein and John Buck talked about yesterday about using open space in the workplace more. There’s fast Agile, there’s modern Agile, there’s our model that fluency zones model. And those are not models. They’re in competition with each other.

LESLIE MORSE: But lot of people perceive it that way.

DIANA LARSEN: I know. And in the past, there has been this perception that the methodologies were in conflict. You know, we’re-

LESLIE MORSE: You’re doing Kanban. That’s not Agile.

DIANA LARSEN: Right.

LESLIE MORSE: It’s like, ugh. Do we really need to have that conversation?

DIANA LARSEN: Or we do Scrum or should we do XP? Well, one of the things we’ve learned is you need both.

LESLIE MORSE: Yes. It’s all complementary.

DIANA LARSEN: It’s all complementary. And that more and more the new things, the new ideas, big ideas that are coming out express that complementarity more than what we saw in the past I just think that’s great. Way back when Benjamin Franklin said, “If we don’t hang together, we’ll all hang separately.”

LESLIE MORSE: Yes.

DIANA LARSEN: Right? And that was part of what writing the manifesto was about, was bringing all those things that were being called lightweight methods into where is our common set of values, what is it that we can agree on? And then we lost it for a little while. And now that idea of like you say, complementarity is coming back. That is one of the things I really like.

LESLIE MORSE:  Yeah. And I think it’s a natural evolution of any sort of movement or industry, right? As it matures, these sorts of things happen. There’s the divergent and convergent periods. I think as much as we might say like it’s just not right to have had that happen, it’s also completely normal for these sorts of things to happen. Because that’s also how innovation is birthed.

DIANA LARSEN: Exactly.

LESLIE MORSE: By people going on their own paths.

DIANA LARSEN: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. And some of the other things that I see outside of our very narrow software, Agile, is the more and more people looking at business agility. More and more, I bump into kind of late stage startups. People that have been pretty successful opening up areas in their whatever space they have as software. As startup incubators, so that they’re continuing that cross pollinization of ideas and making space for that, and other kinds of connections to their local community, into their professional community.

And I really love seeing that as well. It’s just that awareness. We call me the chief connector at Agile fluency project. I love seeing those connections being made. That just really makes me feel like we’re on the right path.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. So is one of our … In some ways kind of historians of this Agile movement and everything that we are today. What are your thoughts around kind of the new generation of people that are coming up in this and in the youth? I think back towards even when I got started as an Agile coach, we sort of relied on that story of the old ways of traditional stuff versus more Agile ways. And that’s something they just don’t relate to. So as you had these conversation at the conference already, and as you’re working with organizations, what are you finding is that new thing that resonates?

DIANA LARSEN: Yeah. It is interesting because a couple of years ago, a few years ago, people started inviting me to come into their organizations and do talks on the history of Agile, or what Agile was. And because the new employees that they were hiring that came out of college and stuff did not experience 70 hour work weeks, did not experience sleeping under your desk, did not … You know, all of those things that, that Agile is trying to get away from, make a better workplace. They have a lot of that already. And you’re right, they weren’t relating to that story about the battle-of-times.

LESLIE MORSE: I climbed up hill both ways to school in barefeet.

DIANA LARSEN: Yeah. Yeah. Right. So it is important to talk about, because there is an orientation. And I hate painting generations of people with broad brush. I know for sure that not every millennial is a progressive, not every millennial is out to deliver clean water to the world or whatever it might be. But it is a different kind of zeitgeist-

LESLIE MORSE: There’s a-

DIANA LARSEN: Different feeling of the times.

LESLIE MORSE: Social awareness.

DIANA LARSEN: A social awareness that is different. And of course, I live in Portland, Oregon, so I get a huge dose of this. And what was it? The show Portlandia said, where 20 somethings go to retire. I get to work with a lot of folks with really fresh ideas, and much more comfortable with inclusion. And they are fighting the good fight around we have to be more inclusive. We have to bring in other ideas, and on every dimension you can imagine of inclusivity.

And that really pleases me to see that happening. There’s a couple of young women who run a conference that they were talking about asking all of their attendees that when they were speaking together with their old friends and got together in groups, that they always left an opening in the circle of people who were talking. So there was always space for someone new to come in.

LESLIE MORSE: Oh, that’s lovely.

DIANA LARSEN: And just those kinds of ideas are starting to be perpetuated out in the world. And I really love that, and I think it’s going to make our Agile efforts and our business agility efforts so much stronger.

LESLIE MORSE: It’s going to make the world a better place too. When you talk about inclusivity, and it’s a great lob into talking about the the fluency model because positivity, inclusiveness, promoting improvement. Like those are kind of the three tenants that are the inspiration for how the model got created, right?

DIANA LARSEN:  Absolutely. Absolutely. As we were creating the model, in response to some kind of questions and experiences we were having. That came to the fore early on. It’s like this thing has to be positive. It has to be every zone that you might work in, every way that your team might be fluently expressing Agile is fine, if that’s the best fit for your business. That’s where the disconnect comes in. But as long as you’re doing the Agile practices, the Agile proficiencies, the philosophies that are the best fit to deliver your product. Whether that’s an internal product or an external product, whatever it might be. Then that’s fine. I have another colleague who talks about there ain’t no naughty or nice, right? It’s fine. There are all good places to be if they’re a good fit.

And so we made sure that that came across in the model, that kind of positivity. If it’s not where you want to be, then promote improvement. Improve yourself into where you can be.

LESLIE MORSE:  And do that in a inclusive way.

DIANA LARSEN:  And do that in a inclusive way. And when we were talking and originally talking about inclusion as putting together the model, we wanted to make sure that we were not preferencing one methodology or framework over others, because we saw value in all of them if being used in the right way, in the right place. And finding that best fit is the most important thing. I’ve seen such successful Scrum adoptions, I’ve seen successful Kanban adoptions. I’ve seen successful adoptions where people just went right back to the manifesto and built their own. There’s a lot of ways to make this work. And again, the trick is finding the one that fits best for you.

LESLIE MORSE:  Absolutely. Absolutely. So when you talk to people about the model and bringing people together, kind of before their Agile days, going through that journey. Obviously the model itself, all models are theoretical and all models are right and wrong in some ways, right? It all kind of depends. How do you help that people translate and start really thinking about how to adopt it in their world?

DIANA LARSEN:  Right, right. Well, originally Jim and I came up with the model. We tested it a lot with a lot of people, and kept revising it until we got it to a place where we were showing it to people and they were saying, Yes.”.

LESLIE MORSE:  This was right. This.

DIANA LARSEN:  That matches my experience. That’s what we were looking for. Do you actually also see these things in the world?

LESLIE MORSE:  Oh, and so that’s different because does it match my experience is a very different framing than is this what you would expect to see, which is more forward looking.

DIANA LARSEN:  Right.

LESLIE MORSE:  Because you’re validating it on what people have actually done. That’s completely different.

DIANA LARSEN:  Right? And so that’s what we kept doing. And kept adjusting it until we got it to the place where people saying, “Yeah, I’ve seen teams like that and I’ve seen them do well in their organization.” And so then we had the model, and then we wrote an article to kind of explicate the model a little bit. And then soon after that, we started getting requests. We thought we were done when we did that, but then we started getting requests for, well, so how do we implement this in our organization?

And we started hearing stories of places where people had just grabbed it because we put it out there freely. And people had grabbed it and were working on their own implementations using it. And until at one point, I had a client and they said, “Well, it’s a model of team behavior.” And they said, “I’m a vice president. I can’t be sitting there with my teams every single day looking at their behavior. So how do I know what’s going on in my teams?” And at that point we thought, oh. Well, We need to create some kind of diagnostic so that people can tell how’s things going in their team. And so we did that, and we were using it. And then pretty soon people are saying, “Well, how do I get to use that diagnostic tool? How do I get to use it?”

And of course, once we had that tool, additional materials needed to be created, and it just kind of kept growing in that way. And the vision that drives the Agile fluency model, and the vision that drives us in the Agile fluency project is that we want to see Agile done well in every organization where they say they’re doing Agile. And Agile done well means the business is getting the benefits, and the teams have a good work environment.

LESLIE MORSE:  Yeah. And I love that you talk about that Agile done well. I was sitting in a leadership development conference and heard of global lead of application development say, “Agile done poorly is potentially one of the most dangerous things going on inside of organizations today.” And I really do think that’s true.

DIANA LARSEN:  Yeah. Because they think they’re doing it right and they’re heading down the wrong path.

LESLIE MORSE:  Because we stand up everyday.

DIANA LARSEN:  Yeah. We stand up every day. And actually yesterday in my session, the introductory session, I asked the group which of the Agile practices do you do routinely. I was testing what kind of fluency is in this room. Which of these Agile practices do you absolutely do routinely? And stand ups and retrospectives, and there was one other thing were the three things. And then the room couldn’t think of anything else.

LESLIE MORSE:  Oh, wow.

DIANA LARSEN:  It was really interesting. Everything else they do not routinely, they do it occasionally or whatever. And even, and it made me wonder even about how the stand ups are going.

LESLIE MORSE:  Standing up and doing a retrospective but not actually getting the … You’re doing it because you’re supposed to do it. And putting a check in the box is very different.

DIANA LARSEN:  That’s right.

LESLIE MORSE:  And I think that’s why it’s so interesting you all use the word fluency. Because when you think about being fluent in something, it just … It is. It’s like you don’t even have to think about it anymore. And so that’s a beautiful framing of where it is we want to be.

DIANA LARSEN:  Yeah. The way we characterize it is when the vice president comes in and says, “You need to be faster. I needed this last week,” you keep working in the same way you’re working because you already know it’s the best way to work. You don’t fall back into old bad habits of getting off up in the air and stuff. So, yeah. That Happened. And so eventually when we had gotten all this body of stuff, we were focused on Agile done well. We realized that if it was just Jim and I, James Shores, who’s my partner. And I and a few other people doing this, that was not going to scale, and we were not going to get to our vision of Agile done well.

So rather than going out and trying to sell into enterprises and do those things anymore, which we used to do each in our consulting practices. We decided our best thing to do would be to teach other people how to use these materials. And then we could scale. Then more and more folks could be out doing the good work, making sure Agile is being done well when they’re … Because we could give them some tools and techniques and how to enter organizations. A lot of people who end up as Agile coaches have never really gotten any … They get a lot of training in coaching. So I know a ton of really good Agile coaches when they’re with the team and seeing what the team needs, but they don’t necessarily know how to enter the organization in a way that will give them the freedom to do what they need. Jim and I learned how to do that.

LESLIE MORSE:  Organizational coaching versus more team coaching.

DIANA LARSEN:  Right? Yeah. And to set up a context in which they get the permission to do their best work. So we began, we decided that that’s who we needed to be speaking to. Our peers, and giving them the tools they need to enable to do their very best work in the places they want to do their work, along with the Agile fluency tools. So, that’s what we do now. Our business is entirely working with good coaches who want to be great, and great coaches who want to level up. There are lots of places out there where you can go for kind of basic coaching training or learning the basics of that. And that’s all good. But once you’ve been through all that, it’s time to come to us.

LESLIE MORSE:  And so how many people would you say you’ve infected at this point?

DIANA LARSEN:  Well, not a ton, but there are lots of people who read the article and who use it on their own. And I hear about those all the time. So I don’t really know the whole global. But for our program, I was just reflecting that a year ago, we have a pretty robust training program and it’s fairly new. So a year ago, we had about 16 to 20 people who’d been through the whole thing. Now we’re more up to like 60-65. We’ve had 200% growth over the course of the year, and the future is looking good.

LESLIE MORSE:  That’s great.

DIANA LARSEN:  Yeah.

LESLIE MORSE:  That’s great. Well, when we think about your book, right? Agile Retrospectives is sort of I think something … I don’t want to say every Agile practitioner has in their back pocket, but it is widely, widely referenced and used, which is great. So are there any other books bubbling inside of you today?

DIANA LARSEN:  Well, the other other book that I think is important that I wrote with Ainsley Nies, I mean Agile Retrospectives, I worked with Esther Derby. I always want to give credit to my coauthors because it’s a collaborative effort. And then I wrote the other book with Ainsley Nies, Liftoff, which is about helping teams get started because we began to notice none of the methodologies really talked about how’s that, how do you initiate this effort? Right?

LESLIE MORSE:  Right.

DIANA LARSEN:  So, that’s one I think is really good for people to get. It’s also pragmatic programmer published. And I wrote a book with my son, Willem called The Five Rules of Accelerated Learning.

LESLIE MORSE:  Oh, I’m not familiar with that one.

DIANA LARSEN:  But it’s a Leanpub book still at this point. I’m hoping someday we make the leap, but for now it’s great. The through thread in all the work that I do has to do with continuous learning in the service of continuous improvement. And in groups as individuals, as organizations, however needs to manifest itself. In terms of what’s bubbling up right now, there is something bubbling up around … The Agile Fluency Model, getting a bigger book out there around that.

And I’ve also talked to some folks about potentially doing something on retrospectives beyond software teams. You know, taking retrospectives out to the rest of the organization for more business agility and so on. That one’s probably a little further out in the future, but there’s always some something.

LESLIE MORSE:  Something. There’s always something. Absolutely.

DIANA LARSEN:  Yeah.

LESLIE MORSE:  Well, if people want to go learn about The Agile Fluency Model more and the things that are going on The Agile Fluency Project, where’s the best place for them to go and learn?

DIANA LARSEN:  Well, go to Agilefluency.org there’s connections to all kinds of things there. And there’s a way there that we don’t want to be sending out spam. Right? So there’s a place there where people can indicate if they would like to get our newsletter, which talks about kind of all things Agile Fluency, things that our licensees have written.

Things that we’ve written, places that we’re speaking, places that they’re speaking, so people can go here. But we want people’s permission to be able to send them that newsletter. And it’s called Conversations. So that’s how we think of it. And so they can go to our website and sign up and get part of the conversation, get in on the conversation. Somebody just told me the other day that they had visited our website and they were surprised at how much useful information was there. And I was happy to hear that.

LESLIE MORSE:  Yeah. And I think the best part of it is the stories, right? Because hearing how other people have actually done this makes it so much more real than having the authors of the model tell the stories. And so I think bringing in those voices is really important. So I’m glad that you guys are putting a focus on that.

DIANA LARSEN:  Yeah. And we feature … Every person who is licensed through us is listed on our website because we want them to have visibility. We want them to be able to,point to and be proud of their involvement with us.

LESLIE MORSE:  That’s great. Well, Diana, thank you so much for being with us today. I appreciate it.

DIANA LARSEN:  Thank you, Leslie.

LESLIE MORSE:  It was a really lovely chat. I enjoyed this time.

DIANA LARSEN:  Thank you.

LESLIE MORSE:  And thank you for listening to this episode of Agile Amped. If you learned something new, please tell a friend, coworker, or client about this podcast. We invite you to subscribe and hear more inspiring conversations.