Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Another discovery at ACCU conference "Bicycle repair workshop"

Something else I discovered at the ACCU conference: Bicycle Repair Workshop.  Should I name to originator?  Or should I let her live in quite anonymity?  Perhaps I should actually seek permission to talk about this here, but then was it not Picasso who said “great artists steal.”  (No I did ask permission.)


First the name: its a straight take from Monty Python.


What it is, is a forum where software developers at the company can gather and talk about the problems they are currently encountering.  The originator envisaged a forum for people to talk about process issues, and specifically Agile practices but its free form enough to let people take in what they want.


The workshop takes up an hour or so on a regular basis, I can’t recall it it is weekly, bi-weekly.  There is a bit of fun (cakes supplied) and people turn up only if they have something to contribute – so a self selecting group.


Like the book groups and Tech-Talks that I’ve created in the past the forum gives people the opportunity to talk about the issues they face.  By exposing, explaining and naming the problem/issue/challenge/opportunity it becomes more manageable.  By explaining it people are forced to make some sense of it to themselves and then to other people.  And when other people see it they can help.


In one of his books Gerry Weinberg (Secrets of Consulting I think) compared problems in companies to moss.  In the dark, moss grows and becomes bigger.  Exposed to light moss dies.  Problems are the same, when you hide them they become worse, expose them and it becomes easier to deal with.


I see this happening when people gather in a pub or coffee bar, or stand around the water cooler and moan about things in their work place.  They know what is wrong but they feel helpless to act.  So bar and water cooler conversations don’t result in much action.  Often these problems don’t get talked about in official forums either:



  • because these problems shouldn’t exist, e.g. the according to the official process manual these things shouldn’t happen

  • because office politics gets in the way, e.g. everyone knows that X needs to change but nobody feels they can say it

  • because somethings we can’t talk about, e.g. Fred under performs and needs to be let go

  • because solving the problem needs resources and we all know the company won’t spend money

  • because we are embarrassed to admit to our own problems

The advantage of the semi-official forum, like Bicycle Repair Workshops and book groups is that people are freed of these constrains and can talk more freely.  For managers this posses a problem: too much support and involvement with the forum will make it official and kill it, too little support and it will turn into another moaning shop and nothing will happen.


By creating a forum people are allowed to talk about a problem and expose it to the light.  The advantage of the Bicycle Repair Workshop is that it is directly asking for and discussing these issues.  I occasionally facilitated a Tech Talk into such a forum, and the books we studied in book group lead to discussions about problems bit I never tackled the issues head on, on a regular basis.


Of course it mights be possible to have too many forums.  All of these activities take time and commitment.  A company running bicycle repair workshops, book groups, Tech Talks and what ever else may over tax people.


These three types of forum share another thing in common.  They can be created through bottom-up action.  You don’t need to be a manager to create them, you can just do it.


On the other hand, if you are a manager then then can create other types of forums. I’m working with a company now to help them revise their development process and become more Agile.  One of these things I’m doing it running twice monthly improvement meetings, kind of reverse-retrospectives.  These are more official so have a different flavour.


In all these cases the real problem is turning information and learning into action.