Black Swan Farming

Thoughts on Agile2013

On August 5-9, I attended the biggest Agile conference on the planet: Agile2013. What I hoped to get from the conference (my first) was to meet interesting people, hear about their experience and learn something as well as giving something back. It was fairly cheap to check it out, since the talk I proposed was accepted – so the cost of a conference ticket and accommodation was covered. Of course, there was the considerable time and effort required to write a paper and prepare a talk with my co-presenter. I like collaborating though, so this was more fun than a chore.

I did meet lots of interesting people – many whom I had only previously known through their writing, or via Twitter. People like Jabe Bloom, Troy Magennis, Michael Sahota, Olaf Lewitz, Amr Elssamadisy, and Laurent Bossavit. I also caught up with some people I’ve known for ages, but don’t get to see very often, like Chris Matts, Liz Keogh, and Marc Johnson, among others.

The conference venue, at a ginormous hotel in Nashville Tennessee was pretty crazy. I’m sure plenty of attendees got lost more than once navigating their way around it. The climate inside the hotel’s bio-dome was a little on the cold side, but maybe that’s just how they like it in the South. One of the highlights was (surprisingly) the food, which was really quite good. Breakfast was amazing and the constant supply of coffee kept us well caffeinated too (despite Linda Rising admonishing us for being addicted to the stuff).

So, a lot to be thankful for. Even so, I’m not sure I’ll be signing up to go to another Agile Conference. While the food was good, there just wasn’t much in the way of protein. Not the eating type, more of the thinking and challenging type. The people were always great but the content was sometimes a little unsatisfying. Too many of the sessions on offer (at least of the ones I went to) were talking about ideas that have been around for years. There just wasn’t much that was new or challenging for me.

I’m not saying there weren’t highlights – there were. I really enjoyed Oana Juncu’s session on storytelling for instance. César Idrovo’s session on Discovery Curves was interesting and the Leadership Archetypes session that Liz Keogh and Chris Matts ran was fun, even if the result seemed more like overblown caricatures than useful patterns of real behaviour. But this handful of stars were the bright lights in a sky that was lacking sparkle, at least from my vantage point.

Now, I completely admit: I made the choice to attend the sessions I did, and I may well have chosen poorly. But then I found myself thinking, “This is the biggest Agile conference on the planet. This is the cream of the crop, the best of the best — there really shouldn’t be any mediocre sessions.”

My pattern recognition engine was trying to sense some repeating themes or “tells” for the more disappointing sessions and why they might have been selected. Had the presenter written a book? Were part of some club or clique? Or was it influenced by longevity, how long they had been around and how many conferences they had been to or spoken at? Whatever the criteria, I couldn’t help feeling that selection was overly influenced by who the person was or what they had done in the past, rather than on the merits of what they might have to share with us.

So, what would I suggest the organising committee do to make Agile2014 better? A few suggestions:

1. Blind first cut.

When sifting through submissions, the first “cut” of submissions could be done blind (i.e. with names removed). This would remove any bias towards those who have published a book or simply been around the Agile community for a long time. Of course, submitting an interesting abstract can’t be enough — but the content needs to be compelling, regardless of the history or how well connected the speaker is. Where a speaker is unknown or perhaps inexperienced the organisers could offer to help the speaker build a compelling story to tell – and provide feedback to improve their presenting style. Wouldn’t it be great if the Agile Alliance really invested in growing the future thought leaders and practitioners: the next generation who will broaden and deepen Agile, taking these ideas into new areas.

2. Twin tracks

I’m sure they’ve tried this before – loads of other conferences do it. Being the biggest Agile conference, attendees will likely cover a wide range of agile knowledge and experience. I’m sure some people will have found the workshop teaching us how to do relative prioritisation and apply fibonacci to “quantify value” useful. Some probably also found the Portfolio Management session interesting and may have learned something, even though the presenter at one point said they were “allergic to ROI”. Judging by the number who left during the talk (making the effort to walk right past the speaker at the front), it fell short for quite a few. There were a lot of attendees who were obviously hungry for something with a bit more substance.

3. Shorter sessions
75 minutes is a long time. Perhaps the sessions could be shorter, but with the option to extend or expand, depending on feedback from the attendees. The 18 minute length of TED talks are short enough to hold people’s attention, while still being long enough to be serious. The smaller quantum would force presenters to be more disciplined and pare their message down to the essence. Like with Twitter, the constraints can have a clarifying effect and help presenters to be more creative about how to get their point across. Not all sessions need be like this though – there could still be workshops of longer length, if that is what conference attendees are looking for.

How the conference might incorporate the ability to “amplify the positive” by extending talks that leave people wanting more, I’m not sure – but I’m sure there are some options we could dream up. Perhaps they could have speakers present an 18 minute version on the first day, with fast feedback via a smartphone app. The talks where people want to know more could then be allocated a longer slot at some point during the rest of the conference. Attendees could also ask questions of the speaker, to help them in designing a workshop or talk that will be more relevant for the audience (or at least the more vocal part of the audience). I’m sure there are other ways of having shorter talks with the option to extend.

No doubt the organisers of Agile2014 will be going through an ocean of feedback from this event, and surely the next one will be better. I look forward to learning about the improvements they make. Maybe it will be enough to pique my interest and tempt me to go again…