Learnings from my sabbatical: the need to let go

A year in sabbatical taught me many things, about life, family and culture, and also about work. We went through different steps, just like during an innovation project. For me, remaining a beaming Liiper goes hand in hand with a beaming private and family life. This resulted in following our family dream, leaving everything else behind. For a while.

When I joined Liip in 2010, as one of the first “Romand”, I had the task to expand Liip’s activities to west (french speaking) Switzerland, with the great challenge of opening a new office and creating a new team there. New horizons, new persons, an avidity for advancing towards the unknown… the perfect challenge for the entrepreneur-type-of-me :)

After a challenge, follows another

Fast forward a few years later – mid 2015 – the Lausanne office counts 20 Liipers and runs well – mostly without my help anymore. This is surely due to our efforts to bring the company into self-management, added to the fantastic team of Lausanne Liipers that joined me in our everlasting commitment to build the best products for our clients.

Once this challenge was achieved, it felt to me (personally) like the end of a chapter. Moreover, with the arrival of Holacracy as our new governance framework, I was, as a Partner (then “Liip manager”) forced to adapt in that changing organization. I felt something very odd: for the first time since I joined Liip, my motivation diminished.

At the same time, a family dream had come up : getting out of the daily routine, leaving everything else behind to “slow down” and travel the world, just the four of us (our 2 boys, my wife and myself).

At first, realizing such a dream felt totally incompatible with the traditional work-school-life of the typical swiss family that we are… and then we started to think outside that box. And what if… after all?

The need for faith in the unknown

The preparation of our project took about a year, elaborating solutions as we saw the problems pop up, one after another. Finding renters for our apartment, selling our stuff, buying a motorhome, and also… I had to leave Liip, the best company in the world!!

We were confronted by many uncertainties during that path : What countries are we going to visit? Is it sufficiently safe to travel with small children in less developed countries, and for such a long time? Is our planned budget gonna be enough?

No chance to process all our fears at once… we simply had to LET GO. Follow our vision, and analyse and adapt along the way.

Camping car and family

Our campervan was our home during one year.

Wait… doesn’t that sound like Agile projects?

Those of you familiar to Agile project management will notice some similarities with the initial phases of a typical innovation project :

  1. Very early excitement (usually during initial UX Strategy workshops) : putting a vision on paper, thinking big without restrictions
  2. Coming back to reality : breaking that all down to actual user stories and tasks and noticing that we will never manage to realize all that we want to do with the planned budget and time our disposal

Yet those are hard truths : budget (usually) remains fixed, as well as the project calendar. So it was for our worldtour travel.

Finally, here we go! On the 1st of April 2016, we left Switzerland. A big leap of faith… towards something that we prepared carefully but can’t know in advance all details… just as in a agile project! ;-)

This blog post is the first one of a series on my experience in sabbatical leave. Stay tuned for more!

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How do UX and Agility connect in project planning and execution?

Wednesday 16th March 2016 at Liip Lausanne, we proudly hosted the first swissICT UX meet-up held in Romandie!

SwissICT is the primary representative of the ICT Branch in Switzerland. They are based in Zürich and the largest professional association of the ICT industry, with 800 companies, 2’200 single members and 16 groups of experts (including User Experience).

As one of the objective of this non-profit organisation is the promotion of professional knowledge, the UX Expert Group organises various events throughout Switzerland (there are regular meet-ups in Bern, Zürich, Fribourg and now Lausanne). Four specialists of the UX Expert Group, Dorit Horst (Associate at Uservalue), Eva Siegenthaler (Manager UX@SBB-Team, SBB), Andreas Weder (Head of UX at Magnolia International Ldt.) and Philipp Murkowsky (Head of User Experience at Puzzle ITC GmbH) organized the event in Lausanne, with the support of the Liip Team.

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A first try at LeSS (Large Scale Scrum)

Team Lego is one of the five teams currently working at Liip Zurich. All team members work together on one, long standing project. Over the last year the team has grown and changed. In the end, we were 10 people working together as one single Scrum team. It worked really well – until it didn’t.

Very slowly over time things stopped going as smoothly as they used to. The team couldn’t finish their sprints and the velocity was going down. The sentence most often heard at the Daily Scrum was: “I don’t know what’s up with this ticket, person X is working on it” – a sign of “Gärtlidenken” as it is called in Switzerland. Information wasn’t flowing as it should, even though we used the ‘Walk the Board’ approach to keep Daily Standup meetings short and focused. Other Scrum meetings were long and inefficient and any further growth of the team was entirely out of the question.

This interesting blog entry about the numbers behind Jeff Bezos’ two pizza rule for team sizes suggests that the problems the team were facing were possibly due to its size. Communication between all the people involved was complicated and it’s impossible to know what’s going on everywhere all the time. People focussing solely on the one task they picked is a logical move to push this problem out of sight. Yet, it is counterproductive for self-organising Scrum teams. It decomposes a team back to a group of people which happen to work next to each other on similar tasks rather than working together at achieving a shared goal.

Even though team Lego cannot be considered a very large team, problems were just around the corner. At 10 people, we were probably only beginning to see the problems that a larger team could bring. However, it’s always better to act before the horizon’s problems arrive at your door.

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Glad, Sad and…

Most Scrum Masters know the ‘Glad Sad Mad’ retrospective exercise. In the non native english speaking world, people trying out this exercise usually struggle to distinguish between ‘Sad’ and ‘Mad’. In every retrospective where we did this exercise I ended up with several stickies on the line between ‘Sad’ and ‘Mad’.
I tried to make it clearer by rephrasing the words to something more suitable that all of the team members would understand (like ‘I can’t take it anymore’ instead of Mad and ‘Get stuff off my chest’ for Sad for example, see this blog post by Mike Pearce). Although it helped, I still felt that the distinction was not 100% clear to everyone. Frankly, I got tired of having to explain it over and over again.

In a retrospective a few weeks ago when lots of those ‘in between’ stickies were placed on the wall we joked about making a new column for them. During that retrospective I noticed that a lot of the time my team was talking about things that came as a surprise to them that had an impact on the sprint or their feeling towards the project and things that they were scared of that could threaten the project or fears they had about the project’s current status. So I decided to add more columns reflecting that and came up with ‘Glad, Sad, Surprised, Scared’.

Retrospective vs. Futurespective

Adding a ‘Scared’ column opens up the possibility to also talk about fears for the future, which is usually not part of a retrospective but rather a futurespective. However, these fears typically uncover risks and uncertainties relevant to future planning. It also helps me as a Scrum Master to better understand the team’s feelings. Few people will talk about what actually scares them on their own. During the exercise I observed that once someone put a sticky in the ‘Scared’ column, others followed. Of course most of the stickies covered the same topic. But simply realising that they all share the same fear helped them to see that it’s not just their own private problem but that everyone feels that same way and that they actually needed to do something about it.

Surprise!

One can argue that stickies placed in a ‘Surprised’ column would also fit in the ‘Glad’ or ‘Sad’ columns and that’s true. And of course, stickies in that column cover a very broad spectrum of topics. But the value of this column is twofold.
Firstly, it helps to uncover things that arise unexpectedly – both in a positive and in a negative way. This way potential impediments can be spotted and dealt with or it can help to find out why a sprint failed (similar to the ‘Expected and Surprised’ retrospective).
Secondly, ‘I am surprised that…’ often uncovers a richer seam of information than simply ‘Glad’ or ‘Sad’. It allows discussion about why it was surprising and how the person feels about it. Software developers tend to primarily add stickies like ‘Sad about the slow server.’ or other very technical problems on the board. I felt that the ‘Surprised’ column opens up a way to illuminate the other, more personal side of problems which helps the team members to better understand each other and their connection as a team.

Try it out and tell me what you think!

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Agile Tour Lausanne 2011

Two weeks ago, the first edition of the Agile Tour Lausanne took place. Luckily, Liip proposed me to sponsor some of my working time in order to prepare it.

It was the first conference I ever organized and I must say that if you are interested in doing something similar, just go for it! It is really a great experience!

Thanks to my co-organizers Yann Lugrin, Jonas Vonlanthen and Frédéric Noyer, we managed to get more than 60 attendees – which was beyond our expectations.

The Agile Tour organization

As introduced on its website, the Agile Tour organization aims to “massively communicate about Agile, share their visions of Agile, federate and support people and local businesses in regions” once a year during October and November, all around the world.

Each event is self-organized and should involve as many local people (organizers, speakers, attendees) as possible; the goal to keep in mind being to “create leaderships” in a lot of regions of the world in order to “impact the professional world”.

The last part of the previous sentence is the most meaningful to me as it’s exactly what we try to achieve every day at Liip.

In Switzerland, Lausanne is the third city organizing such an event – after Sierre and Geneva. Nevertheless, we thought there was enough space between Sierre and Lausanne to not overlap too much and also because the Agile Tour is not about competition, but about acting as a community.

In that spirit, we were even coached by the already existing Agile Tour Sierre team (thanks again Jean-Pierre Rey!) to benefit from their experience.

The conference – a short summary

We prepared the day so that it was mainly focused on real world experience feedbacks of Agile practices, and more specifically Scrum.

As we were expecting part of the attendees not having any background knowledge about the Agile topic, we decided to start the day with theoretical presentations.

It was a very good choice because it created a common knowledge basis for the following discussions which happened during lunch and coffee breaks.

Then in the afternoon, we organized talks showing real use cases. Companies like jobup.ch, l’Etat de Genève and Liip presented how they deal with Agility in their daily business.

If you weren’t able to join us, you can easily go through the speaker slides that you can find on the Agile Tour Lausanne website.

The conference – follow-up

As the attendees know, we asked all the participants to fill an evaluation form in order to gather feedbacks.

Hence, we will have soon our retrospective (an Agile event has no choice but to use Scrum itself) to check what people thought of their day and see how we can improve – and maybe an Agile Tour Lausanne 2012 will be announced afterwards.

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Thanks for an awesome phpDay in Verona!

Last week I had the opportunity to talk about User Centered Design and Agile at the annual Italian phpDay that was held in Verona (more on my talk further down). It was my third time at the conference and it was a pleasure to see how much it had grown. It is organised by the GRUSP, the Italian PHP user group that is at the heart of a growing, dedicated and passionate PHP community. Many of the attending developers are part of small companies and most of them had to go through quite a rough patch in the previous years, facing a grim crisis and stagnant economy. So I was very curious to catch up and very happy to see that the situation seems to be getting better, slowly but still. Not only has unemployment started to drop, but revenues are slowly recuperating. Most important though is the development of the perception of PHP as a means of development: While two years back Italian companies would still put a very sticky “script-kiddie” label on PHP-developers, things are turning to the better. Definitely also in part an achievement of all the networking efforts of the GRUSP.

This years edition of the phpDay felt definitely very international, with a lot of top notch speakers from all over the world. Plus a whole delegation of Liipers, yay! The organisers did a good job in mixing speakers: some international and some local, some known and some new.
One very cool addition was, that the phpDay was part of a double conference together with the jsDay, dedicated, surprise surprise, to javascript. JsDay had started a day before phpDay and would overlap for one day. In the past few years the phpDay always featured talks on javascript, and the interest of the frontend community had grown so big that it totally made sense to have a separate mini-conference that people could choose to attend solely. When I heard about the split I was a bit afraid that the segregation would do more harm than good, but actually what happened was the opposite: no segregation, instead the day with overlapping conferences really brought together a cool mix of people.

As always at conferences speakers get the extra treatment, which in the case of phpDay means a great speakers dinner with awesome food and fun people. A blast!

From left to right: Kore Nordmann, Thijs Feryn, David Zuelke, Juozas Kaziukenas, Eric Kort, Helgi Thorbjoernsson, Christian Schaefer

From left to right: Kore Nordmann, Thijs Feryn, David Zuelke, Juozas Kaziukenas, Eric Kort, Helgi Thorbjoernsson, Christian Schaefer

UCD & AGILE: The long and winding road of change

The topic of the talk I gave this year has been keeping me going for quite some time now: How can we integrate User Centered Design best practices with Agile Development? While three months ago I had the impression to know it all, four weeks ago I was a mess. Nothing I tried had really worked, all the concepts we had figured out looked good on paper but not in practice and most of all: the impression to miss out on some detail that would help in letting fall the tiny pieces of our ideas into place. At that time I went to another conference, UX London, and was lucky enough to attend a workshop on UX Leadership held by Kim Goodwin. To my surprise she spoke about change management and what it takes to bring a new way of thinking and working into a company: involvement – on all levels an with all means possible.
I left UX London in a state of shock. But I was also immensely inspired and immediately started a completely different strategy of involving developers and product owners with us UX people and thus getting back into the loops of the projects – with amazing results.

This talk describes what I think are the fundamental elements that shape a successful integration of UCD and Agile.