Interview with Portia Tung – “Agile is not about being right or wrong. It’s about being better”

What's your "goto" stance?

"The Emperor's New Clothes"

I met Portia Tung, at Agile2011, Salt Lake city, where she facilitated an impressive session, “The Emperor’s New Clothes“. You can download the full session materials here.

In this workshop subtitled “Meaningful Interactions in Stressful Situations”, she shared with us an awareness of how we tend to behave in difficult situations and suggested how we should deal with it, using her original workshop style. I like her ideas about conveying common Agile behavioural principles in the cute original format of “Agile Fairytales“. These pictures can be seen at this facebook album.

Portia Tung

Portia Tung

Today, I interviewed her about how Agile adoption is going around her, in the UK.

KENJI: Hello Portia, it is really nice to talk to you again. It has been almost a year after I attended your impressive session at Agile2011.

PORTIA: Hello Kenji, glad to talk to you, too.

KENJI: How do you see the Agile movement in your country ?

PORTIA: Agile is steadily becoming the mainstream way of working in the UK. For many, it’s the preferred way of working in comparison with traditional methods. The key benefits are higher quality, better Return-on-Investment (ROI), increased customer satisfaction and increased employee satisfaction plus it’s a lot of fun!

KENJI: I like this word, “fun”, that it is included when we talk about Agile.

PORTIA: Fun is what attracted me to Agile in the first place. I first came across Agile by playing “The XP Game” at XPDay London 2004 and the rest is history. I’ve always preferred working with others and Agile is a great fit for shared success.

KENJI: There are still some areas where people are reluctant about adopting Agile, aren’t there? Why do you think that is?

PORTIA: There is still considerable reservation about using Agile on legal or safety critical projects due to the assumption that Agile doesn’t do enough big picture planning and doesn’t do enough of it upfront. Once this misconception is addressed, in my experience, at least 50% of people who previously refused are willing to give it a try. Another reservation is that Agile only works for teams. Different kinds of Agile can be used by individuals, small groups, teams. I’ve seen it work for small teams up to 3 people and even for individuals to manage their own workload. In fact, I used Kanban to deliver my wedding, on time, to scope and to budget (actually, we came in with £30 to spare!). Agile, when applied correctly, requires discipline, planning, collaboration and an aptitude for dealing with uncertainty. Many people underestimate how much practice and effort all this requires.

KENJI: Wow, I wish I had been invited to your wedding! Do you think moving to Agile is easy for everyone?

PORTIA: Many people expect a switch to Agile to happen overnight and without having to change themselves. This is what I call the “Diet Illusion” – expecting to lose weight quickly without having to change your diet or exercise. It’s a common human response to addressing the gap between our current reality and our desired reality. Anything worth doing is going to cost you. That’s why it’s important to have clear goals and success criteria when adopting Agile. Understand the value of your goals so that you can decide if it’s worthwhile. If something’s got a high enough Return-on-Investment and you’re enthusiastic about it, you’ll naturally feel motivated to achieve that goal.

PORTIA: For those who genuinely want to adopt Agile, some of them may not know how. Once it’s explained and demonstrated to them in a respectful way as part of their daily work, most people are willing to give it a go. And if they still prefer to use traditional methods, there are plenty of those kind of projects around they can switch to. As for change, people change. I change everyday, hopefully for the better, one baby step at a time. Resistance is normal. It’s one of the steps in the change process. People don’t want change to be forced on them. People want to change themselves. That begins through mutual understanding and respect.

KENJI: Change is difficult… So what’s the main reason people adopt Agile ?

PORTIA: Many people choose to adopt Agile because the way they currently work isn’t working as well as they’d like. There are also those who recognise that Agile is now in the mainstream and want to move with the times because they’re afraid of being left behind.

KENJI: How do you see the product owner/business role in Agile projects? Sometimes, contracts can be a big wall between the product owner/business and the development team.

PORTIA: For many organisations, both large and small, often there is still a “contract” of some description between the business and IT. Working in an Agile way has enabled people to begin to address that divide and come together to work as a team. The mindset of “customer collaboration” over “contract negotiation” remains a big challenge and successful collaboration depends on the values of the individual and the incentives set up by organisations.

KENJI: How do you think developers can work more collaboratively? I see sometimes developers just thinking about building software, but not about business at the same time.

PORTIA: Software development is a specialism just as business knowledge in a particular domain is a specialism. It’s natural for specialists to prefer working within their specialism. Nowadays, it’s important to have a specialism AND be able to do more generalist work. Many people prefer to stay in their comfort zone instead of extend it. We should encourage people to extend their comfort zone and reward them for it. We should applaud mistakes because they’re essential to learning. The Agile mindset is not about being right or wrong. It’s about being better.

KENJI: Do you see any change in the world that promotes Agile adoption?

PORTIA: The open source movement is a big one as is the (Lean) startup mentality. These two are attracting people with the right mindset to improve and take calculated risks. The success stories of startups and those who adopt Agile are proof that Agile can work, even if it’s not easy to adopt.

KENJI: Thanks, it was a great interview. I’d like to be interviewed by you in the future ;-).

I really enjoyed this interview myself. For further reading about Portia Tung;

Connecting People Through Storytelling

Agile Fairlytales

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2 thoughts on “Interview with Portia Tung – “Agile is not about being right or wrong. It’s about being better”

  1. Really enjoyed the post. I’m not an engineer myself, but a lot of her words hit me in deep level as essences in many fields of daily life. Thanks for sharing the wonderful interview with us.
    “Mutual understanding and respect”. Thats true, can’t be done without one or the other.

    – Satomi

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