Value of Agile: Does this kind of group work?

A report from the front line: A Sprint / Agile workshop.

By Simon Bell

There were about 50 of us attending the Agile workshop, nice hotel, good venue and the 50 represent a good gender and age balance. From young Post Docs to senior Professors, a mighty array of mind power and some very successful people. We have been told that the winning project will receive funding or a very good prospect of it. A useful means to gain funding for good ideas?

Agile Illustration

We were gathered in an unruly mob and the workshop began with talks which were (purposefully?) not very informative. Little was really clear, but we were provided with the notion of the Sprint and Agile processes (which were constantly mentioned). The approaches were presented as something of a silver bullet answering all need and yet fun and quick. Agile was promoted as a means to achieve the induction of innovation. This was not questioned by those gathered at the time. We were all too polite?

Then it all kicks off. The first group work is unstructured creation with pens, paper, Post-it notes and Lego. This is a whole group exercise.

Problems emerge right away. By the way, the notion that this is a problem is a problem. I have a feeling that the process was intended to cause most of the mayhem and doubt it sowed. The unhappy learning maybe was also intended? Who can say, the territory of bluff and counter bluff between expertise and inanity remains unchartered.

The access to the tables of ‘stuff’ was too limited, we were clustered three deep and our ability to access Post-it notes, write on them and put them down for others to read, to read other people’s ideas and make connections was too brief and too crushed. No time to ponder, talk and make.

The gregarious and noisy personalities took over, all other types were lost and either milled around, collected like dross around noisy orators or wandered off in a hopeless kind of way. What follows was a disorganized milling around into groups. This inevitably resulted in clustering around alphas (all males so far as I could see) and that felt (and looked) gross. The egos of the dominant rose and rose, all others were left to look on as a kind of audience to sprint-celebs.

What is it that we were supposed to be doing again? Noise takes the place of thought. Poor group formation follows. This is because there are too few tables for small groups to form around, we cannot disaggregate and as a result some of the groups are huge conglomerations.

The forming groups are noisy and led by dominant types again. Much confusion is in the room and the first sense of panic in what is concretizing as a mob is tangible. What is evident in the room psyche are thoughts like: “I may not fit”, “How do I get my stuff in?”, “where is my space?” The more disgruntled delegates I subsequently find are thinking thoughts like: “what a waste of my time!”, “when can I leave?”, “what the hell is the point of this?” As I say, these thoughts are not just mine but come from many others I speak to subsequently.

At some unintelligible ‘point’ in the proceedings we are stopped, go back to our chairs and are asked to listen to a ‘provocation’. I am not sure how we are provoked at this point. The talk is largely the reminiscence and successfication of those who have won big in the past. It is a kind of public preening, presumably intended to make us all feel that we too can be a success. When this is done there is more milling around and trying to find a ‘sale’ for your idea. The original exercise with which we started the day seems lost and redundant. Quite how anyone is supposed to have got an idea from this is obscure to me. Again, I feel panic. What is my idea? How has it emerged from what I have seen and heard? I have no idea and am empty and clueless. Now I do feel truly stupid.

The selling of ideas process is achieved by the individual creation of mini posters which we are supposed to hold to our chests and then, mill about, reading each others ‘chests’ in what feels like a kind of inappropriate, voyeuristic sandwich-man activity. I should note that this feels like a very undignified and rather belittling process to me.

The facilitators seem to think it all tremendous fun and a great way to pass the time. I am aware of acute embarrassment in the room, and it is not just me. If there is an introvert at the event, they have surely left by this time or died of shame. But, maybe this incarnation of the sprint method does not recognize the value of quiet thinkers to provide any good ideas? What follows again is desperate clustering around big, confident themes and, again, commensurate big, confident (at least loud), middle aged, males; the sprint-rock-stars.

If we are looking for new ideas, I doubt we will find them. What we are doing is playing to those who are outgoing, powerful, confident and have already got ideas.

At last I find someone staring at my chest who looks more worried than me. We go away from the rest, find a quite place and have a comradely chat and, when we have conversed and come to agreement about how we are to play this game we join up with three other confused looking people who are similarly perplexed. We agree that we will try to work up our ideas into a plan. I think our plan and our work together is good but it was the only good 15 minutes of a very long day.

The worst was yet to come. The final provocation occurred and a ‘panel’ of the great and good (are they really?) told us that we were underperforming, not meeting the brief, wasting money and well, not much good really. How they know this I am not sure. How does this evaluation impact the room? Well, clearly it is a contrived piece of provocation presumably intended to infuriate and prompt us to action. The facilitators seem not just to misunderstand the difference between the conditions for rapid creativity and chaos, they also misunderstand the difference between provocation and insult. I thought we all ground our teeth and were too well mannered (or shocked) to respond. One or two eloquent colleagues shot back but one could see that in this Kafkaesque situation all response was seen as expected moaning and all complaint as weakness. There was no room to move against the system.

Day 2. Yes, there were two days for the process. The second day went a lot better than the first day. Mainly because we have got over the hump of being ‘challenged’, ‘provoked’, and ‘threatened’. Most of the second day was spent being left alone. Do we see wisdom at last? Thoughts emerge in the silence and not the scrum?

To do small team work was a kind of bliss. Did I begin to love my jailer? Our small group of refugees from the first day organized and facilitated ourselves and did our best to ignore the official facilitators of the event. We came up with a project which seemed interesting to us. This emerged despite and not because of the process.

As a final note, the last part of the workshop was for each team to present the combined work to the self-professed ‘experts’ in the format of a ‘Dragon’s den’ performance.

I left.

A useful antidote to this kind of thing can be found at the Bayswater Institute Wisdom in Groups event.

Artwork © Rachel Furze

A wall means you are stuck. Can we get around this?

By Simon Bell

I have been writing about the use of mindful stories as a means to help us, in groups or alone, to get over some of our mental issues and concerns. Here is a new one which also makes use of a picture. The following story is one I wrote some years ago but one which resonates with elements of the idea of being ‘stuck’. The story also makes use of a drawing in pastel by the Artist Rachel Furze.

As with previous blogs, find time in your day to read and think. You will need about 20 minutes.

I suggest that you place the story in a mindful setting. So, settle down in a comfortable place and take a few seconds to control your breathing, focusing on the in-breath and the out-breath. Give this a couple of minutes.

When you feel calm and your breathing is steady, read the story and look at the picture and let them seep into your mind, and then, when you feel ready, look at the questions which follow:


Picture in your mind the Everglades, or any kind of a swamp.

Swamp Illustration

Interesting word, ‘swamp’.

It is a word full of evocative images. It’s used a lot by authors and screen writers, no doubt because of its powerful imagery and mystique. For me it conjures up a range of images and perceptions drawn from childhood.

To me, a swamp is a place where water is the powerful, dominant medium. Here tracks are hard to find, pathways are constantly changing. This sense of trackless space, with the difficulties of both wood and water to navigate provides me with the basis for the swamp principle.

What is in the water? What lurks in its brooding darkness, and unfathomable depths? Unfathomable? Surely the water is not that deep? The problem is the depth cannot be assessed, it’s an unknown. And how far does the water extend? There is a primal feel about swamps and limitless, still water. Was there a time when we knew swamps intimately? Is there some kind of human race-memory of the primeval swamp? The watery place where all kinds of dramas were experienced by our ancestors long ago?

A swamp is quiet. Still water and quiet landscapes where the vertical dimension is dominated by trees. In this swamp-form there are cathedral-like corridors of vast trees. Trees masquerading as pillars in some vast, green fairy hall where the dappled blue-sky shimmers through a ceiling of leaves, supported by an invisible wall of limitless trees.

It strikes me that a swamp is an easy place to be lost.

Despite their powerful aura of mystery, swamps obey the seasons just like everywhere else. The trees give up their leaves each autumn, and the smell of warm, humid decay arising from the floating, rotting detritus is another ruling sense arising from the first impressions of swamp. The legacy of the swamp lies rotting in the water at its roots. Feeding the new growth. Its decay is the life force for the new system.

The floor of a swamp is not the reassuring solidity of stone or even the yielding, sprung cushion of leaf-strewn grass. The floor laps darkly to the bowls of the trees, thickly, oozily, oily dark and impenetrable water. In places the deceit of firm land is complete. For watery acres the surface appears solid, covered in green algae, masking the insubstantiality which lies beneath. But the deceit is easily broken as some bulk of unknown size and intention moves in the medium beneath and the floral covering is swished aside to reveal the reflective black of the true flooring.

OK, here are the questions for you to consider:

Question 1. What is the main meaning of the story?

What message or core or essential meaning does the story hold for you? There may be many meanings which occur to you but for now try to prioritise just one.

When you feel clear on this, hold it in your mind and read the next question:

Question 2. How is this meaning of relevance to you?

How does the story impact on your life and your challenges right now? Why is it important to you at this point in your life? What element emerges as being most relevant?

Again, give yourself time to think of your response and when you feel prepared try the next question:

Question 3. Think about what is the main value that you can draw from this relevance of the story. What does this value bring to the concern you identified earlier?

Don’t rush your response. Take time to think about the value. The word ‘value’ is an interesting word. What do we value and what of value is here? When you are set try this:

Question 4. What insight does the identified value provide for you?


Question 5. What action might you engage with as a consequence?

Give yourself a little time to let the ideas which come from the story and your review settle down. This is key, giving yourself time to let things happen on the inside. You may like to look at the questions later today, just to remind yourself and to reconsider some of your early-thought-responses. Each time you reconsider you may get to a deeper level of meaning and this could result in new ideas. Enjoy your day.