The Explorer's Handbook

The Explorer's Handbook

A Mindset-Forward Guide For Continuous Improvement

Whether you are developing software, designing buildings, manufacturing widgets, attempting to feed the homeless, or building a colony on Mars, your adventure is an effort to reach high-ground on a dancing landscape while encased in a fog.

The high ground is the value you seek. It might be increased revenue or market share, game changing innovation, a decrease in hunger, or extending our reach across the solar system.

The fog is our inability to see, with sufficient accuracy and detail, the ultimate route for our journey. We must feel our way along the path, learn as we go, and keep an eye out for unexpected hazards and opportunities.

The dancing landscape is the constantly shifting world around us. Disruptions of all kinds and sizes will alter the course of our journey. There will be temporary impacts due to weather or minor obstructions across the path. There might also be landscape altering catastrophes—tipping points—that forever change our course or radically alter the value of the high ground we seek.

The Agile Explorations (AE) Framework helps teams, and organizations built on teams, to adopt the mindset and practices of high-performing explorers navigating these complex landscapes.

Key Points:

  • Landscapes differ. Some have less fog, enabling us to clearly see the path in front of us. Some landscapes change quite slowly, making long-term planning more feasible. You must adapt your style of adventuring—your tools, techniques, team composition, org structure, and culture—to fit the landscape you’re traveling.
  • Know the difference between a map and the terrain. Analysis, design, estimates, plans, methodologies, expert opinions—these are maps. Maps can be useful, but keep your eye on the terrain. It is the terrain that will kill you.

Nine Maxims

The AE Framework differs from other frameworks by being mindset-forward. Rather than asking you to blindly follow a set of practices, promising that you’ll see the reason for it later, the AE Framework starts with a set of nine maxims that embody the mindset needed for exploring dancing landscapes.

Informed by Agile, Lean, complexity theory, cognitive science, and recent research into highly-effective teams, the nine maxims offer guidance for teams on what to do without dictating how to do it. You pick the methods, methodologies, tools, techniques, team composition, org structure, and culture that best fit the landscape you’re traveling.

If you are a major financial institution in the midst of a digital transformation and have selected SAFe as the corporation’s Agile scaling solution, then so be it. If you’re a scrappy tech start-up with five people in a garage and you prefer Lean Startup, that’s okay too. The AE Framework will help your organization to develop the explorer mindset and guide you toward true agility regardless of your context and tools.

The framework groups the nine maxims into three key “views”: navigation, people, and resilience. To navigate effectively you must have a clear sense for your mission—the high ground you seek. You must actively explore the surrounding landscape as you travel in order to see hazards and opportunities along the way. And, you must respond effectively to changes in the terrain, and changes to your internal map of the terrain as you learn.

If you’re traveling with others (and few great adventures can be done without a team), then you need to attend to the people on your adventure. Your team must remain healthy—physically and mentally. They need to develop and maintain the skills essential for the journey ahead. And, they need to work together efficiently and effectively as they pursue the mission.

Last but not least, you must build resilience to disruptions. Seek regular and rapid feedback so you can respond early. Build slack into your schedule and resources so you have the means to respond effectively. And finally, attend to the small things. Small things can have significant and far-reaching impacts.

Key Points:

  • The maxims are not intended to be “maximized”. They are frequently in tension and must be appropriately balanced for your adventure. Some adventures, for example, require greater devotion to exploring the terrain as you travel—ferreting out the rich and rapidly evolving opportunities and hazards. Other adventures, however, will benefit from getting to high ground as quickly as possible.
  • The small things have common patterns, which helps us to see them. Sometimes they occur frequently, producing friction or clearing the path. Others have many and far-reaching tendrils, making the impact dramatic and difficult to predict. Still others, are part of a cascade of things that lead to tipping points, which forever alter the landscape.

A Continuous Process

Becoming a better team (or organization built on teams) is our second adventure. And it’s every bit as important as our first.

While these two adventures are related (becoming a better team makes us more effective at achieving our primary mission) it’s helpful to consider them separately. They have different landscapes, different high ground, and require different approaches.

They also have different durations. Once a mission is accomplished, a team might go on to work on something else. Alternatively, multiple different teams, working in succession, might take up the banner of a single mission.

Regardless, the team’s adventure in becoming a better team continues as long as it exists. Being a highly-effective team requires constant vigilance and continuous work. Team members come and go. Working relationships evolve. The tools, techniques, and best practices of various disciplines change. And, the shifting high ground of the primary mission will require new things from the team.

In order to continuously move forward, Agile Explorations recommends that teams adopt a regular cycle of selecting maxims to work on—no more than two at a time. You might do this during your release or quarterly planning, or half-yearly team offsites.

During your iteration retrospectives, make a practice of reviewing the smells identified for the maxim(s) you’ve selected, the forces amplifying and dampening your efforts to make improvements, the measurements you’re gathering, and the methods you’ve employed.

The Agile Explorations Continuous Process.

Key Points:

  • Don’t agonize too much about picking the “right” maxim(s) to work on. It’s more important to start making improvements, than it is to perfect the process of picking what to improve. The AE Framework provides the Expedition Smell Test—a freely available Creative Commons licensed tool for starting that conversation. Have the whole team anonymously answer the questions, summarize the results, and review the results as a team. Then use dot-voting, or some other team-oriented decision-making process, to select the maxim(s) for the current cycle.
  • Don’t let process stand in the way of progress. If you feel you’ve made sufficient improvement on a maxim before the next Selection cycle, then schedule an hour to gather as a team and pick a new one. It’s okay to exceed expectations.

Smells, Forces, Measurements, And Methods

Maxim smells are characteristics within the team or team process that suggest areas for improvement. Sometimes, the issue is the smell itself. Deal with the smell, and things get better. At other times, the smell is just a sign of deeper issues. It’s like the peeling of an onion—resolving one smell leads to another, which leads to another, and so on.

If you use the Expedition Smell Test to pick your maxims, then you’ll already have a good idea about the smells. Even so, it’s worth the team’s time to come to a consensus about them. Smells can be subjective—varying by team member, methodology, and context. Take a moment to talk about it.

Once the smells are identified, take a look at the amplyfing and dampening forces impacting them.

The Smells, Forces, Measurements & Methods (SFM2) diagram.

Taken together, the smells and the forces paint a fairly clear and compelling picture of the issues to be addressed—enough, at least, to be able to start discussing what changes you might make (methods) and what additional information you might gather (measurements).

The methods should be as simple as possible, and aligned with the tools, techniques, and methodologies already in place. Focus on solving the problem at hand, and do it in the most direct way possible.

The measurements are about seeing the terrain around the issues you’re working on, and how the terrain changes with the implementation of new methods. The team might measure the forces, or the impact of the forces, acting on the issues. They might measure how rigorously the team follows the new methods. They might measure how often and under what circumstances those methods are effective.

Key Points:

  • The Expedition Smell Test is to be used for and by the team. It is the start of a conversation, not a definitive measure of agility. The use of this test by leadership to assess teams is not recommended. It could easily lead to poor results and unintended consequences.
  • The initial smells, forces, measurements, and methods discussion may take a little time—an hour or two. Subsequent progress reviews should fit comfortably into iteration retrospectives.
  • The smells, forces, measurements, methods (SFM2) diagrams can be captured on a whiteboard. Photograph it with your phone and then post it for future reference in a well-known location accessible to the entire team. It doesn’t, however, need to be accessible outside the team. The team must be transparent about delivery on the primary mission. Its internal deliberations regarding how to be more effective at delivering on the mission are just that, internal.
  • The measurements should be easy to gather. If it’s hard, don’t bother. It’s more important to have the right mindset than it is to have perfect information. An explorer assumes that the current information is imperfect, and will soon be obsolete. They move forward, making interim decisions based on the information they have, and seek constant feedback from the available sources.
  • Keep in mind that your measurements (imperfectly) serve two purposes: to inform, and to alter behavior. It’s generally impossible, however, to have a perfect measure for one of these purposes, much less both. Channeling Edward Deming: the most important measurements that one needs for self-organizing teams are unknown or unknowable, but successful self-organization must nevertheless take account of them. These measurements are part of the feedback that drives adaptation (i.e. the alteration of behavior). Seek informational measures that enrich your understand of the terrain, not summative measures of performance. Seek behavior modification measures that directly target the behaviors you’d like to change.
  • Measurements are not OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). OKRs are a fine tool. They serve to clarify the mission, contributing to organizational alignment. They facilitate transparency and define what information should be communicated. But they are best when limited to specifying what the team must deliver. The AE Framework measurements, however, inform the team’s efforts to improve how they deliver.
  • Some improvements will require management support. They may require funding, resources, organizational changes, etc. Teams should not hold back from requesting the support they need.

For More Information

For more information about how the AE Framework can help your organization to develop its Agile mindset and practices, or how Agile Explorations’ workshops and coaching can assist in your adventures, don’t hesitate to contact us.