I'm Disappointing Already

I can't tell if this is a compliment or not, but David Anderson is already disappointed with the Agile 2009 program. Since we haven't even opened the submission system yet, never mind chosen the program, I'm surprised. What David is reacting to is my organization of the program committee. (The potential compliment is that David is so invested in the Agile conference that he feels it necessary to criticize our process already.)

Last year, at Agile 2008, we had 19 stages, and 37 simultaneous tracks. That was for a conference of about 1500 people. The program was overwhelming, and many people chose the main stage to hear a talk instead of going to something participatory because they couldn't make a decision. A number of session leaders had done all the work for a session that no one went to. A number of experience report speakers had almost no one at their sessions. That's demoralizing for the speaker/leader and doesn't provide value for conference attendees.

I decided to have fewer stages this year (17) and fewer simultaneous sessions. We will have up to 20 simultaneous sessions, which is still plenty.

Some people requested additional stages, and for now, those stages are stages. Will product management be subsumed into customers and business value? Maybe. What happened with breaking acts? No one volunteered to produce it. I asked people as they volunteered, and no one wanted it.

So what do we do with proposals that don't seem to fit a stage? Well, submitters have several options:

  • Submit a proposal to a stage that seems close
  • Email Ahmed Sidky, our program chair, for guidance
  • Email me for guidance

Will we know what to do? Yes. Last year, we, as a program committee, realized we needed a stage partway through the submissions, and we created a new stage with a stage producer and an assistant stage producer.

It's fascinating, being the conference chair. Everyone who works on the conference is a volunteer, except for the Agile Alliance's managing director. The rest of us receive a small amount of compensation, which is nowhere near the time we put into the conference. This is truly a labor of love on the part of the stage producers, their assistants, and their teams. And, we are all geographically distributed. Talk about a challenge.

David, if you feel so strongly about breaking acts (which I don't think is the right place for kanban anyway, since it's no longer a breaking act, but requires leadership and a team), you could volunteer to produce that stage.

Maybe I haven't shown any leadership. Maybe my team has not produced anything of value in this first iteration. According to David, I am failing. I'll be asking the team for feedback.

However, I prefer to see the program come together organically. We have some guidance for submitters. We have a sufficiently flexible process so we can find the right place for a proposal. We have a system that allows for feedback from the community (but not ranking this year).

We expect to inspect and adapt as we proceed. David has pointed out areas some of the stages overlap. That's certainly something we could clarify. But, have failed? Maybe for David. I doubt that we have already failed the rest of our constituents.

I invite you to let me know if I've disappointed you. I would rather receive feedback now than in three months from now–or even later.

And, for those of you want to know “When will the submission system be open?” We expect it on or about Dec 15. You will have 2 months to submit a proposal. Don't wait until the last minute–you won't get enough feedback to change your proposal into something that wins a space.

15 Replies to “I'm Disappointing Already”

  1. I know that this is going to sound cliche but you will not be able to please everyone.
    In David’s case is the root of his concern something that is personal as opposed to professional?

    After dedicating the largest share of my main stage speech in 2008 to this topic I am extremely disappointed that innovation and new agile method ideas don’t seem to be important to the organizing committee.

  2. Our conference, 6 Packed Conference in Dallas Feb 6 & 7, 2009, is smaller than yours in scope and attendance. We are in our fifth year and we use feedback from previous years to guide us on track selection and speakers. We work with six tracks and we vary the time allowed for presentations: 45 minutes for a lunch speaker, 70 for a normal session, 140 for a double, and 180+ for a workshop.

    We had the problem of very low or no attendance at a session three years ago, so we added the longer sessions ( 1 per day) and filled the second afternoon with hands on workshops to get people attracted and keep them engaged. We had a great deal of interest in Lean Manufacturing so we have dedicated one track to a two day workshop on that subject and we have limited registration to keep the group manageable.

    We might disappoint David as well, but I can tell him where he will learn about kanban processes and the linkage with other parts of the process. We can even provide him with some hands on experience examples of how various systems function.

  3. Hi Johanna,

    Thanks for posting this and raising the discussion. I think it is the agile way to have an open debate around this.

    You do seem to be jumping to a few conclusions. The first one is about kanban. I agree with you. Kanban is not a breaking act. Nor was I particularly concerned about that.

    I also agree that fewer stages is better. And I agree that several speakers had only a few attendees. I wasn’t aware that some had no attendees but it is believable.

    You also conclude that I feel you are failing. Where did you get that from? I don’t believe I suggested that you or or the program committee were failing. What I see is a failure in the community to show an openness towards innovation.

    The open submission process from 2008 is a huge step forward. I believe it helped immensely in the diversity of the 2008 program and showed that the community was responding to criticism of its cliquishness and cronyism.

    What I was hoping for was a sustained effort in the Agile Alliance to show an openness to new ideas. I have no idea where those ideas are coming from or from whom. What it is likely though, is that they are coming from new people we haven’t heard of. I was hoping to see an obvious place for those people to go, somewhere that shows they have some safety or protection. Somewhere that shows the Agile Alliance embraces new people with new ideas. The Breaking Acts stage provided that.

    I genuinely believe that the community needs this level of openness to innovation in order to thrive and remain healthy. I bump into too many people in our community who feel that cliquishness is a good thing and that fracturing into factions is inevitable – and in some cases desirable. That’s such a pity.

    So, if I have a criticism it is that the Agile Alliance does not seem to feel the necessity to create an institutional home for innovation in our space, and does not feel the need to set aside space in its conference for that innovation.

    If the real issue is pragmatic and you simply had no volunteers to run that stage, I would ask, who did you ask? and what is the mechanism for soliciting volunteers?

    Best wishes,

  4. In reply to Ariel,… while I might have sunk a lot of personal effort in to making a speech last year about the health and future success of the agile community, my interest in its health and survival is entirely professional.

  5. David says, “the Agile Alliance does not seem to feel the necessity to create an institutional home for innovation in our space, and does not feel the need to set aside space in its conference for that innovation.”

    Perhaps he has missed the Open Jam which, though not always under that name, has provided an “institutional home for innovation” for several years.

  6. Replying to George…

    I’m well aware of the open space options that the conference provides but there is a gap that needs to be filled.

    For example, kanban was a single open space session in 2007. At Agile 2008 there were 6 sessions on kanban but almost all of them appeared on the Breaking Acts stage. If you take that stage away then it is very hard for those emerging new ideas to break out from the open space in to the main program.

  7. 17 stages is still a lot. Maybe these can be combined into 6 stages with only a few simultaneous sessions for each stage.

    stage 1:
    Agile Adoption
    Manifesting Agility
    New to Agile

    stage 2:
    Agile & Organizational Culture
    Customers & Business Value
    User Experience

    stage 3:
    Agile Product Management
    Leadership & Teams

    stage 4:
    Developer Jam
    Open Jam
    Live Aid

    stage 5:
    Telling Our Stories

    stage 6:
    Tools for Agility
    Distributed Agile

    And “main stage” could have a few sessions from each of these stages.

  8. Great discussion, everyone. Since Johanna invited us to submit a few more ideas, I’ll start by giving her, Ahmed, the everyone else who is participating a sincere “thank you” for all of their hard work.

    I have one minor desire, perhaps for this conference, perhaps for another. I’d love to see a stage “Anything BUT Agile”, where we could invite other communities to participate in our community. I’m suggesting this because I find that when I read new magazines (like IDSA and Taste of Home instead of IEEE Computer and CACM) I gain valuable insights that actually help me be a better agilist. I’ve found that inviting people like Preston Smith to join our community produces interesting results, like his marvelous involvement in the APLN. So, in the spirit of planting seeds for our collective future, I wonder what others might think of an “Anything But Agile” stage.

    Chris Matts, pile on!

    http://www.buyafeature.com: The seriously FUN way to prioritize serious — and not so serious — stuff.

  9. Hi Joanna, your hard work is much appreciated :), as is your response.

    It seems it is time for the iteration retrospective, project is not failed yet… 😉

    Adding a fringe does not necessarily require an extra stage. integrate experience reports in all stages, so like in 2008 actual experience is present everywhere. That leaves space for e.g. a fringe stage.

    The many stages were indeed confusing. Keith Ray’s suggestion above looks promising.

    And yes (Ahmeds suggestion mentioned in Davids post), Open Space provides space for new ideas. I would be the last to discount that, being a big proponent of open space and all.

    However, ‘we’ usually reward presenters with free entrance and hotel rooms, and the current system favours (and even rewards) the (late?) status quo over new ideas.

    The submission system does seem to favour existing stuff over new stuff (I had even difficulty to sneak in a breaking acts session with a new presenter, the topic of which has proven to be useful in client situations… without breaking acts, it would not have made the program at all, I’m sure).

    In 2009 it looks like we’ll need new ideas more than ever… critical thinking and doing is key (and what agile is about to me). let’s be inviting :). Having a fringe will show this, and we can compensate the rebels with or without a cause same as the establishment (some consider yours truly to be part of that 😉 ).

  10. Hi Johanna,
    While I publicly support the case for the Agile Fringe, I would also like to publicly support you and the conference committee. I hope that this open discussion will result in a solution which meets everyone’s needs.

  11. I know how complicated organising a conference is, so I’m sympathetic. And I find the proposed structure too narrow.

    I would also suggest, however, that a conference where none of the sessions fail isn’t trying hard enough. Over my years of organising conferences, I’ve tried to ensure that they include some outliers, which may collapse or be surprisingly successful. These days there are commercial event organisers that can provide a reliable product, our job should include furthering the state of the art.

  12. Johanna

    Organizing the agile conference is a huge undertaking, you can’t make everyone happy. Reducing the stages is imperative to allowing attendees to be able to absorb the content. Stay focused on this.

    The experience reports were bad experiences (maybe I picked the wrong ones?), I’m guessing that’s why they withered.

    Keep up the good work. As long as you follow the feedback you received at Agile 2008, you are supporting the “main voice” for the conference.

  13. There’s one seemingly obvious (or stupid?) idea that has not been mentioned in the comments so far: Why not go through a short & public iteration of proposing and reviewing stages? I must confess that the 2008 stage structure left me bewildered – not only due to the large number of stages but also because the stage descriptions didn’t really appeal to me. This could probably be remedied by an open process for stages layout.

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