Complaints should be encouraged and listened to.

The main thesis of the “Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayten Christensen is that products lose market share because they focus on the needs of the majority and ignore features of a product that allow a lower performing product in the main criteria to dominate the market. Ignoring complaints is way to miss these new features.

A significant risk that organizations run is that they ignore some of their customers simply because they are complaining. Rather than try to understand the complaints, they dismiss the complaints as an annoyance. George Dinwiddie’s blog is a classic example of this. He had a great time at Agile2011 but was saddened that people complained about the conference, especially people who had not attended.

George paraphrased Yogi Berra’s tweets.

“Nobody goes to the Agile Conference anymore. It’s too crowded.”

From a learning organization’s perspective, Yogi’s tweet is gold dust. Yogi has expressed what many people have not. An organization that ignores complaints is missing a major opportunity to improve.

I was lucky enough to attend the first two Agile Development Conference’s in Salt Lake City. I was the only attendee from the ThoughtWork’s London office at the first but I had such a great time that almost twenty people from the office presented at the second. I skipped Denver but was dragged back to Minneapolis (Agile2006). I was shocked and dismayed. Something was wrong. It was large and impersonal. Large groups were attending from companies and not engaging with the “Community”.

My earliest memory discussing the size issue was a discussion with Rachel Davies at the eXtreme Tuesday Club. David Hussman had just resigned as Conference Chair for Agile2008 and the Agile Alliance Board were looking for ideas to address the size issue. I suggested co-locating smaller conferences,  splitting the conference based on experience. Rachel adapted the idea and created the idea of stages. For me, the value of Agile has been having all disciplines in the room which the stages discourages. The size of the conference was an issue then. Yogi’s tweets indicate that it is still a problem that needs to be addressed.

Another attempt to make the conference smaller was the Fresher’s Fayre at Agile2009 in Chicago. Unfortunately the organizers for Agile2009 placed the needs of the sponsors above the needs of the attendees. The ice breaker which was previously an opportunity for people to meet became a trade fayre with the emphasis once again on selling rather than learning or building community. There hasn’t been a fresher’s fayre at subsequent conferences. I think the organizers have given up on the scale issue.

Bob Martin recently said that he did not forsee the loss of technical emphasis when he sold the XP Universe conference to the Agile Alliance. Bob feels that the Agile20xx conference is now a management conference rather than a technical conference. As a manager I would disagree. The Agile20xx conference is for coaches and people selling Agile. There is no grand conspiracy, it just represents the interests of the people who keep turning up to organize it. Agile20xx can ignore Bob or they can work to encourage more technical material. I was conference chair for XPDay last year. A few people mentioned that there was not enough technical material. My initial reaction was that this is an open space and people can talk about what they want. I was wrong because it takes time to prepare and organise technical sessions. This year, we will have an open space and two tracks, one of which is a technical track. We listened to a few complaints and adapted.

The Agile Alliance can continue to bury its head in the sand and ignore complaints by Yogi Barra, Bob Martin and others. Alternatively they can listen to the complaints and try to do something about them. My hope is that they start to pay attention to the complaints before they lose all of their attendees to smaller regional conferences and break away communities like Lean and the Software Craftsmanship.

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About theitriskmanager

A IT programme manager specialising in delivering trading and risk management systems in Investment Banks. I achieve this by focusing on risk rather than cost. A focus on costs can lead to increased costs. View all posts by theitriskmanager

11 responses to “Complaints should be encouraged and listened to.

  • ☕ J. B. Rainsberger (@jbrains)

    From what I recall, the Agile Alliance (at least when I last served on the board) genuinely believed that they listened to and did something about the various key complaints. I make no real statement about how effectively they’ve done that, except that I chose not to attend for the first time in ten years. Whatever they have, it didn’t sway me. From what I can tell, I missed relatively little, apart, of course, from seeing all the people I love to see.

  • George Dinwiddie

    Chris,

    You’ve encouraged me to make a number of complaints about this blog posting. I’m glad that you’ve promised to listen to them.

    1. The complaint that the conference is too large and impersonal to be of value is belied by the fact that it’s large because a large number of people find enough value to attend.

    The suggestion that it should be /replaced/ by smaller conferences ignores the fact that it helps /support/ smaller regional conferences through Agile Alliance programs. The choice between large and small conferences is a false dilemma. There is value in both.

    2. “Large groups were attending from companies and not engaging with the ‘Community'” implies that the conference should be for the “in” crowd and ignore those who don’t already get it. I think that would be a terrible stagnation. While I certainly enjoy spending time with others who have been involved with Agile for the past decade and some who have been involved a lesser time, but with great enthusiasm, I don’t think that should be the focus of the conference. I do find plenty of opportunity to do that at the conference, however.

    I also find great opportunities to talk with people who are new enough to the idea of Agile that they’re still struggling to put it into practice. I enjoy helping those people, and I also learn from speaking with them.

    3. Uncle Bob’s comment about loss of technical focus is one I take seriously. I suspect that there is less loss of technical sessions than there is increase of other sessions, making it appear that technical practices are de-emphasized.

    I was a reviewer for the Embedded Stage this year, and the sessions there were mostly technical in nature. There were also some about transitions to Agile. If you look around the conference, I think you can find quite a few technical sessions.

    As someone who emphasizes the need for technical excellence, I find there’s an inherent problem with technical sessions at a general Agile conference. As soon as you get down to details, you’re talking about particular technologies and lose much of your potential audience. The Ruby programmers don’t want to go sessions on Java just because they’re related to Agile; they’d rather go to a conference focused on Ruby. This leads to speaking about technical practices more generically, which is somewhat less satisfying than showing them in code.

    I’m also one of the organizers of the regional AgileDC Conference. As you can see on http://agiledc.org/schedule-2011/ we have included a technical track, but it’s still somewhat light on programming, itself. I would love suggestions on how to dive deeper into technical issues without ending up with very small audiences.

    4. Having deeply technical sessions also discourages getting “all disciplines in the room.” For myself, I concentrate on sessions that promote that collaboration. In large and medium size companies, the segregation and siloing of areas of focus is the biggest impediment to successful Agile adoption. I see too many organizations going through the ceremony of Agile, but without collaboration in their hearts. My recent post http://blog.gdinwiddie.com/2011/08/01/specialized-skills/ addresses one aspect of this issue.

    5. You suggest that the Agile Alliance is not listening to complaints. I think that’s far from the truth. I think that people tweeting complaints, especially those who didn’t attend, are unable to see the efforts the Agile Alliance board makes to listen and improve.

    I am not a member of the Agile Alliance board. My involvement in the production of the Agile Conference has been limited to reviewing sessions in some years, and speaking at the conference. Extrapolating my blog posting to deduce the focus and behavior of the conference organizers is entirely unfounded.

    Certainly I have some qualms about some of the things I see at the Agile Conference, too. Some of these seem insoluble to me. Others, I discuss with member of the Agile Alliance board. I don’t rely on broadcasting complaints to get their attention.

    As it happens, I’ve seen evidence that belies some of the complaints. Just because someone didn’t find the value they sought, doesn’t mean it wasn’t available. I’d be happy to discuss these things in conversation, but twitter and blogs are too low bandwidth to have that conversation.

    6. If you’re going to bitch about me, at least spell my damn name right.

    • theitriskmanager

      George

      First off, many apologies for misspelling your name. Unforgivable fail on my part.

      I was not bitching about you but rather using your post as an example of “ignoring complaints”. As it is I missed the fact that Yogi Berra was a famous baseball player. My fail as well. Means I got it wrong as I thought you were talking about someone who would have gone to the conference if it was smaller.

      My belief is that the conference can be large but also feel small. I also think there are people in the Agile community that are smart enough to make that happen.

      Many people would agree that some of the most valuable conversations are in the corridors. If the deeply technical types are not at the conference, they are unlikely to participate in those conversations. The software craftsmanship community are not necessarilly technology alligned and they are the ones we are at risk of losing.

      Also happy to have the conversation in a higher bandwidth medium.

      Chris

      • George Dinwiddie

        ‘S’al’right. We’re still friends.

        In addition to the Embedded Stage (http://program2011.agilealliance.org/overview/type/agile+for+embedded+systems+development), there was a technical stage named “development languages practices & techniques” (http://program2011.agilealliance.org/overview/type/development+languages+practices+%26+techniques). These were lead by some deeply technical types. (Some of the other sessions were lead by deeply technical types, also, even if they weren’t deeply technical topics.)

        Perhaps this is not enough. Personally, I wouldn’t want to try to undercut the SCNA (for one). I think that Software Craftsmanship and Agile are natural allies, though not all in both camps might agree.

        What suggestions would you offer?

      • theitriskmanager

        I think we have to reach out to those complaining, starting with Bob Martin, and ask what they want to see in the conference.

      • George Dinwiddie

        WRT “My belief is that the conference can be large but also feel small. I also think there are people in the Agile community that are smart enough to make that happen.”

        You’re one of those smart people. Suggestions?

      • theitriskmanager

        My ideas have failed so far. I suspect others would have more successful ideas.

        The problem as I see it is that we have an army of volunteers working on the programme but the only person with responsibility for all non programme related issues is the Conference Chair. The programme is normally superb because of the effort and passion that goes into it. The Conference Chair is normally overwelmed by the sheer volume of stuff they need to address. Reorganisation means the AA Managing Director handles sponsor relations which makes sense. Jessica and co handle logistics and the Volunteers have a coordinator. It would be interesting if the conference organisation included a group of volunteers to address the non programme items such as…

        0. Handling complaints
        1. Making the conference feel smaller even though it is bigger.
        2. Bringing back interesting people or disident groups.
        3. Helping people new to the conference get the most from it.
        4. Lots of other stuff

        I have offered to help four conference chairs in the past but you get to a point when you give up. 🙂

  • George Paci

    I’ll skip the meat of your post and just point out two errors:

    1) George’s last name is Dinwiddie, with an N.

    2) Yogi Berra does not tweet. He’s a famous baseball catcher and manager known for his, um, idiosyncratic quotes. George is paraphrasing a famous one by Berra about Ruggeri’s (a restaurant): “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” See Wikipedia for more.

  • Risk of Cultural Misunderstanding. « The IT Risk Manager

    […] latest post was a major fail. I had read George Dinwiddie’s post and assumed that George was calling out […]

  • captain crom

    Chris, despite your self-corrections later, there are great points in here. It’s a great article as a discussion point 🙂
    As a latecomer to the public side of agile, I’ve attended the last 3 big US agile conferences and only found my way into this community through connecting at these events with people like yourself. I and many others would gladly invest simply to spend a week talking ‘shop’ with the exceptional collection of people that attend.
    This year offered less content relevance for me than previous years but this wasn’t simply that I’ve learned more, it’s because my context has shifted in the opposite direction to the rest of the market. I still however believe I had a sufficiently high return on investment 🙂
    Agile over the last 4 to 5 years has become more and more something large corporations aspire toward (and in some cases are successfully heading the right way) what this means is that the market demand for the conference is much more for corporate / managment ‘beginners’ and early-stage practitioners trying to solve scaling and corp culture challenges than small software teams trying to find better ways of working.
    This year I joined a smaller software company after spending years in large corporations so the conference tracks as a whole didn’t match my context however loads of what I heard was valuable and relevant to my *old* context.
    Equally, as the ‘veteran’ of the team I attended with this year I skipped some of the better sesions for the chance of broader coverage than the mainstrean whilst my team attended sessions I was interested in (like the Chris Matts book club on a conference scale!)
    I still had a fantastic time, learned stuff, gained some new and very special friends and my team learned mountains of useful actionable things.
    So… It’s still relevant, valuable, a great community, some normal politics (given the size), and I’ll be attending again. I’ll go to differnent stages or places next year but mostly due to context, not content. The bigger this gets, the harder it becomes to please everyone.
    Wish you’d been able to make it! The biggest part missing for many of us was you 🙂

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