Clarke is an expert in Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints – he has to be in his role as Agile Lead at Royal London, the UK’s largest mutual life and pensions company with over 5,000,000 policyholders and 500,000 members.
Clarke wrote, ‘Rolling Rocks Downhill’, an Agile business novel that never mentions Agile and, ‘Rocks into Gold – The Agile Parable.’ Clarke’s aims to make software developers happier in their work – making IT profitable is the first stepping stone. He is passionate about Agile, but not a zealot.
Don’t expect a talk about user-stories. This is about everyday, “did I tell you about …”, stories – the kind you find in the real world, in cartoons, novels and everyday conversations – and how to use them to implement Agile (and other changes) in a non-threatening, yet surprisingly sticky way. You’ll learn a little theory, you’ll laugh and learn (at least) one story which may, one day, save your butt.
Slides of Clarke’s talk at BoS Conference Europe 2016 here
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- Stories are sneaky little bastards
- 2002 – The year I “saw the light”
- For years I had been studying manufacturing and theory of constraints, JIT, lean, TQM
- The Goal by Eli … changed my life!
- Finished my MBA and then started focusing on Agile
- “Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit” … my goal was to take Agile and apply it to ToC
- 2003 – hardest year of my life
- muppet – an incompetent and foolish person
- People thought I was a complete idiot as I started talking about Lean + ToC
- Got laid off…
- “I had an engineer’s brain with missionary zeal.. but I didn’t know the difference between preaching to the converted and the lost. I fell into the chasm. Missionary ends up in the pot.”
- “I know stuff BUT I don’t know how to sell it.”
- I started reading lots of books and books and books…
- They all said “The problem is resistance to change”
- I need a way to SELL NEW IDEAS which doesn’t provoke much resistance.
- Crucial Books / Recommendations
- 1. Crucial Conversations
- 2. Skeuomorphism
- Dress new ideas up in old clothing
- Rivets on jeans are no longer needed
- Modern “click” sounds on cameras are audio files, the idea originated from the mechanical function in “real cameras”
- Dress new ideas up in old clothing
- Socratic Irony
- Dress badly, act dumb, and help others think clever.
- Based on Columbo
- Rolling Rocks Downhill
- Dress new “principles” up in new clothing
- Not talking about business novels or fables..
- I Love Lucy Chocolate = Feels like Software Development
- Slowest Buffalo story..
- Some Vague Theory
- Delete the “telling” to the story…
- Trojan stories… Lesson hidden inside story / joke – but easily uncovered / unpacked
- Joke isn’t particularly funny, but it makes the story feel harmless
- Joke is memorable, sticky, easily reproducible.
- Made to Stick
- Stories = Flight simulators for the Brain
- “Laughter opens people up to new ideas.”
- Good stories MOVE
- “Drama is life with the boring bits taken out.”
- Storytelling? – Everyone can do it, because I’m not a natural story teller. – Nick
- Finding Stories: The intersection of Concepts / Lessons + Amusing Stories
- MOSTLY Copy
- Email a Dilbert Cartoon
- Steve Jobs example: 2×2: Desktop / Laptop / Consumer / Professional
- Just as proud of the things they DID NOT do as the things they did
- Steak Doneness chart
- David Allen on Telling Time
- MOSTLY Copy
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Clarke Ching: Thank you very much! Ok, good morning! It’s just a hint of what’s to come, if you remember nothing or if you’d like to leave now, just remember that stories are sneaky little bastards. Ok? I may repeat that a few times.
Anyway, it’s really lovely to be back here I lived in Dublin for 3 years from 97 to 2000, I came here from New Zeeland and I met my wife here and we actually used to come up to this place here in the weekends and wander around. There was no hotel back then but it’s a really lovely area around here. So I have very fond memories for me, I say nearly forgetting the word memories [laughing]. Back then, she was a junior doctor and I was a C programmer working for the Bank of Ireland. Who is from Dublin? Cool! So just down the road – so I was a programmer then. Nowadays she’s a very sensible, old age psychiatrist and consultant and so she’s gone up the career that way just as she always expected and me, I kind of pivoted severely and nowadays I help people with their job.
What I do is I try to make Agile easier to understand, to do and simpler. Probably most importantly profitable, so it hangs around. And this talk today is about some of the stuff that I’ve learned the words to my engineering brain, techniques that I use to get ideas across the other people of a similar ilk. If you ask other people what I do, they just say he wanders around all the time, acting dumb and telling stories about buffalo. And you will see the buffalo story shortly but first, I need to take you back – if you don’t know, the Muppet is an idiot.
So 2003, for me, was a really, really shitty year and probably the most horrible year of my entire life because it’s the only time until I had children that a whole bunch of people thought I was incompetent and a Muppet and an idiot. The people I worked with looked at me and shook their heads and it wasn’t supposed to go this way. It was going well, I had pivoted long before I knew the word pivot, I changed direction and everything was just crashing around me and it was horrible. The year before that was brilliant, it was the year for me that I saw the light, I mean this in a vaguely religious sense. I had for years been studying and doing manufacturing stuff. So I started with this book up here, who has seen The Goal and read it? That’s good. Stephen I remember you mentioned it last year? I read that book and my whole life changed. I’ve been doing that stuff ever since but that lead me in a whole world around lean, adjusting time and all the quality movement. I read that stuff and I even got to do it in the real world which his kind of amazing because I was working as a programmer.
So I thought I loved it, if you could draw a big diagram in front of you, this might seem familiar and in one circle you put business and in the other you put software with this conference, right at the intersection and you also have where I decided I want to live the rest of my life and the business of software. And I’d been doing an NBA, I got to the end of it and decided I knew a bit about this Agile stuff and when I started reading it I realized that it was all that stuff but it was applied to the software world I worked. But I couldn’t understand why all the quality stuff that we were doing in the software world just made absolutely no sense if you’d read this stuff. And then – I read that book. Actually I did read all of that book, but a sentence – one sentence in the preface and the 2nd or 3rd character of the draft book, I read that sentence and then everything absolutely changed, the lightbulb went on and I could see everything, the whole world was different and it really was a religious moment for me, in a very technical nerdy sense. and I knew that that was what I had to do for the rest of my life and so far I have. I was to go out and take this stuff, match it up with this stuff and explain it to other people. I’d love to tell you what the sentence was but it was in the draft and they cut it out and never made it in the final version in the book.
So anyway I had my lightbulb moment and then I went off and I started the equivalent of knocking on doors, and if you want in a religious sense, I started telling people about all this stuff and I was brilliantly articulating it, I had a little local Agile user group, Agile Scotland and I’d go there and talk to my buddies and they’d go yes, that’s brilliant! We were all standing there and all agreed and they’re not gonna work and they would look at me like I was this guy and just to make things worse, it was as if – it was if as I was talking with that guy’s voice and they looked at me as if I was an idiot. And it was really frustrating and horrible that they really thought I was a complete idiot. And these guys here are my bosses [laughter]. That’s how I saw them, they saw me as the idiot, remember that there’s something wrong with the way I’m doing things.
So one day I’m standing at the coffee machine, getting a little coffee thing out and my bosses boss comes over to me and he said Clarke, and I say yes? And he says Agile. And I say yes! He says, don’t let it interfere with your day job ok? ok. right. Second boss, this is his boss, a few months later I’m showing my dissertation to my sponsor and my boss’ boss’ boss and we’re sitting in a corner quietly, she reads through it and she looks at me over the glasses like this and she says it’s ok Clarke, I won’t tell anyone about this [laughing]. Welcome to the land of the muppets!
So as you can imagine I got really frustrated and angry but really only on the inside, I wasn’t nasty or anything. Really frustrated and I didn’t know what to do about this because what was absolutely clear to me was making no sense to other people and just made me look stupid and my credibility there was shot.
Then something brilliant happened which is the company I worked for had a really bad year and they had to lay a whole lot of people off and I got redundancy and I left and that left me with time to start writing a book and gave me time to think.
But first before I tell you what I thought, does this kind of feel vaguely remotely familiar to all of you? A little bit? Ok, so I tell you what I did about this. I went when I thought and I thought and then I slowly realized that I had an engineer’s brain but with missionary zeal, that was a bad mix. I wanted to be an Agile missionary [laughter] but I didn’t know the difference between preaching to the converted and preaching to those who were not yet converted, two totally different things. So my ideas ended up in the chasm and there the missionary I ended up in the pot and I drew that by the way. Thank you! Yep, you like that? You’re – oh yeah! So I’m sitting there and this pot of my own making and I realize that I know stuff in my head but I don’t know how to sell it. So what do you do when you’re a geek that likes books? You go and read books that you haven’t read before about selling, you immerse yourself – is this familiar to any of you, this process? To read books and books, I read books and I read books and all sorts of stuff about selling and they were all really interesting but they weren’t usually targeting the kind of thing that I was trying to do. I came to a startling conclusion. All the books that should say this in black on white is resistance to change, which is a bit like telling me I’m too fat because my belt’s too big. It’s not very helpful so I went away and I figured it out that given my personality and my background, I didn’t need to go out and sell people on this stuff and I needed to go out and figure a way of getting the ideas that were in my head into other people’s heads without provoking resistance and this is what this talk is about.
I came up with 4 of them and I zipped through the first 3 very quickly. The first one is a wonderful book, I wish I read when I was 12. Crucial conversations. Has anyone read that here? There you go, just a few. That book – if you ever find yourself butting heads with people all the time, go read that book. It’s just lovely and explains in very simple terms how you can have conversations that would otherwise be very head butty and make them safe so they are crucial conversations. That was a life changer, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today without that
Another one is an idea I stumbled across from Seth Godin a long time ago called that word. Skeumorphishm I think – it’s the idea of dressing new ideas up in old clothing. See the rivet on your jeans, you don’t need them on the jeans, you needed them when they came out but if you don’t have them they’re not jeans. When you make a photo with your camera and it makes a clicking sound, that’s just playing it back – it used to be a mechanical sound but when they came out with digital cameras they wanted people feel the new camera like the old camera, so it’s comfortable with people.
Who’s been in to Dublin here since they got here or will get a chance to? Anyone? If you go in there, there’s Grafton street, main shopping centre. If you go to the top of it you find a lovely green area where you can walk around and around the border of it, part of it you will find a lot of Georgian houses, lovely red bricks and painted doors. They practice Skeumorphishm, what they do, they leave the exterior as it is so people feel really comfortable about those buildings, but change the insides. We have an office there with a purple coloured door and you walk inside and it’s new but if they changed the façade, there would be outraged. In fact I know they would be outraged because on the other side of it when I first moved here, the tourist busses that used to take you around – the tour guide took his past, pointed out the abomination of new buildings around the corner. So it’s a great way of making things that are new feel comfortable with people who aren’t so comfortable with new ideas. And Agile for me, what that means is using old language to describe most of the new stuff and Agile because most of it is old stuff and it’s just easier if you don’t freak people out.
This one here is just an excuse to dress badly, do you remember Colombo? Yeah? Just one more thing – you think Steve Jobs, he nicked his line just one more thing. Socratic irony is the idea of being Socratic by pretending to be dumb. Everyone knows you’re not stupid but you’re not telling them what to do, you’re sitting there smiling – I don’t know. And helping them figure things out themselves.
But finally, stories. So today, I’m gonna share with you a bunch of the stories I tell. These are the – I will just move on. Remember this? Small stories in particular, are sneaky little bastards. I’m not talking about big stuff here, these business models and story if you hadn’t realized and not talking about the fables in the middle, but little tiny things. Anecdotes, metaphors, pertinent jokes. Ideally they will make you smile.
So here’s one, [laughter] thank god you laughed! You had me worried there for a minute. I don’t need to see that any further. Here’s another one. Hands up if you’ve never shared a story because it told the truth. Anyone? Ok, this one is from me, it’s not as funny, it wasn’t funny for me, I’ll tell you that. Who remembers this thing from last year’s conference in the goodie bag? You remember this? I thought why the hell are they putting that thing in the goodie bag? Until 2 o’clock in the morning, I hope you can read that [laughter]. That saved my life and honestly it probably saved my shoes as well. The next morning I didn’t tweet this, [laughter] ok, so the first one, until I show you the second one there it’s a story and it’s vaguely amusing. But it’s not what I’m talking about, I’m talking about stories that have a point behind them. Suddenly the point comes out when I let the same thing happen again. And that’s just a lesson I think we all learn but sometimes you wrap stuff up in humour, it’s useful.
Ok, this one here is from I Love Lucy who most of you won’t remember I don’t think. Who does remember I Love Lucy? More than I expected, right! So this is great to show lean teams, they often get shown this in 6 sigma training but it’s actually really, really handy to show it to agile teams because they have this horrible habit of trying to do much more than they can achieve. “What are you doing up here? I thought you were downstairs making chocolates! Oh, they kicked me out of there fast. Why? I kept pinching them to see what kind they were! The 4th department I was in. I didn’t do so well either! All right, girls, this is your last chance! If one piece of candy gets passed by you and into the candy tray unwrapped you’re fired! Yes, man! Let it roll! This is easier! Yeah, we can handle this ok! Listen, I think there’s been – I think we’re fighting a moving row. Here she comes! You’re doing splendidly! Speed it up!” So I show it, there’s a small video next, which comes from the BBC last year. Do you recognize these people that’s written on the screen? Mel Gibson and Sterling Moss. Paul Hollywood the baker guy and Sterling Moss the racing car driver “I’ve been asked to race and asked Aston Martin at Lemont. Do you have any tips for me? I would suggest the same as with any other car, if you drive a little bit slower than you think you could do, it will be a lot better. That’s interesting! So overdrive – egg on your face it’s hard to get off when you make a mistake. That’s the point. I know it’s hard with all those people watching!”
It does illustrate for me one of the most important things about agile or adopting any new idea which is that – sorry I got the light in my eye there. That we tend to overdrive change initiatives and we flood people and we try to boil the ocean and we end up failing and here is this chap who was very fast at driving and he says don’t overdrive, just go a little slower! I find that very useful video to show people cause they can reflect on it when they see someone from a completely different world describing their problem and how to avoid it.
Now here’s a little story – this is a story when I tell a story about someone telling a story. You’re about to be treated to the world famous buffalo story but first, let me just set this up. Couple of years ago I got a request from our CIO to go and have a look at a support team, 16 people mixed rows working on code fixing, real life bugs and they had 120 that were really top priority and the CIO had promised he’d get rid of them by the end of the year which was there and we had to increase their capacity by 30%. Ask me to have a look and see if there’s anything I can do to help them out. So I went around and talked to their manager whose name was Elaine. She showed me around and took me to their board which is really handy. She just showed all the work there and I had a look at the board and there was something missing, it was a test board around the other side. So that’s the whole team’s work process but one of the most important bits of it was hidden from view. When you looked at it, I knew instantly what was wrong, that we didn’t have enough test resource relative to the upstream processes. So they were working faster than these guys and they were getting a big pileup of stuff there. I know it to be true cause she picked up one of those and said the developers worked on this a year ago and it’s been sitting in this pile, waiting ever since.
So I went away and I just got some numbers there, rough numbers and we just confirmed the capacity and the number they could do each month was just clear that test was the bottleneck in this whole process and if we could bump our test capacity by 20% then the whole team would get 20% more work through. Does that make sense? More or less? Good! So sat in the meeting room with 16 people and the manager and I explained this stuff, and they all looked at me going ok, yeah. Clearly didn’t feel like it was their problem so I asked them have I told you about the buffalo? Now where I work there’s a policy that if I ask someone that and you’re in a group, the correct answer is just to say yes. Cause I’ve heard it so many times but these guys were fresh meat [laughing]. This didn’t actually happen in Cheers, it was just one of those email things that went around but it’s quite a good story and it goes like this. Can you all read it in the back? I will let you read it and you should go cool animation!
Well you see it’s like this, the heard of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo and he stays in the back and the fastest one stays in the front but at the slowest speed. If they didn’t do that, they would split apart. Like this! And then if they were split apart then the stronger buffalo at the front would be pruned to be attacked and the guy at the bottom by wolves. Evolution favorited the herds that stopped together and when these tightly packed herds were hunted by wolves, they were attacked from the back, so they would kill the weakest one and by doing that, that meant the whole herd was stronger and faster. Makes sense? Now just in case you miss it is the joke bit, ok? in much the same way the human brain can operate as fast as the slowest brain cells, well-known fact. Now as we know incisive intake of alcohol kills brain cells – also a well-known fact – but naturally [laughter] the text and the slowest and the weakest. And this way regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making our brain faster and more efficient and that’s why we feel so much more clever when we’ve had a few pints. Ok, so maybe not the best joke in the world but whenever I tell this, something interesting happens. I say where’s the slowest buffalo? And this room they all go it’s the testers obviously! I just explained all that before but they go it’s the testers. Then I ask how can you speed up the slowest buffalo and you know what they say? Feed them to the wolves! Always! And then they laugh, I think their laughing is really important cause it opens them up to get a bit creative so I say how do you speed them up and they come up with a bunch of different reasons and I say how can the fastest buffalo speed up? And they go clearly they had to slow down and mustn’t distract the testers and they could probably figure out how to help them. So for this particular team I actually don’t know what they did, I kicked off with the sensible theory stuff – that didn’t go anywhere, I explained analysis, it didn’t go anywhere, I told them this story and they solved the problem themselves and they said to me to go away because they got what they were looking for and they got a 30-40% improvement just for the sake of that little story. And the book I mentioned before, the goal, the one that caused my first pivot in life, those are the first 3 steps I’ve just described from that book. Go and read the book cause honestly it’s wonderful!
Now here’s some vague theory I made up! So stories are like little Trojan horses, especially the little funny ones, right? They carry a really sensible truth, a principle or lesson inside them, but their little smiley horses and they come up and smile at you and you laugh and think it’s funny. Even if the joke isn’t all that funny, it just makes the whole conversation feel harmless! And jokes are also memorable, the punchline I get people repeating and emailing me hey I told the buffalo story – and this happens from people all around the world who heard it – with the joke, if you can remember the punchline, that sticks in your head and then you can almost recreate everything else unless it’s about ants and throwing them in water. So jokes help with the sticky and reproducible – there’s another wonderful book, made to stick. Please? Hands up! More of you, that’s good! This book is just brilliant! If you want a package of ideas and make them sticky so people can carry them with them. They have 6 criteria, success, they should’ve come up with another S but they’re Americans and they can’t spell.
So they said a good story is simple, you look back at the buffalo story, it’s really simple and the surprising thing is when you see oh they run the speed of the slowest buffalo, it’s quite a surprise to people, never heard that before and also the punchline of jokes that almost always is a surprise which was what kind of makes them funny, that concrete.
So this story I’ve animated it and I could pop that out with the words and people can imagine it and make a film in their head. It’s credible but the idea behind it it’s credible. Now, it is emotional but I’m not sure what you call the emotion that goes with laughing out loud. Really having a good laugh, there’s some emotion there, but I think that the laughter is something that just opens people up to be slightly more creative and open to new ideas, at least that’s what I’ve seen over and over again. You tell them something straight and it doesn’t sink in, you tell them something that’s funny and suddenly the mood changes. And these guys, they say that stories are flight simulators for the brain and they say that if you want to sell ideas, wrap them up in stories.
So I won’t tell you this particular story today, but this chap here, I’ve not met him but he tweeted after reading my book and he says every time I read a newspaper article now I’m reminded about his story about the telegraph, Abraham Lincoln and Agile. Good little stories stick in people’s heads! And then they tweet about it and people go and buy my book! Now just to mostly actually – this was a spelling thing. I added sneaky cause as you all know, stories are sneaky little bastards, but I wanted to create the American spelling there. Did you see that? Just watch, everyone! And good stories move! There’s action and movement! It’s really, really fundamental!
And now, returning to the master himself, if you take nothing away actually, take that one away. Drama is life with the boring bits taken out. For years I now practiced telling stories so they’re a bit slicker, but faster. Take the boring bits out, otherwise you will lose people cause there’s no movement. Oh, that’s interesting! There you are! Thank you! So this morning, storytelling is – we’ve heard both talks, story! And the key thing about story like this is you don’t have to be good at storytelling to tell them, you just have to find an appropriate story and then just tell them quickly without too much boring detail.
Now where do you find stories, you ask? Obligatory diagram here. So this type of stories I’m talking about are funny ideally, they don’t have to be but it helps cause that whole smiling Trojan horse thing. And it helps if they got a concept or lesson. I don’t just want a concept by themselves or principles. I don’t just want amusing stories, I want it when they click together. So where do you find them? There’s 2 ways to find them, mostly copy. So much of what you’ve seen here is stuff I found elsewhere and I packaged it up, I tell it and most of it it’s copied. If you’ve ever emailed a Dilbert cartoon, you’ve just done that, you’ve seen something and the idea behind that cartoon is really, really pertinent here. Usually aren’t managers idiots? Or something like that – you emailed it off and somebody reads the joke and they get the idea. So it’s really, really easy to copy. Someone who I copy a lot which annoys me immensely cause I think he was an asshole, was Steve Jobs. He actually had some wonderful stories, he has one about when he arrived back at – what’s it called? Apple! He arrived back at Apple, sorry, and he is there on a show later, talking about what he did and he said what he did and he said when he gone back, he didn’t follow his own strategy with Apple by drawing a line there and a line there, on a white board. So 2 by 2 matrix. And then he wrote desktop, laptop and then he wrote consumer and professional. Then he said if it’s not on that board, it’s not part of our strategy and I think it’s one of the most powerful lessons that I can take anyway I go nowadays because he went on to say he’s really proud of the stuff they didn’t do and don’t do, least is proud of the stuff they’ve got rid of so they can focus on the stuff that’s in the strategy. He has lots of lovely little stories!
Now this one here, I was in a restaurant in San Francisco, I was sitting down, lovely waitress comes up and says what would you like? I say fillet stake, please. She says certainly! I am like I’d like that medium-rare. And then she paused, a little laminated card from her pocket and says point at it! Oh, it looks like that! She goes sir, that’s medium! And then she rushes off, they cooked the stake and they bring it back and it was cooked properly. So I stumbled on that but I already had the idea in my head for test first thinking, all the good stuff about pulling forward in software developers and now every time I work with testers or just about anyone in the team, I start with the story told slightly more slowly which explains to them why I want them to start talking about having a tester before they build it, otherwise you cook the wrong steak.
This guy is local, he was born in Dublin. [laughing and background chatting]. Ambiguous requirements, that’s I stumbled across a session with some colleagues were trying to explain ambiguous requirements to customers and to some of their other colleagues and they were using this so for very handy for that. Dave Allen grew up down the road in the suburb called Furhouse, he didn’t just do jokes about kids, he actually is considered one of the godfather of alternative and observational comedy. So all the storytelling comedy you see from these days came about from a conversation in the early 60’s where a friend of him in Australia said to him Dave, you know all those corny jokes that you tell when you’re up on stage? They’re not nearly as funny as the stories you tell when you’re offstage talking to us, why don’t you try to incorporate them in? So he did that an he ended up having a very successful career basically doing that stuff, a lot of it was very punchy kind of stuff, he’d attack the church and power but he did it in a lovely way, which is he made people laugh at the ridiculousness of things. He had one skit where he had the pope stripping which was in the 1970’s on the BBC and it was very controversial but in his own way he made his own little dent in the world by making people laugh about really serious things. And this is what the guardian obituary said about him in 2005. He was born a star that made a generation of comics still be in their infancy. They’re talking about alternative observational comedy, made them think a bit differently about humour and the power of words, about authority and the world around them.
So I’m gonna leave it there, just on that thought because I think that we as individuals are in our daily job can use the same technique he used, just with a much more personal basis, tell little funny stories to get really important ideas across. You make people laugh, they feel harmless, they have a bit of a giggle and become open minded and provided the stories are well-chosen you can change the world and that’s why it worked – for me people just say he just bumbles around and he tells stories, but we’ve made quite a lot of money here since he came along and started telling us about the buffalo and the steak. So thank you very much! [applause].