Book Clubs at Work – Are You Serious?

by Jennifer Borek on April 1, 2014

Em is a senior manager in Information Management. She is a certified Scaled Agile Framework Program Consultant (SPC) and an active member of the Agile community. She frequently speaks about her experiences with Scaling Agile and Agile Data Warehousing at conferences across Australia and the United States.

As mentioned in a prior post, the idea for the EDW Agile Release Train came from reading +Dean Leffingwell‘s Scaling Software Agility. A couple of months after reading the book, there was a restructure and I found myself leading the technology team that I has previously been a customer of.  I was eager to pitch the idea of forming an Agile Release Train to my new team, so I arranged a series of workshops with the key leaders across the group.

From these workshops I hoped to achieve shared understanding and agreement on the shape of our future organisation. We kicked off with +Mark Richards sharing what he had learnt about Agile Release Trains from Dean’s Lean Agile Enterprise Leadership Workshop. We also provided everyone with the details of Dean’s more recent book, Agile Software Requirements. Over the remaining workshops we debated various organisational models, operating principles and approaches to getting started until we landed on a majority consensus on the way forward. With our vision agreed it was all hands on deck to get ready for our first release planning (PSI) workshop tentatively scheduled to happen in about 6 weeks.

As the day of our first release planning event grew closer, I noticed that there were some blank faces among my extended leadership team when I referred to various aspects of what we needed to do. My heart sank as I asked the team, “Who has read the book?“. A couple of hands were raised. “Who has finished the book?“. Only one hand (and yes he still works with me!). “Who doesn’t own the book?“. At least four or five hands were sheepishly raised. “OK” I said “Change of plan. We are all going to buy the book. If you cannot afford the book, let me know and I will arrange a book for you. Then we are going to read the book together. We are going to form a book club!” As Deming said, “without theory there is no learning”.

For the next 3 months I met with my extended leadership team for an hour a week. Each week one member of the team lead a discussion on a chapter or two. We would discuss the concepts covered, how they might apply to our situation and agreed on the ideas we wanted to implement. Book club was compulsory and if one team member had something more important to do then book club was rescheduled. Shared understating and agreement was paramount if we were going to be successful. Visitors to the EDW Release Train are often shocked when they hear that I called a mandatory weekly meeting to read a book. I am always quick to remind them that no one would hesitate to call a “business” meeting, so why wouldn’t we want to make time for a meeting focused on learning ways to improve our “business”.

While the “Leffingwell Book Club” (as it was fondly referred to) created the shared understanding that I was eager to achieve, there were some unexpected but positive side effects. First, more book clubs spun up. Our Scrum Masters started with Coaching Agile Teams, our Technical Leads readAgile Analytics, the Test Leads read Agile Testing and one of the feature teams chose to readLean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit. Second, the foundations of what would become our Leadership Continuous Improvement Team emerged as we created a kanban wall to track all the ideas we wanted to implement.

The third and most amazing side effect of the book club was how it enabled the formation of a team. My extended leadership team, was made up of various leaders from the 3 groups that had been merged to create my new organisation. Dean’s book gave us safe material to debate (no pun intended!). No one needed to be worried about hurting someone else’s feelings when offering an opinion on the material.

Today reading is a huge part of our learning culture. Who is reading what is a constant topic of conversation. When people visit us for “tours” we find our book club wall is one of the most photographed and talked about aspects of the EDW Agile Release Train. Some of our visitors have even been inspired to launched their own book clubs – and not just the agile folk! To quote Dr. Seuss, “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

For a list of books that have inspired us check out our virtual book club wall.
This post first appeared on Em’s blog on October 13, 2013.

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