Building a Learning Machine

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Foolish enough to volunteer for the job; smart enough to enjoy it through the hard work and stress.

Scottish, but living in Sweden.
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Chris Matts

Chris Matts

Our guest troublemaker and chaos simian, Chris Matts, recently came up with some spectacular insights on how the Agile Community has failed in its conference methods. I think we can learn from these to produce something unique and powerful.

The post is on Chris’ site The IT Risk Manager and I strongly recommend it to you.

Some of the areas I’d like us to draw from that post are:

Stories of Failure

Yes, of course we want to hear what worked well for you. But far more interesting and fruitful for our community’s learning (and input back into the SAFe headwaters) are what you’ve tried that didn’t work. I heard tell at one point of a conference that focused entirely on failures — that’s a gutsy idea that takes a lot more courage and mutual trust than I have for our first global community meeting, but I like the spirit of it.

Focus on Un/under Met Needs

SAFe works best when it addresses the needs of large scale delivery organisations that are not already met by traditional, well defined team-level Agile. When it sees needs that large scale organisations have that “put 6-8 people in a room” deliveries don’t have.

Of course, we may come up with some smart ideas or hypotheses (I’m personally very focused on learning by experiment) to address these, but that’s a secondary outcome to expressing the need well. Which will likely begin with addressing the question: Why is this problem important?

Meet New People

Fortunately, the size of the Retreat is designed to make this inevitable and hard to avoid. If you come to Crieff and already know some people, great. Work hard to talk to others. See their experiences. Understand their context and how it is different from yours, so that your interaction might introduce some profound insight that might help both.

Engage. Contribute

Every single person we have invited to the Retreat should be very capable of making a contribution. This Retreat is not a forum for passively absorbing from others and then using your attendance as a marketing asset when you return home. You are expected to contribute. To engage with your fellow participants.

That’s why we talk about participants, not attendees.

Consultants and Vendors: Collaborate

For those who are consultants and vendors, selling SAFe products and services. You will have both competitors and potential customers at the Retreat. This is not an opportunity to exploit that fact. Do not attend as a representative of your employers first and foremost (although they may be funding you). You add value by the range of contexts you have seen. You gain value by better understanding other contexts and by influencing the direction of SAFe to better meet your clients’ needs.

We expect you therefore to selflessly collaborate with your competitors and not sell to potential customers. That way, we all get a better outcome as SAFe develops.

You are an expert in your thing, not everything

The Open Space format is designed absolutely to allow contribution from everyone, not a few opinionated loudmouths (and I count myself as an opinionated loudmouth!) You are the expert in your context, and that context has something vital to contribute. I just don’t know what it is yet.

So we break down the barriers, destroy the power distance and respect the expertise we all bring from our own contexts.


The reason why I proposed the Retreat in the first place was that I felt a need to build a stronger practitioner community that could collectively contribute back to the SAFe headwaters.

As the first Retreat, we are deliberately emphasising the community building as a primary outcome. If we repeat the exercise, over time the balance will shift the other way as we move towards a maintaining a relatively stable community that is easier to exploit for outputs.

If you hear an echo of the Tuckman cycle in this, it’s not an accident.

What Else?

These are just a few of my initial thoughts from a rich polemic from Chris.

What else can/should we learn from the wider Agile community’s experience as a learning community? Use the comments below!