The Unspoken Practice of Agility

By: Darren Hoevel

Last week I hosted an Agile Lunch and Learn for a government client. As this client is relatively new to agile principles and practices, our Lunch and Learns have typically been about topics like Kanban, Story Writing, and Agile Roles. This time, however, I introduced everyone to mindfulness.

One person raised their hand and asked, “Did I miss a session or something? What is mindfulness, and what does this have to do with our agile adoption?” 

My answer: Everything.  

By using the term mindfulness, I’m not emphasizing the practices of meditation and yoga (though those things are great and I highly recommend incorporating at least deep, centering breathing exercises into your life), I mean being aware of the impact of your actions and how YOU show up.

Are you aware of how you are affecting the communication patterns of any given conversation? In the language of David Kantor’s 4-Player Communication Model, are you Moving, Opposing, Following, or, Bystanding? In Integral Agile quadrant speak, are you aware of your “I” and how you’re engaged in the “We”? In Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead vernacular, are you rumbling with vulnerability, showing up imperfectly with curiosity and without all the answers? Do you dare say, I don’t know AND I am good enough?  

What all of these models ask, in very basic terms, is Are you aware of how you affect the environment and relationships around you? When you do “you,” what happens to the people and the people constructs (system(s)) around you?

I’ve done coaching for individual contributors, teams, and everything in between, all the way up to the enterprise level. I can say unequivocally that without awareness, connection, and integration there is NO trust–in each other, leadership, and in the organization. Without trust, your “transformation” to agility will not take root. You might organize around value streams. You might adopt technical practices like CI/CD and paired programming. You might do sprints and standups and retrospectives and PI planning.  

But you will not embody agility (from agile with a little a: being able to move quickly and easily). You will not have high-performing teams. You will not have an environment of experimentation and growth. You will not fail small and fast. You will not have adopted the growth mindset that is essential to a transformation. 

Mindfulness–being aware of how you show up and engage in the environment and with the people around you — will gel teams together because of mutual respect and understanding. It will allow everyone to have the opportunity to be a leader, fostering the ability to not only listen to different perspectives and new ideas, but stand in that person’s shoes and feel what they are communicating (unconscious basis warrants a future conversation!). These Adaptive Leadership capabilities will allow leaders and the organization to quickly pivot based on new discoveries and hypothesis discovered during the learning experiences of their teams. 

Because mindfulness (awareness, connection, and integration) creates trust and fosters innovation. 

If you’re interested in hearing more about how mindfulness relates to agile, join me at AgileDC in Washington D.C. on September 23, 2019.

Agile in the Bathroom

Pamela Hoevel

When my husband and I bought our house a year and a half ago, we knew we’d eventually have to renovate all the bathrooms in our house, but most importantly, the master bathroom. Somewhere along the years the original 1960 speckled blue shower tile had been epoxy painted a shiny cream; the vanity had been replaced with a big box store MDF special; and I suspect (we will see when we start the demo) the original floor tile had been covered up with a faux marble ceramic tile. If you could squint past the unsightly yellow wall color it wasn’t horrible. It was livable. All in due time, we thought.

We forgot about our kids.

In a matter of months, they’d treated all three towel racks and the toilet paper holder like chin-up bars and ripped them out of the drywall. One of them (and I’m pretty sure I know which one, but I’ll protect her identity) thought it would be fun to peel the laminate off the tiny little MDF vanity, leaving behind jagged flaps of loose plastic.  And because what good is a cabinet door if not to swing on, they broke the hinges on the right door (which I hastily tried to fix when company was coming over, but now sits like a crooked tooth). But that’s not all. In using the bottom drawer as a step stool, they tore off the drawer front, exposing jutting finishing nails that stab me like little daggers in the tips of my toes if I don’t approach the vanity with an air of caution.  Just recently, the toilet, which flushed on willpower alone, decided it’d had enough and let go.

Suddenly the yellow wall color was giving me a tick. The cracks in the drywall looked like chasms. I desperately wanted the vanity sconces to be placed at a height to illuminate my face, not my shoulders (though, on rough mornings I don’t mind this so much). It’s due time, we thought. And, hey, the demo was already started.

First Step: User Stories

The hubby and I completed our user stories for our dream bathroom:
• When showering, I would like my nose not to hit the shower wall in front of me.
• When using the vanity, I would like to have enough counter space to fit my toothbrush and hairbrush at the same time.
• I would like the vanity to be made of a material that can’t peel, chip, or be demolished by 38 lbs. of body weight.
• I’d like a closet big enough to store my winter clothes and summer clothes year-round. (And maybe some of the hubby’s clothes.)
• I’d like the design to be timeless and blend with the Colonial style of our house.
• And since we’re talking about a master bathroom and dreaming big, I’d like a bath tub! No grimy -though-cute kids allowed! No My Little Pony bath toys! No globs of caked shampoo!
• I’d like to expand the teeny tiny master bathroom into the tiny unused attached bedroom.

Current bathroom vs. expanded bathroom:


A Throne Room Fit for a Queen

How much could this master bathroom cost? we thought. $15,000? Go ahead, laugh. We can, too, now that the shock has worn off.

No, in getting quotes from five companies, the cost ranged from a Nissan Maxima to an Audi S5 (read: $60,000). It’s 155 square feet, people! We’ve got three kids! That’s three sets of braces, three proms, three college tuitions, three weddings (if they so choose that path). You get the idea. That wasn’t going to happen.

But let’s talk about one of the Audi S5 bathroom quotes for a minute just because it’s so audacious. (We’ll also use it as a bench mark.) This was a gold marble plated product: floor to ceiling marble, a custom built 57” double sink wood vanity, expanded shower, a free-standing bathtub, and quality (but not top of the line) fixtures. In addition to all the shiny features, this company priced in all the possible failures of the environment (aka, the house) that they may have run into, as well as their failures in planning.

Price: Audi S5
Customer delight: BLISS!
Customer financial burden: Huge life-sucking black hole of debt

So, the hubby and I refactored:
No tile on the wall, only where necessary and not in marble.
Marble only as an accent in the shower.
Less expensive floor tile.
Price: Audi A4
Customer delight: Still bliss!
Customer financial burden: Still a huge debt, only slightly less of a life-sucking black hole. Maybe like being on the outer edges of a black hole praying you don’t get sucked in.

And refactored again (all the above, plus):
No bathtub, but the bathroom still expanded into the extra bedroom.
Price: Audi S3
Customer delight: Resigned happiness (I really wanted a bathtub)
Customer financial burden: Heart palpitations while awake and asleep. On the far, far outer edges of affordability, but doable. I guess.

And refactored again:
Replace existing fixtures and re-tile our teeny tiny bathroom.
Bust a door into the extra bedroom which we will make into a closet.
Price: Audi A3 Sedan with a few upgrades
Customer delight: Nil
Customer financial burden: In comparison, affordable (still expensive!), but with no value proposition.

I get it; the construction companies need to make money, too. They have designers and contractors and workers and a store front and marketing and insurance that need to be paid for. They deliver a beautiful finished product with little involvement from the customer. But they also get to keep all the what if money, even if there are few what ifs. (They get to keep all the learning opportunities, too.)

Hold Your Breath and…Flush

If we want to be happy, and if we don’t want our children to be fangle toothed and uneducated and carry around life-long resentments about not attending prom, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. At the very least, we have to act as our own General Contractor. Somehow, by a miracle of my mother, she persuaded my uncle, who is a very talented, precise jack-of-all-trades, to fly across the country with his extremely handy wife, and help us remodel our master bathroom.
Yes, our hands will get dirty. (It’s okay, we’re DIYers!)
Yes, we will have to manage it ourselves. (with what else but a Kanban board!)
No, it will not be as easy as writing a check.
But we will get an expanded vanity, a larger shower, a stand-alone bathtub (!!!), and a large closet for far less than the price of an Audi S5, A6, or S3. Girls, you’re going to college!
Stay tuned, in the next post I’ll talk about organizing the product delivery and Sprint 0.

Product Management: A Lost Art or the Holy Grail?

In the adoption of agile, organizations are transitioning from a project approach to a customer centric product delivery model. Now, teams faithfully participate in agile ceremonies: Testers dive deeply into automation scripts; Product Owners (POs) shuffle stories up and down the backlog; Business Analysts worry about story readiness; Program Managers (PMs)are estimating when “we” will be done; Product Managers are evaluating the market (maybe) and developing a relationship with customers (hopefully). Everybody is busy with the HOW of building the WHAT, and we are somehow missing the WHY— the customer VALUE. The customer isn’t delighted. How can that be?!

Here’s the short answer: Even though we have a software delivery framework in place to define stories and deliver to production frequently, there is a gap in the process. The PO’s job is to infuse the development team with a deep-seated understanding of the customer’s needs and market opportunities– but that’s not happening. The Product Manager’s job is to connect customers to an amazing new product but often times that’s not happening either. There’s a fundamental communication disconnect, and we’re losing sight of the WHY. The customer’ solutions and business needs are not being ingrained into the delivery process.

So, how can we better serve our customers and mature as a team?

In this session, we aim to

• Shed light on the evolution of the Product Manager and Product Owner roles
• Understand how—with agile ceremonies and a product delivery framework in place– we are missing the customer value, the WHY.
• Introduce the Pragmatic Marketing contrast and how it’s Product Management Triad can help provide clarity and support to Agile’s Product Owner role
• Provide insight into what traditional Product Management is and how it complements the agile delivery model for the delivery of amazing, customer focused products

Check out the full slide deck:

Scott Blacker, VP Products at AgileCraft

Scott Blacker is a 20 year Product Management veteran with experience leading the product function at multiple early-stage technology companies through periods of explosive growth. At AgileCraft, Scott is responsible for defining, executing against, and bringing to market the company’s products and services, and has helped dozens of companies implement agile practices at scale. As part of his role bringing AgileCraft’s products to market, Scott has focused on supporting companies executing ‘bimodal’ development practices where portions of the organization work in an agile context and portions work in a more traditional (sometimes waterfall) context.

Early in his career Scott lived and worked in Japan, where he served as a translator for the Japanese State Government. Scott holds a BA in International Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an MBA from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Scott lives in Potomac, Maryland with his wife Jennifer and two daughters Samantha and Alexa.

Darren Hoevel, Agile Coach at Pliant Solutions

Darren Hoevel is a passionate Agile realist, organizational change advocate, corporate cultural renovator, customer ambassador and founder of Pliant Solutions. He is driven by transforming organizations into self-managing, self-organizing teams with high morale. Darren prides himself on being not just a coach but a leader, helping team members achieve success on an individual level through a collaborative environment which, in turn, contributes directly to the health and success of an organization.

Darren has helped large organizations to successfully scale their agility initiatives in size and across locations. He is an ICAgile Training Partner, SAFe® Program Consultant, CSP, CSM and Certified SPO, and many more. He earned his bachelor’s degree from San Jose State University and his MBA from George Fox University.

The Composition of High Performing Teams

By: Bryan Miles

“Companies know that they derive greater creativity and innovation from teamwork – but what, they wonder, makes a great team?” – Margaret Heffernan


“We need to do that section again.  Bryan, you’re late in the second measure and the intonation in that final chord isn’t lining up. Your pitch is a little high.”

It was true. My colleague was right.

“Ok, let’s do it again,” I said.

We had been rehearsing for over two hours. I was tired. It had already been a full day at work followed by the gym, and now it was after 9:00 on a Thursday night. The pressure of the upcoming competition was starting to get to me.

I wish this is the part where told you how well it went when we played that part again…but, that’s not the case.  I didn’t get it.  We spent fifteen minutes more on that section and ended rehearsal for the evening.

In agile terms, I was the group’s major impediment at that moment.
As I packed up I knew it was on me to work that section on my own before our next rehearsal.

We hear the term “high performing team” thrown around everywhere in the agile space. This leaves many people with two big questions:
What, exactly, defines a high performing team?
How can we as coaches help these teams develop?


In their book The Wisdom of Teams, Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith define a team as  “A small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

According to their research, high performing teams display six key characteristics:

  • Small enough in number
  • Adequate levels of complementary skills
  • Truly meaningful purpose
  • Specific goal or goals
  • Clear working approach
  • Sense of mutual accountability

Of course, not all teams with these characteristics are “high performing”. So, what defines a team as high performing?

Peter Hawkins, a formidable voice in team coaching, explains:
“A team’s performance can best be understood through its ongoing ability to facilitate the creation of added value for the organization it is a part of, the organization’s investors, the team’s internal and external customers and supplier, its team members, the communities the team operates within, and the more than human world in which we reside.”

We know the environmental factors that must be present to create great teams, but in order for a team to be defined as high performing, we need to look at the value they deliver.


Looking at the above brief interaction with my quartet (small team number), we exhibit several of the components of high performing teams:

There is a strong sense of vision and purpose.

We have many defined goals as we prepare for future performances and competitions.

Over time we have developed a sense of security and safety in the group. We are open to discussing new and differing ideas. We have created an environment where we appreciate candid feedback even if it is hard to both give and receive. We all appreciate and respect this clear working approach and bring our unique and complimentary skills to every rehearsal.

There is also a strong sense of mutual accountability within the group. The team relies on me to know and understand my part and to execute it flawlessly under pressure. This requires dedication outside of rehearsal. Each member spends several hours a week preparing and practicing before we rehearse as a group(adequate levels of complementary skills).

Our individual passion for and playing experiences come together to make the group what it is. Leadership roles change constantly, with each person stepping up when needed, just as in the music. There are no soloists. The music demands that we step up and be heard at times, but it more often requires we hold back and blend with the other players to support the lead line.

Our companies want high performance. It’s up us to help create the environment. So I challenge you to write your team’s story. Does your team display the six key characteristics of a high performing team?

We want to hear from you! What are you doing to help create high performance in your organizations?
And if you’re having problems fine-tuning your team, don’t wait for the Agile Fairy to arrive, give us a call!

A Million Intentions and Two Years Later

We, the Pliant Solutions team, are beginning this blog with a little relief, a little angst, and a lot of humility.
…and a deep exhale.

For over two years we’ve intended to create this blog, and now we’re finally transitioning from conceptualization to the almighty DOING.

I often have bright moments of insight, though usually at the most inopportune times. The other day my moment of genius came while walking to work with lunch in one hand, coffee in the other, and two laptops slung across my shoulder. I sped up to the 5th floor, blazed down the hallway to my desk, then…NOTHING. Fingers twitching, mind racing, the blank document stared back at me. So I’m starting simply with this:

On behalf of Pliant Solutions, I’d like to start of with an informal agreement with those that choose to read casually or devotedly follow this blog. Our desire is to make this platform a living social experiment of sharing, collaborating, and challenging thoughts, as opposed to being a billboard for what we think we know. We ask you, the reader, to be open to the ideas and experiences we will share, and more importantly, have the courage to challenge, contribute, and share your own. Seek to understand and support the thread, unless of course, you feel we’re dead wrong, then feel free to call us out–just allow the community to understand your perspective.

(Another aha! right now!) I ask you this: How many perspectives can we explore without the need to shatter someone else’s lens?

I feel most communities struggle with this, be it family, politics, agile, and even in the mindfulness circles I have participated in. Here, in this blog, we won’t claim to be right (or wrong), but will  be willing to express our views and be enlightened by YOURS!

Thank you for reading this. We look forward to learning from this great experiment and hearing from those that choose to engage with our community.