Changing the meaning of normal - Agile UX Retreat #1

Last weekend, I was one of the lucky people attending the first Agile UX Retreat, Anders Ramsay's brainchild, at Cooper Design in San Francisco. About 30 people passionate about agile and UX, working as designers, developers, agile coaches, scrum masters, product owners, project managers and testers, gathered for a barcamp-style workshop.

We started off by collecting and clustering the suggested topics into themes, including: roles and processes, agile in different environments, iteration zero and innovation, agile adoption, quality and value, teams and collaboration, as well as the big question of what comes next. The latter two - working together as a team and evolving post-agile, post-ux  - were at the heart of all discussions and led us to envisioning what a future beyond the 'us and them' mindset could be like. In this summary, I will focus on the 'philosophical' discussions and ideas. However, we also covered practicalities and best practices, and discussed e.g. prototyping, user research and the feedback loop, product backlog planning and prioritisation, or workshop techniques such as the 'design studio'.

Team mindset
What are the values that make teams work, what are the core elements of an agile UX mindset? The group shared experiences from start-ups, small companies, and large organisations. Personally, I compared how agile teams work to the non-profit volunteer teams I have been part of. Some of the concepts and ideas that emerged from the talks and fishbowl panels*:

- Responsibilities and competencies rather than roles
- Flexibility needs transparency
- Trust requires transparency requires trust
- A shared perspective and clarity of vision
- Don't value process over outcome
- Less ego
- Expertise over interest (important for decision-making)
- Team credit trumps individual credit

Teams need to be aligned around a clear vision, a mission statement - UX offers tools to develop, articulate and evolve this vision. Values of good team work are core principles of agile - I wonder if we need team manifestos, an agreement of the values that we commit to when working together.

Business culture
Halfway through, we all felt that we had moved beyond the agile vs. UX discussions. The retreat concluded with a root-cause analysis exercise, exploring the question 'How can we create successful products in a post-agile, post-ux world?". We discussed how to improve and continuously evolve ways of working together, and how a shift in culture and mindset can come about. If agile and UX evolve together into 'the new normal', we are in danger of a new 'us vs. them' - agile ux thinking vs. business thinking. While change can be influenced from the bottom-up, it won't work without support from the top. Values of collaborating and removing barriers on a team level clash with organisational cultures that reward progress rather than quality, in a world of siloed structures and hierarchical decision-making.
As a community, we need to advocate design thinking and agile values, engage with business and prove that our yet unnamed vision works. As Alan Cooper put it: "We have to tell a story of a happy place, where business wants to be."

*A fishbowl is an ad-hoc panel. 5 chairs are on the stage, with 4 of them taken. The fifth chair has to be empty. Discussion happens within the panel. Any audience member with a burning question or comment can join the panel by sitting down, which means that a panel member has to leave, to keep the fifth chair empty. I had not come across this engaging format before, and it was great for managing 30+ opinionated people.

Here are some photos of the happy place