Agile in the City: Birmingham – All about high-performing teams

This post was written by Jovile Bartkeviciute.

Day 2

Keynote by Jenni Jepsen“Empowering people is impossible”


Jenni Jepsen delivered an inspiring talk on what actually means to be empowered and why empowered people are essential to your organisation. Key takeaways:

  • Empowerment – if I have rely on somebody to empower me then how empowered am I?
  • It is all about giving control and pushing decisions to people who have information – we need people who feel empowered and would take the control.
  • Empowered people:
    • they have autonomy and influence,
    • they feel connected to each other, team and organisation,
    • they have purpose
    • their work is fair
  • This is what intrinsically motivates us – we feel engaged, more willing to take control.
  • Some people just want to be told what to do, why?
    • There are no people who are born wanting to be told what to do – it happens over time. 
  • “Can I give you some feedback?” phrase calls out the same emotions as seeing a bear in the woods.
    • You should ask for feedback yourself to stay in control.
  • We can design interactions to control what we want people to feel.
  • What gets in the way of giving control? Common obstacles Agile leaders face on the journey:
    • Busy-ness
    • Contradictory messages in the environment – we do not need the signs, we need trust
    • Too many procedures to follow
    • Stress
      • Neuroplasticity: over time connections in the brain change – it is a survival mechanism and if we are stressed a lot, we start seeing the errors and are quick to go negative instead of seeing positive things.
    • Old habits
      • We are wired to stay in the habit mode – doing what we know takes less energy for the brain.
      • You need to create new habits
  • We cannot empower people, but we can change the environment so that they would feel empowered.


Scott Fulton“Agile life lessons – looking beyond the processes”


Scott Fulton walked us through the nine lessons he learnt by adopting agile in the police.

9 Agile Life Lessons:

  1. Agile can teach you the difference between leadership and (micro)management
  2. It can change how you judge success
    • Software is not a project – projects by the definition has a start and end
  3. If you feel overwhelmed you just don’t know what to prioritise next
  4. Your stakeholders will get confused
    • You might need to stop using word “agile”
  5. “You can’t make a tailored suit if the customer never comes in for measurements”
  6. Technology is for people, not done to people
    • technology is the enabler – people do not want to use the technology, they want the end goal
  7. Listen to the team – they are usually right
  8. Being a Product Owner is bloody hard
  9. Change is hard great!


Spencer Turner“How many hats can you really wear?”


Spencer Turner introduced the audience to the problems cross-functional teams solve and cause to the organisation. Some takeaways:

  • Business problems:
    • Nearly 75% of Cross-functional teams are dysfunctional
      • They fail on at least three of five criteria:
        • Meeting a planed budget
        • Staying on schedule
        • Adhering to specifications
        • Meeting a customer expectations
        • Maintaining alignment with corporate goals.
  • Human problems:
    • Pressure / Stress / Anger
    • Overload / Inability to cope
    • Feelings of failure
    • Feeling you can’t say you’re struggling
    • Feeling you’re an imposter
  • In a cross-functional team people are expected to have more than one skill.
  • Some responsibilities don’t mix, don’t try and force them.


John Clapham“Team Design for Continuous Delivery”


John Clapham talked about high performing teams and the importance of social engagement. Key points:

  • Co-dependence and co-evolution of a team are essential for continuous delivery.
  • Use continuous delivery to reduce the risk of releases, decrease cycle time, and make it economic to work in small batches.
  • Relationships are hard:
    • Regarding groups of people – 3 people – 3 individual relationships, 5 people – 10 relationships, 8 people – 28 relationships. The more people, the more relationships there need to be – the number grows exponentially.
  • Why should we care about social engagement?
    • Engagement drives profit – by the State of DevOps Report 2016, companies with high employee engagement grew revenues 2.5 times faster
    • Also, it leads to lower absenteeism (37%), fewer safety incidents (41%) and fewer quality defects (41%).
  • What matters if you wish to have a high performing team:
    • Dependability
    • Structure & clarity
    • Meaning of work
    • Impact of work
    • Psychological safety
  • Successful Continuous Delivery team traits:
    • A strong desire to learn and co-evolve.
    • An understanding of business imperative, and the autonomy to act on it.
    • Safety – to take risk, succeed and fail.
    • Ability to manage a high level of interactions.
    • Self measurement of achievement.
  • It is better to do 100 things at 1% than one thing at 100%.


Jim Gumbley“Information security in agile development”


Jim Gumbley talked about information security needs for agile teams. key points:

  • The problem of security requirements in agile teams:
    • Teams often would not know what are the security requirements
    • There is no thought into the bigger picture
    • In terms of agile security – there is no books about it.
  • The best way to deal with information security is to bring in a security expert to the delivery team, however, there are not enough experts for every team.
  • The most common type of security attack is still is SQL injection, which has been around for many years.
  • You do not need to reinvent the wheel – try these first:
    • OWASP Top 10
    • Building attack trees
    • Application security verification standard – OWASP
    • Risk mapping workshop
    • Microsoft escalation of Privilege Cards OWASP Cornucopia


Matthew Skelton“How and why to design your teams for modern software systems”


And the last speaker of the day, our co-founder and principal consultant Matthew Skelton, concluded the conference talking about Conway’s law, cognitive load and introduced us to different types of team topologies. Key points:

  • Conway’s Law
    • organisations are producing designs which are copies of the communication structures
    • Homomorphic force in action:
      • Reverse Conway’s law – you can change your organisation’s structure to match the structure of the system’s that you want.
  • Cognitive Load
    • Cognitive load – the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory
    • Stress impacts team performance by narrowing or weakening the team level perspective, if they have too much to consider, they’ll cease to perform as a team.
    • A well-performed team performs better than a group of well-performing individuals.
    • Match the team responsibility to the cognitive load that the team can handle.
  • Real-world Team Topologies
    • There is no single ‘right’ team topology, but several ‘bad’ topologies for any one organisation.
  • Guidelines for Team Design
    • Evolve different team topologies for different parts of the organisation at different times to match the team purpose and context.



Overall, the talks were informative, interactive and entertaining, common themes were autonomy and the importance of psychological safety, cognitive load and healthy working environment for a high-performing team.



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