Six Timeless Lessons from Agile Australia 2023

Business Agility, Agile Coaching, Talks | Podcasts | Presentations.

Aug 26, 2023  ·  David Mole

Business Agility

Agile Australia continues to be a world leading conference, and having just unpacked our suitcases from our trip to Sydney, I am excited to share a tapestry of thoughts that we've woven together into six takeaways and insights.

The conference was headlined by outstanding speakers including Steve Denning, Jon Smart, and Diana Larsen, accompanied by a range of companies, each embarking on their unique agile odyssey. The words Scrum and Kanban weren't mentioned once and instead we were given a combination of a history lesson, recommendations for the future and a whole lot more in the middle that I’d like to share.

1. ChatGPT: I've Been Using it Wrong

Laurel Papworth, explained that the worst way to use a tool like ChatGPT is to simply ask it a question and just accept the answer it gives back. Which explains a lot about why I haven't got much benefit from it so far.

Using it as a 'blackbox' like this leads to half-right responses (at best!) and instead we should be asking it to unravel its working, poke further, and enquire more. Follow up prompts asking it to expand on points raised, exclude things we don't like and include things we need. She referred to this approach as the 'Chain of Thoughts' and it is within the chain that the gold we are looking for might lie.

In addition to this overarching approach is a simple helpful triad for crafting your initial ChatGPT prompts.

  • Context: "I am engaged in ____ with ____."
  • Inquiry: Pose your question
  • Format: Specify response style – paragraphs, Shakespearean sonnet, or crisp bullet points.

2. Echoes Across Centuries: Lessons Weaved from the Past

Steve Denning transported us to the era of the printing press's inception, revealing uncanny parallels with today's AI revolution. The skepticism that once greeted the press mirrors today's AI apprehensions – echoes of "This spells doom" and "Humans will be obsolete."

Jon Smart talked about the original cotton factories in England using the example of Crompton Mills from 1771. He identified this as the place we first perhaps saw the use of multi-disciplinary teams creating cotton garments, using the division of labour. At the time they faced challenges around scaling which too sounded familiar to some of today's woes.

Sometimes a history lesson provides a new and compelling perspective and as an aside the story reminded me of the fact the only thing the small town in England where I grew up is famous for is a Luddite uprising in 1812 meaning I am literally descended from Luddites (not a surprise to those who know me)!

Crompton Mills, Sooner, Safer, Happier

3. Miro's Transparent Canvas

It was comforting to know that the people behind the tool we are all using to make work more transparent and visible (, are using it internally too as they eat their own dog food. Lois Catterall's excellent talk explained how they 'stack' retrospectives, keeping previous outcomes highly visible rather than starting from scratch each time. They also use simple colour coding of red (for mistakes) and green (for learning) to ensure they don't fall into the trap of just celebrating failure (goodbye failure walls - and hello capturing the actual useful bit!).

Miro Stacked Retrospectives

4. Stack ranking that isn't all bad

Jon Smart from Sooner, Safer, Happier talked about finding the right metrics for you and your teams. In amongst the usual stuff like cycle time and flow efficiency, he included the idea of stack ranking your teams (something which almost always has a bad name!) in terms of their improvement rather than performance to hack the right incentives and behaviours. He also shared some wise advice for anyone wanting to embark on a transformation - “Don’t!”

5. Humanizing User Stories: A Fourth Dimension

Friend of Nomad8 Rashina Hoda gave fascinating insights into her long term research on Agile and how teams have changed over the years. She even included her fresh and innovative proposal to add a fourth line to the typical User Story format to introduce the concept of human values which really fits with what we know about empathy, being customer led and building great products.

  • As a
  • I want
  • So that
Rashina User Story

6. The Agile Epoch

One of my personal realisations across the conference was just how far across the adoption curve we have reached with Agile now. Rashina Hoda described her study which suggested 97% of teams are now using some form of Agile (R. Hoda, N. Salleh and J. Grundy, (2018) "The Rise and Evolution of Agile Software Development," in IEEE Software, vol. 35, no. 5, pp. 58-63).

My own interpretation is that as an industry (and as Agile Coaches in particular) we may not have fully come to terms with that market saturation, or the implications of the change needed in strategy and tactics as we watch even the most stalwart laggards jump on board.

Whilst some of the Agile community might not have realised it yet, the likes of SAFe and McKinsey certainly have. Their exploitative tactics appear well placed to profit from mass adoption. We all know McKinsey are seen as evil (reference: When Mckinsey comes to town) and that SAFe has famously been described as "a piece of crap" by Marty Cagan but their tactics, pretty diagrams and binary approach are sweeping up the late majority and maybe others frustrated with their early Agile experiences. I sincerely hope we adjust up as an industry and community to find a new and better way forward.

A huge thank you from everyone at Nomad8 to Rachel Slattery and Team for putting on such a great event once again, we feel privileged to have played our part as guides and shepherds in the run up to the event and we look forward to next year!