The main thesis of the “Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayten Christensen is that products lose market share because they focus on the needs of the majority and ignore features of a product that allow a lower performing product in the main criteria to dominate the market. Ignoring complaints is way to miss these new features.
A significant risk that organizations run is that they ignore some of their customers simply because they are complaining. Rather than try to understand the complaints, they dismiss the complaints as an annoyance. George Dinwiddie’s blog is a classic example of this. He had a great time at Agile2011 but was saddened that people complained about the conference, especially people who had not attended.
George paraphrased Yogi Berra’s tweets.
“Nobody goes to the Agile Conference anymore. It’s too crowded.”
From a learning organization’s perspective, Yogi’s tweet is gold dust. Yogi has expressed what many people have not. An organization that ignores complaints is missing a major opportunity to improve.
I was lucky enough to attend the first two Agile Development Conference’s in Salt Lake City. I was the only attendee from the ThoughtWork’s London office at the first but I had such a great time that almost twenty people from the office presented at the second. I skipped Denver but was dragged back to Minneapolis (Agile2006). I was shocked and dismayed. Something was wrong. It was large and impersonal. Large groups were attending from companies and not engaging with the “Community”.
My earliest memory discussing the size issue was a discussion with Rachel Davies at the eXtreme Tuesday Club. David Hussman had just resigned as Conference Chair for Agile2008 and the Agile Alliance Board were looking for ideas to address the size issue. I suggested co-locating smaller conferences, splitting the conference based on experience. Rachel adapted the idea and created the idea of stages. For me, the value of Agile has been having all disciplines in the room which the stages discourages. The size of the conference was an issue then. Yogi’s tweets indicate that it is still a problem that needs to be addressed.
Another attempt to make the conference smaller was the Fresher’s Fayre at Agile2009 in Chicago. Unfortunately the organizers for Agile2009 placed the needs of the sponsors above the needs of the attendees. The ice breaker which was previously an opportunity for people to meet became a trade fayre with the emphasis once again on selling rather than learning or building community. There hasn’t been a fresher’s fayre at subsequent conferences. I think the organizers have given up on the scale issue.
Bob Martin recently said that he did not forsee the loss of technical emphasis when he sold the XP Universe conference to the Agile Alliance. Bob feels that the Agile20xx conference is now a management conference rather than a technical conference. As a manager I would disagree. The Agile20xx conference is for coaches and people selling Agile. There is no grand conspiracy, it just represents the interests of the people who keep turning up to organize it. Agile20xx can ignore Bob or they can work to encourage more technical material. I was conference chair for XPDay last year. A few people mentioned that there was not enough technical material. My initial reaction was that this is an open space and people can talk about what they want. I was wrong because it takes time to prepare and organise technical sessions. This year, we will have an open space and two tracks, one of which is a technical track. We listened to a few complaints and adapted.
The Agile Alliance can continue to bury its head in the sand and ignore complaints by Yogi Barra, Bob Martin and others. Alternatively they can listen to the complaints and try to do something about them. My hope is that they start to pay attention to the complaints before they lose all of their attendees to smaller regional conferences and break away communities like Lean and the Software Craftsmanship.