Live Blog: Dale Emery’s Keynote Speech at the 2013 Agile Development Conference West

Noel Wurst's picture

One of my favorite parts about attending these software conferences is getting to sit in on some of the keynote speeches in the mornings. The content typically is a little lighter, though certainly no less impactful, as most of the attendees are still waking up and in need of a motivational message to start their day.

I’m always amazed that those chosen to give the morning keynotes are able to tie in the deeply technical and in-depth world of software development and testing with a message usually involving psychology, manners, respect, and a general kindness and appreciation of the world around them. But maybe that’s what agile’s really all about, and maybe being from a background completely foreign to coding and everything that comes with it, I'm simply being given these glimpses into what so many believe and have been practicing for decades.

Dale Emery just wrapped up his keynote, “The Art of Change: Influence Skills for Leaders,” and I’m still in the room, furiously typing away about nearly everything he had to say, occasionally glancing up to see a handful of others still lingering, and I hope they’re doing the same as me. It’s Dale’s bio that gives a more accurate summary of his speech than the abstract: “Dale’s personal mission is to help people create joy, value, and meaning in their work.”

This mission was made clear throughout Dale’s entire speech, as he wasn’t teaching how to influence people through deceit or in some sly manner involving trickery of any sort. He shared personal experiences where by helping people, by listening to them, and by asking that we in the room “stop looking at people’s responses as resistances,” we could gain a far deeper level of understanding of why what may be an easy change for us could be completely dismantling to someone else.

One of the most impactful stories Dale told was of a previous speech he once gave to a group of unemployed professionals. What he initially thought was a simple and pain-free exercise he was asking the attendees to participate in immediately caused distrust, skepticism, and even panic for some in the room. It was only later that he realized the small demonstrational game that he was asking the room to play was removing “control” from them. And at a time of unemployment, when so much seems out of control for those suffering being out of work, asking these people to let go of what little control they had in their lives, even if for only a game, was a monumental request, one that created fear throughout the room.

The overall point of the keynote, as is mine in this blog, is that we know change is coming, there will always be a risk in changing (and as Dale pointed out in a quote from Rob Myers, there’s risk when we don’t change as well), and sometimes this risk can be overwhelming. When we’re put in the position to not just bring about change in ourselves, but to get others to come on board as well, this is when a much deeper understanding of agile is necessary. Be mindful of resistance, skepticism, and disconnects that may arise from your requests. You and your team will get there—so long as you’re seen as a provider of control, empowerment, and compassion, not just change.