John Clapham

Every Autumn the emphasis at Bristol's MShed, formerly the Industrial Museum, shifts from the past to the future. The Mshed tells the story of Bristol through its inventions and products. Exhibits are drawn from prehistory to the current day, powered by hand, steam and electricity they are wrought in stone, bronze, brass, bakelite and cloth.

Some ideas were revolutionary, others small significant steps or productive tangents, all building and feeding each other on a journey of learning and improvement. Some ideas were greeted with enthusiasm, others slowly revealed their value. Little things made a huge difference, one idea fuelled another. These pioneers were ingenious, dedicated, bold and passionate. Their products rose from vision, necessity, hard work, collaboration and occasional luck.

For three days in November the MShed is packed with another group of pioneers, makers, designers and leaders keen to find more productive, more effective, and more enjoyable ways of creating things with teams, powered by coffee, tea and learning, ideas are wrought in post-its, sharpies and's time for the Agile in the City: Bristol conference.

What is Agile in the City: Bristol about?

For the past three years I've had the privilege of being Programme Chair for the conference. In this post I'd like to provide some background into the conference and what we consider when creating the programme. 

Conference Goals

If we distill down the three day experience, this is what we offer:

For participants: A safe and playful place to learn fresh perspectives and practical approaches that help people and teams be their best, with authentic and engaging speakers.

For speakers: A safe and playful place to share ideas, try something new, get feedback and engage with a knowledgeable, open minded audience.

Those people, teams and approaches are often related to organisations whose success depends heavily on software products and software devices. They'll be wanting to learn and develop in some way, or maybe just check they are keeping up with current approaches. All this tends towards topics under the lean and agile banner.

Let's break down the key elements, in no particular order.

People and Teams - The conference is centred on ways of working, particularly socio-technical systems where people, process and tech interface intermingle. Consistent themes are productivity, collaboration, sustainable pace, effective methods of working with groups and using technology. We care about users, design, strategy and leadership.

Safe and Playful - The conference encourages a safe place to learn, be curious and experiment no matter what background or knowledge you bring. We use a Code of Conduct to explain minimum behaviour, but prefer to live by a borrowed mott: "Be excellent to each other".

Fresh Perspectives - You will be able to hear about different perspectives, new lenses on long-term challenges.

Practical Approaches - We want participants to hear and experience things they can try when they get back to base. Sure there will be some deep theory (and that's welcome because we don't all have the wherewithal to study brain science) but is will be blended with take away points that can be applied later.

Authentic and Engaging - Our speakers will be people who have experience, and can share it with others, enabling them to learn and experiment. We value substance over style, and that means a range of levels of speaking skills, we actively encourage first time speakers and are keen to help all speakers develop their craft.

Open minded - We aim to be inclusive and diverse, both in terms of the speakers in our programme and participants at the event. We welcome people from other domains, who may not self-describe as using agile and have techniques, or critiques, that others could learn from.  

Key Themes

In order to illustrate by example I sat down to write a short list of topics under the agile heading. It turned out there is no such thing as ‘short’ list - here is a small sample of the kind of thing you will hear people talk about at Agile in the City: Bristol.

Build the right thing

  • (By build, here I mean the act of creating, making assembling, preparing, coding, crafting, designing, testing, operating…)
  • Strategy
  • Product 
  • User Centered Design
  • Entreprepreneurship
  • Using data and insight

Build it right

  • Guides to practice, such as TDD, BDD, Mobbing, Continuous Delivery, DevOps
  • Enabling tech
  • Planning, forecasting, estimates....or not

Build it together

  • Organisation design, teams
  • Leadership, management, Coaching
  • Facilitation
  • Collaboration between specialisms, e.g DevOps, DevRel, DesignOPs
  • Appreciation and understanding of roles
  • People and team behavior, psychology, neuroscience, motivation, incentives
  • Developing self and others - Coaching, mentoring, learning techniques

Be Different

  • How to learn & improve
  • What worked, what didn’t, what you’re trying
  • Experimentation
  • Change, Digital Transformation
  • Developing self and others - Coaching, mentoring, learning techniques

Be Decent

  • Engagement, safety, and sustainable pace
  • Shaping great places to work
  • Diversity and inclusivity
  • Challenges for the industry - skills, ethics, environment
  • Unheard voices, what should we pay more attention to and what less?

...and there's a whole lot more!

You’ll note that common agile approaches such as lean, Scrum, Kanban, Less, More, SAFe span many of the categories and are common threads woven through the programme.

In Real Life

If you’ve read this far you should now have a pretty good idea of what Agile in the City: Bristol is about. Take a look and see how the themes mentioned above have been brought together in our 2019 programme, and if you’re ready to see it for yourself in action you can get your ticket here. I hope to see you in Bristol!