Redgate‘s whiteboard culture takes visual management to a new level. Last week, when visiting the UK, I spent two days in Cambridge co-working with Business of Software‘s Mark Littlewood and team who share space with Redgate. Everywhere you look there’s a whiteboard filled with sticky notes, printouts and handwritten index cards with lines and labels drawn in colored tape and marker.

whiteboard with grid of colored sticky notes with column labels: stories, could do, should do, must do , in progress

Most agile teams apply this practice. Following the mantra of “Make it Visible,” we seek to publish our ideas and document our process with artifacts that facilitate communication. The agile practice of software creation has its roots in Toyota’s just-in-time production system where Kanban boards were first developed back in the 1940s.

Mark Wightman gave me a tour through their vibrant, open offices, providing an unexpected glimpse into their culture. At first glance these displays at Redgate looked familiar, but these boards were not just a nimble construction of team process, they were an expression of team values and identity. From my perspective as an outsider, they were tangible evidence of a culture that embraced individual creativity and independence, alongside knowledge sharing and cross-team alignment. It’s a hard balance to strike. As companies scale, processes need to be standardized for people and systems to interoperate. It’s impractical manage a business when everyone is doing their own thing.

whiteboard with speech bubble along the top and lots of sticky notes
Customer quotes appear in speech bubbles along the top and bottom of the whitebaord, printouts show metrics and other reports, along with classic story cards arrayed kanban-style.

Redgate has some standardized reports: a one-pager that every team provides up the management chain, but the CEO also does whiteboard tours, visiting a few teams every week to see what they are working on and talk through their latest accomplishments and challenges with the help of these artifacts on their walls. The standard parts of the report help the management team act quickly on information needed to run the business, and these dynamic, diverse expressions make it so new ideas and new challenges can be seen quickly. Humans process huge amounts of information quickly and we are amazing pattern detection engines. When I remarked at how the Redgate culture clearly valued individual creativity, Marked reframed this the way that they achieved continuous improvement. For teams to adapt to change, variation must not just be allowed, it must be celebrated.

continuous integration lights in vertical strips, team headlines as printouts and rows of sticky notes with checkmarks
Vertical strips of lights show status of builds and tests from a continuous integration system. Each team updates “headlines” weekly, using that space to introduce new team members and include success stories along with whimsical imagery. Colored sticky notes and arrows provide a quick short-hand status update.

On the flight back to SFO, I caught up on some 18F work and appreciated our virtual tools of github, waffle, slack and google docs that make it possible to work remotely in the UK or at 35,000 feet with full access to all of our team processes and artifacts. Yet these colorful images of whiteboards, printouts and sticky notes keep replaying through my mind’s eye and I wonder if there is some way to capture that vibrant and flexible communication in our virtual world of work.

Key takeaways:
– individual expression fosters continuous improvement
– tangible representation of how you work streamlines communication
– communicate status inside the team = status outside the team
– fluid form supports evolution, adaptation, innovation

Many thanks to Redgate who let me experience their world for a just a little while. Note: if you want to work like this, I noticed that they are hiring in Cambridge, UK and Pasadena, USA).

More whiteboards:

glass wall with grid of stick notes and large 2015 year planner in top-right corner

sales funnel in sticky notes on whiteboard

whiteboard divided into large 2x3 grid with printouts and sticky notes arranged differently in each

whiteboard with sticky notes

Fast Company’s recent article “Inside Obama’s Stealth Startup” provides a nice overview of how industry experts have been steadily joining forces to transform how the United States government is using technology to provide services to its people. One of the key elements of this strategy is open data and open source — there’s little or no stealth in this “startup.”

One of my proudest moments after I joined 18F was when we announced our open source policy. Developing in the open creates an unprecedented level of transparency and offers new potential to engage members of the public in the operation of our democracy.

Before that time, most projects from the Presidential Innovation Fellows and the new 18F team were open source, but each project required specific sign off by agency leaders for it to be open. Creating a policy dramatically streamlined this sign-off process. Working in the open saves time and money:

  • streamlines communication
  • increases code reuse
  • reduces vendor lock-in

In 2013, the Open Data Executive Order set the stage for this work. By making it so that open data was the default expectation, it means that thousands of civil servants may provide open data as part of their process, without needing to get permission for each individual data set to be published.

It’s great to see industry press starting to take notice of this transformation happening inside the US Government. We’re really just getting started. If you want to read more, check out the 18F blog

boy's face lit by the light of a video game -- sense of urgency, a little bit of fear, but intense concentrationJane McGonigal’s TED talk “Gaming can make a better world” has some highlights from her research on what games make us good at. She talks about the “epic win,” an extraordinary outcome that you didn’t believe was even possible until you achieved it — almost beyond your threshold of imagination, something that teaches you what you’re truly capable of.

“Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible, and that it’s always worth trying, and trying now.”

What capabilities does gaming create? what are their superpowers?

  • Urgent optimism The desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.
  • Tight social fabric Playing a game together builds trust and cooperation. Playing creates strong social bonds. “We trust that they will spend their time with us, that they will play by the same rules, value the same goal, stay with the game until it’s over.”
  • Blissful productivity Humans are optimized to do hard and meaningful work. The average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 22 hours a week hours per week — that’s like a part time job. Gamers are willing to “work” really hard, given the right kind of work.
  • Epic meaning awe-inspiring missions, planetary scale stories. World of Warcraft has the 2nd largest wiki in the world, with almost 80,000 articles. McGonigal describes this as building an epic story.

10,000 hours

The average young person in a country with a “strong gamer culture” will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games by the age of 21. This is an interesting number:

  • 10,080 hours of school from 5th – 12th grade (with perfect attendance)
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of success based on cognitive science research that with 10,000 hours of effortful study anyone could become a virtuoso by age 21

She challenges us to think about what we might do with this incredible human resource. At the institute of the future, she has invented a few games, which have been played by thousands of people, focused on solving serious real, world problems. I wonder how a new generation with these problem-solving skills and ability for extended focus will transform our society. With any luck, we’ll successfully game-ify the real world, rather than creating ever-increasingly delicious virtual escapes.

An Epic Mission

I love the way she describes the elements of online games that make it so compelling:

  • Lots and lots of different characters who are willing to trust you with a world-saving mission, right away.
  • You get a mission that is perfectly matched with your current level in the game
  • They never give you a challenge you can’t achieve.
  • You are challenged with what you are on the verge of what you’re capable of, so you have to try hard.

“There’s no unemployment in World of Warcraft; no sitting around, wringing your hands — there’s always something specific and important to be done. There are also tons of collaborators. Everywhere you go, hundreds of thousands of people ready to work with you to achieve your epic mission.”

How can we apply these ideas to make our real lives and real challenges more engaging?

Watch Jane McGonigal’s whole talk: Gaming can make a better world