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Sprinting towards NEON demo 2 and beyond

Summary

NEON was financed to produce a yearly New Energy and Mobility Outlook for the Netherlands. In this article, we will elaborate on the governance structure for NEON as the team gets used to working towards that goal. NEON is a special project that requires its own unique management approach. NEON has chosen to learn from the agile management approach for software development and adapt it to the context of scientific research. Together with our partners, members of our group collaborate in R&D projects that we call sprints. Each sprint is three months long. Every year, three of these sprints (Q1, Q2, Q3) build up to a showcase that we call a demo. The last sprint (Q4) is a retrospect to reflect on the past deliverables and plan the three sprints that will lead up to the next demo.

During demo 1 (November 2021), all PhDs presented their research plans to the partners. The management team used the last quarter of 2021 to get the different teams and sprints off the ground. At the end of 2022, we will present during demo 2 our first outlook to a wider audience, including the NEON board, with representatives of science, industry, government, citizens and of course NWO (NEON’s main sponsor). Demo 2 intends to deliver the proof-of-concept for the NEON model while demonstrating agile science management throughout the process. Demos 3 to 5 will make the NEON model more mature, creating an integral model, fine-tuning the agile science process and enriching the outlook.

 

Demo 1 the start of our agile process

Almost every PhD candidate has presented their individual focus during demo 1: this set the wheels in motion and now we have to keep them synchronized. This is especially hard in an interdisciplinary project that is distributed across several universities. That is why we are introducing sprints. We like to call this adaptation of agile software development the agile science research approach. The exact method is described in the following.

            Managing NEON is complicated for many reasons. Even something simple as establishing a start and end date is ambiguous. The first NEON PhD candidate started in May 2020, while a few PhD’s have not even started yet. However, we do have a clear deadline: the lastest six years after the first PhD started, i.e. 30 April 2026. The kickoff event on 29 September 2020 is an indication of the starting point of the project, let’s call it demo 0. This created a cadence of yearly demos. And our end date makes it clear that we still have four demos to go.

 

Stand-ups, sprints and demos

The demos are big events for all partners and are under the sign of the New Energy and Mobility Outlook for the Netherlands that gave us our name and budget. Our managerial effort is to ensure that the demos deliver what this project set out to achieve.

            We have sprints that divide delivery into smaller time periods and structure the road towards the demos. In agile software development, it is normal to have daily stand-ups, bi-weekly sprints and bi-monthly demos. Scientific research moves at a more thoughtful pace. Based on earlier research for agile science (Kiemen, 2015), we use weekly stand-ups (at the beginning of each Vibrant Friday), quarterly sprints (starting Jan 1st, 2022) and yearly demos (at the start of Q4).

 

Bootstrapping the sprint structure

Although the demos were planned from the start, the use of the Agile method was not. Its sudden introduction results from progressive insight into managing such a cross-disciplinary project with everybody starting at different times and some headwind called COVID. It is also necessarily a process of bootstrapping.

While introducing the weekly stand-up was relatively easy, introducing the self-governing sprints is asking for more involvement from the PhD candidates. In a team effort, people get roles. This already happened in the process of planning demo 1, where several of the PhD candidates volunteered to take on some of the tasks. In this respect demo, 1 was a good rehearsal for things to come, although we also heard that we should provide more structure. So, in the past weeks, we have been introducing sprints in talks with PIs, partners and PhDs to bootstrap the sprint structure. In these exploratory talks, we have been focusing on how to put PhD candidates into empowering roles within sprints and demos that align well with their PhD topic. I am grateful that many PhDs and PIs were willing to explore and take up roles.

 

Retrospect on the demo 0 and 1.

In retrospect, we had unintentional sprints toward demo 0 (the kickoff) and demo 1. The project leader and his team made the sprints towards demo 0: getting the consortium together, acquiring funding, creating a space and kickoff with partners. Demo 1 had a stronger involvement of PIs and their departments, resulting in the poster fair by all PhDs. Demo 1 was our first tryout. We will improve the script for the next event, but it will probably still not be perfect. It is Mixel’s second time to bootstrap agile science and the earlier experience made clear that three iterations are required (Kiemen, 2015). First, a proof-of-concept that makes it possible to identify a governing structure. Then, the governance structure is tested during a second run. And only the third time can it be fine-tuned. And to be honest, in innovative projects, this goes on after that. The system dynamic is metaphorically like a musical canon or like upcoming tides: wave upon wave.

 

Demo 2 and support from the HOLON project.

Demo 1 made clear(er) what the PhD dissertations are about and it is entirely understandable that this comes first. Demo 2 will produce the first iteration of the outlook (the proof of concept).

            A central part of the outlook is the first version of the integral NEON-I model by the core modeling team (WP10). Support will come from the HOLON project that has to deliver a model that in many ways aligns with NEON-I and in which many NEON PhDs also participate. HOLON has to be finished in 15 months, starting from January 2022, so it will contribute to NEON demo 2 and demo 3. HOLON is using the agile software approach and will have had 12 monthly sprints by the end of the year. We hope this will help kick-start a first NEON-I model that can be improved upon in future demos.

 

Managing the sprint structure

We have a stand-up and a tension meeting on the so-called Vibrant Friday every week. With the introduction of sprints, a new management structure will be added to the Vibrant Fridays. Each quarter we hold a Sprint Retrospective (starting after our first January-March 2022 sprint). Things that could improve our R&D but that we did not get around to in the sprint will be captured in the so-called Product Backlog. The first one will be created after the first sprint and with every sprint we intend to improve.

            Adding more agile management should assist with the outlook. The outlook will also show the vital contributions of the other work packages, preferably in a way that is already cross-disciplinary and clearly linked to the societal challenges of climate change, renewable energy or sustainable mobility. A good example is the joint effort to contribute, as a NEON delegation, to a conference in Greece. We are also very hopeful about the clustering and cross-pollination occurring for the social sciences (WP7,8,9). The teams emerging now will be a learning experience on how agile science can effectively organize the NEON project.

 

Demo 3, 4 and 5 and the entrepreneurial spirit

Demo 2 is intended as the proof-of-concept, delivering the first outlook and first model. In demo 3, we expect to be able to integrate the insights of all the work packages to create a truly integrated outlook. Hopefully, by using the experience with model builders and experts, HOLON will finish in the first sprint of demo 3 (Q1 of 2023). By demo 4, we will have something that we can fine-tune and demo 5 will hopefully be a crowning achievement that we can all be proud of, next to our individual PhDs.

            NEON is not science for science sake but an effort to address societal challenges and climate change, specifically renewable energy and sustainable mobility issues. Such a pragmatic focus also means that it becomes logical to be entrepreneurial. Zenmo tries to bring the insights of NEON to market a.s.a.p., and many other partners try to do the same. In our agile-science structure, the entrepreneurial spirit will become more central as we move to demo 4 and demo 5. Some of the PhDs that have been longer in the project may become pioneers in this regard. In case you can see an entrepreneurial opportunity (by yourself or others), please get in touch with us.

 

Stand-ups and Vibrant Fridays

Now that we have elaborated on the delivery of the yearly-demos, let us turn back to the weekly Vibrant Fridays operations and the introduction of quarterly governance by sprints. Every week, we start with the weekly stand-up. Between 9.30 and 10. a.m. all 30 PhDs have a minute each to share what they are working on and, if they require, ask others for help or initiate collaborations.

Between 10 a.m. and 3.30 p.m., we have an open space so teams can use the concept of self-governance. At the moment, management is putting effort into assisting the PhDs with the self-governance aspect. Between 3.30 p.m and 4 p.m, we have the weekly tension session. The meeting allows management to direct the attention to where it is needed. The session was first introduced when some negative tensions occurred, but there is a recognizable trend towards more and more positive tensions (i.e., opportunities). The fun activity starts at 4 p.m., and it is the closure of our formal workday, allowing us to bond on a more personal level. This often results in many good conversations, so the team continues with germinating ideas informally.

All PIs promised that their PhDs would spend the Friday at or around the NEON room (with bi-weekly physical attendance acceptable for non-TU/e PhDs) but COVID delayed that part of the plan. So now we make do by making sure we are all available for each other online. We attend at least the stand-up and as many other planned activities (like NEON presentation by PhDs and PIs) as possible. To everybody who wants to organize something (from a presentation to a trip to cooking lessons): reach out and we will help you organize it.

 

Sprinting toward an ever more complete implementation of agile science

As we start 2022, we also begin with the sprints. In agile science, this is a team learning effort in self-governance. As noted above, the first sprint will be a proof-of-concept for the team, followed by something that can be tested (sprint 2) and that we will fine tune in sprint 3. So demo 2 is the first (proof-of-concept) of how we intend to manage NEON and deliver the first outlook.

            After the first sprint, the sprint retrospective should make clear what next steps we could take towards demo 2, and these should land in the sprint backlog. This will take time and learning. Q4 starts with the demo. After that, the feedback of the demo is used to plan the next year. Doing this, we expect to gain experience from enablers (i.e. the integral challenge of co-creation). Demo 3 is the first time enablers get evaluated. Demo 4 is the first time they get fine-tuned. By then, we will have a fully implemented version of agile science.

            Next to the sprint backlog that provides some structure by fixing tasks per sprint, agile science also needs continuous exploration. Partly because research is a process of continuous discovery and partly because our unusually long sprints (compared to normal agile software sprints) mean you need a shorter time horizon in order to course-correct. The moment where this is made explicit is in the weekly-tension sessions.

 

Entrepreneurial activity at portfolio-level

There are also entrepreneurial projects next to NEON that enhance it. We call the total of these projects the NEON portfolio. Some are TU/e projects acquired with the help of NEON like the case studies for eTruck and ePlane charging with Heliox. Many others are initiated by Zenmo. With the help of the Eindhoven Engine, a project was started to improve the NEON TRL level. A model for the Province of Brabant and the model for the municipality of Tilburg provide use cases for NEON PhDs. Recently the large HOLON project where three NEON PhDs and 6 NEON PIs will program a model of the Dutch energy system that could be reused by NEON and could increase the pace of model building in NEON. We expect many more of these entrepreneurial projects linked to NEON research, leading to tensions at the portfolio level.

            For demo 1, the tension was product delivery and adding the aforementioned projects. Creating the NEON portfolio was partly an attempt to increase product delivery.

            For demo 2 an added tension is starting work in cross-disciplinary teams. This is hard because PIs are mainly focused on monodisciplinary research, which they know how to supervise. NEON is aimed at societally relevant and problem-focused (instead of discipline-focused) research, but for PIs this is unfamiliar territory. This, in turn, means the PhDs experience the NEON activities (weekly operations, quarterly governance, and yearly delivery) as added work. So we are figuring out how additional entrepreneurial activity might help with that second tension.

 

Forecasting portfolio-level tension

For demo 3, we expect tensions related to publishing interdisciplinary papers. While many new interdisciplinary journals aiming for societal relevance welcome such interdisciplinary papers, drafting the papers takes a certain amount of creativity and could even require NEON PIs to coordinate and work together. Entrepreneurial activity might help to generate extra income and societal impact that might help to make such out-of-the-box cooperation interesting for PIs and PhDs.

            For demos 4 and 5, many candidates will be nearing their PhD defense. Almost all PhDs have indicated they care about societal impact and by demo 4 and 5, it should be clear what that means. We should also try to get ready for organizing the NEON alumni so they can support each other and their cause after they receive their PhD.

 

 

Conclusion

NEON was funded to provide an important interdisciplinary contribution to the societal challenges related to climate change, sustainable energy and mobility. In this document, we updated our insights on how to organize that – both in terms of a process that creates interdisciplinary and result-oriented cooperation and defining results that have more societal impact and will be more beneficial for each PhD.

We develop the concept of agile science and integrate it with an entrepreneurial approach. That way NEON research can be more socially relevant and generate more income. If it works it, it can also become a success story that paves the way for more successful research of its kind.

 

Mixel Kiemen

Auke Hoekstra

Maarten Steinbuch

Piet van Gool





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