Not Project Management

On more than one occasion, I’ve had my work identified as part of “Project Management”. And I can tell you that every single time, this stings.

I would never call what I do “Project Management” and there are many reasons for this but the most important are these two:

  1. I’m not bound by projects. Projects have a beginning, middle and end. They are defined and measured carefully by people who don’t do the work. Projects have Gantt Charts, and road maps and expensive tools that require a lot of care and feeding to tell you how the project is progressing. This is in exact contradiction to what I aim to do when I engage with a team. Together we experiment, we learn, we apply our learning. We do this quickly and respectfully of the people who trust us to deliver. If you want to know how work is progressing, you have actual working software to take a look at. If you want to know how things are going, you need go no further than ask the people doing the work.
  2. I don’t manage anything. And I mean this. Your plan is only as good as the team who can deliver on the work. If your focus isn’t around enablement, support and engagement of those team members – then I wouldn’t put much money on your ability to deliver. Project management will never, ever resolve issues around capability and capacity – at *best* they will only identify them. Resolving these problems doesn’t require project management. It requires something else entirely. It requires listening to the people doing the work. Engaging them in making shifts towards their own and the team’s improvement.

Now, some people out there may call projects iterative and management supportive, and wash their hands of the whole thing. For my own part, I feel it’s time for a whole new language around this work. I call this role “Engagement Leadership” … and (with mixed feelings) I’ve been called by some people “the best damn Project Manager that they have ever met” –  though I would never use these words to describe myself.

 

Feedback

A few weeks ago, I did something I hadn’t done in ages… I went to a yoga class.**

Having settled on my mat, I felt good about finally getting myself to class and focused on connecting with the flow. Paying attention to all the details provided by the teacher, I tried hard to listen to my body while being as precise as possible to her instructions. Being a good teacher, at one point during class, she stepped away from her own mat to help adjust the positions of some of her students. At that moment, something surprising happened…

Deep inside me a small but desperate voice cried out: “Oh no! Not me!”

WTF? Or – as @eegrove would say – Where’s that from? I thought. After all, I’ve always prided myself on my ability to be open to and accept feedback. And yet… I could not ignore this voice… there it was…

This moment was a reminder to me of the courage it takes to receive feedback openly. I feel lucky to be connected to people who are open to feedback and it’s a skill that I’m growing with mindful attention.

It’s my goal to be aware of the small voice inside myself and to recognize that the same voice lives in others as well…

Namaste.

**The reasons why I haven’t been to yoga and why I haven’t written a blog post in ages are uninteresting. The journey back from all that is far more interesting. Thank you for encouraging me to write this post –@simbourk

Agile Coach Camp – Making Space

Last weekend, I was privileged to participate in Agile Coach Camp East. This is an event that I try very hard to attend every year… and every year, a theme emerges for me through the weekend.

This year’s theme for me was “making space” and it’s a theme that I want to keep exploring. However, in the interest of sharing, here are my first thoughts based on what happened at camp…

“Making space” means:

1. Creating an environment where things can happen.

Open Space and Unconference are wonderful examples of the power of making space. I’ve attended Coach Camp 3 times already… each time I am a little surprised at the depth and breadth of sessions that come out of such an event. It reminds me: this is the spirit of self organization; of trusting a group (in this case 70 individuals) to pull together and create something amazing collaboratively.

2. Leaving room to breathe between all the things that happen.

Some of the best group conversations I had during coach camp this year were during a jam session that went late into the night. I believe the quality of the conversations was directly connected to the ability of the group to disengage from these talks and do something else – something fun, something creative – in the space between the conversations. It reminds me that we are all better and happier people when we take time to connect with each other on a level that doesn’t directly relate to a specific or measurable outcome.

My intention then is to go forth and “make space” for myself and others. I look forward to seeing what else emerges from this theme in the days to come…

Thank you to the organizers and volunteers who make the space possible for Agile Coach Camp every year… and to all the participants who make space in their lives to connect. Looking forward to next year already!

Great Teams

Having recently gone through a round of recruitment at my work… I am surprised by how many people out there have yet to fully appreciate or experience the benefits of working on a great team.

To begin, let’s be clear… a team (by definition) is a group of individuals who work towards a common goal. From this point of view, most people have experienced this particular circumstance at some point in their life.

However, a great team fully appreciates the fact that they depend on each other in order to achieve this goal. They understand that they cannot achieve the goal alone and nurture the connections required to support the inherent dependency that comes with working on a team.

They understand their role and responsibilities. They understand the role and responsibilities of their team mates. This means that they don’t “throw problems over the wall” at their team mates. Rather they are proactive about sharing what they are up to, especially if this will impact their team mates. In return, they are empathetic and interested in what’s going on with their team mates. Respecting each other’s craft, they trust each other in a healthy and balanced fashion. Being open to constructive conflict in order to ensure that the team is indeed driving towards their common goal.

While this may sound like an idealized situation, I can tell you first hand that I have been privileged and lucky to work on great teams. The Agile coaching community is my extended team (my tribe!) who has helped me stay steady over the years in the belief that not only are great team members possible… they are worthwhile seeking out.

So if you are looking for work and we happen to meet in an interview… don’t be surprised when I ask about your most recent experience with a great team.

Why We Play…

It’s not uncommon for Agile coaches to engage their teams in games in order to experiment with new ideas. If you have ever participated in such activities, it’s likely that you have encountered individuals who dislike the idea of anything work related being transformed into a “game”.

So… why do we play?

We play to prototype and experiment with new ways of thinking and behaving. We play to open our minds to possibilities. Indeed, engaging in an activity “as play” actually helps us to explore many new ideas quickly and effectively as a team.

In short, playing brings us to a “personal edge” in a friendly and joyful way.

That being said, for some of us, the edge is simply to engage in play at all… and that’s an edge that I’m learning to see and understand better. In these situations, I would invite the individual to simply try the game and then to reflect on why we play… rather than focus on whatever other agenda I’m hoping to bring to the table by engaging in a game.

After all, when we play, we explore many ideas at the same time… and one of those ideas can certainly be “why do we play?”

Powerful Questions

There are many things that I’ve learned since becoming a mom… but there is nothing more powerful for me to date than learning to see the world through very young eyes.

The beauty behind a child’s approach to the world is that it is so fundamentally based in observation rather than judgement. When my daughter asks questions, she seeks to better understand what she observes. In so doing, she rarely asks “why?” but is more focused on “what?” in her line of inquiry.

From this, I’ve realized that “what?” is actually a very powerful way to question the world. Consider these examples for a moment…

Rather than asking: “Why is that?” …ask instead: “What does that mean?”

Rather than asking: “Why is she (or he) like that?” …ask instead: “What happened to her (or him)?”

Changing your stance from “Why?” to “What?” opens up your line of inquiry. You automatically move away from a place of judgement to a place of understanding. Looking at the world through the eyes of a child isn’t for every occasion… but if you are aspiring to understand and accept, it’s not a bad place to start.

The Secret of Success

Recently, the stellar community of Ottawa Agilists gathered to share stories about Agile regrets and success. The first session was hosted as a “fail faire” and the second session was hosted as its’ counterpart… a “success faire”. As an outcome, we attempted to gather the “lessons learned” and “secrets of success” for each event respectively.

Having hosted both these sessions, it was interesting to me how much harder it was to root out the source of success over the lessons learned. In part, this came from the participants themselves… story tellers were more apt to share directly what was the cause of a failure. Success stories were related in more detail about “what happened” rather than “what exactly made this work”.

This got me thinking… why don’t we pin point the source of success with the same attention and effort we do causes of failures?

Could be that we don’t analyze success with the same interest because… well, it worked… what is there to analyze further? Sure, I get it.

However, just like not all steps undertaken when we make a mistake are necessarily causes of our failure, not all steps that were undertaken when we succeed necessarily meaningfully lead to our success.

And just like we identify root causes of mistakes so that we don’t repeat them, we should seek out the root causes of success… so that we can repeat them.

We can’t do Agile.

Over the years, I’ve heard many variations of “we can’t do Agile”:

Agile doesn’t allow for proper thoughtful design.
Our project \ organization is too big to do Agile.
Agile is really just a dev thing.
Agile just isn’t reality.

I realize that behind every single “we can’t do Agile” statement, there’s a story. My intent here isn’t to delve into the stories of Agile woe… rather, I would like to open a small crack for the “we can’t do Agile” crowd.

Consider…

1. Have you ever stopped yourself from sending an email, and instead decided to walk over and have a conversation with a team mate?

2. Have you ever argued to make the right fix on your project, even if it went against the requirements \ spec document?

3. Have you ever sought out feedback from your customer or end user in order validate your understanding of a project?

4. Have you ever adjusted your project plan in light of new feedback (user based or technological)?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you successfully “did Agile”! Consider the values of Agile below and review the questions above again respectively…

1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

2. Working software over comprehensive documentation

3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

4. Responding to change over following a plan

Viewed in the light of Agile values, many teams are already adopting Agile methods… albeit implicitly. Embracing these values in a more explicit fashion opens a door of possibilities… among these possibilities would be to let go of the idea that “we can’t do Agile”.

Seeking Feedback: Value of the Agile Coach

Recently, I have been deconstructing with curiosity my role as an Agile Coach.

Let me begin by saying how committed I am personally and professionally to the deeper understanding of Agile and Lean. Putting these values and principles into practice over the past few years has given my work meaning in so many ways. 

That being said, I have failed to appreciate the importance of how the organization views these skills…

I believe that a good Agile coach acts almost imperceptibly.  Building courage, simplicity, communication, feedback and respect… all that a coach does in order to build a stronger and more effective team might not be obvious. Indeed, as coaches, we can become so focused on the success of the team that we may risk neglecting looking after our interests within the organization.

That is to say, there may not be clear evidence of the coach’s value to the organization. So while executives may recognize the improved effectiveness of the team, they mistakenly begin to assume that the coach’s skills have been captured by the team itself.  They then conclude that this process can be reproduced (rubber stamp like) to other teams.  To borrow Dave Snowden’s analogy… they believe that “having a good recipe” is the same as “having a good chef”.

As practitioners of evidence based learning and progress, how do Agile coaches provide evidence of their value to an organization?  Is this even skillful or necessary to do so? I look forward, dear readers, to your feedback…

2013 Retrospective

At this time of year, it’s worthwhile taking stock of our lives… to do a retrospective of sorts. To collect both accomplishments and gratitudes for the year….

Tip: Skip past the bullet points if you are quickly seeking the punchline.

  • I received generous support and guidance from @eegrove who helped me to define the role of an Agile coach within the context of my work at Corel.
  • I spoke about UX from a developer’s point of view at NSNorth. I also met and reconnected some dedicated iOS / Mac developers and had a few pints with some brilliant people.
  • I joined an excellent group of volunteer organizers at Agile Ottawa and co-hosted a Fail Faire event with @BillyGarnet and@simbourk.
  • I attended Agile Coach Camp Canada in Toronto, where I gave a lightning talk on Agile Teaching and proposed and lead an Agile 101 session.
  • I completed Coaching Agile Teams training with @lyssaadkins and @mspayd. This class helped me to better understand, take ownership have confidence in my skills and abilities as an Agile Coach and, looking back on it, was a life changing experience for me.
  • I started to blog and am proud to say that I’ve put together 18 posts that I feel add value to the Agile community in their own small way.
  • I created and gave a presentation that summarizes 6 different software development methodologies in under one hour using nothing more than a marker and a whiteboard as a visual aid. I’m happy to say that the feedback from this presentation was very positive.
  • I helped my former team at Corel to complete a significant re-architecture of a large legacy code base. I also created a spirit of collaboration, sharing and trust on the team by facilitating, coaching, mentoring and teaching Agile values, principles and methods.
  • After being laid off from Corel in early December, I interviewed at a few startups and, while the job hunt continues, this experience has given me the opportunity to meet some energized and inspiring folks doing good work.
  • I’ve received career and life coaching and support from my dear friend @spydergrrl … over twitter, over the phone and over lattes.
  • On a personal note, my 4 year old started school this year and it’s been a pleasure to watch her grow out of a toddler and into a little girl with thoughts and opinions all her own. I feel privileged to be part of her journey through life.
  • On another personal note, to my partner in love and life… it’s been a year full of distractions, but I’m lucky to have someone that I can be completely honest with…for all the good, the bad and (sometimes) the ugly sides of me.

So what does listing some my accomplishments and gratitudes do for me? It helps me to take a deep breath when I feel that I’m not fast enough, smart enough, energized enough, or <enter perfect person quality here> enough… I can tell you that I will be coming back to this list a few times during 2014 to remind myself that I am… indeed… enough… and that I am very very lucky to be surrounded by such amazing people.

What improvements would I bring forward to 2014? Clarity, simplicity and courage in my own thoughts, words and actions. Love, compassion and respect to those who matter in my life. Mindfully choosing with awareness where I give my energy in those empty hours when I’m all alone with my own thoughts.

Ok… well… maybe these are more life goals than yearly goals… but if Agile has taught me anything, it’s that when you are faced with uncertainty, you need to be able to lean hard on your values.

Wishing you the very best in 2014. Thanks for reading 😀