What Running and Agile have in Common


I took up running again.  It began at the challenge of a team.  It has been a long and slow pace at which improvement comes, but its still noticeable.  So when a friend suggested  I read Born to Run -by Christopher McDougall, it seemed very timely.  An intertwined story about the stars and history of ultramarathon runners… Running all day… and sustaining that run.  The oracle at Delphi would not foresee a moment when I run 60 miles at a clip… but, I am a better runner.  As I have the tendency to look everywhere for wisdom, here are a few of the agile musings I came away with:

1) Don’t get distracted from your quarry

What I REALLY mean here is problem.  True story.  While in a training class, someone started in on “Yeah but how do you…” and chained into what seemed endless minutes tying to at least a dozen different problems, complaints, limitations of the company, etc…  I like to imagine that the rest of the class was about to throw chairs across the room and ready to move on.  It’s not that the person liked to hear the sound of their voice.  They didn’t know how to track and hunt. There are two ways I thought to handle this.. .  One is to hold them after school, pointing out that the situation merits a little more detail and attention. Another is to lead into a teaching moment. An analogy from running.   Way back in time man hunted for survival.  Long ago, the homo sapiens bested the stronger and tool using neanderthals in survival by simply being able to run down prey.  The really big mastodons were disappearing, but the little antelopes and rabbits were prevalent.  You couldn’t catch one in a minute, but if you AND A TEAM of your friends were willing to run an hour, or four…  your quarry would be overheated and pretty  much sit right down.   The problems came when your particular animal got back into the heard/hole and you lost them and selected a new, fresh animal to start chasing again.  That’s where the protection of herds come in, to deceive, exhaust and confuse the predators.  We see it too in schools of fish.   If you are able to lock on and take down the same problem, without distraction to some others, you will be far more successful   Break a singular high priority problem apart from the herd of distraction and “stay on target”.  Agile breaks big things down into smaller actionable things. Don’t chain all your problems together. You are really telling everyone you can’t track what is going on, you are overwhelmed and need to rely on an outside perspective for a bit.  We are naturally cooperative hunters built to tackle problems in groups.  While doing so, learn from the best among us.

2) ‘Easy, Light, Smooth’

I not only wish I could run this way… I want to Scrum like this all the time.  Easy, Light, Smooth.  It is true that this is disruptive innovation that we are taking on, but to do that easily, with a light touch, and make the whole process smooth takes some mastery.  Does this feel natural? Is my impact light or heavy? Are things in fits of stops and starts or is there a continuous and even flow?  There is a wonderful Rugby shirt that had the phrase “Train Hard – Scrum Easy”.

3) ‘Accept what the trail has to give you’

By trail I mean work, environment, situation, and even ourselves.  I don’t mean you should give up and let everything just come or even remain unchanged  What I mean is this:  There is a difference in fighting a trail, wishing something better and be stopped, instead of simply accepting the reality of the present moment and emphasizing the action to run ahead.  Watch team behaviors and you will instantly recognize when one has trepidation because the work is unfamiliar, and another just leaps right in to tear and task it apart though both teams may have a very similar skill set.  No situation is ideal, and accepting that, not being stuck by it, allows us to move forward.  Even a downhill run can be dangerous.  Be aware of the trail, accept it’s twists turns and difficulties.  In responding to it we look to ourselves to adjust and meet the challenges.  If you have a choice to take one step or two – try to take three in-between the rocks that exist, along the path.  You may never know how hard this path will be, when it will end, you may not even be able at times to control which path you take, you can only really control your own ability to adjust.  The best runners also leave the trail undisturbed, without tracks.  I think of this as focus vs distraction, and destructive impact vs a lightness of being. This also means DON’T CHECK OUT.  Be in the moment and bring your awareness – otherwise you may get tripped by a turn, or fall off a very steep switchback.

4) ‘You are stronger than you think you are’

When pushing ourselves past fatigue and stress and into the extremes, there is an sense of power and strength we never tested and didn’t think we had within us.By pushing through an impediment, and obstruction, we become familiar with a whole new level with new boundaries to explore and build ourselves to fill.   Be it in an ultra marathon – or a release.  We are working on our endurance here, that it will become extraordinary.  A sustainable pace over very long distances.  Some distances are measured in time.

5) ‘Eat like you are poor’

All right, this may be a stretch – but it is how I think.  A coach wanted his runners to eat like they were poor, to keep their diet simple and basic. No frills, not fancy, not expensive, just the bare minimum. It was not a knock against anyone’s socio-economic status, it was a way to get his runners to focus and prioritize on something he knew affected their performance every day.  Here, I  emphasize to Communicate Simply.   If you have to – keep it basic and use paper. Remove all the fluff and indirection between you and your intended audience.  Scrum doesn’t dictate NO documentation.  It was the agile manifesto/principles (the Best agile document I’ve seen yet) that stated  – we value working software over documentation and realize there is some value in both.  The balance and purpose to that value was left to us.  Use BIG information radiators that foster more conversations which prepare us for DOING the work better.  Go and TALK to them.  Talk while working.. pair programming, peer reviews, etc.    Have a great amount of heart when you do communicate.  It is our obligation to share whatever we can spare. Even of ourselves.  No exceptions.

6) The Best runners enjoy running

The best sprinters enjoy sprinting; the best teams enjoy teaming. The best coaches…   The only way we can conquer something is to embrace and love it.  Refuse to let it go and know it so well that you are not afraid of it anymore. (remember point 4) I told one team the other day that their sprint number can be viewed like a version of themselves.  Was team 4.0 better than team version 1.0?  Absolutely.  I also look forward to their next version and mentioned all the ‘firsts’ they had done along the way.  They enjoyed improving.  If I could match their pace… I might run over a few mountains yet.

One thought on “What Running and Agile have in Common

  1. I like the annalogy, there’s probably lots we can learn from running and other endurance sports that apply to projects. They are all long term endeavours towards a goal or improvement that allow for learning and adaptation.

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