That Dang Project Manager Hat

I haven’t been a Project Manager in title for, well, ages.  As a coach or Scrum Master, I should have shed that hat long ago.  And, I did(ish).  The problem is it’s still around and, when things need to GET DONE,  somehow that hat just turns back up….on my head.  Now, the good news is, I realize it and can quickly yank it off and stuff it under my chair but, seriously, I wish it would go away.  It won’t ever go completely away though and I’m still learning how to keep it firmly on the shelf.

So, why did it find its way on my head?  The group I am coaching wants to GET STARTED!  It’s awesome the excitement they all have.  They are eager, after months and months of talking, to get to work.  And, they want to run it Agile and they are leveraging SAFe.  So, before the December productivity vortex hit, we all looked at the calendar and they identified dates for their Quickstart (3 day event for everyone on the release train).  This means, there is a LOT to do.  And, the month of December is pretty much shot so, there’s about 3.5 weeks to get everything accomplished so the train is ready to leave the station.  But, there’s also a Holiday in there AND, most awesome of all, snow storms.  WOOT!

The team of people I am lucky enough to work with right now are amazing.  A massive can-do attitude.  They have overcome illness, broken down cars, two snow storms, children’s illnesses, broken pipes (for 4 people!) and a host of other things way out of their control.  They have all come together, rolled their sleeves up, opened their minds and have focused on getting ready.  They have trained, collaborated, learned, been challenged, formed as a team and had fun.  Honestly, it has been amazing to see and be a part of.  There is absolutely NOTHING this group of people can’t accomplish.  As a coach, this is heaven.  As a PM, I cannot stop thinking about all of the logistics and coordination and organization that needs to happen.  It’s not that there aren’t people working on those things.  They are.  Will it all get done?  Probably.  If something doesn’t get done, will it matter (really matter)?  Probably not.

Coach me:  ALL the right ingredients are there.  The people and the experience are what matters.

PM me:  I need to make certain there are enough post-its, flip charts, sharpies and who is getting red yarn?

Coach me:  These people will adjust.  What matters is their mentality and how they come together through this first event.

PM me:  How can they possibly come together if there aren’t enough sharpies and flip chart markers?!  And, who is printing the hand-outs?  Wait – do we even HAVE a final head count yet?

Coach me:  These guys have it.

PM me:  They have everything except the awesome colored, smelly markers.  They NEED those.

Coach me:  Shut up, PM.

PM me:  Will do – as soon as I have every minute of the day plotted out and accounted for….and confirmation on the sharpies.

So, for all of you former PMs out there who are transitioning to Scrum Master, your PM hat is never really gone.  You just have to recognize when it’s there, on your head, and take it off.  I bet, over the next 8 days, I’ll be taking that sucker off multiple times daily and apologizing to people for continuously asking them if they are certain we will have enough sharpies.

Advertisements

Listen with your eyes…

I find I take far more cues from what I see rather than what I hear.  Long ago, a coach asked me why my communication “style” would change mid-flight and I explained.  When I would see scrunchy faces, raised eyebrows, lip biting or any kind of facial cue I would immediately jump to “I’m doing or saying something wrong”.  The coach encouraged me to ask rather than assume.  I know…it’s a crazy idea.  Honestly, it did seem a little crazy though because the chance was someone would feel as though they were being called out.  It could result in a very uncomfortable situation for that person and for me.  All of that said, we talked about it some more and I said I would give it a try.  I did and have continued to experiment.  Here’s what I have learned to do (so far):

  • Ask for permission.  I let people know I have a tendency to read facial expressions.   Generally I do this by calling out the fact my own face reflects what I’m thinking and I may ask people questions based on what I’m seeing rather than what I’m hearing. I ask if it’s OK for me to do this as well as say it’s perfectly acceptable to tell me it’s not.
  • Determine if it’s appropriate.  When I do see something that makes me want to ask a question or learn more, I think (quickly) if it’s appropriate or not.  For example, if it looks like something isn’t jiving, asking a question is a good thing.  Same thing if it looks like someone doesn’t agree.  Both situations can benefit the larger group with learning or some good discussion and sharing different points of view.  Plus, more than once, I have learned something very, very valuable to apply to the future.  If, on the other hand, someone looks hurt or ticked, I wait and speak to the person individually.
  • Ask with an open mind, heart and sincerity.  It kind of goes like this:  “Bob, I’m seeing a scrunchy face.  I just want to check to see if there’s something you want dig into some more or if I’m not saying something very well.”
  • Allow for an escape route.  The reason I ask a close-ended question is so the person can easily say no and I can easily get back to it.   Also, I ask the question in such a way as whatever is happening is MINE.
  • Thank the person.  I try, really hard, to thank the person for letting me “pick” on them as well for helping make the conversation. training or whatever richer.

This “tool” has been great to get training classes of people who don’t know each other well to open up some more and generate some energy.  It’s also good with teams who  are forming or teams who are having trouble communicating.  I’ve also noticed people in classes and teams will start to do this with each other.  And, they will do it right back to me.  Like I said, what I think is on my face and people will call me out when I have a scrunchy face too.

I’m so grateful to the coach who picked up on this tendency of mine and guided me on how to leverage it over ignoring it.  So much communication happens that can’t be heard.  I mean, how often do we have to filter what we say out of fear of some unintended ramification?  Granted it’s a pretty vulnerable place to be and, if you try this, remember you are putting them there.  Also, if you read this and realize you don’t pay much attention to what you see and rely much more on what you hear, try to observe the team when you’re not in front of them by sticking your headphones in, listening to some music and just watching them.  Jot down what you’re thinking, pull the headphones out and validate with your ears what you heard with your eyes.

Why I Do What I Do and LOVE Every.Single.Minute of it

Not too long ago I took a 2 day class on personal presence.  It was an incredibly good use of time and I highly recommend it.  It’s taught by actors – real ones – and they work with you to learn how to make an impact with your presence.  It’s about knowing, when you get up to speak, what your passionate purpose is and “setting” the stage to maximize the efficacy of your message.  However, the very best tool I took away from the two days was an understanding of my “personal elevator pitch”.  In short, you had to create a summary about yourself that would convey to others, in plain non-corporate speak, what you’re about.  I had a very difficult time with this particular exercise and was fortunate to have a co-worker help me work my way through it.  Here’s the gist of the “elevator pitch”:

I’m a composer NOT a conductor.  I can hear, in my head, how amazing a piece of music will sound.  I understand how all the instruments work together.  I work with each section of the orchestra to learn their part and help them understand how it fits into full piece of music.  And, when the pieces come together to create something amazing, I’m in the very back row to appreciate the brilliance each musician, each instrument and the full orchestra brought to the performance and celebrate their achievement as a team.  I take pride in seeing them work together and experience what I heard in my head.  Once complete, I slip out the back and begin to think about the next piece of music.  

I do what I do because I love it.  I love the people I get to meet.  I love the challenges I get to work through.  I love the learning I experience every day. And, more than anything else, I love seeing the amazing things that happen when people begin working together well and finding ways to be even better.  I also love that what I do isn’t immediately obvious to anyone.  When awesome things happen – it’s not me that made them happen – it’s the team of people I was fortunate enough to work with.  It’s THEIR accomplishment and that’s what I love the most.

What did the team say?

I’m posting this on behalf of a guest this week who is not quite ready to “go public” yet.  Happy Monday! – Valerie

As a new Scrum Master, I have had the extreme fortune to have a personal Agile Coach guide me.  Well, she’s technically not my personal coach, but with the attention and information she has given me, it sure feels like it.  In a previous blog post, she stated she wasn’t sure what she taught me.  Well I can tell you that.  She taught me to “ask the team”.  Seems simple enough right?  Well it’s not.

I knew the number one job of a Scrum Master was to protect the team.  No problem.  I’m good at that.  I love being the person people can rely on.   Co-workers, family, doesn’t matter who.  If someone is having difficulty, I want to solve their problem.  I want to fix it.  You want me to be a Scrum Master?  You bet!  I got this!

Well, in some situations solving the problem works just fine.  But as a Scrum Master, well….. not so much.  You see “fixing it” doesn’t help anyone in the long run.  Plus, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t do the teams’ job for them.  I don’t have the time, or the ability.  These folks are smart!!  They have mad skills that I can’t even comprehend.

So, I found myself in situations where I wouldn’t know the answer to a question or a problem and I’d run to my coach.

 Me:  Okay, here’s the problem.  What should I do? 

Coach:  What did the team say you should do?

Me:  I don’t know, I didn’t ask them.

Coach:  ***silent stare***

We had this conversation more times that I can count.  I couldn’t understand how I was helping the team unless I fixed the issue for them.  After all, if they knew the answer, they wouldn’t need me!  I finally understand that this is exactly the point.  The ultimate goal is for the team NOT to need me.  A Scrum Team is supposed to be self-organizing… not Scrum Master organizing.  If I do my job well, they will eventually no longer need me.

So that’s the scary part.  What will I do then?  I know what I’ll do.  I’ll move on to another team and do my best to make sure they eventually don’t need me either.  Or maybe, just maybe, I can start my journey to becoming an Agile Coach.   I can talk future Scrum Masters down from the ledge by explaining to them they don’t have to fix everything.  I’ll explain to them they should work to make sure their teams can work efficiently without them,,, just like I’ll make sure the people I’m coaching can work efficiently without me,,, just like my coach has been doing for me all along.  So thank you!  With your help, I got this!

And here’s the best part.  I’ve talked a lot about not “needing” each other.  The reality is we will always still be there for each other.  Even if my teams don’t need me on a daily basis, I’ll still be there for them.  My door will always be open.  My coach’s door is always open for me too.  I know this, and I will walk through that door from time to time.  I’ll just make sure before I do, I have the answer ready to the first question she’ll ask me.  “What did the team say?”

Whipped by WIP?

I bet if you asked any CIO if they would rather release 5 features into production or have 10 efforts in flight they would prefer the former.  Based on my observations, there are way too many decision makers out there who, based on what’s happening in their IT departments, seem to prefer the latter.  When I ask why that is, often, what I hear back is the roadmap was set, the business has their dates and, so, we need to get things started.  Remember, the business strategists are on the hook for ROI so, it would make some sense they would ALSO prefer to deliver 5 features instead of having 10 in flight.  Again, based on what I observe…not so much.  Shockingly, the end result is less delivery, lower quality and a really frustrated group of associates.  Executives are also frustrated by late delivery and lack of completion but, they are unwilling to pull back and limit the WIP.  Their ask?: Work Harder.  My ask?: Stop Starting and Start Finishing!!

To me, the most simple solution is to JUST SAY NO.  This approach doesn’t seem to be an option most places.  The business, the managers and the executives won’t take no for an answer.  Also, it’s not safe to say no.  I mean, really, you’re probably not going to be climbing the ladder if you say no even if it means doing so would yield a better return for all.  Saying no takes a great deal of courage and it’s not fair to put that burden on those who are lower on the totem pole trying to deliver on everything.

One could also PAINT THE PICTURE.  Make a square “plate” out of a piece of paper.  Write everything on a post-it (standard size please.  don’t cheat with the really little ones) you currently have in flight.  Go to your immediate supervisor and have her fill your plate.  Anything that doesn’t fit, doesn’t get worked on.  When something finishes, bring back the stack of post its and fill the space (or NOT!  *gasp*).  I recommend only having room for a maximum of 4 items (and, really, that’s pushing it).  If you’re a manager, ask those who report to you to go through this exercise.  I would bet you will receive their undying gratitude for even caring about it in the first place.

Another means to address it is ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES.  This is for managers.  I am really suggesting you return to your roots for a bit and pitch in.  Either tackle some of the work yourself to help close things out or, at the very least, de-prioritize anything you have going on to focus instead on serving your team.  Find ways to, at a minimum, make their jobs easier and less frustrating to minimize the impact to morale.

Probably the most impactful would be QUANTIFY THE LOSS.  What would have happened had you closed 10%, 20%, 50% more?  Demonstrate the loss to the bottom line and get the attention of those decision makers!  Other sources of data to pull from may be associate surveys and attrition rates.

It pains me to see people in funks due to the sheer quantity of work in flight.  It’s not a good feeling for anyone to never complete anything.  If you get excited by the fact you were able to respond to 10 e-mails and set up 1 or 2 meetings, it’s a sign.  Take a look around wherever you are and if there’s any applicability to your situation and consider prioritizing how to reduce the frequency and duration of being whipped by WIP.

The Dormant Environment

Death Valley Spring 2005 Bob Canfield

I was listening to a TED talk and the speaker threw out the word “Dormant”.  He used it to describe Death Valley which is named Death Valley because, well, nothing grows there.  No rain=No growth.  However, something happened in 2004….it rained (7 inches in fact) and in the Spring of 2005 Death Valley was having quite a hard time living up to the name.  The floor of Death Valley was covered in flowers.  Turns out Death Valley isn’t dead.  It’s dormant.  Underneath the barren landscape was loads of potential just waiting for an inviting environment.

I’m a little obsessive about environments – specifically environments for teams to be successful.  Today, more than ever, there are companies, consultants and coaches out there trying to crack the Agile nut in order to deliver value more frequently, efficiently and of higher quality.  It’s a HARD nut to crack.  The frameworks, Scrum, Kanban, XP and the consolidation of them in SAFe provide the manual and direction for companies to take.  Yet….they’re [still] not seeing the expected and much-desired results and I believe, with every nook and cranny of my heart, the reason lies in the environment.

DORMANCY:  The state of quiet (but possibly temporary) inaction. – Definition from http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu

Underneath the surface of the frameworks we’re using or, if you prefer, the foundation, are the Agile and lean values and principles.  But, I don’t believe the appropriate amount of time and attention is spent on teaching these.  Certainly not to the point where they’re understood well enough to be put into practice.  What’s more, I don’t believe most environments are suitable for the demonstrative manifestation of these values and principles.  So then what you end up seeing are the process side of frameworks in action – not people.  The frameworks are designed to bring the values and principles to life.  Frameworks need people to bring THE FRAMEWORK to life.  So, really, you need people to bring the values and principles to life and the environment, generally, just isn’t conducive.

Occasionally, there will be a micro-climate where, somehow, a team is flourishing.  I’ve heard these teams referred to as “magic teams”.  The magic of them is they created their own environment or micro-climate and bucked the odds – kind of like the Spring of 2005 in death valley.  Which, goes to show you, it’s not actually magic…it’s the environment.  Creating the environment is the key to unlocking the potential of people to bring the framework and the values and principles to life which will then bring the amazing results we’re all searching and striving for.  Oddly enough, those micro-climates are noticed by others as well.  The magic team is sought after and asked about their secret and the magic team will gladly, willingly give it away and, then, those seekers will tell you all the reasons why replicating it just aren’t possible elsewhere.

Maybe we just take for granted the environment will be there or it will evolve to meet the changes in process and approach.  Or, perhaps we don’t even want to think about the environment because changing or creating environments is difficult, hard work.  Also, there’s nothing telling you that a framework NEEDS any certain type of environment.  All of that said, I can’t think of a single organization who isn’t fully capable  and up to the challenge of creating an environment to enable success.  Especially if, at the end of all that work, the results would be nothing short of spectacular.  I would go so far to argue that the environment of every organization is dormant….quietly inactive.  I may even take it a step further and say the “environmentalists”, or those with the ability to be, are complacent.  Meanwhile, there’s all this potential just there, waiting for the right environment or a very persuasive environmental activist to get the ball rolling.

 

 

 

A New Comfort Zone

My apologies for not posting on the theme of comfort last week.  Technical difficulties with WordPress stripped my author permissions.  Let me just tell you, that was LOADS of fun.  I’m grateful to Elizabethmiller2 for putting herself and he learning out there for everyone just as I’m grateful to Steve Peha for doing the same.  Thank you, both, very much.  Here’s my very late post on comfort from last week.

Last weeks theme on comfort sent my brain all over the place.  Personally, there are very few periods of my life where I can say I was “comfortable” and I think it’s because I’m wired that way.  When I find myself close to comfortable, invariably, something changes and, more often than not, becomes somewhat UNcomfortable.

Comfortable can mean stable and secure.  There’s a tremendous amount of value in stability and security.  It allows us to do or try things we haven’t before because we KNOW certain things to be true.  It’s important for people to achieve a level of comfort so they can then pursue levels of discomfort.  When you take a look at teams, comfort may mean they’re not challenged – either by their work or themselves.  Don’t get me wrong, we all need time to just breathe, but discomfort for a team probably means they’re challenged.  When a team is challenged, some really amazing behaviors begin to emerge.

Discomfort generally comes hand in hand with change.  The change can be self-inflicted or forced on us.  Change, as we all know, is hard.  A persons or teams ability to perform in uncomfortable situations can be influenced by several things.  The chief influence, in my mind, is their environment.  The environment needs to be safe and what I mean by that is one that is supportive.  Teams experiencing discomfort will have different ways of dealing with it.  Some may engage in some constructive disagreement (loudly).  Others may hole up.  Regardless, teams need to be given the space and support to walk through the change at their pace.

As a Scrum Master, the challenging part is knowing what to do when things are too comfortable, volatile or challenging.  I have to say that I don’t have THE answer.  I have some ideas to try.

TOO COMFORTABLE

  1. Ask the team to think of three things that would be impossible for a team to accomplish in your organization and why it would be awesome if someone could do it.  Get a conversation going – blue sky the heck out of it.  Then, ask them WHY they, amazing team they are, can’t be the ones to try.  The worst that can happen is improvement.
  2. Ask if any team members would be willing to pair with another team member in a different role for a sprint and learn more about the role.  If anyone opts in allow for it in the velocity of the team for that sprint and, in the following one, observe what the results are and call them out to the team.  Then, ask if anyone else would be willing to try.

TOO VOLATILE

  1. Things change fast and furiously and can overwhelm a team.  Get them out of the room.  Go for a walk.  Go for a long lunch.  Give them room to breathe and not think about work for a bit.  A brain break is a good thing.
  2. Have a mind dump exercise.  Ask the team to write everything on their mind on  a piece of paper and, when done, do a quick sort of In their control or NOT in their control.  Then, creatively destroy all those that aren’t in their control and focus on the sprint and save the others for retro data.

TOO CHALLENGING

1. This one is tricky because it’s probably not that it’s too challenging it just seems TOO big.  So, what do we do when things are too big?  Break it down.  Go through an exercise to find the vertical slices with the team and find a simpler picture.  Big challenges are often ones that seem TOO challenging.

2. What?  Is there anything too challenging for your team?  If they have created a vision, bring them back to it and remind them of all the good they have.  Sometimes, you just need someone to believe in you.

Some of the best things I have done in my career have been during times of extreme discomfort.  Admittedly, I have also done some of the worst things during these times too but, those horrible things helped me learn and prepared me for the next one.  So, maybe it’s also good to remind yourself (or your team) about how strong and capable you are.  What’s the worst that can happen?  Even if you fail, you learn and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Holy Learning Batman!

So this week was a BIG learning week for me.  It all ended well but, dang! it wasn’t easy. When people are looking to you to KNOW it’s nice and all but, I hadn’t really prepared myself for what that really meant.  Let’s just say I know what that means now and I’m glad I learned this lesson.  

I know from my own experience that trust isn’t automatic.  I don’t care what your title is, you still have to earn trust and credibility.  The lesson was about how to do this.  For this particular situation it was my ability to communicate my thought process and how I reached the conclusions I had reached.  This is not easy for me.  I don’t think in the most organized way to begin with and my thoughts race down so many different paths, correcting as I go it’s not simple to explain nor would it really generate confidence in the person I’m speaking to IF I was even able to explain it.  (Well, hello there run on sentence!)  The thing is, that’s not OK when you’re working with someone who is looking to you and trusting you to guide them.  I mean, why would any rational person blindly trust someone just because of what they were called?  I wouldn’t and I don’t.

Interestingly enough, I found that my Project Manager hat came in very handy.  I put it on and thought through what was necessary in order to lay out the vision or direction that would convey my understanding of the situation and reflect what I had learned about the organization and the things the client valued.  Two and a half hours later, I had it.  The whole thing in my head laid out in a logical, simple, elegant way that resonated with the client and brought both of us back to a happy place.

What I’m going to do now, is lay it ALL out.  Now.  Ahead of time.  I want to have it all there, captured, in a way that’s easy to understand and simple to explain.  This is going to take a little while….

Are you having fun?

You know you’re on a good team when you have fun being with your teammates.  To me, having fun at work is critical.  I have worked on really difficult, not-fun projects but had a great time with my team in spite of crummy work.  One team I worked with was in an especially tough spot.  Constant, non-stop change, non-functioning environments and a leadership that didn’t understand the platform or Agile made for some not-at-all fun times.  One day a team member wrote on the board “It’s like we’re trying to change a tire when the car is moving.”.  The next thing you know, people started adding on to it and it went something like this:

It’s like we’re trying to change the tire while the car is moving

And we just found out the spare is flat

And, awesome!, it started to rain

And, there’s no cell reception so calling is not an option

Oh!  There’s a sign:  Next service station 200 miles

And, there hasn’t been a car on the road for the last 3 hours.

Some creative soul put it into pictures and it stayed on the board for a while.  The team was able to poke fun at the situation collectively and, while it didn’t FIX anything it did serve to give a little levity to the situation.  A good team can work well together and be glad to be in the same boat.

Another team I was on would randomly do things like all dress up like another team member or have a “talk like you’re in Marketing” day.   I’ve also seen rotations of telling Chuck Norris jokes at stand up.  Who knew there were so many!  The BEST fun I have seen on a team was when a Team Member plugged her mouse into the developers dock next to her.  He came in, started up and she pretended to be absorbed in her work – headphones on and everything – while making his pointer go crazy.  He rebooted, got going again and, what do you know, the pointer was all over the place.  He then started releasing (for him) expletives.  He immediately shut down AGAIN.  At this point, I dove under my desk b/c I was almost in tears.  I stayed there as he frantically tried to figure out the problem.  He unplugged everything and re-plugged it in.  It was all connected.  He was baffled and getting ready to call support when, finally, the team member rescued him from what was sure to have been a hilarious call.

All of these kinds of interaction go a long way towards team camaraderie or BA.  This is what adds to the soul of a team.  As a Scrum Master, it’s great to hear a team laughing and enjoying being around one another.  It’s part of their hum and single entity identity.  When people are having fun, they like being at work and will engage more.  This only makes for a better end product.  If your team isn’t having fun think of ways to get it going.  Have a happy hour together, start going on walks, look for interactive and engaging (somewhat silly) team exercises, use the Chuck Norris idea.  Ask the team what they would LIKE to do for fun.

I’d love to hear about your teams’ fun.

Can you put an estimate on the value of conversation?

Some time ago I heard about a trend of “No Estimates” and, have to admit, was not happy about it.  The reason I wasn’t happy about it had nothing to do with understanding the velocity of a team.  It had everything to do with the team missing out on critical conversations that occur when arriving at an agreed upon estimate.  I love watching new teams estimate stories.  When someone throws a 20 and someone else has a 5, the discussion that takes place – THE LEARNING – is pretty powerful to observe.  Estimating is a way for team members to get to know one another better and understand how they each view things differently.  Eventually, they start applying others’ perspectives to their own and the team truly finds a voice as a single entity.

Dan Mezick wrote a good blog post recently and pointed out “One may say with some certainty that the estimation task is actually a ‘cover story’ for the wider task of team learning. If estimates are 100% eliminated, how is this team learning replaced? Team learning is obviously essential. Discussions during the estimation task create many team-learning moments.”

Frankly, I believe a team, who is committed, will get to a point where estimates are not required.  This will happen once they learn – not before.  Scrum has estimates and the concept of velocity there for a reason.  A team must go through Shu (Follow the rule) before they can muck around with it and find something else that works best for them or reach a state of Ri (Make the rule).  If you start a team out with no estimates, I believe the learning curve and reaching a performing state will be delayed.

Some teams use relative estimation.  Others will use Planning Poker.  Heck, I have seen a team estimate in “farm terms”. Seriously.  A duck is less than a cow which is less than a barn and so on….  It worked for them.  Who am I to question it?  So, yeah, maybe this idea has merit but, I really would caution against giving it a go with a newly formed team.  Sound snippets like this one make me a little nervous.  You can’t place a value on the conversation that takes place during estimation.  You CAN place a value on a team taking twice as long to reach a performing state.