Monday, March 30, 2020

Build Trust and the Rest Will Come.

Easy to say hard to earn. 
Coaching others and working with clients give me plenty of challenges.  It is also one of the most satisfying things I do.  The most important lesson I have learned during this time is the importance of openness and trust.  I want to discuss why these two values are necessary for a successful agile implementation. 

According to the agile manifesto, we should value “Customer Collaboration over contract negotiation.”  It is easy in business to get caught up in contracts and legal mumbo jumbo.  Often something which requires four hours of work and a conference bridge requires weeks of negotiation and a signed piece of paper explaining who is going to pay for the four hours of work.  It is annoying for the people doing the job, but from the perspective of the people paying the bills, it is a necessary process.  The reason for this necessity is a lack of trust.

The absence of trust is a toxic condition in most business environments.  It happens because people make promises in business, which they cannot keep.  It also occurs when people do not pay for the services they have received.  Since technology and software are labor-intensive, everyone is paying attention to the money.  It creates conditions that undermine trust. 

Kim Scott, in her book, “Radical Candor,” talks about successful leaders being able to care personally and communicate honestly.  It seems like a common-sense approach, but it is surprising how many people are will to hide the truth to win favor from others.  Scott refers to this as manipulative insincerity because you are not telling the truth to manipulate the emotions and perceptions of a client.  Once a client discovers manipulation, they will rarely show trust. 

It is why the first job of a scrum master or agile coach is to build trust.  It means turning your camera on so people can see your face during all video conferences because others need to know that you are paying attention and involved in their problems.  You need to over-communicate with clients telling them all of the relevant news, both good and bad, which affect their project.  It is painful at first, but constant communication and telling the truth over time builds trust.  Eventually, instead of a client-vendor relationship, you will have a partnership where both of you are working together to reach a common goal. 

Openness and trust are mandatory for any business relationship.  You earn trust from others by being honest and communicating often.  It is why I want to help spread agile and create environments of trust. 

Until next time.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Listening to COVID-19 and What It Means for Agile.

Pay attention to the world around you.
It is an extraordinary time.  The world economy lurched into a lower gear.  Many of us are cooped up in our homes attempting to teach children, work remotely, or pass the time because our jobs disappeared with the stay in place orders.  It is also a time where we have discovered how networked and interdependent we are.  A virus half a world away can create a wave of disruption.  In my physical –isolation, I have taken the time to process a few bits of wisdom.

The COVID-19 virus has exposed how networked the global economy and society has become over the last fifty years.  It has also acted as a great equalizer. The developed world is just as susceptible to the virus as the poorest of nations.  The mutation of a virus in bats which spread to humans now threatens everyone on the planet.  It is a slow-motion disaster which we saw coming.

Scientists, health workers, and professionals crunched the numbers and played out the worst-case scenarios.  When leaders listened, you had widespread testing and public health responses.  Where leaders decided to ignore the evidence, military quarantines of entire cities would be necessary, and health care systems were overcome with sick people.  The experts were right and we should trust that expertise more often.

It is easy to be smug in a time like now.  Hundreds of thousands of people are suffering economically as restaurants, bars, and nightlife shut down.  The education of millions of young people is upset by schools closing.  If experts were trusted and people gave credit to others who dedicated their entire lives to the study of science and public health, we might not be in such a difficult situation.  The reality of saying, “I told you so,” is only going to make the present situation more unbearable.

The distrust of experts comes from a particular place.  We often see these experts in comfortable offices and universities and think they lack real-world experience.  Many professionals have authority over others, and it creates resentment.  They are the teachers, doctors, lawyers, judges, and executives who make decisions about our lives.  Making matters worse, professionals often do not live in communities where their choices have the most impact.  It explains why those who work hourly like to use words like quack, shyster, and shylock to describe those with expertise.

One of the reasons I wanted to get into agile is because I wanted to be a different kind of professional.  I wanted to be responsive and empathetic to others. I wanted to show kindness.  Professionals must earn trust each day. It is up to professionals like myself to create ways to work, which are sustainable, satisfying, and sane.  If we are going to dig out of the economic calamity, we are going to discover better ways of working.  Agile will be one of the movements leading the way.

So the main piece of wisdom I have obtained while I remain in self-isolation is that respect of experts and professionals must be earned.  Earning that trust means treating others with decency and kindness.  It means having shared experience in good times and bad.  Agile will be part of this transformation, and I will continue to be part of it.

Until next time. 

Monday, March 16, 2020

Just a Few Things a Good Coach Needs to Have.

Leadership is an on-going journey.
Technology and engineering are a significant reason why human civilization is so successful.  It occurred to me that without anesthesia, anti-biotics, and statin drugs, I would be dead at my present age.  I also have modern technology to thank for my career.  My fortunes have grown as the internet has become more widely accepted.  Looking back on the experience, I am amazed by the things I have learned and done.  Being an agile coach is a rewarding line of work. I am discovering it comes with a few requirements.

Listening –

I am an extroverted person.  I love expressing myself in ways big or small.  It also occurred to me that it is exhausting for the people around me.  I would have known that sooner if I had just bothered to listen to others.  My extroverted nature was getting in the way of being a better leader.  I needed to learn how to listen to others.  Listening to others will separate you from being a good leader to a great leader.  It allows you to gather information, understand the motivation of others, and hear the harsh truths associated with leading others. 

A Growth Mindset –

Problem-solving, puzzles, and working with people is frustrating.  Often you can lapse into pessimism when working with others.  Teachers talk about the "fixed mindset," where people believe their qualities are skills are static while people with a "growth mindset," are attempting to improve and learn new things.  Every time I thought I had developed expertise, reality was kind enough to point out my folly.  The world of technology has plenty of specialized professionals.  The knowledge is so specialized a leader con not know every nuance of every problem.  Thus, it is important to admit you do not know it all and strive to learn enough to have an informed opinion.  For me, it means getting more comfortable with GitHub and teaching Jira how to sing. 

Emotional Intelligence – 

Anyone who tells you business is devoid of emotions is a liar.  People sacrifice time away from their family and loved ones for the company.  Individuals have endured downsizing and austerity for the business because they did not have any choice to support family and friends.  Poor leadership has emotionally damage countless people and undermined the success of organizations.  People are messy and emotional.  It is up to leaders and coaches to understand these emotions and to understand their emotional reactions to them.  It does not mean you are devoid of emotions, but rather, you know your feelings and how to keep them in check during stressful and challenging conditions. You need to keep it together when other people are about to flip-out.  I am going to be working on this for a long time.

A sense of humor – 

Working as a white color professional is hard.  The work is often severe and high stakes.  Many people who want to be professional repress every desire to have fun at the office.  People with a sense of humor know when it is time to be serious and when humor is necessary.  Laughter, particularly at your own quirks, is cleansing and the best stress relief tool I know.  I remember a meeting devolved into grim laughter, and it was then we pulled together and started performing.  A sense of humor is necessary. 

A sense of humor, emotional intelligence, a growth mindset, and listening will make you a better leader and coach.  I am just beginning to master these skills, and I will continue to do so for the rest of my career.

Until next time.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Get Stoic and Get Agile

Hang out on the porch and be stoic.
People in leadership roles like to tell stories.  A story we often tell ourselves is the tale of the coronation of a Roman emperor.  The affair has pomp and circumstance with showers of flower petals, dancing, and conspicuous displays of wealth and power.   In the middle of it all is the emperor, who takes a solemn vow to protect and grow the empire.  There is a member of the Roman senate by his side whispering into the new emperor’s ear, “All of this is fleeting.”  The moral of the story is at your most influential and successful; you have to understand the situation will be temporary.  The world around us has a propensity to humble us and does it in cruel and inventive ways.  As a leader, we need to understand that a situation is never as bad as it seems, and success is never as high as we think.  We call it having a stoic approach to leadership, and I would like to talk about it this week.

The stoics are an exciting bunch of thinkers.  The group was formed in the third century before the current era and got its name from where they practiced their craft on the painted porches on the north side of Agora in Athens.  Stoics liked to sit on the porches, drink wine and talk about philosophy, rhetoric, and politics.  In many respects, they are like us getting together with each other to talk about current events, have a few drinks, and enjoy the company of others on the front porch.  Stoics had lots of influence because they were teachers who taught the political class of Greece and over four hundred years of dominance on Greek thinking.

What sets the stoics apart from people like Socrates, Plato, and later Aristotle was a desire to avoid the ups and downs of life and live in a “rational” manner.  Stoic thought has two main ideas; live in agreement with nature and act like a rational human and not a beast.  Harmony with nature means living in balance, not eating, drinking, or consuming too much.  It appreciates a grassy hill for its natural wonder instead of for its real-estate value or the minerals it might contain.  The reason is what makes everyone human, so to be more human, we should practice more logic.  It sounds high minded and easy to say for academics with enough to eat and the ability to talk about it on some of the most charming porches in Greece.  It is hard to see how an enslaved person might embrace this attitude or someone poor or starving.

The agile world could use more stoicism.  The ability to lead large teams and get them to build software products that help the global economy purr is a rare skill.  It also requires a tremendous amount of emotional intelligence and technical expertise.  People who develop these solutions are messy and need help and support.  The emotions they feel are the emotions you feel.  It is hard to manage those feelings, and it requires energy.  If you are good at it, you will inspire others to their best efforts.  Those who are bad at it are poisonous to their organizations.  Practicing stoic thinking is not a one size solution to leadership, but it is helpful because it is never as bad as it seems and never as good as it gets.

Until next time.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Use Clear Language in Agile

Clear Language Matters.
The business world is a strange place.  Being a white-collar professional is different from more traditional jobs.  A plumber fixes broken sinks, and a firefighter prevents your house from burning down.  You can explain these careers to an elementary school child, and they will understand.  In a global company, job titles are opaquer.  Business Analyst, Programmer Analyst IV, and Programmer Analyst III are popular titles.  You cannot explain to small children and most high school students what these job titles mean.  I still cannot tell the difference between a programmer analyst III and programmer analyst IV other than the paycheck.  The jobs are complicated, and the language we use is involved.  It is also a language that is easy to parody and creates confusion for people who have never experienced it.  As an agile coach or scrum master, it is up to you to make sure the language is clear and informs.

I began to think more seriously about this topic when Molly Young wrote a great article about “Garbage Language,” which crops up in business meetings.  Young exposes lots of phrases used around the office, including; level-set, key-learnings, and complexify.  It is a fun and nasty read which had me chuckling about the dumb things I have often heard in meetings.  It quickly became a divisive topic, and business people defended their use of language as a way to save time and communicate with peers.  To people watching the argument unfold, it seems like a pointless discussion about something which does not have much impact on daily life.  The truth is more complicated. 

How we use language is critically important. It is particularly notable how we use language at work because misunderstanding can cost millions of dollars, ruin reputations, and kill careers.  I also have a more fundamental reason for being careful with writing; I studied communications and debate.  My training required me to learn how to use language clearly to inform or persuade.  With either the written or spoken word, a communication major is trained to the level of instinct to use easy to understand language.  If you use jargon, acronyms, or business-speak, you had better explain it.  When someone is not telling the truth is better to call them a liar than to say they are “insincere.”  Unfinished work is not “In-process,” it is incomplete.   The lack of flowery language is the strength of people educated this way.

Clear and understandable language is excellent if you are a journalist.  In the modern cubical farms of most offices, clear and unambiguous language is fraught with peril.  The contemporary office contains mediocre people with big egos.  Power balances between office workers and executives are cavernous.  Finally, the uncertainty of working at a corporation means saying the wrong thing to the wrong person could undo a career that spanned decades.  Thus, using the phrase, “put a pin in this conversation,” is safer to say than, “you don’t know what you are talking about, and you should talk with me after the meeting.”  The phrase that forces me to grind my teeth is, “…it is what it is.”  It is a verbal surrender to the status quo, thinking, and justification for apathy.  I spent too many years hearing it muttered back to me like some zombie mantra. 

As a coach, be clear and informative with language.  Agile, Scrum, SAFe, LeSS, and Test-Driven Development contain plenty of acronyms and jargon; skip them.  It may be shorter to use TLA, but saying “Three Letter Acronym” is more easily understood.  I know I use the phrase “stakeholder,” often, but I still take time to explain its meaning.  Finally, be transparent, candid, and truthful. It is better to admit something is broken instead of “underperforming.”

So today, our learnings were to circle back and discuss the knowledge use of language from a ten-thousand-foot perspective.  My ask is that you internalize that precise language is a win-win and can build synergies in your brand. 

Until next time.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Listen and you will become a servant leader.

Listen Up!
The agile reformation is about making work more sustainable, satisfying, and sane.  I have spent a good majority of my time as a scrum master and coach in my career.  I have learned plenty of things about myself and others.  My educational background is in speech communication and journalism.  I even enjoyed performing in Community Theater.  It made me the kind of person who was comfortable in a room speaking to others.  Unfortunately, the training did not give me the most important skill necessary for servant leadership; listening.  Without the ability to listen to others, you are an empty suit reciting words.

Often, we are distracted when we are attempting to listen to others.  Phones, tablets, and television screens fight for our attention.  It is up to each of us in a leadership role to eliminate these distractions, turn off the devices, and give someone our full attention.  It is not easy.  Leaders are afraid of missing a call from the boss or not receiving an important e-mail.  Great leaders set those fears aside because they are aware the people speaking to them are giving up their time and experience to talk to them.  The exchange of information is always helpful. 

People's communication with you is sharing crucial information about what is happening in the organization.  Individuals are often closer to the problems you cannot see so they have insight into how to fix them or they need feedback before implementing those improvements.  Another reason people speak to you is they want to share their hopes, dreams, and aspirations.  People, especially those in large organizations, want someone to listen. 

The book Co-Active Coaching discusses three levels of listening.  The first level is casual listening we do each day in our social circles.  It acts as a way to get through the day quickly but it is not listening.  The more advanced levels of listening go beyond the superficial and focus on the content of what was said. More profound listening focuses on the subtext of what people are saying.  The more advanced forms of listening allow you to understand body language and what people are NOT saying.  All of this information comes together to create an accurate picture of what the person is thinking, feeling, and meaning. 

It is the listening where you are attempting to understand and empathize with the person speaking where you can find value in the most challenging situations.  If you listen in this fashion without judgment, you will be able to understand what people need in order to succeed rationally.  You will also be in a position to provide it.

Listening is a principle component of servant leadership.  It establishes trust and builds credibility with the people you serve.  The skill allows you to better problem solve.  We do not talk about listening as much as we should be as the economy continues to shift toward service and creativity. I feel that it is changing.  I have been working in technology and agile for over twenty years.  Only recently I have learned how to listen to the people around me.  I wish I had learned that skill sooner. 

Until next time. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Use Agile to Fight Failure

Failure hurts, but not learning from failure hurts worse.
The purpose of agile is to create working software and solutions.  I have stated this goal repeatedly.  The iterations, meetings, and emotional labor are all designed to get work completed promptly.  The rapid feedback delivers value in the least amount of time without waste exposing failure.  The real test of an agile team is how it copes with failure.

The world of politics, media, and business loves to celebrate winning and success.  John F. Kennedy remarked that success had many fathers, but failure was considered an orphan.  People with careers on the line will do anything to avoid failure.  In a world of achievement, the stigma of failure is very real.  I suspect it is this stigma that makes it hard for business leaders to experiment and try different approaches to problems.  To do so is to risk failure.

Failure is a clarifying experience. We quickly discover what does not work.  We also understand the conditions we are working to overcome.  Failure also creates an emotional connection to the work.  It is the chip on the shoulder that drives you forward which says to the world, “I may have failed now but it will make my future success more powerful.”  I extol the virtues of failure because it makes people and teams better at overcoming adversity.  I have failed a lot in my career and that wisdom follows me around.  It helps me train others to avoid the mistakes I have made in the past.

A team has three reactions to failure.  The first reaction is apathy.  If failure does not have any repercussions, a group of people will continue their bad habits and personal agendas.  The next response is fear, where we have people behaving in self-preservation mode.  Team members withdraw from each other and look to do just enough work to avoid blame or blame someone else.  Leaders micro-manage because they feel helpless and see the people they lead unable or unwilling to do the job.  Fear is a palatable emotion, and everyone experiences it on the team.  The final sentiment is determination.  Where the fear once existed, the emotional survivors of the group become determined to overcome their adversity.  Good leaders and coaches get teams to the point of determination quickly.  Those with less skill will have to slog through the earlier steps.

Agile and scrum help along this process, exposing failure and forcing the team to inspect and adapt.  Each retrospective allows the team to find the points of failure and address them.  The team reflects on what they need to do and what they need to change.  A woman I respect who teaches children says failure is an acronym for the first attempt at learning.  Based on this premise failure is a stepping stone to more substantial success.

I have failed more times than I can recall during my career.  Each setback, mistake, and screw up has made me a better developer, scrum master, and coach.  I like to point out the mistakes I have made in the past so that other people can learn from them.  It is also this display of vulnerability that helps me build credibility with the team.  I strive to be a leader instead of a boss or manager.  So, when you are creating working solutions for customers, you are going to confront failure.  The critical part of the failure experience is how you learn from it and the emotional strength of the team who should develop the ability to overcome.

Until next time.