Agile 2018

Agile 2018
Speaking at Agile 2018

Monday, October 31, 2016

Everyone has a bad day.

Everyone can have a bad day
Everyone is entitled to a bad day.  We live in an imperfect world where directions are not followed, colleagues don’t have the same sense of urgency, and the printer is out of toner.  It is worse for agile teams because they are expected to deliver at the end of each sprint and a few bad days can pile up into a failed sprint. As a scrum master it is up to you to accept bad days and help you team avoid future ones.  This week on my blog the emotional work necessary to make it through to bad times.

Each agile team depends on a scrum master.  It is part of the scrum guide and is a necessary to help teams improve.  When the team is having a bad day it is particularly important the scrum master is around to listen team member’s vent.  Listening is one of the most important skills of a scrum master.  It will help you diagnose problems with the team and learn about the obstacles which are creating that bad day.  Some of the issues are interpersonal, in this way it is up to the scrum master to play therapist and counselor to the individuals having problems.

This work is hard and emotionally draining.  Some of this work can be futile.  One employee spent most of their time not doing work instead of completing projects, it drove me insane.  If they spent as much effort doing what was expected as they did attempting to avoid work they would have been a valuable team member.  Instead, deadlines were missed and the morale of the remaining team was brought down.  I spent much of my time doing HR work documenting this individual’s malfeasance and senior leadership could not or would not remove this individual from the development team for cause.  It would take the entire team turning over and a series of layoffs before this individual would be let go.  It took three years to manage out a bad team member from a scrum team when it should have been a matter of weeks.

Other times you have members of your team who are whiny, entitled, and unable to follow directions.  The project management tool is too complex.  People are not returning phone calls and they can’t get work done on time because they won’t work more than forty hours.  When you attempt to coach these individuals they have an alibi for their behavior and ignore your direction.  These are people who are not good enough to keep and they too good fire.  You are going to spend most of your time working with these individuals.

Sometimes, I have to let down the mask of command and let the team know that I am sick, tired or angry, otherwise it will come out in a spasm of unprofessional behavior.  I am constantly on guard of mansplaining to a co-worker.  Sometimes it gets to the point where I have to say, “I am very angry with you and in order to be professional with you I have to walk away and cool off.”  It isn’t pretty, but for me it is necessary if I am going to do my job properly.

Sometimes I skip lunch with my team members so that I can collect my thoughts.  Other times, I leave the office to take a walk or go to the barber shop to try and improve my attitude.  The point is you cannot always be upbeat and inspirational every working day of your life.  You are allowed to have bad days.  This might explain why psychotherapists always have a professional therapist to speak with.  Dealing with all that mental illness and human suffering takes an emotional toll and they need to speak with somebody who understands.  I wish there was a service like that for scrum masters.

So don’t worry.  You are allowed to have a bad day.  What you are not allowed to have is that bad day effecting your long term effectiveness or your team.  Take time out to unwind and de-stress.  Walk away from situations which trigger anger and remember that the scrum team needs you in order to be successful.

Until next time.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Hero's journey is no substitute for a product

A hero's journey is not a substitute for a product.
Each entrepreneur goes through a sort of hero’s journey.  If they are lucky, once that journey is finished they will emerge out of the other side stronger, wiser, and accomplishing something amazing.  It is no secret the technology world uses the language of science fiction and fantasy.  That is why a company which becomes extremely profitable it is called a unicorn.  As an agilest and entrepreneur, I convince myself that I am lucky and smart enough to aspire to this status.  It is the story I tell myself.  In the dark moments, it is what keeps me going.  This week, I want to talk about when story telling crosses the shadowy line from inspiration to deception.

Carl Jung, one of the founders of psychoanalysis, articulated the idea the human species has a “collective unconsciousness.”  This collective unconsciousness is the common characters or myths humans use to describe themselves.  The collective unconsciousness also describes what the human species aspires to become.

Joseph Campbell then built on Jung’s work in 1948 with his book, “The Hero with A Thousand Faces,” which talks about the similarities between the mythologies of western and tribal cultures.  Roman Gods were compared with the traditions of Native Americans and Australian Aborigines.  The similarities were too hard to ignore.  We had academic proof that the human species has a common story telling tradition.

Now that this knowledge was out in the open it did not take long for others to exploit it.  One of them was a University of Southern California graduate, who just has a hit film entitled “American Graffiti.”  The other was a technology entrepreneur who cultivated the image of a mystic shaman while he sold music players and later phones.

To be successful, a company needed a story and a heroic figure to pitch that story to the media and client.  It was a way of cutting through the clutter and getting the message out.  That lesson was not lost on Elizabeth Holms who dropped out of Stanford to found her company Theranos.   She created an image which was a frittata of Hitchcock’s icy blond, Steve Jobs techno shaman, and the elegant intelligence of Meryl Streep.  Her story was simple, she was going to change the world making blood testing affordable and less invasive.  She was smart enough and stubborn enough to found a company and make it happen.

The technology press swallowed the story hook, line and sinker.  Soon she was featured in press write ups, on television promoting her company, and receiving millions of dollars in venture capital.  I will not go into the details of Theranos and the fraud they committed.  Vanity Fair Magazine has already done an outstanding job on that front.  Suffice to say, Elizabeth Holms had a good story to sell but didn’t have a product.  Her blood testing tool was nothing but fantasy.

The lesson here is that every story should have a grounding in reality.  You cannot change the world with your products if your products do not work.  The rumpled engineers have to build something before the myth makers in sales and marketing come along.  Telegenic good looks and a story are not a substitute for business acumen and a product.

Anyone who grew up during the stupid and giddy time of the dot.com bubble should have known how this story was going to end.  They chose to ignore it and suspend disbelief because the story was good.  Instead of a hero’s journey, what the public got was a true crime story of fraud and greed.
It is a sobering lesson for an entrepreneur and consumer.  I hope that we are smart enough to recognize it before it happens again.

Until next time.

Monday, October 10, 2016

March of the Flaming Squirrels

Pay attention to the Squirrels.
I have spent over 18 years working in technology.  In that time, it still surprises me how many people think what I do is magic.  Furthermore, those people think setting up complicated database and web systems are like plugging in a lamp and turning on a switch.  This creates all sorts of insane and absurd situations in the work place.

When I was a young person, one of the key measures of success was the ability to handle large piles of work with deadlines.  The metaphor my teachers used was the story of a squirrel.  Squirrels hibernate during the winter months but they still need to eat so during the summer months they spend a majority of their time gathering food to store for the winter.  They also binge eat in the fall so they have enough fat to hibernate.

I took this metaphor to heart and applied it to my undergraduate and graduate work.  Each day I spent a little time reading writing and gathering nuggets of information to help myself become successful.  It worked and it seems like a good strategy.  You do little things today so that big challenges of tomorrow don’t seem so daunting.  Then I became a software professional.

The technology world has too much work and not enough qualified people to do the work.  So instead of small efforts adding up to eventual success it takes super-human effort to prevent getting swamped from the demands of the business.  It is a like being a squirrel which is caught in a forest fire.  You still have to gather food but you also confront the grim reality of painful death.

I am spending much of my time telling business people why these “fires” are bad for the business and the software developers.  As author Jimmy Leppert says, “…firefighting creates a culture of arsonists.”  In my mind, where there are arsonists there are millions of dollars of destruction and countless maimed and dead animals.  The software developers become squirrels set ablaze.

I blame a lot of things for this.  Project are funded poorly with a fixed bid mindset.  Americans do a poor job training people to be engineers and technical professionals.  Many business leaders who manage software project have no practical knowledge about how software works.  Finally, short term thinking among business investors and leaders exacerbate this forest fire thinking.  Thus, your organization, which is a fragile ecosystem resembling a forest, is beset by arsonists with flame throwers and chain saws.

I do not have any cures for these problems but I do want to point them out so people who are smarter and more influential can fix them. In order to fix a problem, you need to understand what is causing it.  So if you see your technology staff running around like flaming squirrels you should be smart enough to kick the arsonists out of your organization.

Until next time.