Monday, November 26, 2018

The Art and Science of Getting Stuff Done.

If it was easy we would figure out how to automate it.
It feels good to be back.  I left my old firm and joined a new organization.  I took the week off to get accustomed to my new surroundings and sleep schedule.  I also had a holiday week, so I used the opportunity to catch up with family and friends.  Now that I am getting comfortable with my new role, I wanted to talk about the biggest challenge we face in agile and scrum.

The creation of software is one of the few modern products we produce which is nearly impossible to automate.  We have figured out how to automate plenty of things related to software development.  Testing can be automated.  DevOps demands the software building process to be automated.  Anything which is repetitive and tedious can be automated.  Writing software requires plenty of skill and practice to do it well.  Someone needs to take the vague ideas of the business and turn them into something concrete so that the software developers can create something valuable.

It means authoring software is a human process.  Human beings are notoriously messy and prone to error.  If you accept the reality of human messiness, it is easy to understand why projects fail and work does not get done.  A colleague of mine put it best when he said, “It all comes down to people, you can have the best process, but if the people can’t or won’t do it you are lost.”

Specialized professionals have come into being to help make sure the organizations keep going and the processes work.  These people have plenty of different titles and roles.  These people are scrum masters, project managers, and bosses of every conceivable size and strip.  What united them all is they need to be good with people and have strong leadership skills.

The good news is there are plenty of good programs which teach leadership skills.  Combined with practice and desire; anyone can become a competent leader.  Thanks to the Agile Alliance and the Scrum Alliance, we can train skilled people to become Product Owners and Scrum Masters.  These courses and training programs represent the science of project management.  The art combines the technical aspects of scrum mastery and putting it together with the messy nature of human beings to create something new.  It is not easy, and it is emotionally draining.  If done right, it can generate millions of dollars in value.  If done poorly, it resembles a tragically executed piece of performance art.

So leading projects is both an art and a science.  The science understands the things like testing paradigms and the art enters the picture where you have someone with gout working late hours and not getting the work done.  It is not easy to be nothing worthwhile is easy.  So remember the art and science related to your role.  You are going to need both.

Until next time.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Some thoughts on personal change

A typical day for a scrum master; doughnuts and coffee
I have called working in the business world bipolar, toxic and an excuse for mental illness.  I still feel this way, but along the way, I have encountered numerous pockets of decency and professionalism.  I have made plenty of friends along the way.  This week, I took a massive step in my professional career and resigned from my present organization.  I will be joining another firm on November 19th.

When I was growing up in the 1980’s, my parents and teachers spoke about how a career was a pathway or process.  You would join a company and throughout your career advance up the organization.  Your loyalty to the organization came with a measure of job security, and a means to support a family.  I was instructed people succeeded and failed based on individual merit.   The recession of the early 1990’s and over twenty years of being a technology professional have proven those ideas false.

I have spent plenty of time around the damaged, neurotic, and mean people who make up a significant minority of business professionals.  In my worst moments of vulnerability, I have choked back tremendous amounts of rage and bitterness.  In my better moments, I have forced myself to see the good in others.  I was disappointed from time to time, but often my optimism was rewarded.  I leaned on colleagues to muddle through the long days and lack of support, and I relied on my fellow agile coaches who saw something in me I did not.

It is easy to see the bad in the world and wallow in nihilism.  Creating a reformation is going to be hard work.  A modern shareholding company is the closest thing contemporary society has to medieval feudalism, and those in power will do anything to remain in charge.

Fortunately, there are others like me who are agitating for change and a serious business case for making those changes.  Developers, agile coaches, scrum masters, product owners, and random strangers want these changes.  Together, we will work to make the modern corporation more sustainable, sane, and satisfying place to work.  I have spent five years learning to be a great scrum master and coach.  It is now time to put that experience to use expanding the agile reformation. 

Until next time.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Psychological Safety in a Bipolar Business World

Psychological Safety means treating
 people like humans instead of insects. 

The global economy is a bipolar place.  The wealth and highs of success transform people into demigods.  The lows reduce human beings into squalid grubs struggling to survive.  For the white-collar professional caught in the middle, it feels like being in a bivouac of army ants.  You are being pulled in all directions by the tensions of others and the environment.  It is a stoic existence where we have no choice other than rely on others for our own survival.  It is alienating and undermines many of our desire for meaning.  The agile coach and scrum master must struggle against this reality each day.  In the corporate world, we should treat people as human beings instead of insects foraging for the benefit of an elite. 

The alienation of workers and disengagement it causes is why many consultants and agile experts are starting to discuss something called “psychological safety.”  John Dobbin wrote a great article about the subject on LinkedIn this week.  Pioneered by organizations like Google, psychological safety is behavior which allows people to work together in an environment of mutual respect and innovation.  It mirrors the work of Kim Scott, a former Googler, who wrote the book “Radical Candor.”  Aside from being the product of Google’s “don’t be evil,” days these two ideas come from our primitive reptilian brains.  Conflict with co-workers, a challenging boss, or business conditions create a situation where our fight, flight or freeze reactions to danger are triggered.  The emotional response is helpful during an avalanche or an attacking lion, but can create a toxic sludge in the cubical farms where many of us earn our living.

Unlike a backed-up storm drain, cleaning up the mess from the fight or flight response requires tremendous amounts of emotional labor and a huge dip in productivity.  From personal experience, I have had weeks of anxiety and self-doubt thanks to being ridiculed by a manager in front of product owners.  The episode gave those same product owners license to ignore coaching.  The sludge became more difficult to wade through at the office.

As I have become more experienced as a coach and scrum master, it is clear to me that psychological safety needs to be encouraged.  People need to feel you sincerely care about them and you are willing to hold them accountable. Leadership is more about creating this environment of learning than giving orders and controlling others.  I am still learning about how to do this as a professional but the Harvard Business Review is giving me a good head start. 

As a knowledge worker you should not be strung out like an army ant holding the colony together.  If the office is a toxic sludge of anxiety, it is time to grab a shovel and start the difficult process of creating psychological safety. I we fail we are doomed to live in a bipolar business world.

Until next time.