Monday, March 9, 2015


How does this help with agility?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Are You The Thorin Oakenshield of Agile Transformations?

The King Under the Mountain ....and Agile Transformations?

I have formed a kinship with this dwarf, this King Under The Mountain.  His journey and mine throughout my coaching of various companies bear a striking resemblance. Identifying with Thorin came as a surprise to me.  After all, I'm a pretty happy, positive guy, and  Thorin is not.  He is a grumpy dwarf, quite unlikable, self-important, grudge-bearing,  and generally dour.

It all happened over the last few days.  My son is reading through the Lord of the Rings and re-watching the first two Hobbit movies. As I started watching it with him I felt this strange recognition.  I was identifying with Thorin, both good and bad, and noticed at least eight lessons that caused me to bond with the grumpiest of dwarves. Warning there are spoilers in here, so if you haven't seen these.....oh who am I kidding? If you haven't seen the Hobbit movies or read the books you likely won't.  But you were warned so here we go - 

  1. Use The Stuff Around You  -  Thorin was up against a much larger opponent in both size and physicality.  After all, orcs always outnumber their opponents. Otherwise, how would they ever win considering the .02 Kill Death Ratio they suffer.  The equipment he was given (tools) were insufficient to take down  Azog the Defiler. So what does Thorin do?  He uses what he's got - a piece of wood and a sword off the groundWe Agilists will pickup any little scrap to get our sprints tracked and out the door.  Can you say sticky notes on a white board?  keep the tool simple, especially in the beginning. 
  1. Keep Your Sponsor Close - Thorin keeps getting redirected. Initially you may think his opposition to elves is just him being difficult. I mean, who can hate elves?  So Gandalf sends them on a side mission - to the ridiculous tangle of Mirkwood Forest. Worse yet, he has the gall to leave.  Tell me, Agilists, that you haven't seen this behavior before.  Someone who claims to have your back and right at the most critical time he or she is gone, and that Agile sponsor is on his horse as fast as you can say  Shadowfax.  Usually if your sponsor fades away its tough to get them back.  "Oh hey, yah, its nice to hear from you Thorin.  Look, I got a call. Set up a 1:1 with me for next week," says Executive Gandalf.   Agilist learning?  Keep your sponsor engaged.  Make sure you're doing things that he or she care about, something with a high enough priority to keep them next to you in the dark forests of your company. 
Executive Steering Committee Not Feeling so Agile

  1. Get On the Balcony  - Next we find our poor, intrepid dwarves are working in here trying to get through Mirkwood Forest (their next release or Agile achievement), but they get all confused and demoralized by the darkly enchanted Mirkwood Forest. They stall, having walked in circles, only then to be wrapped up by giant spiders ( project risks and pitfalls) and almost at death's door.  Their opponents show up, and they are basically arrested (auditors?). This would be like have your project hit a bump, say fail a release  and then having the  an audit team coming in to "help you out", complete with "corrective action plans" and coaching so you can get back on track.  Agile takeaway? Get someone out of the trees so they can see the forest. Get the big picture. If they would have gotten Bilbo up on that tree sooner, they could have gotten by those risks and delays sooner.  Working from home, a different office, or going to a conference/training helps break the spell of the day-to-day and see problems in a different way. 
See The Forest - and Butterflies. 

  1. Get Out of the Way - That wasn't the first time Thorin almost got shut down by the Elvish State. They had to sneak out of Rivendell or the whole establishment ( Saurmon the Questioning, Galadriel who isn't really tuned in, and the Elf King who seems too cautious.  When have we not seen that, dear Agilists?)   The only thing Gandalf does right here is let them escape. Agile learning? If you're a leader/manager, sometime the best thing you can do is cover for your team while they do the Agile thing.  Permitting pilots, agile training events, and Agile spikes are examples of this kind of support. 
  1. Keep the Big Picture in Mind -  By reputation the wood elves are more selfish and violent than the high elves, so its no surprise that Thorin isn't a big fan, and during some high level negotiations with their king he sorta blows his top and gets sent to prison.  This delayed the whole journey.   But he let his emotions get to him, which is a good antipattern for us agilists to avoid?  Make the deal.  Instead, they get thrown in prison 
  1. Don't Wait - Eventually,  Thorin and the team finally gets to the Mountain, the place that they can rightfully call their home, all without Gandalf who is on some other higher priority project.  Yet. Gandalf the Grey told these little dudes "Don't go in the mountain without me" Bilbo reminds Thorin of this, who summarily tells the hobbit that we don’t wait for wizards.  It’s a good thing, since Gandalf had by that time gotten into so much hot water there was no way he was going to make it. Those little guys would have died of old age sitting on that hill waiting for him, and never communicated back to them that he would not be coming to their aid. No, Gandalf abandoned these Dwarves because another executive asked him to, namely, Radagast. Yes, a man with bird poop on his head redirected our hapless executive to abandon his team to certain death.  How many times do you think this has played out in board rooms across America?  "Well, I was supposed to be kicking off this agile transformation project, but that bird poo guy has a point. That CMMI audit looks awfully compelling.  and those agile guys, they can take down that dragon......easy....right...?"   The agile take away here, for me, is don't wait, 'cause the Wizard isn't coming.  The training and coaching I do always frames this in words such as start fast and fail fast, Sprint 0, or something like that.  The odds are that if you reach your mountain conditions won't be perfect.  You have the key. Things aren't perfect. Go anyway.   

  1. Do Your Job  -  The New England Patriots slogan applies here too. Through excellent team work and using their distinct talents,  this cross functional team of dwarves successfully tossed Smaug  out of the mountain.  Unfortunately, that wasn't the right mission.  They needed to kill the dragon, not just chase him off.   We all know what happens next: Smaug runs off, all golden and fiery, and heads off to destroy a hapless nearby town .  What's the Agile message here? Well, there are two.  First, make sure you're really executing on the priority mission.  Tight relationships with your product owners and product managers and a clean backlog is a sign your dev effort has coherence with the business.  Secondly, don't make it worse for the other teams by doing bad agile.   The dwarves were messy - they had no plan going in, other than sacrificing Bilbo.  They made a terrible mess of the place and spilled alot of gold in the process.  Worst of all, they made a dragon mad.  Don't make the dragon mad. In Agile transformations that can be other teams or other management chains ( Operations? Marketing? Sales? ).    Find a way to get them on your team.  Otherwise, by failing to accomplish the real goal and not having a plan they sent the whole mission to risk. Now no one cares about you and your mountain. Bad Agile gives the framework a bad name when it fails and now the dragon ( angry exec/manager) is going on a rampage - I  AM FIRE! 

  1. Trust Is First  - Thorin ultimately falls to the dark magic that imbued the gold ( this is why Gandalf said to wait) and becomes a tyrant. He becomes isolated, greedy, and overly protective of his turf.  This I have seen too, and perhaps have exhibited it on occasion.  Even a modicum of success can lead to stagnation - people hanker down, stop taking risks, and worse of all stop trusting their team and mentors.   My final take away is this - trust your team, trust your business, trust your leadership.  Trust the people who are in your camp. They want you to succeed, because they succeed too.   Even Gandalf eventually showed up and tried his best to save them, but it took a personal crisis to shake Thorin back to his senses and, as you certainly know, the day is saved, but he pays a big price that he might not have had to.  So, Agilists, be less stubborn, try to always improve, and keep trying new things.  

As I pondered this I found that I sometimes identified with others in the story beyond Thorin Oakenshield. Sometimes I was Gandalf, seeing the big picture and wondering why no one else did.  Other times I was like Bilbo and wondering if I should be on this journey at all.  Regardless of where I aligned myself,  I realized that being all of the above at the right times is what is important.  You need to be as adaptable as a hobbit,  have the clear focus and skill of a wizard, and the stubbornness of a dwarf who would be King Under the Mountain.   The trick and art is all knowing when to tap into these archetypes. So, intrepid Agilists, which characters do you see yourself in? Please comment below!  

Friday, February 7, 2014

Complexity, Human Behavior, and the Seahawks

We all now in the Seattle region are soaked in the glory of the Seahawks absolutely devastating victory over the Denver Broncos. It was so bad for them, it was such an incredible blowout, that even talking heads have trouble talking about it without hyperbole, resorting to the statement "The Broncos got punked".
The most interesting thing for me is the implications of this blowout victory. Namely, not only did the Broncos get punked but so did every prognosticator out there. Even I, a stalwart Hawk fan, had the Broncos up by 3, essentially agreeing with the Vegas line, until I changed my vote the day before.  I remembered something about the younger team usually winning a superbowl, which swayed me at the 12th hour. However, I put the Hawks up 17-14, thinking a desparate 4th quarter field goal would be the decider.

So wrong.  Vegas was wrong too.

 A note about Vegas. They are right - a lot. They're usually spot on with elections and other things. But the more complex things are, the more they shift around under you, the more human behavior is involved – the more difficult it is to predict.
I wrote an article about this some time ago considering the best draft choice ever, Tom Brady. Tom Brady was a low draft choice, and all the pundits had him being a permanent backup. Bledsoe gets injured, and the next thing we know New England has 3 superbowl wins. Now that the Mighty Seahawks are among those who possess superbowl wins, I can speak of the veritable cornucopia of low draft choices we have. Short QB. A new head coach.  Fifth and sixth-rounders, and even undrafted players making plays on the biggest stage known. The whole defense is known as misfits.
In the next few editions of this blog I'm going to be exploring complexity and prediction, and how we can tell if we're in the domain where those make sense or not, and to know upfront if all the dogged effort we put into telling the future has any prayer of making the future known to us.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The 25 Best Bloggers, 2013 Edition |

The 25 Best Bloggers, 2013 Edition | " “One of the loveliest things about life is that it starts again every morning,” she muses in a recent entry, adding: “The best thing about the night/day arrangement is that it gives one the opportunity to reinvent oneself every day.”"

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

How to Succeed when Your Project is in Jeopardy - Part 2 of 2

Last article I wrote about how being on a project that is ending, a company that might be getting acquired or going out of business, etc.  It was more about the project itself - how you can see if its going down, what strategies you can use to avert or at least slow its death.  Ultimately I left off about things you should be doing, training and the such, to start your new life.   That's where I'm going to pick it up. 

I recently discovered the “four A’s” of stress relief from the Mayo Clinic
  • Avoid the source of stress
  • Alter your reaction to it
  • Accept things as they are or 
  • Adapt by changing your expectations
  • Acknowledge your team, the work, and the moment (this one is mine)
This seems like a good structure to Survive a Project in Jeopardy and something as a project leader you can model and share with the team. 

Avoid the stress - Sometimes, especially in workaholic America, getting away for a while doesn't dawn on us as a viable strategy for survival.   I used to think vacation a lie, like a mirage of fun before you have to return to work, but now I cherish the time and would like to have more of it, especially with my kids.  Who knows, a good week spent hiking might put that project struggle into some perspective. 

Alter  your reaction -  A dying project can be very stressful, and like most things that are alive, a project will die.  Most people on the team know its dying or at least a zombie.   An example of altering your reaction: 


Disconnected Executive Who Drives a REALLY Nice Car and won't be affected by a downturn:  "We're going to cut your budget to 1/3 of its current size...good luck keeping those customers happy. Oh, and you're getting Phil's projects too because he's been laid off."

YOU: " The hell you are! I'll raise a stink all over the company to stop you." 

ANGRY YOU: (10 minutes later)  to the team:  "Well guys, the folks upstairs just chopped our budget. Get your boxes packed.."

TEAM:  *cries*


YOU: "Team we're going to have to prioritize, and delight our customer so much they'll freak out with happiness and recommend us to everyone !"

TEAM: "Yeah!"

Accept What Is -  This is one of those things that is straight forward in words but difficult in practice. The Yoda of the NBA, Phil Jackson’s latest tome,the very Tolkien sounding "Eleven Rings" ends with this: “The soul of success is surrendering to what is"   This is really close to Altering your reaction, the difference being that acceptance is really internal work.    What you, while you're packing your boxes, feel about the situation.    Its also an authenticity thing - don't lie to the team.  If there are budget issues, be honest.  Don't over disclose, but by all means don't hide and lie.  These are people...they are Immortal Souls and we need to treat them with due respect.

One more quote, this one from one of my all time favorite books, Flow.

People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.
Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990

Yet acceptance only gets you so must adapt, change expectations, and seek renaissance.

Adapt and Change expectations - I am carrying a belief that much of the unhappiness people's lives is due to cognitive dissonance caused by the gap between expectations and reality.  We have maps in our heads about where we were supposed to live, what we were supposed to be in charge of, and what we were supposed to be driving ( have you seen the new Jaguars?  Oh my) , etc.

Adapt to finding the joy you can attain. Create events on your calendar that you might want to go to.  That writers conference...the art colony...the dance club.... You were something before this gig, and you'll likely be something after it. Take this experience and start moving forward.

If you're lucky to be leading a project, people will come to you with concerns.  Help them with this effort. Help them reduce the dissonance between what they wanted their life to be and what it is.

Acknowledge -  I had to add this.  Some if the best experiences I've had was where the closure was aided by a conscious acknowledgment of the hard work, the inherent goodness of collective creation, and the finality of that moment.  Whether its you leaving or a teammate,  it changes  the project.  Being mindful and saying goodbye are powerful tonic in memory creation.  

Lastly there's some resources to help.    I'll give you three that I use:

1. The fear.less  newsletter.  Just drives directly to the issue of fear and how hundreds of super-successful people overcame it.

2.  Crush It, Unstoppable and Wired Magazine - Love all three. Crush It is a book that makes me want to walk through walls. Unstoppable is great if you're trying to start a biz, and Wired. Man I love that magazine.  Somehow it slakes my geek-thirst and I feel aligned again.  

3.  Escapism:  Read that fantasy novel, go to the movies, binge watch your favorite show.  Life is hard, and if you have some non-destructive habits by all means partake.  Recharge those batteries.  See the greatness of other people's labor and creativity . Feel their dreams through their art.

You've done all that, and now you're ready.  You've recharged those batteries, the new project is on the horizon, and you have that great fishing trip scheduled.  Be mindful, now that you're back in the game , of how you recovered yourself.  Remember it, because this won't be the last time, and rather than see that as a negative, leverage appreciative inquiry and reframe  - letting go and moving on is really life itself. Being good with that is up to you.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

How to Succeed when Your Project is in Jeopardy - Part 1 of 2

aka you are not your project

Joe Fecarotta

In a lifetime of IT projects you are bound to be on one or more projects or even companies that fail.  Projects, like companies, run out of cash, get beat in the marketplace, get starved for resources, and so on.  What makes it difficult in large enterprises is that the bottom line of the company is so distant from where your desk is.  Say your working a payroll system, or a the benefits website.  Can you track your efforts to the bottom line?  Its a challenge.    Its a challenge for project management since the challenges are often beyond your control. If the company is cash strapped and it affects your resources, you have to continually replan.  It usually has a few common stages: 

1. Unreasonable deadlines or expectations are  set - this is because the business is running out of cash and may need your project for cost savings or profit.  They may need that doorstop to teleport small animals, when really it was only supposed to hold open the door. 

2.  Key resources are pulled or shared- its a common pattern to bunch together DBAs, Usablity, and deployment/build engineers.   I get why this is done, but as a PM I still hate it. It kills the teaming and the ownership of the product that your creating when some dude 100 miles away is mindlessly running database scripts on yet another database.  Its a manufacturing mindset for certain.  Worse is when the deployment people aren't sitting with you or are on 10 different projects.   

3.  Once your key resources are pulled, things will start breaking.  It'll take longer for your system to recover because all the folks who created it and truly understand it are gone.  This will of course thrill your customers who are already setting the deadlines in #1.   It won't take them long to execute #5, but not before they'res a good blood-letting via #4, the Blame Game. 

4.  Blame game -  This is when the long knives start coming out. A few things might be good fall guys : 

  • The Process :  Agile usually gets the blame at larger companies. Its really new and difficult and no one really wanted to do it in the first place.  At smaller ones, the fact that there was no process gets the blame.  
  • The Tools:  medium to large projects typically have some sort of new technology that they're trying to implement, typically with under-trained resources and unrealistic timelines.   It was exciting initially and now everyone's looking for the guy who chose this dog. 
  • The People :  Always part of the mix, since robots aren't writing code yet, who else are we going to blame?  I've been caught up in this one.  I told that DBA we had a deployment and he went fishing? What? That Cognos feller went to China? What?
  • Communications:  Of course this is the fall guy for everything, since its so difficult in large systems.  'nuff said. 
  • The Vendor: Easy target here.   If the vendor or supplier wrote even one line of code its easy to bash on them.  Its even better if its outsourcing since every hates that but everyone relies on it too.  I love it when they say, " you know India is 12 hours away..."   Was this a surprise to people after the contract was signed?  
  • The end user/customer - This one is tricky since the customer is usually the one paying for it or knows them really well.   IT will blame them because they asked for Mars, but really wanted the planet and not the candy bar that IT delivered. 

4.  Your funding is pulled entirely.  Despite the thousands of people hours and tens of thousands of dollars in capital, it occurs to people in the midst of a proejct, usually between the apex of spending and the trough of  no ROI, that they could write this system for less, or they don't need it any more.  

So, onto the Survival Tip #1 : Fight the Story.  
What is in common with all the items above is that there is a story that will start getting attached to your project.  Project A can't deliver.  Project A has troubled people. The tech Project A is using is a career dead end and the wrong tech for the project.   These stories will likely start with peers on other projects in an effort to rob your project of funding.   Its Darwinian  but its business.
To fight the story, you need to make sure where the decisions are being made.  Find the gatekeepers and ensure that if your opponents are there, you're there.   Think about merging with one of your competitors...after all they're just people trying to do a job, and ostensibly on the same side.  Make sure you exceed the reporting needs, and do as much stats as you can.

If your successful Fighting the Story will slow the exodus of dollars from your project and people from your cause.   In the next installment, I'll talk about how you as a project leader can survive personally and help your team do the same when things go from bad to worse.

- Joe

Saturday, March 23, 2013


Just so I don't have to look around for it again, I'm repeating the Kotter 8.   I think Step 7, which I saw on a poster at work, is beautiful, and as I review this list I weep for my own change efforts at work.  Most of the things I'm after do not get passed step 1.  

So perhaps my new shakeup at work, one that I was scoffing at, I can think carefully.  The execs have stirred up the nest, they've got the first four checked off the list.   The question for me is how do I get behind this wave to lift my little boat up? 

In his book "The heart of Change", Kotter identified 8 steps required to successfully deliver transformation. They are a very useful checklist, and review list through a change programme to ensure that the programme has a balance of the elements required for success. The text below are his quotes relating to each Step.
Step 1: create a sense of urgency
Those who are most successful at significant change begin their work by creating a sense of urgency among the relevant people. In smaller organizations, the 'relevant' are more likely to number 100 than five, in larger organizations 1,000 rather than 50.... A sense of urgency, sometimes developed by very creative means, gets people off the couch, out of a bunker, and ready to move
Step 2: put together a guiding team 
With the urgency turned up, the more successful change agents pull together a guiding team with the credibility, skills, connections, reputations, and formal authority required to provide change leadership. This group learns to operate...with trust and emotional commitment.
Step 3: create visions and strategies
the guiding team creates sensible, clear, simple, uplifting visions and sets of strategies. In the less successful cases, there are only detailed plans and budgets that...are insufficient, or a vision that is not very sensible..., or a vision that is created by others and largely ignored by the guiding team."
Step 4: communicate for buy in
Communication of the vision and strategies comes next - simple, heartfelt messages sent through many unclogged channels. The goal is to induce understanding, develop a gut-level commitment, and liberate more energy from a critical mass of people. Here, deeds are often more important than words. Symbols speak loudly. Repetition is key
Step 5: empower people
In the best situations, you find a heavy dose of empowerment. Key obstacles that stop people from acting on the vision are removed. Change leaders focus on bosses who disempower, on inadequate information and information systems, and on self-confidence barriers in people's minds. The issue here is removing obstacles, not 'giving power'.
Step 6: produce short-term wins
With empowered people working on the vision, in cases of great success those people are helped to produce short-term wins. The wins are critical. They provide credibility, resources, and momentum to the overall effort
Step 7: build momentum
change leaders don't let up. Momentum builds after the first wins. Early changes are consolidated. People shrewdly choose what to tackle next, then create wave after wave of change until the vision is a reality. In less successful cases, people try to do too much at once.
Step 8: nurture a new culture
A new culture develops through consistency of successful action over a sufficient period of time. Here, appropriate promotions, skilful new employee orientation, and events that engage emotions can make a big difference. In other cases a great deal of work can be blown away by the winds of tradition in a remarkably short period of time


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