Have you ever felt that the system was against you? That you were struggling against the system in a battle of wits that was impossible to win? I did, and I have the scars to prove it.
Back in the 1990s, I was delivering technology projects for large organisations, struggling against impossible timelines in an environment where the cost of the project was more important than the people doing the work. I felt there had to be a better way, but I had no idea what it could be.
I remember the day I first encountered agile as if it was yesterday, I didn’t know it at the time, but it was going to have an enormous impact on me.
IF SOMEONE OFFERS YOU AN AMAZING OPPORTUNITY AND YOU’RE NOT SURE YOU CAN DO IT, SAY YES – THEN LEARN HOW TO DO IT LATER.
Sir Richard Branson
My manager told me we were ‘going agile’ and gave me a book to read.
The book was “Agile Software Development with Scrum” by Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle. It’s a terrific book and I devoured it in a weekend.
Suddenly, I was a Scrum Master, even though I had no idea what that meant.
I remember feeling like I’d been set adrift, I’d been delivering software for a long time and was confident in my abilities, but this new Scrum Master role was entirely unknown. Sure, I’d read the book and knew the basic mechanics of the framework, but most of it was completely unfamiliar, counter intuitive and felt like voodoo.
At the time, I thought I was doing a decent job of it, I did all the activities and ticked all the boxes, but as I look back now and with the benefit of hindsight, I know I was rubbish at it.
After many months of struggling to come to terms with my new situation I started to understand some of the intent behind the practices and developed some small level of confidence. Solving people problems is certainly more complex and more difficult than solving technical problems, but it was also much more rewarding, and I came to enjoy the Scrum Master part of my work more than the software development part.
As my grasp of agility grew, I came to love the fact that it put the focus back on the people and the outcomes instead of the cost and the output.
Through my work as a Scrum Master, I learned about the practices in agile methodologies and became proficient in teaching and training teams how to adopt those practices. I grew to the level of competence where I could adapt the practices to suit individual circumstances without breaking the underlying intent.
Enjoying the role and starting to understand how much I didn’t know; I developed a hunger for learning and a passion for helping those in my team to learn. I set about reading everything I could get my hands on and doing every course I could enrol in.
THE GREATEST DANGER IN TIMES
OF TURBULENCE IS NOT THE TURBULENCE; IT IS TO ACT WITH YESTERDAY'S LOGIC.
Then I became a Product Owner at a major beverages company. I thought I knew enough about agile and understood the role well enough, but once again, I was out of my depth and struggling just to stay afloat.
About a year into the role, I could start to show real improvement in the team’s ability to deliver customer and business value, and I had a fair enough grasp on the activities and functions of the role, even though I was still operating like a Project Manager. I’d like to think I was fairly good at it, but I certainly wasn’t great.
That was when the wonderful community that was building up around agile came to my attention and I started to engage in different groups and meetups, attending presentations and participating in workshops.
My passion for learning became turbo charged. Here was a community of like-minded people who were happy to give of their time and themselves to share their learning and experience with others for the sheer joy of helping others.
I learned about agile planning techniques and ways to map out a feature or requirement so that it is easier to break it down to small pieces and techniques to assess priorities so that we were always working on the most valuable things.
Over the next couple of years, I had many lightbulb moments that each blew my mind in ways I could not have previously imagined.
One of those lightbulb moments came when a team member asked why we were working on a particular feature. I couldn’t answer beyond the fact that management had requested it. I reflected afterwards and realised that I had not been operating as a Product Owner with real ownership and accountability for decisions about value, but simply taking orders from management and passing them on to the team.
Another ‘aha’ moment came when I found a way to report on the real value delivered by the team. They had been struggling under stifling micromanagement in a culture of command and control with all their decisions being made by their managers. Focus had always been on cost,... delivering on time and within budget seemed like the only important things. When I was able to attach an actual value in dollars to the things the team delivered and show that they were delivering far more value than they were costing, the thumbscrews came off.
Everything swiftly changed and the team became empowered to make some of their own decisions and were finally allowed to take some level of control over their own destiny. The additional autonomy motivated the team even more and their performance improved dramatically in a very short period of time simply through being able to prove how valuable they were.
Through a series of workshops and learning events, I found myself connecting with a lot of the elements of agile that had earlier escaped my attention because I had been doing agile in a way that focused on the activities and functions of the work, not the intent or the mindset behind it.
AGILE IS AN ATTITUDE, NOT A TECHNIQUE WITH BOUNDARIES. AN ATTITUDE HAS NO BOUNDARIES.
I had been doing the job exactly as it was described but I was missing the point entirely, agility opened up before me and it was so much more than a set of practices or any specific activities, it was a way of being and a mindset that resonated with me in a way that none of the work I had ever done previously did.
A few years later I took a job as an agile coach and my learning journey accelerated once again.
My experience with being a Scrum Master and a Product Owner allowed me to help people with the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of their work as well as the ‘how’ of getting that work done efficiently, but was still more focused on doing agile practices rather than living an agile mindset, (more an what an agile mindset is later.)