Gorillas can be Agile with any project

Some days I was so thankful for the fact I worked in a three story building. It made the urge to toss myself off it, to end the misery, so much less. Unless If I  was really lucky I’d just end up hurting myself and that would just add to the miserable condition I was in.
Hogarth was right… Oh how I hated to think those three words. It was becoming such a common occurrence that I was considering adding to the law’s of nature. The sun comes up in the east, politicians are lying when their lips are moving and Hogarth is always right. This time it had to do with my implementation of Agile. Agile may be the silver bullet of development but I hadn’t had the first idea how to properly implement it.
So I’d swallowed the pill and went out and figured out just what Agile was. Leaning back in my chair I took in the remains of that discovery. Highsmith was leaning on Adkins and the two were threatening to push Cockburn off the desk. Larsen and Cohn were glaring at me from under the coffee cup perched on them. The books stared back at me mutely, mocking my pain and despair. Tilting my head back to stare at the ceiling I moaned. “Kill me now…”
“What and miss all the fun?”
I kept my eyes closed and used every ounce of my will to imagine away the voice that had spoken.
“Not gonna work,” Hogarth replied. “Your subconscious really likes me, so you’re stuck with me.”
Pulling my gaze from the acoustical tile I fixed Hogarth with a baleful gaze. “Remind me to schedule myself for a lobotomy.”
Hogarth was perched on the large window ledge. His black fur shimmering in the afternoon sunlight and his face was split with a contended grin. “Now why on earth would you want to give up all this?” His huge paw swept in an all encompassing arc that took in my cube and then the rest of the office beyond.
“Because there is no way on earth I’m going to get the company to adopt Scrum for real!” I poked at the stack of books. “It’s a far cry between some structural artifacts and the real meaning of Agile and the company is about as unagile as you can get.”
Hogarth nodded, “Well yeah, I think we covered the whole artifacts part already” He snaked an arm out the open window and broke off a branch from the tree outside. Snacking on the branch he said, “You’ve recognized the real problem so what’s the issue?”
“There is no way on earth I’ll ever get this company to go agile.”
“Agile or Scrum?” Hogarth asked.
“What’s the difference?” I shot back.
“A single sapling a forest does not make…”
Scrum is an Agile Framework – Scrum is not the only way to practice Agile.
When these kind of comments are thrown out, the typical response is something like “Well of course, there’s Kanban, Lean, or XP.”  And those folks are right, these are other frameworks or methodologies  of Agile. And at the same time I think we end up missing the bigger picture. To understand this, we need to look into the roots of Agile.
Agile has two foundational roots. The most obvious is the gathering of software luminaries that created the Agile Manifesto. Agile wasn’t some earth shaking new concept. What it was, was the joint thinking of seventeen software developers who had been practicing various lightweight development methods and how what was the common, foundational values of these methods.  At its heart Agile was a new language to explain long standing best practices, values and principles. If you think about it, in a light weight Agile way, it is the Agile PMBoK. (Remember that the PMBoK is also not a methodology, but a set of standard terminology and guidelines for project management.)
The other foundational root goes back to the precursors of Lean manufacturing, to the Toyota Way. Like the Agile Manifesto, it was not until 2001 that Toyota published the “Way.” But in Toyota’s case it was not for lack of use. Toyota revolutionized automotive manufacturing with their unique style and for decades US companies tried to match it. It’s not as if Toyota was a walled garden. They cheerfully gave tours of their plants to any and all comers. Why? Because they knew the artifacts of their process were not the key. The key was their six underlying principles, such as “Respect for People,” and “Add value to your organization by developing your people and partners.”
So what’s your point?
Ah yes, this is not a history lesson and I am trying  to make a point.
Today I read a great blog that sums up my point nicely. Ben Horowitz wrote about Lead Bullets, on TechCrunch. The kernel of this is to not go looking for the silver bullet solution, instead use the bullets you have and shoot better.
I’ve heard stunning success stories in the use of Agile Methodologies (Scrum, XP, Lean, etc.) In nearly all of these instances, the support and engagement was across the board high. It was the right time, the right people, the right need and so on. The Perfect Project Storm. In these cases the silver bullet was the only bullet and it was a dead shot.
And I’ve seen people try and use the Agile silver bullet and have the organization smother them alive. I like to remind people that silver bullets only work against werewolves. If you are facing a ghost, you’re kind of out of luck. When faced with an organization that is highly resistant, highly process driven, highly dysfunctional, etc. trying to dive into the deep end of the Agile pool tends to only end up in the Agile project and team being drowned.
I’m even more depressed now, wasn’t there a point?
Yes! The point is Agile isn’t just an umbrella over methodologies,  like Scrum and Lean. Agile is a set of guiding principles that can be used ANYWHERE. Where is it wrong to have good teamwork? When is it wrong to make sure the customer is getting what they want? If the process plan says to roll the parts cart around the outside of the building twice, before entering, is it wrong to ask “Why?”
Enter the Agile Manager. You don’t have to be using Scrum to be Agile. You can use the principles of Agile anywhere . You can make any team better, if you try.
In short, don’t let bad methodology get in the way of good management.
Focus on the team and the project will improve. That’s Agile.
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

Indiana Gorilla and the Artifacts of Agile

“Okay and Eric, you were working on the shopping cart ordering story, right?”
Eric nodded, but remained silent.
“And tomorrow you should be done and moving on to the Wish List story, right?”
He nodded again, still silent. He was a good engineer, never spoke unless he really had something to say.
“Any impediments?”
Eric looked around the table at the other seated engineers. None of them met his gaze, intent on their own computers. Then he shrugged and turned back to me. “No.”
“Ah, excellent!” I gave a thumbs up sign to the assembled team. “Great stand up, guys, I’ll see you all again tomorrow.”
I happily began entering data into my uber status report spreadsheet and didn’t notice the engineers talking quietly amongst themselves as they filed out.
I was cheerfully humming away five minutes later, when Hogarth wandered in. I looked up and pointed at my uber sheet projecting on the wall screen. “Man, this Scrum stuff is great! I love the daily standups. Just great to have everyone giving daily reports on their status. Can you imagine? A year ago I had to hound them for their slide decks every week and I almost never got a full report.”
Hogarth cast a glance at the screen, before he flopped down near the window. Reaching out the window he pulled a branch from the tree outside. After a careful examination of the branch, he used it to point at the screen. “Pretty picture, but you know its completely wrong, right?”
“What!?” I turned to stare at him. “What on earth are you talking about? The project is going great! Look at that burndown! I just cross referenced it with my detailed MS Project file and we are at least a week ahead of schedule. We’re doing AWESOME!”
Hogarth shook his head. “Nope, all an illusion. Take Eric for example, he’s got a massive database integration issue that’s going to end up making all of his stories crash and burn. He’s stumped on how to solve the problem and it is going to cascade into a total failure of the storefront in about two sprints.”
I blinked. “What on earth are you talking about? Eric just walked out of here and he didn’t say word one about any issues.”
Hogarth nodded, pealing a long strip of bark from the tree branch. “Course he didn’t, no point saying anything if you’re not going to listen to him.”
“What?” I said incredulously. “We just had our stand up! I was sitting right here! I didn’t set up all these Agile meetings just to have things be the same as before!”
“Just because you have the magical artifact, doesn’t mean you have a clue how to use it.”
“What?” I hated it when Hogarth spoke in riddles.
Hogarth rolled his eyes. “You remember in the original Indiana Jones, the Germans had the Ark of the Covenant?”
I stared at Hogarth, “I don’t have time for movie quizzes, Hogarth.” He gave me a “humor me” look and I sighed in surrender. “Yes, I remember. It ended pretty badly for them.”
Hogarth nodded. “Ayup, they had the artifact. But they didn’t know how to use it. If you put a MacDonald’s fry cook in the Iron Chef kitchen, he’s not magically going to become a great chef. The tools don’t make the chef, the chef does.”
I stared at him for a long minute.
“Ah, crap…”
Agile Artifacts vs. Agile Values: Holding Daily Standups, planning work in two week iterations, and tracking progress on a burn down chart are all excellent tools for the Agile team. They are not  Agile. Agile is a set of values and principles. It’s more about the how of team and not the what of the product.
You can’t take a handful of engineers, start having them meet once a day, and declare yourself Agile. Like Hogarth’s examples from above, having a tool (A Daily Standup is a Tool/Artifact) and knowing how to use it are two entirely different things. And the more advanced that tool, the more knowledge you need to use it.
Back in college I got a part time job at a little coffee shop/deli (Back before Starbucks took over the world). The owner was a quiet Turkish man who wouldn’t let me touch the espresso machine until after I’d learned not only the history of coffee but the why’s of exactly how the machine worked (this was an old manual style machine, no automatic buttons or anything). I must have frothed gallons of milk before he let me pour a single ounce into a customer’s cup. He told me, “To make good coffee, one must first understand coffee.”
Success in Agile requires a look beyond the tangible of meetings, code drops, requirements documents and into the heart of how the organization runs. The values and principles are as much, if not more about the team and not the product trying to be made. Make a better team and you make a better product.
Throw around a bunch of Agile Artifacts, like a five year old using a Ginsu Steak knife set, and you just replace one bad process with another.
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

Armchair gorilla

– Or walk a mile in the gorilla’s shoes

This blog inspired by Tobias Meyer’s recent blog “Scrum is not Project Management”
Normally I don’t let Hogarth follow me home. There are limits and that’s just one of them. The thought of an 800 pound gorilla on my couch is a terrifying one. And then there is what he does to the refrigerator. Did I mention gorilla hair on the white carpet? But it was the Superbowl and I had a moment of weakness.
“Come on! You call that a pass? My mother can throw better than that.” I angrily waved at the TV while speaking through a mouthful of Dorritos. “Can you believe this guy, Hogarth? That play had blitz written all over it. I swear even a deaf bat could have seen it.”
Hogarth looked at the dried banana chip poised to be popped into his mouth, then looked at me, then looked back to the chip. Sighing he lowered the chip and gave me a reproachful look.
“How much football have you played?” He asked.
I looked aghast, “Me? Last time I played footbal, it was with flags and I was still too young to vote.”
Hogarth gave a sage nod. “I see. I bet you didn’t even stay in a Holiday In Express last night.”
It was my turn to sigh. “Okay, okay, I get the point. Not only am I not there, but I’m not a quarterback, have never been a quarterback and don’t have the first clue how to be a real quarterback.” I shook my head, “I’m sitting here trying to second guess the expert. Talk about stupid.”
Hogarth nodded again. And then he spoke, his words breaking the 4th wall and my own train of thought. “So why are you trying so hard to prove Tobias wrong?”
I turned to stare at Hogarth my mouth agape. No sound came forth despite the repeated opening and closing of my bass like mouth.
Why indeed?
I make my living doing a job that typically has the job title of “Project Manager” or “Program Manager.” Given that, it may be understandable to you that my emotional reaction to Tobias’ blog was to disagree.  I certainly did this initially. The first few comments I thought about leaving to his blog were much less reasoned than what I ended up posting.
And then, much like my revelation in “A Project Manager’s Poker Hand,” I came to a realization that I was trying to impose my own value on someone else. Worse yet, my value was based purely on emotional reaction, where as the opinion espoused by Tobias was based on subject matter expertise.
Yes, I have Scrum training, I’ve studied Scrum and I’ve even incorporated some Scrum concepts into product development efforts I’ve been involved in. But I am most certainly not a Scrum expert. I’ve never worked on a classic Scrum team and I can’t speak from first hand experience.
Tobias on the other hand has. He is a recognized expert on Scrum teams and Scrum development. Without my own “traditional” Scrum experiences, I have to put faith and trust on Tobias speaking from that expertise.  I don’t know enough about a straight Scrum project to know if a “traditional” project manager would bring any value. I certainly hope to learn and understand more as I delve into the Agile philosophy, but for now I have to take Tobias at his word. Just as the Product Owner must trust the teams estimates, I should trust Tobias’ expertise.
So as the saying goes, “Don’t judge another, until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
All right, so Scrum is not Project Management.
What is project management then?
It was something of a wake up call to read some of the very acerbic comments posted both in Tobias’ blog and Ken Schwaber’s blog that inspired Tobias’ blog (Yes I’m a response to a response). That people think project management is an evil tool of “corporate” or an “idea whose time has passed,” was not something to cross my mind. Even Ken’s own words had me blinking in confusion.
“We have found that the role of the project manager is counterproductive in complex, creative work. The project manager’s thinking, as represented by the project plan, constrains the creativity and intelligence of everyone else on the project to that of the plan, rather than engaging everyone’s intelligence to best solve the problems.”
“Wow, that’s not the project management I know” was my initial thought. I certainly have never felt I was stifling creativity or constraining anyone’s intelligence. I was an art major in college and write science fiction as a hobby, not exactly what I would think of as an oppressive personality. Yet, the comments posted certainly had me wondering. I had to check myself in the mirror and make sure I wasn’t wearing a black mask and breathing funny. <Darth Vader voice> You underestimate the power of project management.</voice>
So before I accepted my role in the dark side of corporate america, I decided to look for other definitions.
PMI’s PMBoK defines project management as:
“Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.”
And they define a project as:
“A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. ”
Okay, so not the most evocative words ever written. And I can already see issues with the definition of a project and the normal evolution of software. When version 1.0 ships, the team has usually already begun on version 1.1. Is the project the software as a whole or just v1.0. What is “done”?
Wikipedia, font of all knowledge, real, imagined and inaccurate, defines project management as:
“Project management is the discipline of planning, organizing, securing and managing resources to bring about the successful completion of specific project goals and objectives.”
And Wiki defines a project as:
“A project in business and science is a collaborative enterprise, frequently involving research or design, that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim.”
Okay, so neither source’s definition is going to make a kid say “Daddy, I want to be a project manager when I grow up.” And honestly, neither source really describes what it is I do in my day to day job.
Certainly I spend time organizing and planning. I’ve both helped develop goals and objectives for a project and served as a gatekeeper to ask if we’d met them. Goodness knows I have built a lot of knowledge, practiced a lot of skills and developed a big old toolbox of techniques. But I don’t think that defines what I do in my job or why my boss keeps paying me to do that job.
I know some folks think of project management as the “Owner” of a project. I’ve known project managers who “owned” the project. They were the almighty power and controlled the budget, the people, the project and final deliverables. This does still happen, but at least in the high tech firms I’ve worked for, this is less and less common. The guy in charge of building a bridge is a project manager and also the head engineer, this guy is the “owner.” A guy managing a software team doing an IT integration project is not the “owner”. The team all report to functional managers and the guy managing is more like the cat herder (We won’t go into the myth today).
So what is being a PM mean to me?
Well not to sound like a broken record, but I would stat by reaching back to my “The gorilla with too many hats” and “Project Managers are SMES” blogs to start answering this question.
“If you have four engineers working on the project…, adding a fifth one is already starting to hit that wall of diminishing return. If you add a program manager, you can get more productivity from those four engineers, than you would from adding a fifth engineer and expecting one or more of those engineers to also manage the customer relationships, deadlines, certifications, interface with marketing, etc.”
“A Project Manager’s SME knowledge is in getting a project from inception to launch with in the bounds of the project’s constraints and while keeping the team from flying apart like wine glass shattering when it hits the floor.”
I’ve been doing dedicated project/program management for a decade now. In that time I’ve never had any illusions of being “in charge” of a project. Long before I heard the first utterance of “Agile” or “Scrum” I was practicing servant-leadership.
I am the broom:  Pam Stanton as well as a good friend and fellow project manager, Carl Jones have both used an example that I think speaks to what a 21st century project manager is. They compare our job to that of the game of curling. The curler and the stone are the product/project team and the product being built. The Curler’s (team’s) goal is to get the stone (product) to the center of target area (release date, objectives, value needed, etc.). The Curler is the main person. Without him you don’t have a game. But he is not alone.  The sweepers use brooms to alter the state of the ice in front of the stone.
A good project manager is like a curling sweeper. He gets in front of the product and makes sure there are no impediments (Test equipment was ordered, team has a place to work, external vendor is managed to deliver its dependencies, etc.), but also makes sure those things that have to be done (certifications, compliance, sponsor updates, etc.) get done.
Over the years I’ve developed my own personal philosophy/methodology to being what I am as a professional:
  1. People, not projects
  2. It’s all about communication
  3. Process is a tool, not a roadblock
  4. There is no one, right way
I don’t know if I’m a traditional project manager or program manager. I know I’m not a traditional scrum master and there isn’t even a standard definition of an agile project manager. But at the end of the day I don’t think any of that matters. Because what I know I am is:
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

Gorilla Book Review- The Elements of Scrum


There is something eternally satisfying in closing the back cover of a hard copy book. Especially when the book was such an enjoyable read.
In this age of reading books on Kindle, iPad, printer paper or listening via serial podcast or audio book format, reading a good old fashioned book still has so much emotional content tied up in it. Perhaps the millennial generation will/does feel different, but for we of the Pong generation I think the physical book will always remain a comfortable thing. I love reading on my mobile device and there are some books I truly prefer that way. But not Elements of Scrum.
I had just laid the book down, flipping through the final index pages with an all too satisfied grin of completion. Staring at the blank screen of OneNote I was trying to mentally compose just what I would say about my experiences reading the book.
And like any unasked for distraction, Hogarth wandered by just as I was preparing to type.
“Whuz thad?” he said. At least I assume he did, the spray of partially eaten donuts made it hard to tell.
I looked down at the book, “Elements of Scrum, I just finished reading it.”
Smiling brightly, Hogarth grabbed the book up. “Ooh, the periodic table, I love the periodic table!”
I sighed, “No, Hogarth, not chemistry elements. It’s a book on the fundamentals of the Scrum Methodology.”
“Oh, so elements like Scrumium, Standupum, TDDine, and Taskon?”
“Go away, Hogarth…”
The Elements of Scrum, by Chris Sims and Hilary Louise Johnson
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Chris Sims in action. Chris is the founder/head coach for Agile Learning Labs. A self professed former, aspiring rock star and software coder, Chris’ real talent lie in his ability to engage a room. His coaching style is very dynamic and engaging. Anyone looking to sit at the back of the room and soak up some knowledge, should not attend one of Chris’ trainings. If you want to roll up your sleeves and walk away with hands on practical knowledge, Chris is your man.
My biggest question, when I picked up EoS, was if Chris could take that in person coaching style and translate it to the printed word. I had my doubts. Chris is a hands on trainer, I don’t think I’ve seen him use more than a half dozen PowerPoint slides, ever.He’s a phone first, email days later, kind of guy and I wondered if he’d be able to distill down his thoughts to a cohesive print product. Chris, however, is a smart coach and in collaborating with Hilary I think he found the person who could focus his in person stories and translate them to the printed medium.
EoS is a great mix of approachable writing, great anecdotes and simple pictures, both the ones drawn into the book and the pictures the words easily formed in my head. The nearly 200 pages flew by quickly while giving me some excellent new perspectives on the use of Scrum. For readability I found it outstanding.
Elements is not a complete “how to” book of Scrum, that’s not the goal of the book. It’s laid out a lot like one of Chris’ trainings, and will give any reader a strong foundation in the basics of Scrum. Even though I’ve taken scrum master certification and have been an active agilest for some time now, I still came away from this book with a deeper knowledge of Scrum’s core fundamentals. That says a lot for a $30 book, that it can still teach you some new ideas after taking a two day training class.
The final positive point I can give it is where it will live, now that I’ve read it. EoS will find a place on my ready reference shelf in my office cube. When I need to check something on Scrum, it’s only an arms length away and finding information in it is google easy.
Well worth the cover price.
Thank you and talk to you next time when I’ll share with you my “Pot Hole Project Management” philosophy.
Joel BC
Veteran, the Project Manager wars
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP