Always talk to the worst Gorilla first- Risk mitigation though facing it.

“THREE MONTHS!” I’m pretty sure my voice cracked in a very unmanly-like manner just then. “We have to slip the release by three months?!” Okay I had my voice under better control, now if I could just loosen the death grip on my pen before it broke. “And you’re telling me this three weeks before we were supposed to release!” I needed a new pen anyway.

Jake, meanwhile, was managing to keep his usual calm demeanor through all of this. If he’d ever had a drop of caffeine in his life, you couldn’t tell by his response. Nodding slowly he said, “Yes.”

Yes? That was the sum total of his response? If I squeezed any harder on my broken pen, they’d need to use tweezers to get the bits out of my skin. “Jake,” I said with more calmness than I felt, “I can’t go to E-Staff with just ‘yes, we’re going to slip.’ I need to tell them what went wrong.” What I didn’t say was what I was feeling, I needed something, or someone to hang the problem on.

Jake gave a shrug, “Well we knew there was a lot of risk with the new destabilizers in the matter conversion code. It ended up being a lot more integration work than we thought it would be.”

I gripped the edge of the table. Two inch oak wouldn’t break under my grip like my pen had. “Okay, so why are we not hearing about this until just now?”

Jake pointed towards the planning wall, “Because it was put last in the product backlog. We only just started working on it last week.” He turned back to look at me, “that and because when we tried to estimate it as a 54 point story, ‘everyone’ (he was being nice, he could have just have easily said the product owner and I)  objected and insisted it couldn’t be more than an 11 point story. Honestly, I’m not sure we can even ship in three months, this could be a non-starter feature.”

I loosened my grip on the table and buried my head in my hands. It was looking like I had two perfect nooses for this debacle. One for the product owner and one for… Me.

“You know…”

Oh, just great! The last thing I needed was an 800 pound gorilla showing up to give me his “pearls of wisdom.”

There was Hogarth, quietly contemplating the burn down charts on the planning wall. He was being very un-gorilla like, standing almost erect with his great hands clasped behind his back. He was facing away from me, but I could still hear his voice clearly. “I love slides. I really enjoy the feeling in your stomach as you push off and start dropping.”

Slides? What on earth?

Hogarth sighed, “Still I don’t play on them much. You know why?”

I had no idea what on earth he was talking about. I did know he was going to tell me even if I didn’t want to know.

And he went ahead and did, “The problem is you have to climb up the ladder first. I hate doing all that hard work first. I wish I could slide and then climb the ladder.”

“Hogarth! That’s utterly ridiculous. You can’t go down until you’ve gone up. It’s the hard work that allows you to have the easy ride. That’s the whole point of a slide.”

He turned to eye me, one hand pointing back to the burn down chart which showed how our velocity had shrunk consistently for the entire release. “So nothing like your software development practices?”

I sighed and nodded. Sometimes his questions just showed how much he just a gorilla lost in a jungle of silicon. “Yes, Hogarth, nothing like our software development practices at all.”

He nodded, “Yeah that’s what I thought.”

Finally, I’d gotten one over on him. Of course our software process was nothing like climbing the ladder first so we could coast to the bottom.

Wait a minute…. Damn it! He did it again!

 

DO THE WORST THING FIRST

Clean the garage or sort my sock drawer, put away clothes and vacuum the bedroom? Given the choices I’m probably not going to start with the garage. So when I’m done, I’ll have gotten three fairly small things done, and I’ll be no closer to getting the elephant in the house clean (If you can park a car in your garage, I envy you. I can’t park a Hot Wheels in my garage it’s so full). So at the end of the day, the biggest issues I’m facing is still there and I’m too tired on the little stuff to work on it.

We do the same thing all too often when developing new products (any kind, software, hardware, toys, financial instruments, etc.). And all too often we end up with a looming specter at the end of the project. One that often turns out to be bigger and nastier than we realized. That or maybe we’re just too tired from all the other stuff to face something so big.

We do this so often it has become normal for us to accept this behavior. Reportedly, the US Navy air program has projects that take years to complete. Project Management is done by a senior officer and their tour of duty is three years, which is shorter than the whole project. There is a marked tendency for first project manager to push hard stuff down the line so that when their tour is up the easy stuff is done and they look great. The next Captain is then faced with all the really challenging stuff. The second tour of a project has come to be referred to as the “Dead Man’s Tour,” because the second guy looks like a failure.

Extreme Programming tackles this head on. They have a concept called “Do the worst things first.” The concept is to get the toughest issues out of the way before moving on to the really easy stuff. I know, I know, you’re saying “hey that’s not very agile. I thought we were supposed to focus on early wins.” Yes, that’s true and when you first start a project communication is usually your worst problem. So you do an easy sprint or two to make sure everyone is working together well. The early wins make the team ready to tackle the worst technical issue with the project.

And what about the risk of the worst things? As we see in Hogarth’s introduction, Jake talks about not being sure it will even work. Might not even work?

“Holy broken faucets, Batman, what a waste of resources if the whole project fails now.”

That’s right. If we put off the really hard stuff, and then the really hard stuff kills your project, not only is the project dead, you’ve also wasted a lot of time, resources and people on a project that didn’t fly. If you’d done some early prototypes and tackled that big hairy audacious goal first, then you would have known if you should even keep going or not.

Fail early, get better, don’t waste time and resources.

So what risks are you putting off in hopes they will go away? Next time you’re at the zoo, ask the ostrich how well putting his head in the sand works for him.

A Good Gorilla is Good Enough

“Come on!” I shouted, “just two pixels to the left, you can do it!” Alas, despite my exhortation, the picture refused to move the requested two pixels, instead moving a mind staggering four pixels.

 

Throwing up my hands I leaned back in my chair to contemplate the darkness of my office. It was long since past sunset and I was still trying to get this report perfect. Sure, it was a good, but I knew I could make it even better.

 

“Why?”

 

Was that the sweet smell of banana wafting into my office? Why yes it was. My hirsute conscience must have arrived. “Hogarth, unless you’re a PowerPoint expert, go away.”

 

Hogarth shuffled into the room, making his way to his usual place between my fichus and bamboo plants (mental note, need to buy a new bamboo plant). Making himself comfortable he said, “Well I am a PowerPoint expert. That’s not why I’m here though.”

 

Oh, naturally. Once again he had the answers, only I was going to have to figure it all out on my own.

 

My Gorilla grinned around a mouthful of bamboo. “Well if I just told it all, what would be the fun in that?”

 

I sighed, it was never easy. “Hogarth, I’m tired. This report isn’t done yet and I’m about ready to damn PowerPoint to the nine hells of bad products like New Coke.”

 

Cocking his head to the side, Hogarth said, “Why?”

 

“Why?” I asked incredulously. “Because it’s an imperfect piece of garbage software than won’t let you do what you want to do, only what it thinks you should want to do.”

 

Hogarth shook his head, “No, why is the report not done? Don’t you have all the data? Don’t you have sign offs from everyone? Isn’t the project going amazingly well?”

 

I waved my hand at him, “sure, sure, but it’s not perfect. I want to make sure it’s the best it can be.”

 

“Down to the last pixel?” Hogarth asked.

 

“It looks better,” I defended. 

 

Nodding in his sage like manner, Hogarth asked. “Do you remember what your theater teach told you in college?”

 

“Don’t quit your day job?” I said flippantly

 

Hogarth gave a nod. “Well that was true. I was more thinking about what she said about making mistakes on stage.”

 

“You mean how if you mess up on stage, just keep going?”

 

Hogarth grinned, “Yeah that’s the one. And I believe she then said ‘because nine times out of ten, no one will notice your mistake.”

 

Ouch, so was 90% good enough?

 

 

WHEN IS PERFECTION TOO MUCH?

I was inspired to write this by Lucy Kellaway’s piece in the November 5th edition of BBC Business Daily. She has a much better and far more humorous take on all this that I can only agree with and try to promote in my own small, Hogarth-like, way.

 

 

One of the things that fascinates me about agile, is the findings on just how much software code actually gets used by customer in the field. The numbers vary a bit, though generally it is between 60% and 70% of all code written is next exercised by the customer. Just ask yourself, how often have you used the “Find by Author” feature in MS Word?

 

So why is it even there?

 

If you can build a product that does 80% of the product features, in three months and 90% of them in twelve months, the math starts to come into question.

 

It’s not just software. For goodness sakes, it’s baked into the US educational system. If you get 70% of the questions right on a test, you pass with a C. The difference between an A and an A+ is five percent. How much does that five percent really matter in the real world? How much extra effort did  it take to get from A to A+?

 

Now I’m certainly not espousing we became complacent and stop trying. However I think we need to take a long look at the laws of diminishing return. If perfection is truly what we should always strive for, then why don’t we put all our resources on a single project? Sure, after the tenth person on the project, we are seeing only a 1% gain in the project for each person. Still, isn’t perfection more important?

 

Show me a project that is resourced to 100% efficiency and I’ll show you government bloat.

 

The point is we have to find that line between good enough to not be noticed and the insane perfection you really only need to see in the tolerances of scientific equipment.

 

Let’s go back to that line from theater teachers. Yes, I’ve had this said to me many times and I’ve had it happen to me countless times . However, I’m just a guy with an imaginary gorilla. Let’s take a look at the professionals.

 

Buzzfeed.com did a list of the thirty best known movie scenes that were improvised.

 

So test yourself, did you know it was an on the spot improve or did you think it was part of the script?

 

Jack Nicholson in The Shining: “Here’s Johnny!”

Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “Here’s looking at you kid.”

Roy Scheider in Jaws: “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark: When he pulls out the gun and shoots the swordsman.

 

Granted these are not examples of someone not being perfect. Instead they are adding something that wasn’t in the original plan (ooh, agile). The thing is there was a director and a script reader and a whole crew who’s job is to make sure the movie goes according to the script. To have it done “perfect” they should have reshot the scene. Only they didn’t. The scene worked “good enough” with the improve and might be argued ended up being even better. The main point is to show that when you aren’t looking for something, you often don’t notice its out of place.

 

So, my point?

 

If you’ve got something to 90%, don’t kill yourself to get it to 99%. If 90% is good enough, be happy and move on.

 

 

 

The Gorilla Salutes Teamwork, An Agile Value

“You did what?” I could feel my blood pressure rising as fast as a thermometer dropped into the sun. I was hoping I had just misunderstood what Jake had said. They hadn’t really changed the release plan, had they?

 

Jake nodded at me, “We were completely blocked on the database layer performance enhancements so we shifted that out to the next release and focused on the new user friendly interface.”

 

I shook my head, okay, they really had. “Jake, Jake, Jake, we can’t just go and change the release plans on the fly like that. We have procedures for this.”

 

Jake gave a shrug, “Well we could have kept pounding our head against the database and gotten nothing done this month, or we could put it aside and get work done. You were out and the VP was to busy to “play sponsor.”

 

I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Jake, changing the release plan requires a change order. That’s got to go to the oversight committee before we can even start evaluating the request.” I waved at room, filled with a buzz of developers hunched, in pairs, over computers.  “This just flies in the face of procedure.”

 

Jake gave another shrug, he just wasn’t getting this was he? “Not sure why it matters anyway. These are all internal releases. Everything will still be done before we ship to the customer. All we did was move some internal work around so we could get around a roadblock. Figured you’d be happy, it means your precious schedule isn’t impacted.”

 

I waved dismissively. “That’s great, but we still have procedures.” I pulled out my tablet ‘puter and brought up the product lifecycle document. “See, here’s the change control process loop…”

 

An hour later I strolled into my office. It took a little bit, but Jake was all sorted out. I wouldn’t have to worry about development changing the plan again. They wouldn’t so much as change the order of two bug fixes now without going through the right procedures.

 

“So how’d it go?”

 

I sighed. Maybe if I got rid of all my plants Hogarth would stop hanging out in my office.

 

“Then I would just have to BYOP and that would make me an angry gorilla,” Hogarth said.

 

Propped in the corner of my office I eyed him as I made my way to my desk. My gorilla was gently nibbling on a leaf from my bamboo plant. I’m not even sure why I had a bamboo plant, it wasn’t all that pretty and Hogarth seemed to like eating them even more than my fichus. Come to think of it, wasn’t it his idea to get it?

 

Dropping into my seat I shoved  those thoughts from my mind. I’d just had a big win and nothing was going to dampen my mood. “It went great. I sorted it all out and the developers won’t be changing the order of the release again anytime soon.”

 

Hogarth gave a snort, “Oh, good. We wouldn’t want them to be productive or anything now would we?”

 

I looked over at him. “Look, we have processes and procedures to follow. Decisions need to be made at the right level or there will be chaos.” Hogarth didn’t seem to be convinced, though how one can tell with a gorilla I’m not sure. He just kept nibbling at the bamboo leaf while keeping one eye on me. I sighed, “Look, you wouldn’t let a corporal decide if his squad storms a building would you? That’s what general s are for.”

 

“Oorah!” Hogarth’s voice reverberated off the windows behind me.

 

Somehow I just knew I’d been led down the primrose path and then bludgeoned with it..

 

 

CORPS VALUES- Can we learn agile values from the Marine Corps?

 

I recently sat down with a fellow project manager to talk to him about his next steps in his career. We were talking about agile and its impact. He’d first learned about it while taking a PMI PMP class, when the instructor briefly talked about the team focused values of agile projects and how. I still remember the look on my colleagues face. He started to speak “When I heard about the focus on teams I was like..” He paused for a moment, as if he were self editing, before he continued, “right on, they get it. When I was in the military, that’s exactly what they trained us to think. There is no “I”, there is only “we.”

 

At that point I knew exactly what my colleague had probably self edited out.

 

“Oorah!” the quintessential Marine Corps slogan. Whether shouted in agreement or in raw enthusiasm, it has become synonymous with a military force known for rapid response, quick reactions to the changing battlefields and ability to “think on their feet.”

 

You know, just like an agile team? It made perfect sense to me that he had instantly identified with agile. Despite having served in a hierarchical military structure, I knew his experiences as a marine positioned him to see the true value in the values and principles of agile .

 

How did I make that jump?

 

Last year another colleague, Bernie Maloney, turned me on to a great article at Inc.com called “Corps Values.” This article was writing in 1998, three years before the Snowbird gathering gave us the Agile Manifesto. Not only is  this another example that agile is just a new term for long standing values, it also shows us that one of the most hierarchical organizations in the world, a military army, can operate on concepts that empower soldiers from private to general to make decisions.

 

The Marines hold two beliefs at their the core (no pun intended):

 

“1. War is chaos, confusion, and the unexpected.

2. Because of that difficult fact, the only way to succeed as an organization is to push the ability and authority for decision making down to the marines who are on the spot.”

 

What this means is if the Corporal needs to decide if this building needs to be stormed and he can’t reach anyone above him, then he’s empowered to make the decision. He’s not only empowered, he’s trusted.

 

Empowerment isn’t just in the trenches, when the bullets are flying. It also happens in the planning stages. In the article a Marine Colonel comes in on a group planning a mission. His first question is why there are so many people in the room. “The marines tend to inversely correlate the number of people on a task with the likelihood of the task’s successful completion.” And the planning session is three hours long. No matter the mission, it’s three hours to plan, three hours to prepare. If you over plan, you don’t end up getting better, you just over plan.

 

Another agile concept is that Marine Corps planning focuses on the “End State,” and fully recognizes they probably don’t have a perfect solution. Marines look for the “70% solution, by which they mean an imperfect decision whose saving grace is that it can be made right now.” Sounds a lot like the advice of many agilists, “just start.” You can refine as you go, you have to start going though to ever know if you are getting there.

 

Generic Leaders:

Beyond the similarities to agile values and principles, there was something else that really called to me when I read this article. When training officers (managers) the Marines have a program that is designed to promote “chaos-proof leadership.” The way they do this is not by specialized training. The Marine Corps instead “unabashedly favors breeding generic, high-speed, chaos-proof leadership over imparting specific skills. “Experts and specialists are a dime a dozen,” sniffs Lee, dismissing in one fell swoop a century of business-management theory. “What the world needs is someone who can grasp the workings of an entire organization, understand people, and motivate them.”

 

Regular gorilla readers know that I passionately believe that management (people and project) should focus on the team, not the technical skills. Managers need enough “subject matter” knowledge to interact with and help the team. If the manager is the world’s leading expert in database performance, then he’s not going to have the skills to help his team. There is a common insult,  “Those that do, do. Those that can’t, teach.” I don’t see it as an insult. I see it as the people who “do” are not leaders. If you can’t teach, coach, motivate then you are not going to be a good leader.

 

I spend a lot of word count giving advice. I know it can be hard taking advice from a man who talks to an imaginary gorilla. So why not try taking some advice from one of the most successful military forces in the world? Go and read “Corps Values,” hear it from some real experts. 

 

 

Saving the world, One Gorilla Project Manager at a Time

I leaned back with a heavy sigh. “What on earth ever possessed me to choose a career in project management?” I asked the blank ceiling.

 

Lacking a response from the blank ceiling I looked back down at my computer screen. Sigh, another day, another status report. I was starting to wonder if it was all worth it. Sure it was a paycheck. But so was digging ditches and at the end of the day digging at least you can see what you’ve accomplished. I felt more Sisyphus endlessly creating status reports, only to have to start all over next week. Which brought me back to the same question I had just asked the ceiling.

 

What on earth ever possessed me to choose be a project?

 

A deep voice spoke from the darkness of my after hours office. “Oh, that’s simple. Because you wanted to change the world.”

 

Save the world? I looked into the depth of the darkness and said, “What, are, you, smoking, Hogarth?”

 

I watched my gorilla materialize from the darkness of the corner, half eaten fichus branch in hand .  “Well I’ve heard dried banana leaves make a good kindling. Not sure what that has to do with saving world.” He waved the fichus branch at my computer. “You’re doing this job because ditch diggers don’t tend to change the world by themselves.”

 

I threw up my hands. “Hogarth, I’m just a cog in the machine. At the very best I’m the project glue, but that’s only because I’ve been crushed in the machinery of process and gummed up the works.”

 

Hogarth nodded his massive head, “Glue you say? So you’re saying you hold the project together?”

 

I gave a shrug, “I suppose so. Feel more like a border collie most of the time as I chase everyone down for status.”

 

Hogarth cocked his head to the side. “You know what else is a lot like glue?”

 

I shook my head and turned back to my computer screen. I wasn’t really interested in playing his games.

 

“A nail,” he said causing me to snort.

 

I looked back at him, “You know what they say about the nail? The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.”

 

Hogarth nodded sagely, “True. They also say, ‘For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.”

 

Uhh…. Had Hogarth just hit the proverbial nail on the head?

 

 

A SIMPLE BELIEF

I don’t have some eye opening revelation for you. I don’t have any statistics to point at. And I’m sorry to say set super powers to suggest. This isn’t a call to specific “go do this” action.

 

This is a call to action.

 

I believe that Project Management can change the world. I believe it can make it a better world.

 

Now this does bring up the whole “project management” title issue again, that I’ve talked about in a past blog. In that the title project manager really doesn’t fit what we who hold that title do. Whether we are “Project Leaders” as Kimberly Wiefling espouses or my own “Catalyst Leader” idea, we are no longer well defined by our 20th century title. So to prevent confusion and rat holes, I’ll stick with calling us Project Managers for this blog.

 

Project Managers have become an integral part of business. Across the business lines and across industries we are in every corner of the business world. Like the grizzled sergeant major of war movie trope, we have seen it all. When the new kid (Product Manager, Engineering Manager, CEO) comes in, we see them stumble there way through like so many have before. When they reach out to us for help, we can easily step up and let them know where the coffee, staplers, process documents and even mine fields are. We are the common denominator that pervades our companies and within us lies not only the institutional  knowledge of our firms, also within us lies the wisdom and moral compass of our firms.

 

Our role as project shepherd coupled with our relationships within and without the organization, gives us a great amount of influence over others. And as the famed statesman, Winston Churchill, said “The price of greatness is responsibility.”

 

We not only can change the world, it is our responsibility to.

 

It isn’t even that hard for us to effect change. Just the act of being the best and most ethical business professional we can be, can create change. As a key figure on project teams, our visibility within companies is great. If we do our best, we are doing our best in front of a large cross-section of the company. Our example becomes there example and they in turn will influence the rest. We become the butterfly whose wings create a hurricane a half a world away.

 

We have a responsibility to help our teams, our projects, our companies be better.

 

We have the power and ability to do that.

 

We have the power to make a better world.

 

We have a responsibility to make a better world.

 

Sure, we may do it one team member or one project at a time. And that’s okay. If the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step, then the journey to a better world can start with the first project manager who believes we can change the world.

 

I believe.

 

 

Talk to the Gorilla, Not At it

“What is this crap!?!”

Not the first things you want to hear from the CEO’s mouth when summoned in to give a report on your project.

“I’m not sure I understan…” I started to say.

“That makes two of us. What the hell is going on with the Icarus project?” He interrupted. “Is the project on track or not? Yes or no.”

“Well, it’s complicated…” I started. A voice in my head was screaming that this was the exact wrong way to answer his question. Only problem is I could barely hear it over the roar coming from the other side of the desk.

“I asked a simple question!” He yelled. “I want to know if the project is in trouble or not. I don’t need a philibuster speech.”

I took a mental cleansing breath. I’d dealt with angry stakeholders plenty of times. I had all the data and I had all the answers, so I wasn’t worried. All I needed to do was carefully walk him through this and I was sure he’d calm down and we’d be fine.

I sat down in the visitors chair and leaned forward. Hands clasped together I used my best teacher voice, “If you look at slide twelve of the status deck, we have a comprehensive project status dashboard. But really it’s better if we start on slide one and walk through the whole report.”

“Slides?” I’m pretty sure eyes are not supposed to bulge out of your head as much as the CEO’s were right now. “What slides?”

I nodded and pointed towards his computer screen. “The ones I attached to the status email. Email really isn’t the best medium to go into the status. I did type up a one page summary of course, but in the last paragraph of the email status I reference the slide attachment as has having the complete status.” I turned back to look at the CEO, to see if he was following along. If he didn’t open the slides this was going to a lot longer.

Seriously, I’m pretty sure eyes are not supposed to do that.

He took a deep breath, but I don’t think it did much for his blood pressure. “Listen, I want a clear answer on if we are in trouble. I don’t want some seventeen page…”

“Thirty-eight,” I corrected. Then I winced as I realized I’d interrupted him.

Amazingly he seemed nonplused by the interruption and continued on, “..Thirty-eight page slide deck to find out the status. You go back to your desk and you figure out if the project is in trouble. Then you send me an email that starts with the project color and if its not green give me no more than two sentences about what we are doing about it.”

And then he was getting up and walking out of his office. “By 3:00pm, no later.”

I sat there in stunned disbelief. He hadn’t even looked at my beautiful slides. If he’d just read the slide deck he’d know what we were doing about the problem. He’d also have a complete analysis of what was wrong, why it was wrong and what we’d done to analyze the problem.

The visitor’s chair next to me gave a groan of protest, heralding the arrival of my personal gorilla. This was all too much. Now he was going to say something pithy and then walk me down the path of everything I had done wrong. I sighed and bowed to the inevitable waiting for his pithy comment.

“So, how was you’re weekend?” he said. I heard the chair give another protest quickly followed by the unmistakable sent of a banana. Then, speaking around a mouthful of banana, Hogarth continued, “I went with Wanda to a black swan convention up in Sacramento. It’s a lot like a black hat convention, only…”

“HOGARTH!” I turned to look at the hulking form of my gorilla. He had paused mid-bite, the banana poised just in front of his open mouth. “Can’t you see I’m having a major problem here. The CEO’s about ready to shoot me out of a cannon and you’re talking about what you did this weekend. Really?”

Hogarth lowered the banana, nodding his head. “Oh, sorry. So you’re saying I’m not speaking in the way you want to listen?”

Wow, this was almost making me feel good. Here I was, getting to be in the position of correcting Hogarth. “Precisely! You’ve got to take account for your audiences moods. You’ve got to give them what they want.” Hogarth nodded, his face a little crestfallen. Had I maybe gone to far? Did I need to be so pompous in correcting him?

“So, a little like being in Paris and asking for directions to the bathroom in English?” He said.

I felt my eyes doing the same thing the CEO’s had. “What?! Hogarth, what on earth are you going on about?”

Hogarth waved his banana at me, “you know. You ask for the bathroom in English. The Parisian doesn’t understand so you ask again, louder and slower, but still in English.”

I just started at Hogarth, not having a clue where he was going with this and not really having the time to deal with this.

Hogarth seemed to sense my confusion. “Let me be a little more direct. When you talk PMI Geek to the CEO, all he hears is ‘wha wha wha wha,’. You need to talk in CEO Short Hand not PMI Geek Long.

I scratched my head. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about.

He stared at me and spoke very slowly. “When in Rome speak as the Romans do.”

Oh…

COMMUNICATION IS WHAT THE LISTENER DOES

If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does anyone hear it? Philosopher’s have asked this question for millennia. Modern science has proven the answer is no. There are sound waves, there is no sound unless there is someone there to perceive it.

And now, if you will allow, I am going to directly quote Peter Drucker. Specifically Chapter 38 of his book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices.

Sound is created by perception. Sound is communication.

This may seem trite; after all, the mystics of old already knew this, for they too always answered that there is no sound unless someone can hear it. Yet the implications of this rather trite statement are great indeed.

First, it means that it is the recipient who communicates. The so-called communicator, the person who emits the communication, does not communicate. He utters. Unless there is someone who hears, there is no communication. There is only noise. The communicator speaks or writes or sings — but he does not communicate. Indeed, he cannot communicate. He can only make it possible, or impossible, for a recipient — or rather, “percipient” — to perceive

Mark Hortsman, of Manager Tools, is a big believer if Peter Drucker’s work. I think he best encapsulates all of Chapter 38 in the single sentence, “Communication is what the listener does.”

In other words, if we don’t speak in the language of the listener, they won’t understand us. And it’s going to be our fault. Just like the American yelling for the bathroom in France, if we can’t communicate in the way our audience (stakeholders, team, manager) understand, we are the rude American on the Champ Élysées.

Okay, great advice. What now?

The DISC Profile system.

DISC is about understanding how people communicate. It’s about what behaviors they will fall back on by default. Do they prefer short and simple answers or are they the kind of people who want to get seven layers into the architecture diagrams? How about whether they prefer starting conversations with a nice preamble or the last thing want to hear about is what your cat did this weekend, ever?

Knowing how the people you talk to want to listen is incredibly important. To put my own spin on Drucker’s words, “It’s not about you, it’s about them.” That’s what DISC helps you do. It helps you to understand how people naturally perceive. Understanding that you’re engineering stakeholder is really a to the point High D is going to save you from trying to explain things to him in a thirty slide deck, when all he wants is the bottom line.

Now while it is “all about them,” interestingly enough your first job, with good communication, is to know you. If you know what your defaults are, you are going to be able to tailor your communication to fit the listener. If you prefer detailed analysis before you do anything and your boss is the next Donald Trump, you need to adjust your communication style when you talk to him.

DISC- The BASICS

DISC is broken down along two axis. The vertical axis looks at you based on how assertive or reserved you are. From the soldier who is not afraid to storm that next hill \to the retiring door mouse afraid to speak to his neighbor of twenty years.

The horizontal axis focuses on how you look at tasks vs. people interactions. Would you rather groom your Gantt chart or take the team to lunch?

This gives four basic profiles:

The High I is Mr. Influence. They achieve success by persuading others to work with them towards the same goal. As interested if not more interested in what they did this weekend as they are in the next milestone. “Ready! Say, did I mention I went sailing this weekend? Aim, It was a blast.” If you find yourself cheerfully doing your coworkers work, you may have just been recruited by a High I. Bill Clinton, Willard Scott, Tom Sawyer.

The High C, or Conscientious, works within the rules and procedures to ensure success. A High C can never have to much data. “Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim. Oh wait, more data. Okay, ready, aim, aim, aim.”  This is the person who won’t let emotion get in the way, that would be illogical. Joe Friday, Bill Gates, Mr. Spock.

The High S is for Steadiness. They work with others as part of the team to achieve success. “Okay is everyone pointing their guns in the same direction? Are we all ready? Bob, do you need more ammo? Frank, that’s not a nice thing to say about the enemy.” If you catch your co-worker humming “won’t you be my neighbor”, then you may be in the presence of a High S. Mother Teresa, John Denver, Mr. Rogers.

Those who are High D, or Dominance, achieve success by taking decisive actions towards their goal. These are the ultimate results oriented drivers. They are “Ready, Fire, to hell with aiming that takes to long” types. If you are following a leader and not sure if you are inspired or terrified, they might be a High D. General George Patton, Margaret Thatcher, Darth Vader.

So before you head into your next meeting. Figure out what language your team is using. You don’t want to be Darth Vader to a room full of Mr. Rogers.

The Gorilla doesn’t take credit

The CEO beamed at me with a delighted smile. “Excellent work, excellent work. You did a bang up job on this, you can count on your bonus being nice and fat this year.”

I glowed with overwhelming pride. The CEO liked my work, he really liked it. Hard work and perseverance paid off!

“In fact,” the CEO continued, “I think you’re just the man to make the Gutenberg project happen. It’s been in trouble and I want you to make it happen.”

I blinked. Then I blinked some more. Gutenberg was THE project. It was the single most important thing the company was doing. Everyone had wanted to be on Gutenberg when it started. That was when it started. It was now twelve months behind schedule, the development team working on it was in shambles, the communication between groups was abysmal and the last project manager had taken a leave of absence, supposedly to recover from a heart attack brought on by stress.

“Um, sir, I’m not sure I’m the right…”

“Nonsense! ” he said. And then he was standing and I knew my audience was over. “You single handedly brought the Firestorm project together. I’ve got complete confidence in you.” With that I was ushered out of his office and carried on a tide of “great job” and a firm pat on the back all the way to the elevators.

 As the elevator doors closed on me, I let me head fall forward. Leaning head against the doors my heart competed with the elevator for a race to the third floor. “I’m so doomed…”

 “Ayup,” came a deep voiced reply from behind me.

 Just great. Didn’t these elevators have a weight limit or something ? Maybe we could hang “no gorilla” signs.

 “Weight limit is about 2500 pounds, so stop worrying your going to plunge to your death. You’re not getting off the hook that easy.”

 I turned around, slumping heavily against the doors. “Fine,” I said. “Go ahead, tell me  what a complete idiot I am.” I hung my head and waited for the piercing words of wisdom. The words that would underline just how stupid I had been. The Firestorm project had been a success because the team was awesome. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of engineers and everyone else involved had pulled together. We’d faced serious challenges, but we’d faced them together and tackled everything that got in our way.

 And I’d gotten all the glory and credit…

 Not because I’d moved mountains, or conquered the nasty integration issues. No, I got the credit because like the old adage “The victor writes the history,” I controlled the status reports and all the communication that went to senior management. I’d put myself front and center in all the reports and spoke about in the project in what “I” was doing. I’d been so focused on making myself look good, I’d succeeded. Not only was my team ticked off at me, now I was being asked to step in and save a failing project with a team that made the US Congress look like a happy social club. All because I didn’t give the team the credit they deserved.

 Sigh, I was so doomed…

 Why wasn’t Hogarth saying anything? I looked up and was instantly caught by his deep brown eyes. He just gave me a nod. A nod that said, “yeah, everything you just thought.”

 Dang it, now he was making me do the thinking too?

 Hogarth’s voice took a lofty tone, as he finally spoke. “Don’t worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.”

 I looked at him puzzled . Where the hell did he get these quotes from?

 “Abraham Lincoln,” Hogarth said.

I threw up my hands in despair. “That’s all fine and good for Honest Abe. And you’re an imaginary gorilla so what do you know about survival in the corporate jungle. I’m working for a living. If I don’t blow my own horn, who the hell will?”

Hogarth replied softly. “Don’t take credit, communicate success. Your excellence will show through this and people will know.”

I stared at my Gorilla, “At what famous statesman said that?”

Hogarth folded his arms over his broad chest and said, “I did, you got a problem with that?”

 “Uh… no. Nope, none at all.”

 <DING> “3rd Floor, Hubris and Humility.”

 

DON’T TAKE CREDT, COMMUNICATE SUCCESS

Once upon a time I used to worry constantly about metrics. How does a project manager (or any non-hand on doer) measure their effectiveness. A really good manager is all but invisible. Problems are dealt with before they ever get big. Contingencies are set up before they are needed. Relationships are forged and maintained. The team is given all the tools they need and just enough guidance to head for the end goal. To me the perfect manager always seemed completely invisible.

Invisible and corporate survival are not a good match. So I spent a lot of my early career figuring out how to keep my profile up. My goal wasn’t “a job well done”, it was “will this look good on my yearly review.” I looked for every opportunity to be right up there in the spot light. I wanted to make sure I was seen as important.

And thereby utterly failed. I spent so much time trying to look good, that I failed to be effective. Instead of being seen as a vital member of the organization, I was seen as a glory hound. Its not that I was incompetent. To the contrary, I was very good at project leadership, if I focused on that. I just spent so much time worrying about if I was being recognized for my work that I wasn’t effective at what really mattered.

The Team.

The Team is what matters. Focus on the team and the rest will follow.

I talked about how an Agile Project Manager is like R2-D2 a while back. The journey to that epiphany took me through the world of Servant Leadership and much of my own mental tribulations over just what my job role should really be called (Does a gorilla by any other name still smell?).

While I still can’t answer what my job role should be called, I did discover how to measure my own success. I measure my success through the success of the team.

Having spent the last three years with this new focus I have discovered I never needed to have worried about making sure my own value was known.

You see, if you spend all your working hours helping the team, it shows. And just as important, the team knows.

So I stopped trying to promote myself and I started promoting my team. When someone went the extra mile, I made sure to email their boss and tell them how much I appreciated it. When someone complimented my status report, I would give the credit to the team (“I’m just reporting their success, they did the hard work.”).

And you know what? By helping the team I also helped myself. People know what I do. They know I’m valuable. They know I’ll go the extra mile for them. They know I’ll promote my team every single time.

I don’t blow my own horn, I communicate the success of my team.

It’s a good feeling.

You can’t have your Gorilla and eat it too

“Augggh!!!!” I pounded on my keyboard in abject frustration and began hurling every single curse I knew at the screen and the faceless IT drones I knew had made my life a living hell.

Hogarth opened a single eye and stared at me from the corner. Arms crossed over his chest and chin tucked to his arms he had been happily dozing in the late afternoon sun that poured into my office. He didn’t say anything. He just fixated me with an unblinking deep brown eye.

I pointed at the computer. “There did it again! They updated the shared space and now I have to reinstall the damned plug in!”

My gorilla ponderously lifted his head. Crinkling his blunt forehead, he now fixed me with both of his eyes. The unblinking gaze seemed to say “And?”

“And it’s annoying!” I snapped, looking for some kind of support to justify the seething anger I was feeling.

Hogarth just looked at me, unmoving and unblinking.

“Okay, I know, I know. It only takes two minutes to update. It’s not the end of the world.” I clicked the okay button and leaned back in my chair. “Still, you’d think they could stop fixing the site every other day.”

Hogarth reached one leathery hand up to scratch his nose.

I rolled my eyes at him, “That’s not fair!” I retorted. “Yes, it was broken. Yes, the old architecture meant we couldn’t do a fraction of what we had before. But it is still annoying to have to install all these updates.”

Hogarth turned to look out my open door. I followed his gaze to see the project burn down chart on the wall opposite my door. Turning back to him I gaped. “What? You think trying to convince corporate to release our product twice a year, instead of every eighteen months is the same thing. “

Hogarth shrugged,  “If the shoe fits, don’t call the kettle black.”

Wha.. Oh….

 

Is the Agile Pot calling the Firefox Kettle Black?

The other day I saw something I found disturbing. Mind you, complaints on Twitter is nothing new. I wouldn’t be surprised if more than half of all tweets are someone complaining about something. So I’m fairly inured to seeing tweplaints. When the first complaint about “Oh look, another Firefox update.” I ignored it. Then I saw the second one.

What got me was not the complaint itself. No it was who was making the complaints (or retweeting in one case). Both complaints came to me by way of people I consider  part of my “Agile/Lean” follow list.

Seriously?

Agile principle three is “Deliver working software frequently…” Principle 6 states “Working software is the primary measure…” Similar maxims exist within XP and Lean. I was just at an agile meetup where the speaker was outlining a way to get corporate behind quarterly releases in an enterprise environment. Lean Startup talks about Minimal Viable Product and getting in front of the customer as quickly as possible. Then you pivot or persevere again and again.

And we are complaining that Firefox is iterating?

Really?

 So let me think on this…

  • You can just click no. It takes two seconds.
  • You can just click yes. It takes about two minutes on most computers.
  • I don’t know about you, I know I’ve never bothered to pay attention to what they are fixing. My guess is some of the things are pretty important and I care about them. I’m just too lazy to ask.

And

How much of what we are complaining about has to do with the fact we have to take some kind of action as opposed to it being done automagically?

  • Have you looked at your Win7 Installed Updates list? The list of security and hot fix updates is staggering. And I am really all together clueless because Windows happily does the updates in the background and usually I only know because my computer reboots in the middle of the night every so often.
  • Do you know how annoyed I get at having to always update my iPhone apps? Do you know why? Because I have to do it manually. My wife’s Android has an option to automatically update apps. I have all her apps set to do that.

Firefox is following some of the key tenets of agile, release of often, always seek to improve. I don’t know if they are an agile shop and sure, they could be a little better on communication.

But really? Does anything who believes in agile, lean, XP, kanban or Stoos have any place complaining that a company is trying to make their product better? Just because it’s an annoyance to us?

Okay, maybe you’re all right. Clearly we don’t want to annoy our customers by fixing or improving our product quickly….

Do you have a plan for the gorilla on the floor?

“More data, I need more data.” I was staring at my desk, taking in the papers I had meticulously arranged to fill nearly every bit of open space.  For all it was, I knew it wasn’t enough

My ninety day plan was going perfectly. I’d interviewed all the key customers to the PMO office. I’d interviewed everyone on the project teams. I’d interviewed all our vendors. I’d interviewed the customer service manager and then his team leads. I’d read every process doc I could find on the website. I’d read the previous versions of the product lifecycle to see how it had evolved. I’d taken the basic new hire training and then I’d signed up for the sales new hire training.

And I needed more data. I didn’t want to make any mistakes. I was going to make damn sure my ninety day plan was perfect! What else could I do?

“You could interview the janitor.”

Hey.. That’s right I hadn’t interviewed the maintenance staff… Wait a minute! “Hogarth!”

I looked up just in time to see my gorilla sink down beside my brand new fichus tree. Ignoring me, his deep brown eyes contemplated my fichus tree for several moments before a leathery hand reached out to snap a branch free.

“I’m trying to figure out the next step in my ninety day plan, do you mind?”

Hogarth calmly nibbled on the branch, neatly stripping a leaf from the end of the branch. Without looking at me he mumbled. “Hundred and fifty day plan…”

“What?” I turned to look at my wall calendar. My eyes flicked over the months doing the mental math. “How has it already been five months?”

Hogarth shrugged. Pulling a piece of bark out of his teeth he said “Don’t look at me, I’m just the gorilla in the room you’ve been stepping over.”

“What?”

“It’s advice real estate agents give. When you buy a fixer upper, you make a list of all the things that need to be fixed. And then you fix them.” Hogarth said.

“What does that have to do with the gorilla in the room?”

“Well technically it’s the dead body in the room.”

“WHAT?!?”

Hogarth turned his placid eyes towards me. “If you have a dead body on your living room floor, after six months you stop thinking about having to step over it. It’s the same thing with a fixer upper, after six months of dealing with the leaky faucet, you get used to it and it doesn’t get fixed.”

“You’re telling me I’m a leaky faucet?”

“When was the last time anyone came to you for anything?”

Wait, now that he mentioned  it… Ah man…

 

YOU BETTER HAVE A PLAN, AFTER THE PLAN

In 2010 I wrote the Ninety Day Gorilla. In that Hogarth and I got to listen as poor Bob (not Bob the Product Manager, this was Bob the other project manager) was let go. What was his crime? His crime had been to try and make changes to fast. He hit the ground running and tried to fix everything as soon as he started. Poor Bob ended up alienating people and getting on the wrong side of the political land mines he didn’t even know were there.

Bob didn’t have a ninety day plan. He didn’t follow the cardinal rule of “Do no harm in your first ninety days.”

Bet you, though, that Bob wouldn’t have ever been accused of being useless. Sure, people hated his guts. But he got stuff done.

There is a follow up rule to the “Do not harm” rule. That rule is “Have a plan for the next ninety days.”

You see, the ninety day rule isn’t a magic bullet by itself. You don’t spend those ninety days sipping coffee and watching the chaos unfold around you. Peter Taylor, the Lazy Project Manager, never advises sitting in the comfy chair during the early part of a project. Those first ninety days are when you gather the information and build the trust you will need to make a difference.

You’re first ninety day plan is something you have ready on day one. During the next ninety days you need to build your plan for the next ninety days. There is no magic formula for this next ninety days. It depends on what you learn and the trust you build in the first ninety days.

What is important though, is you don’t want to be the dead body everyone steps over. If you haven’t done anything after six months, then no one will ever expect you to do anything.

Get off the floor and get out the door.

The Gorilla Wigwam- Single Tasking in a multi-threaded world

I was buried in the depths of a presentation. Elbow deep in the slide formats I was completely engrossed and entirely focused. I didn’t even have my email running, I’d put my work phone on “do not disturb” and turned the ringer off on my cell phone. I used to think I could multi-task and that I was good at it. Going agile had proved to me just how delusional I had been. So now a days I focused. Whether it was working with the scrum team or working on something not part of our agile project, I still gave it total focus. One task at a time, no more no less.

Now if only the desk would stop shaking, it was starting to get… “Whoa!”  I reached out just in time to catch my cell phone before it vibrated off the desk. As I put it back on the desk I saw a string of text messages on the notification screen.

And my heart dropped… The texts were from my wife. I was supposed to pick up the kids from camp. I was supposed to leave for an early lunch, pick them up and drop them off at home. It was 1:00 PM.

I bolted from my office and sprinted for the elevator. Careening into the elevator I nearly bounced off Hogarth. My gorilla was learning against the wall and gave me a jovial smile as he said, “What floor?”

“Hogarth, it’s a two story building!”

Nodding, he pressed the button and leaned back. “You know.”

“Oh, boy”. I thought. “here comes the lesson.”

“That reminds me of a joke”

I blinked, but Hogarth just continued on.

“Doc, you gotta help me. I’m having an identity crisis. I keep having these alternating, recurring dreams. First I’m a teepee, then I’m a wigwam, then I’m a teepee again. Am I going crazy?” Hogarth leaned back letting his voice take on a mock Freudian tone. “It ees very seemple, you are two tents.”

I glared at Hogarth, hoping my eyes would suddenly develop heat vision and I could make him disappear in a flash of light. “Other than being a terrible joke, is there a point to it?”

Hogarth nodded, “Yes, yes there is. Single tasking is fine, you just have to remember that your inputs come from many places. How are you going to make that all work?”

Wow, he asked me a straight forward question. I don’t think he’s ever asked me a straight forward…

Hey! That’s a hard question.

 

How to Single Task in a multi-threaded world

I’m a list man. I have to be. I know that if I don’t write it down, then it never happened. If my wife didn’t have one of the best memories I’ve ever known, I’d probably have forgotten something really important by now (eating, sleeping, you know important stuff).  I’ve learned to be successful by making sure to always have something I can capture my To Dos on. It used to be a pocket notebook and a pencil. Today it’s my trusty iPhone and the free Kanban style product Trello (works best in the Chrome browser).

With Trello I not only have the ability to quickly access my task board, I can have multiple task boards. This is great! I have a Home task board that my wife has access to. She can add “Honey Dos” to the list anytime. And she’s not distracted by the Work task board that has all the things I need to do for my day job. And I keep my own personal task board separate from all that. This allows me to prioritize “fix the screen door” against “clean out the closet” without getting distracted by “Create Wiki milestone schedule for the program team.”

So now I’m a lot better. I never “forget” anything, it all goes on a list and I have that list where ever I go. I have my work board, my home board, my personal /professional board and I even have boards for my Hogarth Book (in process) and I make ones for special events (I had an SFAgile2012 board for everything I wanted to follow up on after the conference).

The problem is not getting things done when they need to be done. I’m at work and looking at my work task board all day. Then I get home and remember I was supposed to call the electrician so the stove could get fixed. Whoops! I had it on my Home Task Board, I just never looked at it during the day. I was so focused on my project called “work” that the project called “home” suffered.

Multi-Tasking Myth, Multi-Tasking Reality

I don’t think anyone that reads this blog is going to argue that multi-tasking is a good thing. The evidence stacking up against multi-tasking grows every single day. Anyone who has spent any time in the Lean/Agile community has probably played one of the many multi-tasking games. The ones that show just how hard it is to do multiple things at one.

For those that haven’t, try this really quick exercise.  Get yourself a sheet of blank paper and a pen. Bring up http://www.online-stopwatch.com/. Set the time for 20 seconds. Now see how many numbers, starting with 1, you can write in 20 seconds. Repeat this with the Alphabet. Okay good job. Now comes the fun part. Set the timer for 20 seconds again and do both numbers and letters at the same time (1A2B3C4D, etc). See how much you can get done and compare it to doing numbers and letters by themselves.

So now that we are all on the same page an in agreement (Even if you’re not, just smile and nod, we don’t make the gorilla angry, do we?), lets toss a little cold water of reality on things.

Yes, we all agree multi-tasking is bad. We want focus on a single task until it is done and we also want all the tasks we do to be part of the same project. That’s what we want. I don’t know about the rest of you, I’m getting used to not getting what I want. Let us just look at a normal “work day.” The average work day is somewhere between six and ten hours long (I said average, work with me here). Then the average sleep period is six to eight hours. You’re left with, on average, another eight hours. So right here your day is divided into three projects, work, sleep and “everything else.” Even these can’t always be contagious. Maybe during lunch today I need to run out and register my son for a Lego Stop Motion film making camp. So already I’m bouncing between projects just by waking up and going through this thing we call life.

Even if my day job has only one project and I can focus on one task at a time, I still have to juggle work against the rest of the twenty four hours in the day and all the other responsibilities and priorities I have.

Augh!!!!! You’re not helping!

Okay, sorry. I can see this is making your blood pressure go up just thinking about it all. I can tell you my blood pressure was suffering for a while there. Trello meant I didn’t lose anything I had to do. Unfortunately it meant I just kept getting a bigger and bigger list of things I forgot to do because I was busy doing something else.

My solution may seem a little odd. Trust me, it works. I made another board. There is real value in keeping my work task separate from my home tasks. The problem is there is only one of me and I have to do it all. So I made a board called “Weekly Kanban.”

“Iteration Planning”: At the start of every week, I go through the backlog on all my active boards (Work, Home, Personal, and any short term boards). If it is something that needs to get done this week, I move it to the Weekly board. Everything has an estimate of effort (Fibonacci number scale) After I have all the stuff that has to be done I look at the backlogs and move over any thing else I think I can get done in the week. I take from the top of each backlog when I do this. When I’m done with me week planning, I have a single backlog of rank ordered items. I can end up with “Create the Phase Gate slide deck, Go to the Dentist, write my blog, write the weekly status report.”

“Daily Grooming”: Everyday I look at the rank ordered list and tweak it based on the day.  Obviously home things tend to be done on home hours and work done on work however. Still it gives me flexibility. I know I’m more creative in the morning, so I might write my blog then and work on making the power point slides and status report in the evening.

“Work In Progress Limits”: I control my work in progress as well. This is a little softer than you might see in strict Kanban. I only ever work on one single task at a time. However, I might have up to four items in my Doing column. This is because some things are “in process” or “waiting for outside.” For example, this week I had “File expense report” in the doing column for three days. My boss was out of the office and I wasn’t going to put it into Done until my boss had signed the report. Normally I try not to let my WIP grow to more than one active and three pending tasks. If I have four tasks in doing, I do my damndest to clear one of those out before going t o a new task.

That’s how I single task in a multi-task world. Each “project” has its own backlog. At the start of each iteration I make a unified iteration backlog. Everyday I groom the rank order based on priority and time of day. And finally, I limit my WIP to only one active item at a time. Finally, at the end of every week, I archive the Done board. That way I can see what I’ve accomplished over time. Really important when it comes to review time (and yes, you can have review time at home too).

 

And yes, I schedule time to read blogs. Some folks write really long blogs and you need to schedule the time. 🙂

 

All the world’s a Gorilla: Confidence in the work place

 

And: Book/Workshop Review- Artful Making

My stomach was in tight knots that threatened to force what little breakfast I had eaten to come back up for discussion. I could feel my palms sweating. Not the “just a little moist” sweating. No this was the, “dripping off my hands” sweating. In short I was a complete and utter mess. And the planning meeting was going to start in just fifteen minutes. I’d have to get in front of thirty people and present the entire plan for the release.

I’d tried to pawn it off on my boss. No dice. She said it was my time to shine in the spot light. “You’ve worked hard on this, time to get the credit you deserve. I hear the EVP is coming to the meeting.”

Great… Say, Boss, did I mention I’d much rather hide in the background with my Gantt charts? I so didn’t want to face all those people.

The door of my office burst open. Leaping through the door, with a dramatic “Hah, ha!” came Hogarth.  With short, puffy pants, a beaded vest, cape  and a hunk of lace around his neck that made his head look like it was on a dinner plate, he looked like a reject from the Shakespeare in the Park company.

Holding a skull aloft, Hogarth flipped the cape back over his shoulder and declared, loudly. “All the world is a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their…”

“HOGARTH!”

Hogarth stopped mid-monologue. Turning towards me, he pouted. “You interrupted the immortal bard.”

“Yes, yes I did.” I waved at the skull, “first of all, the skull is from ‘Hamlet’ and the monologue is from ‘As you like it.’ Second, and way more importantly, why the hell are you doing a monologue in my office!?

“Harumph,” Hogarth grunted. Setting the skull on my desk, he dropped into the spare chair. “Some people have no appreciation for the arts. I bet Lawrence Olivier never got shouted down for doing Shakespeare.”

“Hogarth…” I warned.

Slumping into his seat he continued to pout, “Oh fine. I was only trying to make a point.”

“And that would be?”

Hogarth perked up. “Oh, right. Did you know that the famous Sarah Bernhardt had to be shoved onto stage before every performance? Crippling stage fright, but once she was on stage it all just happened.”

“And the point of that is?”

“You could do worse than to take a theatre class, or at the very least join Toastmasters.”

“Huh…”

 

Two for the price of one:

This blog is a two for one deal. It’s partially a review of Lee Devin and Rob Austin’s book Artful Making  and workshop of the same name. It is also a why on why you need to build your confidence and your presence to be successful.

Before we delve into the review, lets talk about the why.

Do you look forward to speaking in front of a group about as much as you look forward to your next root canal? Well you’re not alone. Some of the most famous actors in history have battled crippling stage fright. The thing is, its probably a good thing to have a little trepidation about public speaking (and large project management meetings are pretty public).  A young actress once confided to Sarah Bernhardt that she never had stage fright before going on stage. Sarah Bernhardt promptly answered: “Don’t worry, it comes with talent.”

This is not unlike bravery and foolishness. A brave man is afraid, but pushes on anyway, with caution. A foolish man isn’t afraid and just blunders on. Being afraid of public speaking isn’t a problem. Letting it stop you from being successful is. Especially when there are many ways to conquer that fear, or at least to soften its voice to a dull roar.

One of the absolutely easiest ways to build the skills needed to speak and present is to join Toastmasters. This international organization is devoted to helping people learn to speak and present. It’s easy to join, it’s easy to participate, it’s easy to become comfortable with yourself.

Toastmasters is excellent for giving skills to be confident with yourself. While I’ve done years of theatre, I still participate in Toastmasters to keep my skills honed and I still learn new things all the time.

If you want to move beyond confidence and into having a truly powerful speaking presence and the ability to quickly think on your feat, then I recommend taking a theatre class.

I had the great fortune to get involved with theatre when I was young. I got into it because it was fun and I was too young to know I should be scared of the audience (see the Sarah Bernhardt quote above). I certainly didn’t think doing improv street theatre would help me in a career I didn’t even envision being in two decades later.

Theatre taught me how to speak to be heard, memorization, posture, movement and most importantly, confidence. All tools that would be so very valuable in my career as a project manager.  I’ve presented at trade shows in front of 3000 person audiences and didn’t blink an eye. I’ve never had someone say “could you repeat that, I couldn’t hear you.” And I’ve been told many times I have a “commanding presence.” All of these I credit to the years I spent doing theatre.

Which brings me to Artful Making, the book and the workshop.

The Book:

With a forward by Dr. Eric Schmidt, chairman and former CEO of Google, the book had a powerful endorsement going for it right away. Google and Apple may not be perfect, but few can argue that they don’t understand how to run a business.

The What:

Artful Making compares the creative process used by acting companies with that of  Agile software development. It used direct examples from theatre productions and compared them to business practices and even NASA projects to demonstrate the principles that the artful process isn’t restricted to the stage.   It also sets out to provide a direct comparison and understanding of the artist and the knowledge worker.

The Good:

If you believe even a little in Agile or rapid development, then this book will resonate. The stories of the theatre company, in action, are fun to read and the message they deliver slips under your skin almost before you realize it. It’s not all theatre either. They use the Apollo 13 mission in two examples and it really goes to show that Agile isn’t new, just the word is. I came away from reading the book with a fresh mindset on the Agile philosophy as well as a some useful additions to my vocabulary that will help explaining the value of Agile.

The Bad:

It’s a text book- Devin and Austin both have teaching backgrounds and the book is laid out like a classic text book. Reading it I was very reminded of the Winston Churchill quote on giving a speech “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you’ve said.” While the content was powerful, the format of the book could have been much more engaging. Having heard Devin speak in person, it’s not the material but the format that makes the book a difficult read to slog through.

No actionables- The book is long on theory and examples but short on take aways you can use. Not every book has to be the next “Step by step guide to whatever” but I was expecting more based on the description of the book.

The Conclusion:

Still very much worth the read, just go in with your expectations set. This is a theory and understanding book which will get your mind thinking in new ways. It is not the next “how to” book.

The Workshop:

The What:

The Artful Making workshop is an eight hour session that keeps you moving nearly the whole time. Don’t worry about wearing comfortable shoes, you won’t be wearing them much.

Lee’s workshop is based on the acting concept of “Control by Release.” He starts with a simple little demonstration. Holding a pen tightly in his hands, he says “I’m in control of this pen. It does what ever I want it to do.” He waves it around in a stiff, Bob Dole-like, grip while he talks. Then he holds his hand out over the ground and drops the pen. “I’m still in control of this pen. It did exactly what I wanted it to do when it fell to the ground.” Actors use this technique to “let go” in order to be in control of their art.”

Lee then walks the workshop through a series of various exercises that get you up and out of your chair and challenge your comfort zones. Between these he reviews the concepts, the learning and the outcomes with a mixture of theatre examples, business examples and some science tossed in for good measure. Every leader should understand the concept of “Mirror Neurons” or as we normal folks call it, “Monkey See, Monkey Do.”

It’s not a class for the meek. You are going to be challenged, you are going to do things that initially feel really silly and you are going to walk away from the exercises with a new found respect for your own ability to do.

The Good:

Even with fifteen years of acting experience, I came away from the workshop with a renewed confidence, a greater focus and a better understanding for how the creative mind works. The ability to see how my team thinks and the confidence to not worry about what people think about me will make me a stronger leader and more effective.

The interactions with the other attendees are as valuable as the workshop itself. The debrief sessions, after the exercises, were enlightening, and educational. I felt like I could have tackled anything with my fellow attendees. If a team went through this workshop, together, I wonder how much more effective that team would be.

The Bad:

Limited actionables- Between the concentration exercise and the suggestions I got from other attendees, I came away with more hard actionables than I did with the book. Unfortunately, as Lee himself even says, this workshop just scratches the surface.

The Conclusion:

If you go into the workshop with the expectation that it is about making yourself more confident and a stronger leader and it won’t be any kind of magic set of tools for managing a team, then the workshop is well worth it. Lee challenges your edge and pushes you – in a positive way – farther than I think I’ve ever been pushed in a single day.

As a project manager, manager or leader, this course will give you the confidence to face even the toughest teams. That confidence will show through and make you more effective.

And you know how I feel about being effective…

Who is Hogarth? Read Blog 001 to find out all about my personal gorilla.