The Gorilla always sits in the front row

I stuck my head into the room to cast a quick glance around. The presentations wouldn’t start for another hour and the room was empty of all save some facilities people setting up the AV. Smiling, I ducked through the doorway and made for the best seat in the house. The middle of the back row.

I merrily pulled out my laptop, chortling at my luck.

“You do know that they don’t expect more than fifty people and this room can hold one hundred?”

Good seat luck, bad gorilla luck, guess you can’t win them all.

With a deep sigh I looked up from my computer. Hogarth was taking up a good two spaces at the front row center. Half marveling at how I could have missed an 800 pound gorilla and fully dreading just what was about to transpire I opened my mouth. “I know that, but if I didn’t get here early, the back row would have been all filled.”

Hogarth gave a kind of coughing grunt. If I had to guess I would have said it sounded a lot like those fake coughs people give, while they say some other message. Usually an unkind message. “There’s no one in the front row yet, why don’t you sit up here?”

“This isn’t a Springsteen concert, Hogarth, there is no way I want to sit in the front row.” I gave a vague wave towards my gorilla and the whole front row. “What if these presentations are boring? Anyway, I’m so busy I need to keep an eye on email and it would be rude for me to not be paying attention from the front row. And what if I need to leave?”

Hogarth raised an eyebrow, his expression all but saying, “Seriously?” Recovering from that, he leaned back in his chair, crossed his hands over his chest and fixed me with his ‘gaze of learning.’ “Let me get this straight. You call yourself a radical change agent. You espouse open trust and honesty in the team. You believe in free flow of communication.”  Hogarth narrowed his eyes, “And you don’t want to sit in the front rom because you might be bored?”

When an 800 pound gorilla says it like that, it really does sound bad.

Why are we afraid of the front row?

Go to any training, any “all hands” or even any conference (the ones people want to really be at) and odds are better than even that the back row or the middle row will fill up well before the front row does. It’s practically a law of business, right up there with “buy low, sell high.”

I never really thought about the phenomenon until today. I used to be part of the back row posse. I’d sit back there so no one could look over my shoulder at what I was doing on my computer (which was often usually nothing to do with what was going on in the meeting.) I stopped sitting in the back row when I made my own personal discoveries about laptops in meetings (I can see you gorilla). Not being distracted by my computer, I started moving closer and closer to the front, realizing that it was much more engaging and effective to be there and be involved. These days I rarely sit more than three rows back and most of the time I go right for the front row.

I’m currently attending SFAgile2012 . This is not a conference for agile/lean beginners. There is no “Intro to Agile” or primers to guide you. If you don’t already know and believe in agile/lean then this is not the place for you. These are the men and women who live and breath the principles of trust, honesty and openness.

So imagine my surprise when the meeting rooms filled up and the weight of the room was decidedly canted to the rear. I was late to one session and it wasn’t a problem at all, plenty of room left. In the front row. I was more than a little perplexed. Wasn’t this a conference of change agents? Challenge assumptions, innovate, adapt, improve all being watch words of the day.

So never being one to shirk from talking to the gorilla in the room, I took an opportunity to chat with a couple of other attendees on the subject. It was an interesting insight into the human psyche. As much as agile and lean push the envelope, we are still human beings and we are not perfect. “What if I don’t like the session, I’m trapped because I can’t leave without being rude.” “Maybe I want to hide and not be the focus.” I don’t want to block the view of those farther back.”

Fascinating. Even we who are leading the charge for innovative change find ourselves wrapped up in our all too human foibles. We don’t want to hurt the feelings of a presenter, so you sit where you can easily slip out. If we’re being honest and open, then we vote with our feet. If the session isn’t to your taste, then leave. Having done my fair share of presentations, I can tell you that the presenter will notice if you slip out from the back row as much as front row. As Agilist (Leanists?) we should be open and unafraid of “being the focus.”

I firmly believe the back row should be the last row to fill up. And as agile/lean practitioners, we should be setting the example of good engagement.

I’ll save you a seat at the front.

3 thoughts on “The Gorilla always sits in the front row

  1. Great post!
    I used to be a back row guy…”why sit up the front when I can stay back here, check twitter, and slide out if it’s too boring?”
    Then one of my mentors pointed out that most of leadership is in the subtle, simple gestures that project one’s authority. So true.

    Sitting up the front is about…demonstrating to your team that this meeting is important…positioning oneself to actively contribute and express a point of view…asserting your authority…and showing respect to the presenter.

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