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. 

 

 

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  1. Pingback: New PM Articles for the Week of October 22 – 28 | The Practicing IT Project Manager

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