2015 New Year's Retrospective

Stale retrospectives? Has your team stalled in group think mode? Do they say, 'Yeah, same stuff went well/sucked as last time'? Maybe it's time for RetroFresh!  :)

Seriously, freshen up your retrospectives, and use the new year to help! Many of us reflect and set new goals this time of year anyway, so harness that tendency to frame your next retrospective to your team's advantage. I tried this yesterday, and a team that had been stuck in the creative rut for the past two sprints livened up and came up with all sorts of ideas to improve. It started with one simple question: What kind of team do you want to be in 2015?  

Here are some twists for using the new year "resolution mode" in your retrospectives:  

  • Ask the team how they felt they performed as a team in 2014. And then ask them what kind of team they want to be in 2015. Ask them to consider behaviors and norms that they might implement in order to become that better team. And then sit back and see what they have to say.  It’s sort of New Year’s resolution-y but it asks the team members to consider the bigger picture and to envision what success might look like in the future. For the team. Very powerful. These goals may drive themes in the product backlog; be sure to include your product owner in this discussion!
  • Draw a timeline for 2014 on the whiteboard.  Ask the team to plot its happiness and sadness during the year (see image below). Discuss the ‘highs’ and the ‘lows’. Ask the team to come up with ways to make 2015 a year of more ‘highs’ and less "lows". Adapted from Esther Derby's emotions seismograph. 
Emotions seismograph from a retrospective. Your timeline could span the previous year to facilitate a New Year's Retrospective.

Emotions seismograph from a retrospective. Your timeline could span the previous year to facilitate a New Year's Retrospective.

  • You could ask the team to write a short article for Wired Magazine January 2016 that recaps the team's success in 2015.  While writing this article, the team should consider major events, changes in behaviors, norms, tools, environment, etc. After that envisioning exercise, you could ask them what they’d like to take away and turn into a reality. (adapted from Luke Hohmann's "remember the future"). 

Gentle reminder: As a facilitator, you are there to guide the team toward its own resolutions. Pun intended! Happy New Year!  Shake it up!


Half-Halt While Moving Forward

Life has been too much work for too long. Not that I’m complaining – I love my job, I love the people I get to work with, I love seeing how technology is applied in so many different ways.

Yet, I’ve been missing something.

A couple of years ago while driving, I passed an equestrian center; beautiful black horses with feathers on their legs were floating around the pasture. I thought one day I’ll give that place a call.

How can you resist a Friesian?

How can you resist a Friesian?

Two years later I finally did.

So, I’m back in the saddle agaa-aa-in (cue Aerosmith or Gene Autry). While certain things come back from deep within the subconscious - like tacking and leading from the left (so the sword doesn't get in the way), picking hooves, bridling - I realize that many things don’t. I’m a two decades older version of my former lithe, supple self. And oh am I feeling it. Consciously, painfully feeling it. Each. Step. Of. The. Painful. Way. Ow.

As I limp around after a lesson, pondering the lamentations of my trainer because I can't get the freakin' leg yield down, the interesting part is what I feel out of the saddle. After a few months of spending time doing something outside of work, I’ve realized just how much work – and life – has improved. I’ve kept a journal of insights; here’s the first of several chunks. 

Part 1: Connection

Since I’ve been riding, I’ve noticed an interesting development in my work life: coaching is fluid, easier. Connection with people is not so forced (I'm an introvert). “How is there possibly a parallel?" you may ask. "Horses don’t talk! You just kick them and they go!” Not so! Horses’ communication comes in many forms: eyes, body posture, four legs, a tail - sometimes a popping slashing tail with pinned ears (which means I am not happy). They are full of non-verbal cues. Hershey greets me with a loud sniff and inquisitive eyes, forward ears - and then turns his head away when I ask him to take the bit. He’s telling me that he is happy to see me, but he really doesn’t feel like working. An extra sugar cube helps coax him along.

Ok, sure, horses don’t talk per se (unless you’re riding Mr. Ed) – but you can be darn sure they’re communicating. Just like the teams I coach, or the manager who’s struggling with letting go, it’s of utmost importance to tune into these subtleties. Just yesterday I noticed the flush of a director’s face when he realized that he’s no longer in charge of micromanaging his team. Had I not tuned in, I would have missed the three seconds of ombre flesh as it turned from white to pink – the tell tale of, “uh oh, my world’s about to be rocked.” Connection is the foundation for everything a coach must build upon; likewise, connection is the way we get a horse - a flight animal - to trust us and constantly fight its nature to run. 

If I'm honest with myself, I really do think that my coaching efficacy had been somewhat numbed over the years because I’d been coaching too much, too many long hours, taking on other people’s burdensome emotional baggage without an outlet of my own. I was learning throughout, but only within the coaching context. Opening my mind in a completely different way has enabled me to draw on and apply some important parallels from one world to the other. Single-focus can get you through a tough spot, but it isn’t good for you long term. An effective coach or leader has a robust life, providing many lessons and adventures to draw from. This enables connection. Connection enables empathy and trust. Trust enables change. 

In dressage, a rider checks her horse by giving a half-halt, which prepares him for the next movement while continuing to move forward. As a result, the resulting movement is more likely to be collected and beautiful. When will you half-halt next? What will you learn when you do so? What will you bring with you from an area outside your life to improve your coaching or leadership?  

How I Went from Curmudgeon to Kanban; or "the empirical discovery of self and process"

I was teaching a Scrum class a few months ago when it dawned on me. I spoke just as much about Kanban as I did about Scrum. Folks in class were like, “Combine? Canban? Kanban? What?!” I heard myself say things like, “only work on one item at a time”; “pull vs. push”; “derive velocity”; "break through bottlenecks"; “team will work it’s ‘staffing’ out”; “build in time for learning.” I chuckled during this moment of realization. I never thought I would see the day when my attitude toward a project would be one of, “Let’s make a couple of decisions in order to get started, see how it goes, and then make some more decisions.” Not me, not the project manager who couldn’t live without a Gantt chart.

My professional life in the technology world began in 2000, after a stint in commercial manufacturing. Manufacturing – stamp this, cut that, send it down the line, measure parts per worker, good parts, bad parts, ugly parts, and so on – fit my introverted, planning side – the me that loves the quantifiable, the spreadsheets, the data. Life was predictable in manufacturing, except for when a vendor’s delivery didn’t show up, or when people went on strike, or something catastrophic like that.  I liked the regular, the known, the predictable. And even though I sat through a few TQM sessions, well, quality wasn’t my job, actually, and as long as customers got their shipments, well, I was a happy camper.  Until they called me to complain, and then I called the plant manager. How’s that for transparency?

When I moved to tech in 2000, I took what I learned in manufacturing and applied that to software projects. And gosh golly, what seemed easy on paper, or in a Gantt chart, wasn’t actually so straight forward in software development. I couldn’t seem to grasp, for example, that the testing plan changed week over week; when I met every Monday morning with the testing manager to discuss the activities in the project plan, he responded by changing them… again! I didn’t understand why at the time, and by George, I had to change the project plan almost every day in order to reflect all of those crazy resources changing their minds!  In 2003, when our development group learned Scrum, I was more than opposed. I was threatened, angry, cynical. My unhappiness was scrawled across my face everyday, and was apparent in every interaction (sorry Jen and Stephanie!). I was a territorial, pissed off, frightened project manager. I shook hands with people like my hand was a steel vice gripping lumber.

I first tried to relate this Scrum nonsense back to what I knew before - spent two weeks in a panic trying to figure out how to tie actuals to a burndown chart; came up with some nice visuals and all, until it was quickly debunked. That waterfall change control process that I had worked so hard on B.S. (before Scrum) was now obsolete. What would become of my job? What would I do now that I didn't live in a project schedule any longer? I was a curmudgeon, for sure. ARGHH! Get away from me you Scrum pundits! ARGHH! Don’t look at me while I scramble to figure out my elbow from my knee in this “new way” of working. ARGHHH! Just. ARGHHH!

After years of reflecting, I’ve realized that my transition from curmudgeon to kanban happened in a series of steps. Now, I’m armchair quarterbacking here, but the introspection drew out some ideas that might help you. Or some other curmudgeon you might know.

My first big aha!: be OK with revealing insecurities and imperfections, everyone has them

As grumpy as I was in 2003, I was at least observant enough to notice that our development teams were working more collaboratively, and seemed, dare I say it, happier, although I didn’t really want to admit that at that time (heaven forbid, don't admit that the new thing actually works!). Executives came to sprint reviews, developers were excited about demoing their work. These were the positive motivators. Another positive motivator: our VP cared about us, and he let us know it. He worked with me and his other managers in various ways; one such way was to set up manager meetings every two weeks to discuss insights, articles, books, or other ideas. We had homework. We had to come in prepared to talk about our angle and how that might impact our work. We had to talk about ideas we tried, those that worked, those that failed. Our VP even brought in a ‘Women in the Workplace’ facilitator to help us girls understand why we run into particularly tricky dynamics (amongst each other and outwardly). Kleenex stock soared shortly thereafter as supermarkets restocked their shelves.  He made it OK to “fail”, which for me, a person at the time who had very low self-esteem, was an interesting and scary concept.

My second big change:  look for ways to add value

Once I started to accept the fact that Scrum wasn’t going anywhere, like it or not, I begrudgingly considered how I might integrate it with my life. So, in the spirit of self-preservation, I looked for ways to add value. This was obvious at first: get my Scrum teams up and running. This was at times exciting and at other times scary as hell. My initial thought was that if teams manage themselves, what do I do? Well, I was on autopilot at this point. I was committed to seeing it through, if not for any reason other than since our VP had instilled the idea that he believed in me, I didn’t want to let him down.  So I began studying team dynamics, changing my language from directive to questioning, practiced facilitating, and so on. I had a checklist that I kept on my laptop from which I would pluck an idea to try this sprint, and next, and so on. Sometimes I felt really great about how a meeting turned out; other times, the sting of introspective embarrassment turned my face into a beet-like hue.  But I did notice that my handshake vice grip began to loosen a bit. Now that my teams were performing, I felt comfortable working on agile reporting and such for other business stakeholders. Try, fail, try again, then succeed, then fail again. I started cozying up to and having hot chocolate with the notion of personal inspect and adapt, learning from failure. Curmudgeon begins to fade. The light breaks through the dark clouds. Become CSP, then CST. Travel world. One opportunity opens to another. Publish book. Teach others about Scrum. Life is exciting and good.

My third aha!: Let go.

My dear friend Lee Devin talks about personal edge and how we must find it and dwell in it in order to grow. On the map of my gloomy edge world was Mount Saint Holding On.  I had to climb this mountain in order to let go. Let go of perceived control. Let go of charts and project schedules. Let go of thinking I could manage by force. Let go of predictive thinking, letting knowledge and realization of what’s possible emerge. Let go of the holding on to perceived certainties. You can only doing this by holding your breath and jumping off into the Canyon of No Holds Barred. And then you realize about halfway down that you have wing-like structures on your back, and you're soaring, not falling. Fly with the fact that there are no certainties in life.

My fourth aha!: realize that one process doesn’t fit all.  

So much was tied into what I had worked for an achieved as a CST that some years I defended it tooth and nail. I realized at some point along the way that I had to open my mind to new ways, or risk going the way of the velociraptor. This meant continuing to build the ego (I desperately needed to do so), but letting vanity fall by the wayside.  A couple of years ago, I ran into some trouble with a client whose 20-person development group was super-constrained by specialization into vastly different knowledge domains. Scrum just wouldn’t work at first. What to do? Hmm… what about this Kanban stuff I’d been picking up through osmosis and intrigue while working with my friend Maria Thelin? I decided to give it a try.  And lo and behold, great green olive trees, it worked! And it made teams happy. And managers were happy. It was like my first Scrum rush all over again, except this time it was kanban. Different flavors of the same ice cream. And I love me some ice cream. Through my experiments with kanban, I’ve learned to help teams look at the desired outcomes, measure the big picture, trust each other, and learn and change as they go.  Don’t sweat tasking out, unless you need to. Plan to a level that’s “good enough” and no more. Try this, and if that doesn’t work, try that. Oh, a far cry from curmudgeon, indeed.  Who am I? What have I become? And now, my brain gets all mushed up as lean and agile ideas overlap and create this one big ball of ideas. One big ball of things to try, things that all support each other, that all support the bigger picture.

What I’ve learned: Scrum gives us a framework through which we may introspect so that we may change our behavior. This great gift of Ken and Jeff is ours for the taking – all we have to do is reach out and pluck it from that grand tree full of many gifts from those wiser than us. I realize now that my transition from traditional practices, to bringing in iterative/Scrum/XP/Lean mash-ups everywhere I go, is a process motif for the overall transformation of my life. Going from a grumpy, nervous person to a confident, happy person required discovering myself empirically.  It took (takes) courage and a lot of hard work. Going from a grumpy, nervous organization to one of confidence and happiness means discovering empirically what will work - and what won’t - by empowering people to live for themselves and make the right choices every day.


A Thank You to Technical Persons of all Kingdoms and Species

I’m on Flight 1188, squished up against the window in seat 6F. I watch the other planes take off ahead of the one I’m on, amazed as they make the vertical climb and then level off while billowing black smoke at a few thousand feet before climbing again. It’s our turn and as our multi-ton metal tube of flying prowess goes aloft, it dawns on me what an awesome, most intriguing time we live in. My Don Julio margarita has kicked in, and I’m feeling especially sentimental and thankful for technology folks. You need to know this. Yes, you.

I am simply in awe of the various technologies that have enabled an easy and comfortable journey home, and this journey is but a small slice, a skinny component of my rather technology-robust day: 

- When I turned in my rental car this afternoon, a person with a handheld gadget took in my information and spit out a receipt, which I also received via email. I can report this to my client through an electronic invoice and get a payment via direct deposit from my bank.

- I had brisket tacos and a tres leches cake at Cantina Laredo in the Dallas airport. I'll hop over to my favorite ratings site to give it five stars. My AMEX will be charged and paid via some brilliant banking technology.  My calorie-counting app will send me all sorts of alerts (email, facebook and texts, oh my!) tomorrow about how I can eliminate the next-day carb and sugar puffiness. An ad from my beauty supply storewill serve to entice me to click on the newest anti-puff cream.

- I rode SkyLink to my gate. The thing drives itself! It is a bit scary at times (it accelerates rather strongly!) but I secretly relish in pulling G’s from gate to gate all the while worrying that a sensor might go awry and send the thing flying from its tracks. I flash back to when I was a kid, when my parents took me to Disney/Epcot in 1988. I rode the monorail to the park and remember everyone commenting on how cool that was and how it would be the way of the future. I didn’t understand that prediction at the time, but remember being quite impressed by the fact that we seemed to be floating in the air. Today, I traveled in three minutes by a driverless train in what would have taken me 40 minutes to walk.

- A nice airline worker scans my ticket with a red laser and beep! – I’m confirmed on the flight and sink into my seat laden with gadgetry, buttons and controls. I’ve come full circle in my thoughts, in awe of the planes taking off before mine and am excited to return home. The fact that our pilot knows that we’re at 37,000 feet is just mind-boggling.  The fact that he, along with the airport tower and the aircraft itself, can land us safely is a seeming miracle. The fact that I will text my husband a location at which to pick me up is just so cool, and so convenient. My message seems to fly through the air and land on his phone… As I get off the plane and find my land legs, rest assured my luggage will be scanned and loaded onto the belt, waiting for me at carousel 37. My GPS will guide me home, and my security system will ensure a restful night. 

It’s so easy to come by criticisms of technology these days. The iPhone 5 has a new charging mechanism and now we have to go buy a new cable (the nerve!). McAfee went crazy in Belize! Facebook IPO!? It seems that our tech news feeds can resemble the OK! Magazine of nerd entertainment. Starbucks dark roast, click over to Silicon Valley News, and indulge in a bit of ‘ha! I knew it!’ techie schadenfreude. Yet if one stops for only a nanosecond, she quickly realizes how technology thinks for us, warns us, helps us, connects us, sells to us and guides us. It’s overwhelming and convenient having a binary big brother to help me through the day. And you are behind this – the developer, the researcher, the tester, the analyst – the hidden faces behind these life-enriching technologies. Each one of you is contributing toward advancing humankind in some way, and that should not go unnoticed or unmentioned or overshadowed by negative news. I applaud you and look forward to the next year, the next decade, and I hope that I get to bear witness to the next century of your innovations (so keep me alive until them, m’kay?).  It is truly a wonderful, intriguing, hopefully suspenseful time in which to live. THANK YOU for your dedication and advances in turning 1’s and 0’s into stuff that makes our lives easier. Technology – the ‘invisibles’ that you create, tinker with and test every day – enriches our lives.

Keep up the good struggle and know that the world does appreciate you, in spite of what sometimes awaits you in your inbox. Keep your chin up and know that neither bureaucracy, politics, project plans or product steering committees can hold down what is inside you, your potential for great ideas and clever gadgets. Keep it coming, and know that you are truly appreciated. Thank you for getting me home safely. Thank you for returning me home to my husband and my dogs. Thank you for the ad that entices me to buy face cream. Just… thank you.