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.