At summer camp I taught orienteering. I taught young people how to use a map and compass to orient nature. I loved it…
Lesson 1: Don’t trust the map more than your eyes
For anyone who has once trusted their GPS, yet it drove them in circles or into a blocked off street, you’ll understand the importance of this point.
For many teams, a project plan is a roadmap without the privilege of real-time updates. In an ideal world, project velocity, burndown charts, and user stories with properly written Gherkin would fill every void, map every path, and produce every desire — they don’t. It’s not that those things don’t help — they do — it’s that they’re not a source of truth; they’re a source of insight. Those resources foster better questions that help teams make more competent decisions.
Lesson 2: Understand your tools
A compass is a paperweight if you don’t know how to use it properly. Even the best navigator is your worst enemy if they can’t figure out whether they’re pointing north or south.
A frequently misunderstood project management tool is a daily stand-up. For many project managers, they use this time for accountability and task check-in: Did you get done with what you expected to get done? Even though the assumption is that this type of check-in would help move a project forward — it doesn’t; it’s feeding a compliance-model of project management and not an empowerment-model.
Under a compliance-model, team members are incentivized to do the same or commit to less; further, personal stretch goals are threatening and not exciting. Using an empowerment-model, team members are always looking for ways to improve and push against the challenges of the day before, to experience a better tomorrow.
People work best when they’re empowered to do better work and not just held accountable for doing enough work.
The driving factor for change that stand-up supports, is addressing emotional state and eliminating blockers: Are you proud of what you worked on yesterday? What would help you do great today? What’s standing in your way that I can help alleviate?
Coincidentally, the answers to these questions will expose what kept a task from being completed prior, as expected, and what can be done to do better next time.
Lesson 3: Constantly reorient yourself
A difference of 1° or 2° doesn’t matter much when you’re walking 100 feet, but it makes a monumental difference at a mile. Even when you’re absolutely positive that you are pointing in the right direction, it’s critical that you stop and reorient on a regular increment.
I’m amazed by stories of iconic “culture-rich” companies with altruistic mission statements, which later come under fire for violating the trust of their team and their customers. From an ivory tower, it’s easy to assume the world is in order. A little skepticism wards off hubris and ego, and is a not-to-subtle reminder that what’s believed may not be true.
Great teams habitually reorient themselves. Until a habit is formed, set a weekly calendar reminder to spend 30 minutes to ask these three questions:
- What’s our goal/outcome?
- Is what we’re doing working?
- Is there anything that needs to change?
“Agile” is a verb
It’s not the compass; it’s not the map; it’s the way we navigate the work. It’s the way we wrap uncertainty and handle the emotion caused by the unpredictable.
To be agile is to embrace the diversity of the situation and recognize that, while something may walk and talk like a duck, it might just be 2 o’clock.
It’s uncomfortable to accept uncertainty. It takes guts, and it pushes us out of our comfort zone. Yet success comes not from cookie-cutter “Agile” mantras but finding the path that fits your team and project. I know it’s hard, but trust me, you’ll figure it out… if you stay agile.