What If the Problem Just Isn’t Yours to Solve?

April 18, 2010

I was listening to Ken Schwaber once and he was talking about someone who had a really hard problem. I mean wicked hard. As Ken put it, they racked their brains and sweat bullets, but they just couldn’t come up with an answer. He looked at us and asked, “So what do you do at that point?”

He paused, then continued, “Sometimes the problem may not be yours to solve. That’s when you take it to someone else.” Such a simple statement, but to me it was a revelation. You see I’m the kind of person who, when given a problem will attack it like a caffeinated pit bull on steroids. I give it everything I’ve got. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s not enough. That’s when you need to let go of your personal ownership of the problem and collaborate with someone else. That’s the part that was the epiphany for me. The letting go bit is hard for me. But we have to realize that we are not responsible for solving all of our problems by ourselves. There are problems that are best solved by a group. Problems that are best addressed by inspection from a variety of different perspectives.

Once I realized this, I was on my way. I just take the problem to the team, or the scrum of scrums, or my stakeholders. It’s OK to let them take a shot at it too. Who knows, they might see something that you don’t.

What Does Outrageous Success Look Like?

April 12, 2010

So there I am at the breakfast table this morning, listening to the soft snap, crackle, pop of my Rice Crispies as they soak up the Jim Beam (the preferred breakfast of old project managers). With the aroma of inspiration in the air, I started to wonder, “What can I do this year to blow people’s doors off?”

What’s the one big thing I could do that others would look at and say, “Wow! That was amazing!” It doesn’t happen every year (although I wish it would), but when it does, it makes me feel like my time was spent on something worthwhile.

Another way of looking at it would be, what’s the greatest failure possible for me this year? What could I attempt and fail at that would be truly epic? Sometimes we measure the greatness of our achievements by what we attempt. Sometimes we just serve as a warning to others!

When I’m working as a coach I ask people this question, “Can you tell me what outrageous success looks like?” Sometimes they can’t, in which case I know they need a *lot* of help. Often they can, and I love that part. It gives me a target to shoot for. I’m not in the game for a bunt or just a base hit – I want to swing for the back fence! I’ve done mediocrity enough to know that it’s not very satisfying, these days I’d rather try and knock one out of the park!


April 10, 2010

I’m reading Ellen MacArthur’s book, “Taking on the World”. She is arguably one of the greatest sailors around. It’s her story of her life leading up to and including her amazing race in the Vendee Globe.

Before she ever got to the Vendee, she spent years working on other people’s boats. She would prep them, repair them, and otherwise set them up for the big races. She had to know the systems of these amazing race machines inside and out.

These were largely solo racers that she was working with. Once they left the harbor and crossed the start line, they were on their own with no outside help for weeks, even months. Preparation for these racers was critical. Any undetected flaws would very likely come back to haunt them somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Not an attractive thought.
She would spend hours, days, weeks reviewing, inspecting these boats for weaknesses. She would be looking for the telltale warning signs of problems, like rust on the connecting terminals, minute cracks in the paint around areas of stress – anything that would indicate a possible problem.

She was engaging in a form of risk management. The inspections she was doing were designed to uncover the risks that might jeopardize not only the race, but perhaps even the sailor’s life. This sort of assessment goes on all the time in the sailing world. When you go to buy a boat, you get a survey. The point of the survey is to uncover risks to the buyer. Have you ever watched a surveyor in action? They use a lot of checklists.

I’ve watched some great sailors prepare for races too. You can see them wandering over a boat, running their hands over every inch, opening lockers and sticking their head in, tugging on lines – looking for risk. I imagine they have a mental checklist that they are using too.

When we are managing our projects, how do we inspect them? We can use checklists. We can ask others for advice (something that Ellen did very well). We can make things visible – the equivalent of sticking our heads into lockers and looking around. There are a variety of things we can to to look for risk. Being a good project manager, like being a good sailor, means being aware of and constantly on the watch for risk.

Impediment Burndown?

April 8, 2010

This post on agile risk management from Mike Cohn absolutely blew me away. This is brilliant! The risk burndown chart is so obvious, so clear, that it takes my breath away. Could there be an impediment burndown too? I’m going to go hyperventilate into a little brown bag now…

Keep it Small

April 7, 2010

I learned a good lesson today. When tackling impediments, sometimes it pays to take on the small stuff first. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Feedback: taking on the small issues first allows you more rapid feedback regarding your change efforts.
  2. Momentum: Building on a few small successes can make it easier to take on the bigger issues.
  3. Credibility: With each small achievement you build more credibility within the organization.

If you are like me, you love a big challenge and tend to “swing for the fences”. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, but next time I might take a swing at the small stuff first.

The Heart of Business

April 6, 2010

I stumbled across a great quote from Dan Roam,

“The heart of business is problem solving.”

This is a great phrase. Why did he use the words he did? Take “heart” for example: it could refer to the central nature of problem solving – it is at the core of what we do in business. But when I see the word heart other associations arise for me. To me, heart refers to a sense of passion about something. It speaks to something that I love. Problem solving is a passion that we pursue – something that we love to do.

It reminds me of another great quote from Ken Schwaber,

“Work can and should be an ennobling experience.”

I remember the first time I saw that quote – it blew me away. How can work possibly be ennobling? I’m sure there are many ways, but here’s one for your consideration: work can be ennobling if we are allowed to pursue our passion for problem solving.

I’ll take it even one step further – I pursue my passion for resolving impediments. Isn’t that what you want in project leadership? Take your favorite methodology and rephrase it in those terms and see if it fits:

  1. The heart of scrum is resolving impediments
  2. The heart of kanban is eliminating waste
  3. The heart of XP is solving the customers problem

It really doesn’t matter which project methodology/framework you choose, just follow your heart.

Visualize Your Impediments

April 5, 2010

I find it helps sometimes if I “go visual” with impediments I’m trying to resolve. Using a cause-effect diagram or mind mapping can help me look at the problem differently and come up with new approaches to explore. I will even go so far as to start doodling pictures of the problem, just to see if I can get the creative left brain involved (or is it the right one? I forget).

Sometimes I find root causes, sometimes I find even more problems, and sometimes I’m just left with some empty noodlings in my notebook. It’s all good. If it only helps 25% of the time, then I consider the practice worthwhile. The other 75% I sign and call “art”.

First Class Impediments

April 4, 2010

About a year ago I put together a terrific tutorial on finding and managing impediments. It was something that I felt strangely passionate about. But I must confess that focusing on impediments felt a little weird. I’d refer to it as my “silly impediments presentation”. You don’t see many talks at major Agile conferences that discuss impediments. After all who really takes impediments seriously anyway?

Apparently, really good project leaders do.

In fact, it’s arguably the most important thing that good leaders do. Go ask your team what a good scrum master does. Dollars to donuts, I bet you get “remove impediments” for an answer every time. So I guess impediments are pretty important, perhaps equally important to some of the more glamorous subjects in the agile books (you know: planning, retrospectives, etc.). So it’s time that we made impediments a first class member of the project management conversation. After all, planning, stand-ups, and retrospectives won’t do much for you if you neglect impediments. You just end up stuck and reflecting on that fact.