Bambi vs. Godzilla

October 27, 2011

There was a short video made back in the 80’s that made a huge impression on me called, “Bambi meets Godzilla” Maybe you’ve seen it. It’s epic. There’s Bambi in the meadow looking all dewy eyed and innocent and munching on daisies. Then you are treated to that iconic Godzilla roar and Bambi looks up, alarmed. You see one giant lizard foot descend out of nowhere and Godzilla stomps on Bambi.

The end.

The first time I saw that film as a teenager I think I laughed so hard I cried. I’ve always had a soft spot for the big rubber beast. There is something about the classic Towering Terror of Tokyo that has always turned me on. He sort of reminds me of “Uncle Bob” Martin.

Fast forward to today where I find myself roaming the complacent halls of corporate America. I must confess there are times when I look at a room full of cubicles and crave a little of that Godzilla action. Yeah, you heard me right, I want to rage right in there full of radioactive terror and unleash a little destruction! I want to turn up the Blue Oyster Cult to eleven and breath a little radioactive fire and and smash a few cubicles with my mighty rubber tail! Gazing down over the typical cubicle warren, I think I know how Godzilla felt looking down on an innocent fishing village just before smashing it all to bloody oblivion.

You see I have a confession to make: Godzilla and I have a lot in common. I call it my “Godzilla complex” Here’s why:

Godzilla hates tiny little walls. So do I! You know how villagers are. Living quietly within the confines of their narrow little cubicle walls. They’d all be going about their daily drudgery, testing, writing code, filling out TPS reports, and generally just bowing down to the man. But as anybody who has watched Godzilla movies will tell you, Godzilla will lay waste to anything with walls. You see, he’s actually a huge fan of transparency, and nothing defeats transparency like cubicle walls. Fortunately, nothing defeats cubicle walls like a hundred foot long lizard tail and the aforementioned nuclear breath. That breath just melts ‘em right down to the designer berber carpet.

Godzilla hates meetings. Me too! Picture yourself at a typical ghastly corporate meeting. Some dork has called you in to a meeting with no agenda and genius couldn’t find a consensus if you clubbed him over the head with it. You know the kind of meeting I’m talking about. There you are thinking, “Oh great, Just 5 more of these meetings before I can go home and get some work done.” That’s when you need Godzilla. You know Godzilla doesn’t like your meeting when his dorsal fins start to glow red. He’d let out one of those monster, mind bending shrieks of his and then he would bite the head off the bozo who called the meeting. He wouldn’t stop there either. He’d probably use his radioactive breath to melt the face of the marketing guy sitting next to him. Then he’d smash the conference table into splinters with his mighty rubber tail and storm out of the room. Meeting adjourned. Oh God that felt good…

Godzilla hates architecture. What a coincidence! Me too! Nothing spells doom for a decent, well run project like architecture. Now I’ve seen enough Godzilla movies to know that if there is one thing that the Rambunctious Rubber Raider does well is destroy architecture! He takes out most of downtown Tokyo! That speaks to a serious…no, pathological hatred of architecture. That’s because Godzilla knows that architecture is the enemy of simplicity. There! I said it. I feel much better now. It took a giant rubber lizard to teach me that lesson. And a fifth of vodka.

Godzilla hates impediments. Nothing brings out the Raging Radioactive Rubber beast in me like impediments. Nothing. The thunder lizard and I share that in common. Nothing stops Godzilla either. Not robots. Not aliens, not a two headed dragon thing. Or a moth creature…or a retarded looking turtle…Nothing!

So what are you? Bambi or Godzilla?

Going To The Dark Side

October 22, 2011

I discovered the other day that I have apparently gone over to the dark side of Agile. It’s unfortunate, but understandable given the circumstances. You see I’m a manager now. The minute that happened there were some telltale signs that I really should have noticed earlier. I caught myself telling people that I mentor things like, “I am your father…” I’ve noticed that line gets me a few puzzled expressions in the office. It seems to work better with the kids. Then one day the color of my light saber changed from green to red. I’ve seen the movies and everybody knows what that means. Still, I didn’t suspect a thing at the time. Even when I took to wearing a floor length black cloak around the office like some sort of pudgy corporate goth, I just told people I was wearing it because I was chilly. I didn’t fully comprehend the full power of the dark side until I started to deflect impediments.

Deflecting impediments is like a drug. There is this feeling of satisfaction you get when you manage to deflect dealing with an impediment holding up a team’s progress that is like nothing else I’ve ever felt. Well, actually it’s a lot like strangling a puppy. Yup, we’re definitely on the dark side now people. However, deflecting impediments is not as easy as you might think. Just like being really lazy, it is more work than it first appears. In the interests of furthering the evil methods of the Agile dark side, I will share some of my diabolical impediment deflecting techniques with you.

Minimize the problem. The key here is to dramatically downplay the significance of the problem. The team has come to you for help. It’s your job to convince them that it’s not really a problem. It’s really not that bad. That issue won’t slow you down that much. You can work around it. It has always been that way. If you can master this technique you will become the Jar Jar Binks of management effectiveness.

Delegate to the Team. If you can’t get them to acknowledge that it really isn’t that big a deal, don’t worry. The fallback position is to look at them with an appraising eye and say, “Don’t just bring me problems, I respect people who bring me solutions. So what do you propose?” Let them stumble about and come up with some lame idea. Then smile and say, “Perfect, you know how to solve this yourself!” They have thrown the problem toward you and it has whipped about full circle and ended up right back in their laps! I call this the boomerang impediment. This is worth doing just to see the expression of indignant outrage on their faces. Feel free to combine it with some sort of dramatic gesture (a closed fist works well for me). The coup de grace? Tell them you’re going to hold them accountable. Trust me, at this point the evil laugh just comes naturally.

Reject the problem. Take a tip from Obi-Wan. Just wave your hands and say,

“These are not the impediments you are looking for…”

There are couple of strategies that you can use here. You can plead that it’s outside your control. Sorry, not my department. It’s those bastards in accounting. The point is, there’s nothing you can do. You’d love to help, but you can’t. Every time you manage to do this, somewhere in the world a Scrum Master loses its wings. Or if you are feeling really evil, just tell them to take it to the scrum of scrums – nothing ever gets done there.

Together, using the dark side, we can halt the forward progress of any team. Does my voice sound deeper? Repeat after me: “Come over to the dark side and together we can bring the corporate world to its knees!” Now, does anybody know where I can get a black helmet? How about some platform shoes?

Warming Up for Deliberate Practice

October 14, 2011

I think often that people really appreciate the value of practice, however they find it really hard to actually do. I’m like that, I fully understand the merits of practice and the benefits it brings, but I absolutely hate to do it. I suspect there are a lot of people like that. In fact Anders Ericsson named the four essential qualities of practice and the final one on the list is:

“Practice isn’t much fun.”

No wonder people don’t like to practice! It’s a grind. It’s hard work. It puts you in a place where you fail. Why would anybody practice under those conditions?

While doing my research on practice I came across an interesting book on music practice called “The Art of Practice” When I cracked the cover I was quite surprised to discover that a good portion of the book was given over to the discussion of how to prepare for practice before the practicing even starts. That was a revelation to me. You mean there are ways we can prepare ourselves for practice?

That got me thinking about how I might prepare to practice things that are important to me. Take writing for example: sometimes I’m able to be very prolific, writing with relative ease. Other times it’s a relentless slog. What do I do to prepare myself to write? Short answer? Absolutely nothing! Does drinking count? Hey, either the magic is there or it isn’t, right?

Well what if I were to treat my writing more like practice and less like some fickle magical process that I have no control over? What would preparing for practice look like? Here are a few ideas I’m trying out now:

  1. Set the location. Rather than try to write while I’m sitting in front of the TV (a recipe for almost guaranteed failure) I’m only going to write in my office.
  2. Set the tone. I’m going to crank up iTunes whenever I write. I’ve discovered that I feel much more productive with certain kinds of music. It really helps. I don’t try and explain it, I just turn the dial to eleven and groove to my SuperTramp. According to my wife, SuperTramp doesn’t work for her. You’ve been warned. Learn from my example and buy some earbuds.
  3. Do warm ups. Your going to laugh, but I’ve started using a typing tutor. Here’s my theory: Writing means typing. typing requires some dexterity and that dexterity requires some warming up. If the fingers are ready, then the brain might just be too.
  4. Time box it. I will only commit to writing in short bursts. Right now I’m using pomodoro’s. If that doesn’t feel right, I might use (10+2)*5 instead. The idea is to lower the threshold of commitment for myself. I want to take what is often a too daunting task and turn it into something that is easily approachable and achievable.

That’s what I’ve done so far. Here are some additional items that I’m considering adding to my writing warmup repertoire as well (in those outlined above don’t do the trick):

  1. Going for a brisk walk before writing.
  2. Meditation
  3. Hand stretches – don’t want to aggravate the ol’ carpal tunnel now do we?
  4. Reading a short story or poem before starting to “prime the pump”

I’m sure this is well explored territory for writers. The idea is that using these strategies I can better prepare myself for the practice that I’m engaged in (in this case, writing). There are a lot of other practice areas that I bet you could apply warm up strategies to. Some examples:

  1. Coding
  2. Testing
  3. Facilitation
  4. Public speaking
  5. Conflict Management

I’m pretty sure this is just a tiny start. Pick anything that you can practice and I’m sure there is a set of warm up routines that you can use to help make the practice easier to engage in. In a very real sense, knowing that real deliberate practice is hard shouldn’t scare us away from it. We need to prepare ourselves for a good practice session so that we can succeed.

I’ll make one other observation on the results of incorporating this warm up into my writing practice: my writing exercise has become exhausting work. That’s another common attribute of deliberate practice – it’s exhausting. You can’t keep it up for long. I think the warmup helps me get myself into a fairly high state of performance before I begin the practice. I’m already going 100 miles an hour when I cross the starting line rather than 25. I start practicing closer to the peak of my strength, rather than still trying to warm up. Give me 20 or thirty minutes of non-stop hammering away at the keyboard and I’m starting to get tired. Really tired. After an hour I’m totally wasted. I don’t mind. I seem to be extremely productive this way, so I’ll take it. Give it a try. You might find it makes a big difference.

Are There Convenient Impediments?

October 4, 2011

Lately I’ve been living in a strange world. It’s a world where everything is all turned around and inside out. Bad things are good. Good things are bad. In this world things seem to play out the reverse of the way we might normally expect in the real world. For example, in this world impediments that threaten a project’s success are a good thing!

That’s right, in this strange realm impediments are the very best thing that could happen to a project! Let’s say you have a normal project – one that is struggling. Maybe the team really isn’t performing all that well, quality is pretty poor, and things just aren’t going that well. Important issues have not been escalated to management for fear of reprisal…in short, it’s just another mediocre enterprise project drowning under the weight of it’s own mismanaged expectations. As a scrum master for a project like this you might think that your prospects are rather bleak. Perhaps, but not in my world.

You see here we have a tool that I like to refer to as the Convenient Impediment. They’re the project management equivalent of a scapegoat. All you have to do is drum up a few vague ideas for impediments and blame the inability to resolve those impediments for the failure to deliver. A lot of the success in this approach lies in the delivery. You need to start mumbling indistinct references to the impediment early on. No specifics, just make allusions and then refuse to elaborate until you can, “get more solid information.” Then you go quiet for a while and just keep that lethal little bunny in your hat, ready to be revealed when the time is right, preferably close to a key project milestone. Then you whip that baby out and declare that you have an impediment that everyone has known about, and nobody has done anything to resolve. I find it helps to strike a pose of indignance when making such pronouncements.

Unfortunately, the project won’t make the milestone, which is really too bad. It was that dang impediment that got us. At this point it is not considered overacting if you raise your eyes heavenward and cry out, “Why me?” Again, delivery is everything. No, not product delivery, I mean your acting skills, silly!

I’m seeing more and more of these impediments and they seem to have a few things in common:

  1. Initially they are quite vague. When pressed, people tend to avoid specifics or even distract you by mentioning a second impediment rather than answer the question (I call this second impediment the “piggyback impediment”).
  2. They tend to refer to hard to address cultural issues. You know the one’s I’m referring to: bureacracy, miscommunication, conflict avoidance – it’s those so-called “soft” behaviors that nobody can address with any expediency. Guaranteed project killers.
  3. They have the unmistakable odor of bullshit.

Fortunately this isn’t the real world, it’s just the strange world that I live in. In my world, agile people and projects fail…frequently. In this odd place people don’t really see failure as a good thing. Ever. It’s a peculiar place where you see things that were never described in the books. Everything is turned on its ear, people do weird things, and sometimes even the impediments are convenient.

Note to self: I should probably lay off the ‘shrooms for while…