Homegrown Agile: E’s Graduation

He did it! E graduated. We are so very excited about his accomplishments and for the next part of his journey through college. He has endured much hardship as a student – some of it environmental and some of it self-inflicted – and in many ways, it reminds me of what we see at organizations that we coach. Every time I sit down to write a “homegrown agile” (formerly Agile Dad) blog, it automatically triggers a “what have I learned about agility and culture from my family” moment. And while this is our second one to graduate, it has elicited different emotions and highlighted different learnings than the first. In typical “Joshua” fashion, let’s talk about three things that I learned about agility and organizations from E’s graduation: not measuring success the same across different teams, coaching styles, and what it means to be “done.”

The trap: measuring success

“Hi, my name is Josh and I’m a recovering project manager.” It’s true. I have tried to project manage my coworkers, my wife (bad move, by the way, folks), my kids, and even my dog. And let me tell you, it doesn’t end happily. E was no different. When he was first starting school, we decided to home school simply because of our geographic location. Nothing against the schools where we lived at the time, but they were focused on a different level of education for a different level of student. For the first couple of years, E’s education experience was vastly different than public education. And then, we moved around E’s 2nd-grade year. He was thrust into a traditional environment where he didn’t quite click. Although he had phenomenal teachers for the rest of his primary and secondary education career, he just showed success differently. From tests to quizzes to even chair placement in band/orchestra, E simply never saw these with the same importance as the faculty. What he focused on (sometimes unbeknownst to him) was the application and outcome of knowledge and performance. He excelled every time he picked up his horn to play on the field and he is absolutely able to recall the knowledge and learning that was given to him over the past 13 years in ways that astound me. And as that recovering project manager, the energy expended on both trying to make him conform to success or in agony and frustration because of what I thought was missing the mark humbles me.

Even as I’m writing this, the realization of how we measure success cuts deep like a surgeon’s blade trying to remove the last bit of incorrect thinking. How often do we measure some form of generalized and widely applied KPI? How often does that KPI actually apply directly to some customers’ satisfaction, happiness, and relationship to a product we deliver? Or better yet, how often does that KPI tells us what is really going on with employee engagement or true performance? Are we even measuring how successful at leading our executives are? What do we even do there? Just like some would measure my son based on his chair placement rather than what he contributed to the success of his section, sometimes we place too much emphasis on vanity metrics and measurements that lead to bonuses and raises rather than building a culture of attaining outcomes.

Coach or mentor or teach or lead

In one of my former blogs about life during “the ‘Rona” I talked about what we were doing to help our kiddos go from dealing with a regular and structured cadence to “here is all your work – get it done by Friday.” And if I were honest, it wasn’t very fun. As I vacillated between trying to be “dad” and teacher and principal and project manager (see above), it was emotional and challenging and painful and [insert another negative term here]! In that time, I did realize that E learned differently and responded to different methods in positive and negative ways; that it wasn’t up to me to impose my “style” on him, but for me as the professional to find the right approach that fit him.

This used to be an interview question I would ask people joining our team (more on “used to” later!) – what is your approach to how you coach teams: hands-on and jumping in to help or more aloof and offering advice or somewhere along that spectrum? The purpose of this question wasn’t to get a direct answer, it was to hear how and why coaches pivot, change, and shift depending on the myriad of variables in working with teams at all levels in an organization. I was shocked by the number of people I interviewed who locked into “this is my approach” mode. As a professional coach, you should have a really big toolbox filled with different methods from Shuhari to Socratic to Training from the back of the room. And you should be able to listen to the words and the environment to decide what helps the teams become successful.

Done or “done, done”?

“Are you done with your homework?” was a typical question around the house through both Jr. High School and High School. The answer was always, “yep.” And then a week later there would be a mad dash to turn in work to make up for a missed grade. It was a struggle that led to wild ebbs and flows of emotions and one that was completely and utterly avoidable. Some may think they have the answer – more frequent feedback, more transparency on the work to be done, or additional ownership of the work performed. And yes, I can definitely see how this analogy would lead to this conclusion. However, in this instance, it isn’t about those things. No matter how often we asked or checked-in or tried to explain the importance or empowered E, it was always the same roller coaster. The challenge was in what the definition of done was by the ultimate customer – the teachers. This is NOT me throwing them under the bus; I am going to take an agnostic approach to whether due dates mean due dates. The truth is that we (E’s parents) had less understanding of what done meant in his education. The decision-makers had defined done and the person closest to the work (E, in this case) understood and responded to it. Me and E’s mom were external entities to this agreement yet constantly tried to enforce our own “done.”

How often does this happen when we try to insert structure, additional team members, and new layers of leadership to solve a problem of “done” where the teams and the people asking for work already have an agreement in place, whether physically or existentially? How often have we created processes and policies (going there!) to solve a problem that is relational? It is time to think of how we build organizations to create teams that solve their own problems, are truly cross-functional across delivery, demand, and leadership at the team level rather than a hub and spoke design that invites failure. While I understand this is a long play, it is something that has small steps that we learned from E’s successful graduation – 1) understand the relationship between empowered teams and the customer, 2) be involved and informed from the bottom up, not the other way around, and 3) don’t build solutions to the “done” problem, learn to love the problem and build individual solutions around what you learn.

Empowered Organizations

I do want to brag on my son

I oftentimes use regular and special events of our lives to learn about how to better work in organizations, but I would be remiss if I didn’t simply brag on my son in my closing paragraph rather than spell out some action for you, the reader (I hope you picked up on some good stuff in the above paragraphs). E has taught me so much about life. I think it is absolutely true that we need to become more childlike to become better people. While he isn’t a child any longer, he has shown me, through his eyes, what awesome looks like. He is smart, funny, strong, thoughtful, direct, focused, and vulnerable. He is all of those things that I hope to one day aspire to be. I love you E.

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