Little by little...

Little by little...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Limitations and Intentions

A bird is not defined by being grounded but by his ability to fly. Remember this, humans are not defined by their limitations, but by the intentions that I have for them; not by what they seem to be, but by everything it means to be created in my image.

From The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

Do you limit the people around you? Have you given up on coworkers that seem set in their ways? Or worse, do you limit yourself? Have you stopped reaching for anything past your easy reach?

I have discovered a lot about myself over the last few years. Mostly, I’ve seen that I am capable of much more than I’d given myself credit for. But even with the knowledge that I have been short-changing myself, I still limit myself and those around me.

At what point in our lives do we start imagining limitations instead of possibilities? When did we choose to settle for a life of sustainability instead of divine purpose and abundant satisfaction and joy?

In this time of Christmas, I am reminded that each of us was created in God’s image. And by accepting a life of mediocrity, we limit not only ourselves, but God’s intentions for our lives.

Regardless of your personal faith, I bet at some point while you were a baby, someone looked at you and thought about the full life of potential in the little squirming bundle that was you. Your whole life was ahead of you, and anything was possible.

What if we still looked at each other that way? What potential would we uncover just by believing in someone? Or by believing in ourselves? What would you say, “yes” to if you recognized that your life was still in front of you and that anything were possible?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

"Ideal Team" Retro Technique

I’m really pleased with a new retro technique that I tried a few weeks ago. After over a year of floundering, the team I’m working with went through a lot of personnel changes. The remaining members seemed to have no identity of their own and I wanted to facilitate creating a shared vision for what they could potentially be.

Here’s the agenda for the hour-long retrospective. I loosely followed the format laid out by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen in Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great.

Part I - Paint a Picture of the Team We Want To Be
·      Welcome and Pick an Ideal Team               5 min             
     o    I printed and hung up photos of 3 teams: The Avengers, The Scooby Doo team, and a South Park hockey team. We went around the room and each person said which team they would prefer to be on. This served the purpose of having everyone speak at the start.
·      Describe an Ideal Team                               10 min                       
             o   The instructions were to jot down adjectives that describe an ideal team, one per post-it and then place them on the whiteboard. Examples such as “fun” and “knowledgeable” were given.
             o   We spent the last 2 minutes of this section reading the post-its aloud so everyone heard what was posted and agreed to this shared mental picture of an ideal team.
·      List Behaviors of an Ideal Team                  10 min                       
             o   Here the instructions were to write down specific behaviors of an ideal team, again one per post-it and place them on the whiteboard. I stressed that these should be things that others could observe if they walked by our team space. Examples of this were “lively discussions with coworkers,” “help external teams” and “playing music.”

Part II - Uncover the Team’s Gaps & Generate Action Items
·      Got It or Working On It                                 20 min
             o   Here was the meat of the retro. I had 2 sections drawn on the whiteboard, labeled “Got It” and “Working On It.” We read each behavior and decided whether our team was exhibiting this behavior or whether we were working on it.
             o   I chose the category names intentionally to avoid negative connotations. Most teams do not benefit from seeing a list of shortcomings and in most cases; teams really are working on these items.
·      Action Items                                                   10 min
             o   Once we identified the “Working On It” items, we decided on 2-3 behaviors that we would focus on as a team. We listed out concrete ways that we could practice these behaviors in the next iteration.
·      Close                                                               5 min
             o   I closed by letting everyone know where I would be posting our action items, confirming who would be facilitating our next retro and thanking everyone for their participation.

With a relatively small investment of time, we created a shared team image with concrete behaviors to guide us. And based on feedback that I received, the team appreciated talking about observable actions instead of ideas and intentions. Because while theories are interesting, we all know that taking action is the only way that we can learn, grow and strive to become an ideal team.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Glorious Rebels

How does the Meadow-flower its bloom unfold?
Because the lovely little flower is free
Down to its root, and, in that freedom, bold;
And so the grandeur of the Forest-tree
Comes not by casting in a formal mould,
But from its own divine vitality.

- William Wordsworth

The colorful perennials we’ve enjoyed all summer are on their last leg. In the coming weeks, they will succumb to overnight frosts and die away for the season.

Most plants respect the natural order and just fade away when September comes. Their blooms wither, their leaves yellow, then brown, efficiently following the process of decomposing and returning to the Earth.

Then there are the glorious rebels, the lonely bursts of petals in a sea of spent flowers. These few blooms ignore the memo and keep flowering long past the “acceptable” season. They know their fate, yet they keep blooming until their last bit of energy is gone.

Today, I celebrate those renegades. They boldly look skyward and soak up the sun, bringing a little joy to the few people that stop to notice their efforts. 

May we all have the gumption to stand up and be heard even when we know that the outcome is unchanging. We just might bring a little hope to those around us who need it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Breaking Through the Atmosphere

To be able to escape earth's atmosphere, you need to achieve a velocity that is great enough to achieve sufficient energy to escape the earth's gravitational field strength.*

I have a problem. I want to escape, but I don't have enough energy.

Like most people, my job involves constant decision-making. Are the requirements ‘done enough’? Should I go to that meeting? What tests should we write? When should we discuss an upcoming feature? Some are easy & others difficult, but lucky for me, I enjoy the work that is accomplished with these decisions.

The problem is all the counter-productive decisions in my day. I choose to refrain from battling over a stupid process for the tenth time because it’s more efficient to fill out the form. I give in and provide detailed estimates for an upcoming project even though I know there is little value. I try to hide my emotions, a.k.a. not cry, over budget & staffing decisions that I can’t change instead of telling management what I really think.

These choices leave me emotionally and physically drained.

When I get home and consider a career change, at first it seems exhilarating and I take off. Then I start considering all the possibilities and my plane loses velocity. Soon I’m landing and with my feet back on the ground, I convince myself that things will change. Management will come around and if I'm here then I can help them see the error of their ways. And what else would I do anyway? The gravitational field strength takes over and I’m grounded again.

I know I need to escape, but how can I ever reach my escape velocity?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Life's Trajectory

I’m writing this at 34,000 feet. I’m on my way to Dallas for Agile 2012, my first national conference. How did I get here? Several years ago I was a supervisor of a business area at my company when I checked the job postings. I read the Business Analyst position with interest, having never heard of the role before. Within a year, I was on a newly formed agile team with a coach that would change my life forever.

Where would I be if I had not been curious about this unknown job in unfamiliar IT territory? What if I resisted this agile coach’s advice because he was a “contractor”? How much less would I have learned if I refused to drive out of town to work with our offsite team or attend a regional conference? 

Intentional or not, each of our lives is on a trajectory toward something. Along the way we make choices that impact the arc that is our lives. Should we listen to a peer and shift our angle a bit? Can we allow for diversions that might slow us down, but expand our knowledge? Do we need to go full-speed ahead at the risk of burning out? Could we back up and start over? Should we jump tracks all together?

Interestingly, we think we can control where our actions will lead us. But like the end of the rainbow, the future is always a bit out of sight. So we can point our lives in a direction and try to make forward progress, but external factors will always influence our speed and path.

 And “external factors” are what life is about! This trip to Dallas is the culmination of 2 years spent being more open to what life has to offer. So I’m not worried about planning every session and every day. My only plan is to learn as much as I can and to meet whomever I’m meant to meet. Based on my experiences so far and the exceptional people that I’ve already met, I think my trajectory is heading toward a pot of gold.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Your Value is Not in the Tasks that You Do

When I started as a BA, I would fuss over every task that I learned. I completed exception forms to the letter, created detailed incident tickets, and clearly documented detailed requirements. I was new to IT and I thought these tasks were a reflection of my value to the organization.

Then I met my first agile coach. :)

As he challenged our team’s assumptions and taught us leaner ways of working, I began to question my own worth. If no one needed my documentation, then what was I supposed to do?

Then this coach suggested that my value is not in the tasks that I do.

Hmmm. Up until that point, my self-worth was wrapped up completely in my tasks. I had lots of ideas, but pushed them aside in favor of a checklist of deliverables that someone else deemed important. This idea set me free!

I uncovered skills and strengths that I didn’t know I possessed. I learned to facilitate meetings and draw pictures on whiteboards, which added much more value than typing up pages of meeting minutes. I also discovered an ability to collaborate and aid understanding across multiple teams.

Maybe more importantly, I began to see some of my quirks as assets. My openness (a.k.a. big mouth) and lack of a poker face encourages authentic conversations. And my need to understand, which sometimes results in asking lots of “dumb” questions, has emboldened others to admit when they don’t know an answer.

In retrospect, that statement was the first little moment where agile clicked for me. Following a pre-determined checklist can get things done. But using your strengths and those of your team can uncover better ways of doing things and ultimately greater success.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sanctuary of Agility

There are drive-through animal safaris in every part of the country. For $20, you can weave your car through a few acres and see wild, exotic animals…in Ohio. Sadly, I’m seeing some parallels between my life in a bullpen and the safari animals.

A few years ago, someone in IT management decided that they wanted to try this agile thing so they picked a few guinea pigs, packed up our desks and shipped us to a bullpen. They gave us some index cards & thumb tacks and sent us to a few classes, then pronounced us “agile.”

It’s like the logic of some person deciding to ship a bunch of African animals to Ohio. Seems like an interesting business venture for the owner, but what is the long-term plan for the animals? Can the animals thrive without the environment that they were designed for?

We are one of only four agile teams at our large company. Few people in IT or the business really understand what we’re trying to do or why, despite efforts to involve, educate and share. So here’s the big question for me:

Can a sanctuary of agility survive in a sea of enterprise bureaucracy?

My gut tells me that a team trying for true agility cannot have long-term survival. Seeing animals lounge around waiting for food trucks convinced me of this. I bet when the animals first got to their new home, they were passionate and spent a lot of energy trying to survive in their new surroundings. Over time, they grew accustomed to being fenced in and with scheduled feedings, they had no need, therefore no desire, to escape.

We are certainly more complex than zoo animals, but I’ve seen this happen to coworkers. After endless battles trying to improve things, they give in to the feeling that change is hopeless and they settle in. Their financial needs are met so their desire to “escape” is satiated.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m eternally grateful that they shipped me to an agile team. Unlike the animals, I feel like I have come home. But without a supportive environment, our team will not thrive and I don’t want to just survive.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Throw the Hammer

I work at a nice company. The people are friendly. The benefits are good. The grounds are well manicured and there is beautiful artwork throughout the complex. It’s nice.

Yet there is something wrong here. Not Stepford Wives wrong, but just this feeling that I’ve been struggling to understand. Reading Seth's Blog the other day, a phrase jumped out at me:

“They institutionalize organized cowardice.”

I noticed my head nodding instinctively. I am surrounded by cowardice. I am surrounded by people who waste their creativity playing the prevailing politics game, people who stay silent while their team languishes, people who accept technology tools because they don’t want to fill out an exception form.

When you praise people for completing their TPS reports on time, rather than for questioning the purpose of the reports, you foster compliance. You create Docker-wearing drones who don’t share ideas, don’t question decisions and don’t color outside the lines.

Some days, I want to be the hammer-hurling girl in Apple's 1984  commercial. In my version, I run through our mazes, tearing down cubicles and the polite, little signs that say, “Please be quiet. This is a work area.”

But I still need my job, so maybe I’ll just wear forbidden flip-flops to work and spend my lunch walking through the well-manicured grass in my bare feet. I might inspire a few people to kick off their shoes and join me. That is until they put up a sign that says, "Keep off the grass." 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

So Much Easier to Give Up

How much is too much adversity? When should you flee a difficult situation? Other than abusive or dangerous situations, I find this decision confusing.

Society gives me conflicting advice. On the one hand, you have glamorized movies like 300 and Braveheart, filled with noble warriors who fight to the death for grand causes. Not exactly practical advice for every day situations.

Outside of Hollywood, our culture encourages us to abandon ship at the first sign of adversity. Kids switch colleges because they don’t like their professors and their parents swap spouses, looking for a better match. Our elementary schools say, “Here’s a gold star, it’s not your fault.” Is that how we build character?

I was raised in a different camp; one that flew the “Perseverance” flag. My mother escaped an abusive marriage, raised three girls single-handedly and bought her first home at the age of 55. She faces life head-on and never gives up. So the idea of bailing out of a situation is hard for me to swallow, but I am so tired…

It would be so much easier to give up this time.

But…I’m not done learning from this situation. So while I may occasionally stumble, I think that as long as I continue to grow and learn and teach those around me, I will fight through the rough days. After all, doesn’t adversity make you stronger?    

Monday, February 13, 2012

Today sucks.

So today was a sucky day. We’ve all had them. Nothing monumental sucked, but the little things just didn’t flow. Every task seemed arduous and every conversation seemed taxing.

When I first started practicing agile, I was surprised by these sucky days. Wasn’t all this teamwork and collaboration supposed to make everything more pleasant? How could things suck when you’re singing kumbaya within your co-located cubes? In my enthusiasm and naiveté, I thought agile was going to fix my people problems.

LOL! How foolish I was! In many ways, agile exaggerated my people problems. Where there were communication problems, we now have 20-minute standups. Lack of team motivation? Now you have 3-point stories that take 6 weeks to complete. Silos? You still get defects from a lack of collaboration about the desired functionality. Trust issues? There are few process improvements because no one wants to be honest during retros.

I finally realized that no matter what methodology I practice, I’m still working with people. And people suck sometimes, myself included. The question is how can I be less sucky for my team tomorrow?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pairing Backfire

When I was introduced to agile practices, paired programming made immediate sense to me. In contrast, there was a lot of resistance from the developers on our newly formed team. I tried to persuade them of the value, but sounded like a hypocrite since, as a BA, I was not pairing myself. Then our management decided that if it was a best practice for the developers, then everyone should do it.

Groan! Suddenly I felt pressure to talk over every thought and idea with my own pair who was either a tester or another BA-like support person. (Side note: they were both skeptical introverts.) We spent hours together every day, creating wikis and automated Fitnesse tests, meeting with sme’s and writing emails. It seemed nothing was off-limits. During breaks we would even be in the bathroom at the same time!

Over a few weeks, we began making excuses to escape pairing. We avoided working in the bullpen, found meetings that only one of us had to go to, and exaggerated other non-project tasks. The pairing disappeared and so did the collaboration.

I learned many lessons from that experience.  Here’s just a few of them:

·     The most important aspect of an agile team: the people, the people, the people. Obvious, but missed by so many managers.
·      You cannot make someone share their thoughts and ideas against their will. As long as you are creating an environment that is open, then don’t take this personally. Tough lesson for me.
·      You also can’t make people listen to your ideas. That is another un-enforceable.
·      You can’t take a sound principle or method and just enlarge its scope. It will organically grow and expand if it should and if our focus is on continual improvement.
·      The 'work' of requirements gathering is very different than the 'work' of programming. Pairing may not be for all roles, but collaboration is for everyone. 

On my new team there is no required pairing for the BAQA’s. But we do collaborate on anything and everything. We self-organize and decide what makes sense for the needs of each situation. This gives us some autonomy and prevents us from suffocating each other. And best of all, since the other BAQA’s are guys, I never have to worry about bumping into them in the bathroom.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Resist or Roll With It

At an agile conference that I attended recently, there was a session where each table was labeled with a role from an agile team. Attendees were to get up and sit at a table that had their role on it.

So I got up and scanned the room for my table. There were several for Product Owners, more for Developers and Testers and even a few for Directors (aka upper management since the conference was geared toward managers investigating agile practices.) But I still didn’t have a home. Where do the BA’s belong?

I finally asked an organizer and received the answer, “Oh, we didn’t think of that one when we were creating the labels.” Ouch! Am I obsolete? Not wanting to make a fuss, I found a seat with the testers since I have a hand in creating our automated tests (and there were cookies at their table J).

Since discovering agile, I have been only mildly troubled at not seeing the term ‘business analyst’ anywhere. Why should I worry? My contributions at work are valued and my boss frequently recognizes my worth to the team. And I enjoy what I do, despite some frustrations.

But I’m not naïve. I know that the times, they are a-changing. The tasks that I do now will be obsolete in a year, if not next week. The tools we use are constantly re-evaluated and replaced. The only constant in life is change and it’s my choice whether to resist it or roll with it.

That’s why I now write acceptance criteria with gherkin instead of requirements with a traceability matrix. And instead of getting ‘final’ approval for an un-read pile of documentation, I demo working software every two weeks. My idea of ‘change management’ now involves moving index cards on our story wall.

So I’m not worried. I know that my value is not in the tasks that I do. And it certainly is not in the title you give me. I will roll with it whatever you call me.