The agile minded professional

7 habits to agility success

Principal, Duende Project Management Services

Abstract

As a project manager, your success is dependent on your mastery of many skills, both hard skills as well as soft skills. In today's business environment, are these skills enough? Are you dispensable or indispensable? Are you agile enough to adapt to significant demands, changing business environments, and external pressures?

Do you only execute orders or do you provide value above and beyond what is expected? Are you called on because you can execute a plan or because you can create value out of complex situations? Become indispensable as a project manager by raising your agility intelligence through the seven habits shared in this paper.

The great news is that these seven habits can all be learned and practiced. This paper will share habits that will improve your ability to create value and innovate, habits that will distinguish you from dispensable project managers.

This paper provides seven habits to be embraced by the agile-minded professional project manager. This paper supports the premise that today's project manager must not only excel in hard and soft skills but also must be agile-minded in order to become indispensible. The paper is organized around the seven habits:

  • Habit 1: “Question Everything”— To become effective and more agile as a project manager, learn to ask simple but powerful questions? Challenge the “status quo.” Challenge “that's the way we've always done it.” Become aggressively curious. Ask “why?” Ask “why not?” Ask “what if?” Agility is enhanced not by taking orders but by questioning.
  • Habit 2: “Relate to Innovate”—Expand your vision, your experiences, and your networks to uncover novel approaches to your work. Harness this exposure to become more creative and innovative.
  • Habit 3: “Fail Your way to Success”—Learn to fail your way to success through the power of experimenting. Use experimentation to discover what works. Fail in small steps to achieve the big successes. Experiment to improve your ability to adjust and adapt.
  • Habit 4: “Communicate Thoughts and Ideas”—Unleash your creativity by giving it a voice. Agility cannot be enhanced if important thoughts and ideas lay dormant without expression.
  • Habit 5: “Deliver Value Frequently”—Become indispensible by delivering tangible value frequently. Harness your leadership power to deliver more than asked and sooner than expected.
  • Habit 6: “Change Incrementally”—Make small incremental changes consistently over time to achieve quantum leaps in productivity and agility.
  • Habit 7: “Connect With Your Purpose”—Connect with your purpose for enhanced creativity and agility. Connect with your purpose to release those hidden reserves of personal power within you.

Introduction and Application

“When the situation gets too complex, it's impossible to follow the manual because there is no manual” (Godin, 2010, p. 220).

Today's project manager faces many challenges. The demands and pressures on the project manager have increased due to competitive environments, complex solutions, changing technology, demands for faster time to market, marketplace demands for innovative products and solutions, and much more. The project manager's challenge is further complicated by changes in the economy that can affect owner attitudes, funding, and project resources to name just a few.

To deal with these challenges, today's project manager needs to rethink project thinking and traditional approaches to project management. Effective project management not only requires a mastery of traditional project management techniques but also the knowledge, wisdom, and ability to bend, throw out, or rewrite the rules when the situation requires it. Seth Godin, the author of Linchpin: Are You Indispensible?, proposes a list of seven abilities that make an individual indispensible to an organization (Godin, 2010, p. 218):

  1. “Provide a unique interface between members of the organization.”
  2. “Deliver unique creativity.”
  3. “Manage a situation or organization of great complexity.”
  4. “Lead customers.”
  5. “Inspire staff.”
  6. “Provide deep domain knowledge.”
  7. “Possess a unique talent.”

This list can easily convert to a job description for the agile minded professional project manager. Let us take a hypothetical (or perhaps not so hypothetical) situation that requires a leader for an organization's most critical project. Perhaps this project will launch a product that can significantly enhance the organization's financial situation or perhaps save the organization from financial disaster. Perhaps the project will revolutionize the way the organization has performed business in the past. Perhaps the project is the “most important project” the organization has ever undertaken. What if this critical project also requires creating something or doing something that is “never been done before” in your organization or any other? How important will it be then to find a leader with these seven abilities?

In his book The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century, Stephen Denning proposes a changing approach to work for organizations, an approach that is “radically” different than what has worked in the past. This proposed approach provides for a system of “continuous innovation” based on seven principles (Denning, 2010, p. 4):

  1. “Focus work on delighting the client.”
  2. “Do work through self-organizing teams.”
  3. “Do work through client-driven iterations.”
  4. “Deliver value to clients in each iteration.”
  5. “Be totally open about impediments to improvement.”
  6. “Create a context for continuous self-improvement by the team.”
  7. “Communicate interactively.”

The items on Denning's list are very consistent with agile project management approaches. Although agile project management approaches were originally developed to enhance the software development cycle, these approaches are now being adapted to projects outside of the software development and information technology realms.

An agile minded professional project manager will embrace both Godin's list of seven linchpin abilities and Denning's list of seven principles of continuous innovation. Exhibit 1 highlights some of the key differences between the “traditional project manager” and the “agile minded professional project manager.”

“Traditional Project Manager” versus “Agile Minded Project Manager”

Exhibit 1: “Traditional Project Manager” versus “Agile Minded Project Manager”

As a coach for project managers in both traditional and non-traditional (agile-like) project management environments and leveraging the lessons learned from managing agile projects, I propose seven habits that will enhance the agility of the project manager's mindset. These seven habits incorporate the teachings of Godin and Denning and also draw from agile/scrum practices. The seven proposed habits are:

  • Habit 1: “Question everything.”
  • Habit 2: “Relate to innovate.”
  • Habit 3: “Fail your way to success.”
  • Habit 4: “Communicate thoughts and ideas.”
  • Habit 5: “Deliver value frequently.”
  • Habit 6: “Change incrementally.”
  • Habit 7: “Connect with your purpose.”

Habit 1: “Question Everything”

“The meaning of work isn't in the bread that we're baking; it's in the response of the audience to those words” (Denning, 2010, p. 65).

To become more effective and more agile as a project manager, the agile minded professional should question everything. Sometimes the simplest questions are the most powerful questions. Questions should be asked that challenge the “status quo.” Questions should be asked that challenge “that's the way we've always done it.” The agile minded professional should use questions to become aggressively curious. Key basic questions include “why,” “why not” and “what if?” Agility is enhanced not by taking orders but by questioning.

The agile minded professional should ask key questions to uncover and better understand the needs of the project audience, which includes the project sponsor, the product owner (if different than the project sponsor), and the members of the team. Brian Tracy, in his book, Speak to Win: How to Present With Power in any Situation, states that “the starting point of preparation is your audience. Remember, it is not about you; it is about them” (Tracy, 2008, p. 19). Dig deep with questions to understand the purpose of the project and what defines success. As a starting point for assessing your audience, you can use Abraham Maslow's “Hierarchy of Needs” to determine the state of mind and situational status of your project audience. Of course, the needs of the organization and the project audience may differ depending on many different factors. Exhibit 2 identifies the five stages from a project audience perspective:

Project Audience Hierarchy of Needs

Exhibit 2: Project Audience Hierarchy of Needs

In the Harvard Business Review article titled “The Innovator's DNA,” the authors identify “questioning” as a discovery skill that “allows innovators to break out of the status quo and consider new possibilities” (Dyer, 2009, p. 1). Agile minded professionals should use questioning techniques to not only become better innovators but to encourage an environment of innovation.

Agile project management techniques that question and challenge the traditional project management status quo include the following:

  • User stories vs. requirements—Instead of focusing on detailed requirements, agile uses user stories that focus on the features from a user role perspective.
  • Fixed sprint durations vs. fixed scope—Instead of fixing scope, fix the duration and allow the scope to change to fit the sprint timeframe.
  • Self-organizing teams vs. project manager led teams—Allow the team to manage the work without top-down leadership.
  • Low-tech communications vs. formal communications documents—Low-tech whiteboards and post-it notes facilitate enough information to advance the project without unnecessary administrative overhead.
  • “Stand up meetings” vs. traditional project status meetings—Short “time-boxed” meetings of 15 minutes or less are more effective than traditional often time consuming meetings with varying agendas.

Habit 2: Relate to Innovate

“Associating, or the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas from different fields, is central to the innovator's DNA” (Dyer, 2009, p. 3).

The agile minded professional is in a unique position to relate unrelated ideas and concepts during the agile project cycle. The open communications encouraged by the agile processes allow a sharing of different perspectives and ideas without filters. The agile minded professional can help facilitate the exchange of ideas and perspectives by promoting and facilitating the removal of work “silos.” Self-organizing teams take ownership of all the work and attempt to eliminate the “not my job” mentality. “As Steve Jobs has frequently observed, ‘Creativity is connecting things’” (Dyer, 2009, p. 3).

The agile minded professional can employ this habit in the definition of user stories. User stories should be defined from the perspective of a user role. For example, instead of taking the traditional approach of defining requirements for a web page, the agile minded professional can define user stories for the web page from multiple perspectives such as a “first time visitor to the webpage” or a “first time buyer” or a “repeat buyer.”

Habit 3: Fail Your Way to Success

“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problem.”—Gandhi (Brainyquote.com, 2010).

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that do not work”—Thomas Edison (Brainyquote.com, 2010).

The agile minded professional learns to fail on the way to success through the power of experimenting. Experimentation is used to discover what works. Failing in small steps helps to achieve big successes. Experimentation helps improve the ability to adjust and adapt.

The agile minded professional does not fear experimentation or failure. By nature of the definition of a project, all projects are experiments. The agile project approach minimizes risk on large or complex projects by breaking down projects into smaller iterations. Risk is further minimized by addressing multiple user stories in a single iteration. While there is some risk that some user stories may “fail” or fail to be completed within a sprint, self-organizing teams will work toward successfully completing as many stories as the team's capacity allows.

The agile approach also allows for “retrospectives” to be performed at the end of each iteration to allow the team to determine what worked with the successful stories versus what did not work with the failed stories. The team learns from the retrospectives and adapts to continuously improve. The agile minded professional should also employ retrospectives for personal initiatives.

Habit 4: Communicate Thoughts and Ideas

“Deep within each of us there is an inner longing to live a life of greatness and contribution—to really matter, to really make a difference” (Covey, 2004, p. 28).

The agile minded professional unleashes creativity by giving it a voice. Agility cannot be enhanced if important thoughts and ideas lay dormant without expression. The agile minded professional project manager is uniquely positioned to develop voice through the talents that are developed through the application of project management practices, both hard skills as well as soft (interpersonal) skills. The agile minded professional is willing to take on challenging projects that invoke their passion. Critical and significant projects need agile minded professional project managers who can clearly communicate thoughts and ideas.

The agile minded professional communicates thoughts and ideas through interactive communication, communication that requires authentic dialogue with the team. Agile minded professionals understand that thoughts and ideas can be developed through open communication.

In agile projects, the development of user stories through open communications lends itself to creative expression and innovation. Denning states that “radical management involves a shift from seeing teams and organizations as entities that produce things (goods and services) to that of groups of people who delight clients sooner, more often, and more profoundly” (Denning, 2010, p. 219).

Habit 5: Deliver Value Frequently

“More crucial than the specific iteration length chosen by a team is that during the iteration they transform one or more imprecise requirements statements into coded, tested, and potentially shippable software.”—Mike Cohn (Cohn, 2006, p. 24).

The agile minded professional should focus on delivering value frequently. Traditionally managed projects are usually progresses through taking a contract approach (i.e., agree contractually to the requirements and then deliver in a “big bang” approach). The agile approach is to break the work into smaller iterations with each iteration providing tangible client value (a potentially “shippable” product).

The agile minded professional can facilitate the process to produce value in each iteration by empowering the team to focus on delivering value. The team should decide how to organize the work to produce value. Agile projects also call for a product owner who can help set priorities on the user stories that produce customer value.

The agile minded professional can also help manage the process within an iteration to ensure that the team is not distracted. Once user stories have been selected for an iteration, no additional stories should be added. Generally, on agile projects, stories can only be added if the iteration has not ended and the team still has capacity to take on additional work.

Habit 6: Change Incrementally

“An assumption that there are no limits to improvement is the spur to continuing improvement.”—Stephen Denning (Denning, 2010, p. 205).

The agile minded professional seeks continuous improvement through small incremental changes. Incremental changes consistently over time help achieve quantum leaps in productivity and agility. While traditional project management may allow for a “lessons learned” review at the end of a project, agile project management allows for “retrospectives” that provide the team with implementable change from iteration to iteration. The key to achieving productivity gains is to allow change to be sponsored by the team. Retrospectives are not only useful for evaluating iterations they can also be useful in evaluating personal performance for the purpose of generating immediately implementable change.

Habit 7: Connect With Your Purpose

“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problems.”—Gandhi (Brainyquote.com, 2010).

The agile minded professional discovers purpose and learns to connect with that purpose for enhanced creativity and agility. The agile minded professional connects with purpose to release hidden reserves of personal power. The agile minded professional should proactively develop unique talents and interests that indicate and support a purpose. In his book, The 8th Habit, From Effectiveness to Greatness, Stephen Covey defines voice as an expression of unique purpose. Per Covey, “voice lies at the nexus of talent (your natural gifts and strengths), passion (those things that naturally energize, excite, motivate and inspire you), need (including what the world needs enough to pay you for), and conscience (that still, small voice within that assures you of what is right and that prompts you to actually do it)” (Covey, 2004, p. 5).

Conclusion

The agile minded professional project manager is uniquely positioned to become indispensible to an organization. By employing the seven habits, the agile minded professional can make a difference. Each of the habits discussed in this paper can be used not only to make projects more agile but also to make individuals more agile minded.

Cohn, M. (2006). Agile Estimating and Planning. Upper Stradle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Covey, S. (2004). The 8th Habit, From Effectiveness to Greatness. New York: Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Denning, S. (2010). The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint

Dyer, J., Gregersen, H., & Christensen, C. (2009, December). The Innovator's DNA. Retrieved 12/01/10 from www.hbr.org

Edison quotes. (2010). Retrieved 12/15/2010 from Brainymedia.com: website: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/t/thomas_a_edison.html

Gandhi quotes. (2010). Retrieved 7/15/2010 from Brainymedia.com: website: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/mohandasga150718.html Brainymedia.com

Godin, S. (2010). Linchpin: Are you indispensable? New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Tracy, B. (2008). Speak to Win: How to Present With Power in any Situation. New York, NY: AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

Vince Lombardi quotes. (2010). Retrieved 7/01/10 from Family of Vince Lombardi, c/o Luminary Group. LLC website: http://www.vincelombardi.com/quotes.html

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2011, Eddie Merla, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dublin, Ireland

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