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My Agile Journey

The topic of how I got to “be Agile” has come up in a number of conversations lately and I have been told that story has helped clarify what it means to “become Agile” and the effort involved. So here goes…

This was a journey and a bumpy one. The words transition and transformation are used a lot when it comes to Agile changes yet somehow when you have gone through the process, they do not seem to capture the joy, misery, discovery, setbacks, challenges, and triumphs that occur along the way. Things that HAVE to occur for true agility to be the outcome. There is no magic, no switch you can flip; it is something you have to work to become.

Simply put the biggest obstacle between me doing Agile and being Agile was me.

How It Started

About 5 years ago, the management team of the game studio I was working made the choice to use Scrum on our project. The entire staff, 20 or so of us, went through 3-day Scrum training. We came out of the class with a bunch of information but little practical understanding of what it meant to actively use it. What we did have was a common understanding of the pieces and the basics of the process. Now came the hard part, learning to really use it.

Through the first months, it was confusing and it often seemed like we were missing something vital, that “special sauce” that made things come together. I dug deeper into Agile, not just Scrum, reading books, blogs, seeking more than what was in the class to figure how they connected. I also needed to find ways to better fit what we learned to the needs of our game project. I worked closely with my teams as a Scrum Master and Product Owner to practice Agile skills, not only writing user stories and all that goes with that, but iterating on processes, learning sprint-to-sprint to improve the stories, my ability to communicate with my team and the individuals within their disciplines. I needed to learn how they worked so I could get better at how I worked for and with them. As I did this, I became the Agile trainer and mentor for the studio. Some days this role was a blessing and curse because it made me tow the “agile line” every day, in every way, focusing on the foundations of Agile.

During this early phase of using Scrum, it was a matter of doing the work and practicing them to fully understand why seemly disconnected things are in there. The class was simplistic because it had to be; the goal is a baseline of understanding to work from. I discovered practicing what I learned was not the hardest part of the journey, it was letting go of the way that I had done things “before.” Tactics and methods learned in Business School, at Microsoft, across the many projects and teams I had been part of in the past kept distracting me from forward momentum toward “being Agile.”

Fighting the Past

Today is your day to let go of things that no longer serve you.

Today is your day to let go of things that no longer serve you.

As things progressed, there were so many times I wanted to fall back on the tried and true “because I said so” rather than doing the work to understand and listen to the issues, concerns and expertise of my teams. Some days I just wanted to hand out the to-do list, forget the collaboration and communication, forgo the effort of facilitation and discussion. I fought it, I fought with myself to not let myself go back even when I got sick of writing user stories, estimating discussions, planning meetings or sitting through one more sprint review. Fighting to see the value in every piece of the process while at the same time ensuring the studio was following Agile practices and trying to engage the new members of our growing studio with training. It was really a “fake it ’til you make it” time for me, pushing myself to let go of the old and comfortable and allow myself to embrace what the potential of agile. Fighting the desire to go back to what I knew and was comfortable using (even though it never truly worked!) was a daily struggle, heck, sometimes an hourly one!

I did Agile, I did it everyday until one day, I was Agile.

How long did it take? About a year or so, but aspects of that journey came into clarity a bit at a time. User stories got more focused, agreeing on what it means to be “done,” defining and refining how processes needed to work, how to communicate cross-discipline and across teams, and the awareness of many skills that were needed and practiced every day. Learning not just to listen to what what was said but to hear it with all of the underlying issues and concerns. Building trust by trusting my team and individual expertise rather than feeling I needed to know it all. Focusing on the needs of our users and stakeholders rather than letting my ego and the need to be right define priorities. Leading with vision and goals rather than pushing work and managing people.

Moving To Agile

One day, after a year, it seemed to come together.

  • The habits of the past were no longer screaming in my ear to give them attention.
  • User stories were being added to the backlog with the detail the team needed and right sized.
  • Meetings got shorter, more focused, more effective.
  • Collaboration became easier, more open.
  • We were talking AND hearing each other.
  • Respect and trust between team members took hold and grew.
  • More work was getting done with a lot less stress.

Not long ago I had lunch with the team I had worked with the longest, 6 of us had been together for almost 3 years before team members started to move to new things. We had been through a lot together and they were core to my truly becoming Agile – thinking, working, and planning in an iterative fashion while focusing on larger goals and long term vision. They were the ones who opened up and let me understand what we needed as a unit, but also as individuals, to get it done. Trying things, throwing things out, inspecting, adapting, arguing perspectives, educating each other, working together to not only build a product but a team from very different personalities and talents.

I asked them if they noticed when I “became Agile” and all of them answered yes. I asked them how. They mentioned different things, like planning and estimation meetings going faster, stories written and broken down “right,” but the one that meant the most to me and the hardest to define, was the statement “that it just got easier.” I remember feeling the same way.

One day I stopped going though process of doing Agile and started being Agile. That step of the journey made such a difference in my life – how I worked, how I interacted with others, how I thought – it all just got easier, more iterative and Agile.

My journey continues as I encounter challenges and new opportunities, without the restrictive habits of the past, I agilely face them as they come.

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