ShipIt Days

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” Rob Siltanen,  “Think Different” campaign,  Apple (1997)

Software development is a truly creative endeavor. Teams will often emotionally connect themselves to the products they produce and given the creative space will do some amazing things to create things no one has ever seen before.

I have actually had the great fortune in my life to work with some fantastic teams and individuals who have helped me truly appreciate the software development profession and the skills within it. I have worked with these people directly and we have together produced things that I have been  proud of when launched.

The rub is often these teams are so focused on building for an organization, that a “creative itch” may start to develop and go unscratched as the result to the focus and effort they are giving to their work. It simply gets moved to something they want to explore and gets shelved for a later date to be determined.

One way that organizations have approached giving back to their software teams is the idea of “fixed creative capacity” (items such as 20% time, made popular by Google; but actually around since the 1950’s conceptually) that defines a specified period of time for developers to work on their own project. This approach employed at Google resulted in several toy products I that became product ideas fodder for flagship products such as Gmail.

The idea of having a regular portion allotted to letting team members self-invest has always been something appealing to me. So, in designing our sprint cycle approach we ensured that we included a “breath” between sprint iteration cycles of 1 day to have what we call “lab day”. This not only allows the team a downcycle of a day from the last sprint but the ability to focus on personal areas of self improvement, focus on implementation of retro actions or to level set themselves for the upcoming sprint.

This has been a great success in our environment and allowed us to keep ourselves engaged in learning, make room for some exploration and create a nice pause before the next cadence (therefore making the cycle a natural rhythm to teams). One of the main drawbacks to this is that ultimately, 1 workday is truly a small amount of time to get into any level of depth for any real exploration.

So, this left me with a question, how could I provide an opportunity for development teams to have a more extended timeframe so that they might actually explore an idea and build a working demo?  After doing some research, I came across an idea being used in private industries called originally called “FedEx Days” (“when it actually has to be there over night”) and later more widely renamed to “ShipIt Days“. One company that has been really public about the use of these has been Atlassian.

What does a ShipIt Day Look Like?

To start with, you will need a small team to plan and be a point of guidance for the event itself. The event should be announced with the general guidelines (which should be minimal but you may seek to align it to the company mission) outlined. This should be with enough time that people can begin to generate or solidify ideas to participate but not so much time that the anticipation loses that creative spark effectiveness (we are looking at 2-3 weeks prior). Let them roll some ideas around on how they want to unleash that creativity and start conversations to merge ideas or refine thoughts.

Define the guidelines for the event such as demonstration of a working demo and create a mechanism to surround this (such as a brief lightning talk or petchakucha  with the demo and keep it time boxed). Adding an explanation of the goal coupled with a talk has a side benefit of encouraging people to talk about what they do. Add some competitive spirit to it and keep it fun!

Develop some mechanism to get the ideas into the wild to solicit team work (I am considering use an open marketplace, an idea I am blatantly stealing from the open space technology concept). Make ideas visible and work to generate conversation and buzz.

I am a huge fan of the power of creative teams being able to form around an idea, but don’t make it a requirement. If a sole team member has a great idea to explore, don’t stand in the way. There is no right answer here.

On the day of the ShipIt, make it a grand kick-off. Assemble the teams and make it a big start. Plan to serve breakfast if possible (a few eggs and bacon or fruit and bagels are cheap and is a great way to start the day) and reiterate the guidelines of the event. Then officially kick it off! Make sure that time clocks ticking away the remaining time are visible to all teams so that they can stay focused within the remaining work time.

Once the time elapses, have a closing event. Maybe serve breakfast or lunch to everyone. Invite those that make sense to the closing event (I  plan to invite everyone from the division). Have a mechanism for voting for the group. Have some definitive judges. Make sure that you have a way to give bragging rights to the winners but create a memorable event for all involved.

So how do I possibly sell my company on this?

This was an initial struggle for me personally.

“Hey guys I want to provide some creative space for teams to just be creative. There are no guarantees that anything they produce will be directly product related. It’s more akin to R&D for ideas. You guys don’t mind footing the bill for this do you?” Sounds nuts, right?

But let’s think a moment. Are we investing in people here or in products by this? Potentially both. Some ideas may spark innovation in product lines but bigger than this potential, you are giving a creative voice to the people that are the ones creating your product lines. You are telling them, I appreciate and respect what you do, so much so, that I want to create space for you to exercise that creativity in a personal manner. That is a powerful thing to offer to someone. These types of actions can often help your employees feel more connected just by the sheer fact that you are trusting them and recognizing the value of the work they do.

“I trust you and respect what you do and want to see your personal innovative thinking and am willing to invest in what you think about”.

I am very fortunate that my leadership here knows I am a thinker. I am constantly turning ideas over in my head to see how I can make them beneficial. I have far more ideas than I can ever possibly undertake but I do take a few and make them a personal mission for me. This type of event is one of those for me.  To ensure that I was not totally “off the rails”, I actually pitched the idea to someone outside of software development (I actually picked our human resources director). Their reaction was not only overwhelmingly supportive, but I was reminded that this was one of the reasons why I was hired here. To think differently.

I am going to launch our first ShipIt day in the new year and if it goes as planned, to make it a recurring part of our culture as a whole. I’ll post some highlights from the event when it occurs to share with you all.

I leave this post thinking about a quote I really enjoy:

“we cannot solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”Albert Einstein

Be creative, be disruptive, be open to change and think differently.

 

 

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Failure is an option

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

Failure. For most it rings a chord of fear, self-doubt and something that absolutely paralyzes many of us to think about. We, of course,  have been conditioned to regard failure is a really bad thing. Failed class, failed marriage, failed product. All of that just sounds bad, right?

But what if I said, failure is a learning opportunity and not the final nail tap on the coffin we have all been taught it might be? What if failure could be a good thing? Failure innately unto itself can have a myriad of bad consequences, I will admit. But once we have allowed ourselves to indulge in mourning the situation ay hand, do we ever start to think it might could help us succeed?

I’ll failed numerous times in life. And though I have not emerged as a captain of industry as a result of these failures, I can honestly say that I have always learned something (even if it was to stop doing the thing that lead to the failure) and in many cases found something better than I initially had sought.  Does that mean that I have achieved some zen-like enlightenment from every failure in life. Of course not. I just do my best to examine why I failed as best as I can.

Some mistakes I continue to make, as we all do, trying to scrunch my face up just right to fit that round peg in the square hole or allow just enough body adjustment to magically make the video game character make that jump or rewriting that line of code the exact same way using different variables only to have it not compile again. Failure is a part of living and always the potential outcome from any of our actions but it can also be seen as a potential to learn. I actually feel that I am in great company with a good deal of people who have failed prior to any success:

  1. Thomas Edison invented thousands (potentially tens of thousands) of lightbulbs before he invented one that actually worked.
  2. Winston Churchill failed the 6th grade and also failed to be elected to any public office prior to age 62 when he was made prime minister.
  3. Walt Disney was fired from an early newspaper job for “having no imagination and had no good ideas”.
  4. Sir Andrew Dyson went through over 5,000 prototypes and his life savings over 15 years. His 5,127th prototype worked and Dyson vacuum cleaners  are now the best selling in America.

With each person listed here, a pretty substantial failure preceeded each before achieving success. Some may attribute these to luck or these being anomalies so let me discuss a personal failure that I used as a learning mechanism. I think tend to believe that these failures provided necessary feedback and the recipients were open to hear the right message.

 

When myself and the product owner of our first scrum team did a demo of the skunkworks project we were loosely sanctioned to build for to the commissioner of our agency, it was … awful.

He beat us up with the proverbial “baseball bat”. He told us all the things we had done wrong about this product. Many of the executives that sought to make this their “personal win” with him tried to defend the product choices or redirect criticisms with no real luck. So, what did the product owner and I do?  We listened. We took notes. We sought to understand. After giving us a good thrashing of critique, he exited the conference room and said “but you guys are on track with something” …

Once he and his staff had left, we received a good deal of unsolicited apologies from those who scheduled  the meeting. I looked at my product owner and he looked at me and I said “that was great”! The remaining folks in the room seemed confused. What they did not initially get was that we made assumptions, now proved inaccurate. We failed fast. It worked. We learned what one of our primary stakeholders cared about and we could adapt and adjust our approach. It was a really good thing.

This helped me realize that all of that critique of what we had done wrong, our failure, helped us better understand and learn. We actually learned something from failing. We took this feedback and within the next sprint cycle we demoed the new product. This time, we got a lot of positive directional feedback of how to proceed. We refined the product into a tool used by the business to help them do things better and have more insight into information. Taking that  failure, listening and examining the feedback helped us begin to change an organization.

Sounds simple, right? Just fail and then learn from it. I wish it was that simple. Failure is only helpful for us if coupled with the willingness to learn the lesson, and by that I mean the right lesson. We could have easily translated our first experience into the idea that scrum would not work for us, “the customer is always wrong” or joined into a pity party over the criticism or just gotten angry that no one praised our hard work. But what we did was hear the message behind the comments of failure (that we were in fact wrong in our guesswork) and were able to exploit it for future success of the product.

Think back in your life about a time you failed, what message did you hear? Was it the right message?

Am I done failing? Nope. I would love to say I am but I think that would be a bad bet to make. Will I always hear the right message and learn to build it into a success? I hope so. But the most important thing is am I willing to fail and open to the message it might bring? Absolutely.

I leave you with a quote I have always enjoyed regarding failures:

“Just because something does not do what you planned, does not make it useless” – Henry Ford

 

 

 

What kind of a Leader are You?

I participated in a class recently aimed at helping refine leadership ideals and understand deeper levels of what it means to be an agile leader. As part of the class, we were given an assignment to write our own eulogy that would be given by our spouse that outlined what kind of leader we were and how our leadership values impacted those family members around us. Sounds pretty emotionally heavy, right? You would be correct.

I spent some time in quiet contemplation when first receiving this assignment. I thought it would just pour out quickly. I know who I am, right?  This was not the case. I truly needed to think on this. And as I thought quietly secluded in a corner, I welled up with tears a bit. Partially as I took this exercise very seriously to open myself up to but also in the recognition that it didn’t come pouring out. Fear had set in a bit.

I began to ask myself, “how am I a leader both inside my personal and professional life”?

I came home and told my wife about my assignment and she knew it was something serious and personal to me (although she admonished me to chastise the instructor that he was “walking on my grave”, it’s a Southern thing, by making me face thoughts of the end of my mortal coil, which I made sure to do the next day)

I stayed up late that night, jotting down notes, thinking of both work and life situations not really knowing if I could get this done. Being an early riser, I was hours early for our next class session so with a fresh new pen, I wrote my eulogy in the parking lot of a local grocery store under the light of a parking lot lamp.

When we arrived at class, we gathered together and were asked if we would care to read what we wrote. I was prepared to do so, although I knew just from the writing of it hours early, it was very emotional to me. One person leapt into the fray and read theirs aloud. I had insight to this personally respected individual and it was a moving an accurate portrayal of them and their impact on life through their skills as a leader.

Being inspired by their courage, I raised my hand to go next. I made it through the first paragraph before I was filled with tears and unable to continue. It was just too close to me to read aloud. I have never sought to be the front man to an ideal, but my values derive from making an idea great and working to inspire others or give them the idea to sell effectively. So talking about myself and my leadership skills are a core component to who I am as a person as they are a very real part of me. Thinking about this being read after I was gone, just made me really take stock of if I am being the leader I am portraying in this speech.

I was unable to share this completely with my classmates, but I feel the need to share it and so I share it with you now:

“We are here to celebrate the life of my husband Todd, a husband, a father, a son and a leader. Todd was always a staunch idealist who never saw things as completed. He approached ideas in which he believed with tireless work to explore and grow from them. Living in the world of ideas, he occasionally experienced personal frustration when the reality misaligned to the ideal, but always stayed true to the idea as a whole.

Being a thinker, he often conflicted with his wife’s action-driven approach with quiet introspection on a problem before action or the want to create collaboration before action. Purposeful in thought, his actions were always carried out as intentional. I am especially blessed and grateful to him as he stepped in to be a kind an loving father to my daughter even in the face of difficult issues for her. His guidance and life coaching helped us guide her into the beautiful and amazing young woman she is today.

His parents have told me stories of his life as a child as a selfless giver who often gave away items for the joys of others as they felt it brought joy to him. He continued this into his adult life with those he encountered and tried to work without restraint or self-regard to make sure folks felt appreciated and noticed.

While he was always open to ideas, he never abandoned his values in the face of adversity or resistance to change. Never one to do well with too many obligations happening at once, he embraced the idea of focus and drive to make a single point happen; being overwhelmed at times by chaos and creating his own stress by taking on more than he should.

He always strove to be a leader from the back of the room and was driven to make others successful through his effort. He experienced personal satisfaction knowing he had done something good, speaking with others and seeing others shine in the spotlight.

His passing leaves a hole in my heart and a beautiful and giving light for others has done dark. I know he would hope that the things he did in life pushed things a little farther, made people think a little more or helped people grow. Ultimately I know he would hope that he helped create something good for those who continued on after him …”

This exercise was idealistically very stimulating but emotionally draining. It helped me put those ideals down to paper that I hoped to leave behind, examine who I am and how I saw myself. A very powerful and moving thing to do. But also, a humbling experience as after you take the time to really examine this, you immediately ask yourself … “Am I living up to the qualities in which I want to have as a leader?  Will this truly be the thoughts of my loved ones in understanding what I value and what I try daily to do in my life”? 

You don’t have to do this exercise to get to these answers, you can just start by writing down what is important to you, what your values are and what you seek to show to others as a leader. Take these notes and be open and honest and ask yourself (or ask someone close to you who will be honest and open) … “is this who I am? Is this how you see me?’  If what you seek to be is misaligned to what you are today, this mean you have some ideas of where you want to go. Who couldn’t appreciate that clarity?

I’ll end this very personal and open post with the following quote:

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”Woodrow Wilson

 

 

 

Culture and Values

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” Peter Drucker

I have recently returned from the Agile Certified Leader class offered by the Center for Agile Leadership with Brian Rabon. One of the items covered that was particular interest to me was the concept of creating a culture within the organization and how by doing so you establish a collection of shared values. By doing this you are truly establishing your identity as an organization which permeates not only how you relate to others inside the organization, project eternally what is meaningful to you as an organization as well as define values that can become aspects of how you hire future staff or even existing staff hold one another accountable to the values established by the group culture.

How I am working to establish a culture

I think that most companies start with the founders of the company establishing a vision statement, a mission statement and then constructing the core values as an inter-related piece in the end. This seems like a sound approach but I have always had a real confusion point of the slight difference between missions and visions so I decided to start with an aspiration (as I like the idea of aspiring to an end state), communicate this and then look at working with my product development staff (presently about 19 cross functional people) who I consider as my “founding tribe” to shape the values of our culture.

My aspiration I have defined is “I want us to grow a culture within state government that creates amazing software using agile principles, the power of  teams and a focus on value.”

I purposefully selected the term “grow” as I think it’s very important to think about an organizational culture the same as any other culture. Cultures are adaptive to time. They change. They evolve. They grow. This means that the values upon which those cultures are built remain fluid as well. Just take a moment and think about the things we now refer to as  “culturally accepted” that may not have been considered acceptable in mass to our culture in the past. The culture changed over time and as members introduced new values that the group as a whole determined were important to accept.

So, I emailed the staff and shared my aspiration and informed them that I felt it was truly important for us to define what our core values were moving forward and that I felt it important that they all have a voice in the conversation (as we are still like a small company at this point). I told them that we would use the next staff meeting to start this conversation.

So I began my next meeting (probably more inspired than prepared), reiterating the aspiration and had  everyone use sticky pads and sharpies to write down what they felt our values should be. We placed them on 4 whiteboards to cluster them and removed the duplicates. Out of the remaining items we went though them one by one to get majority votes. Those with majority went to a “potential value” cluster, those that were a split went to “re-examine” cluster and those that did not carry the majority of the votes, went to a “perhaps a value, but not our core values”.

We narrowed the field to 33 values in our first pass. So I asked everyone, how many values do we want to target (as a minimum) that we want to target? The group settled that they felt that 7 values would be “sufficient and memorable“. So the exercise over the following week was for each person to review the “big value list” sent out in email and pick those 7 values that they felt we should represent our culture and reply to all in the group. I collected the emails and am aggregating the value votes to show the top 7 values. We will refine what these mean and create value statements for our culture. In a future post, I will reveal what our new culture has determined the values to be. I am looking forward to hear the voice of what we value from our founding staff as we embark on the next level of cultural change! Stay tuned … 😀

I start my Friday with the following thoughts:

Be humble.

Be silly.

Think deep thoughts.

Be a person of action.

Be part of the bigger idea.

Why did I start this blog?

“My name is Todd … and I am an agile-holic”

I have spent the better part of the past ten years on a personal mission:

“I have had a drive to help government realize that working in a more agile manner to develop software simply makes sense and become a leader in public service who truly thinks differently about how I approach people and problems harnessing the ideas of agility, lean and the power of individuals and teams”.

What set me on this mission?

I spent a large amount of my career working in software in various business domains and found myself in tihe same situation. Products often got delivered but the end result was that the people who delivered them usually came out the other end demoralized, deflated and less engaged with the business for which they worked. What usually started as a high level of excitement, ended in complaints, turnover and frustration for many. I heard time and time again (and often thought it myself) “the customer does not know how to identify what they want so we can build it”.

Being the avid thinker I am, I one day came across the idea of scrum and its supporting document, the agile manifesto. The simple precepts that were outlined in these documents resonated for me. I saw a better path to building products. I was hooked. This small “hook” into a more agile mindset, helped me broaden my horizons to lots of agile approaches, including how I could become a more agile leader in general.

One of my strengths (or weaknesses depending on the point of view) is I am a staunch idealist. I strive to seek what is right. I am a thinker and constantly turn ideas over in my head to evaluate them. This can be a blessing as it allows me to broaden my thoughts but can be an obstacle as one has to separate the true signal from the noise of all that information.

I feel I am coming to a clarity of my thoughts and opinions on things that are meaningful to me and as a result, felt it time in my life to begin sharing for those coming after me to expand, grow and create that next thing that I can marvel at like a kid in a toy store at Christmas.

I want to share the thoughts of people that I respect and how they have affected me with their message as well as share my personal thoughts and journey as I try to be a ripple in the pond of the world.

My goal is foremost learning and continual improvement through expressing these ideas out loud but my hope is that there is someone like me that feels that there is something better in their world that they want to be the catalyst of change and I can help them find it by suggesting those things that have made a difference for me.

I tweeted something early this morning over coffee that I really thought of as a good first step. One of the quotes in my About page is from the leader Ghandi which I amended to say (in reference to being a leader):

“If you cannot be the change you want to see in the world, at least do not become its impediment”.

If you truly open your mind, nothing is impossible.