Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Year of Being Agile -- End Game

Happy New Year. This was a challenging one for me, feeling ill and somewhat emotional. But we're warm and safe and fed and that's going to have to be good enough for right now... in fact, it IS good enough. My goal for today is hot tea and buffalo chili... and a little looking ahead.

Yes, we are starting the beginning by thinking about the end. But this isn't the typical resolution post (though if you are considering resolutions, go check out this post from last year). This is about the types of goals that will allow you to be as agile as possible.

One of the misunderstandings that people have about Agile Project Management is that there are no goals. That you just try stuff out and see what your audience likes and the product owner (that's Agile-speak for project manager) can change his or her mind at the end of each sprint (a defined duration of team work, usually between 2 and 6 weeks). Well, it's true that agile makes it easy to change direction, but that doesn't mean there isn't a goal.

Being agile doesn't mean chasing the latest trends or flip-flopping on what you want to accomplish. Being agile means you have an end game, but you also proceed in a way that maximizes your options and allows you to take advantage of feedback as well as happy accidents. It allows you to rapidly experiment in areas of high unknowns and recover quickly from failures or mistakes. And it keep you from over-committing to something that isn't working.

"You first." "No, you." "Please, be my guest."

In fact, without a well-articulated goal, the agile methodology risks drowning in it's own flexibility. I've seen this happen with product owners who lack vision (or who are working for executives who lack vision, a much more common scenario). If you are going to get through this coming year, you're going to need to do better. In the last post I talked about the difference between being an explorer and a navigator. There's no map where we're headed and some of the terrain is treacherous. Exploration can be but, but without an end game, you risk getting very, very lost.

The navigator lays out a path in a known space. The goal is to get to a known location (Grandmother's House) and the sub-goals are the directions that tell you how to get there (over the river, through the woods). If you make a wrong turn, you may have to reroute, but you are still on the same known map (the horse knows the way). The explorer, on the other hand, moves forward into an unknown space. The goal is to get to non-specific, but generally defined location (headwaters of the Nile, those hills over there, West). Sub-goals aren't defined in advance, but evolve based on the trip (follow the river upstream, keep the sun to your left, sight against that tall tree and when you get there sight again).

Should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque...

Agile goals exist, they're just explorers' goals rather than navigators' goals. Here are some common types of agile goals:
  • Finding the place you've never been or the thing you've never had. Troy, Shangri La, Cibola, financial stability, the Holy Grail, peace of mind, happily married. You don't know where this is, but you've heard of it, maybe know people who've seen it or even been there. You don't know how to find it and you're not sure you could recognize it if you did. The business version of this is something like "successful creation of Angry Birds successor" or "profitable launch of social media platform." Detail are hazy and will certainly change along the way.

    Despite the unknowns, these are the most well-defined agile goals. The territory gets even murkier from here...
  • Leaving where you're at. In the past, I've talked about a book called I Don't Know What I Want, but I Know It's Not This (an OK book with a great title) and if that resonates, then this is the goal for you. Sometimes you don't know where you want to go at all, but you know you want to go somewhere new, different, better. This is the same impulse that took Colonists to the New World and Settlers to the West and the earliest humans all around the earth. The corporate version would be "turn around a failing business unit" or "pivot away from a dying industry." If you are stuck in a terrible -- or maybe just tedious -- marriage / town / job / school / friendship (or a combination!) you know what you don't want, but you may not yet really know what you do want. It's leaving the flooding valley for the distant mountains -- you can see them in the mist, but the details won't become clear for some time.

    You have a starting direction and a first step (away from here), so that's something. Because there's even more uncharted territory ahead...
  • Learning something important. Sometimes you just want to explore to figure something out. You want to learn about the world and about yourself (and you really can't do one without the other). You want to find buried treasure, seek the hidden keys, understand more. Even businesses create these kinds of goals, such as "explore a new market" or "leverage expertise in blah blah." You want to do it for a reason (to assuage your curiosity, scratch an itch, know yourself better, and possibly to help you set one of the other types of goals above) but you aren't exactly sure what the result should be.  If your world isn't so much bad as too small these are the goals for you. And you don't have to justify your reasons to me or anyone. "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go..."
While taking a drive our family has often joked that you can't get lost unless you have somewhere to be. As long is you don't, you're just exploring. But eventually, we all have somewhere we either need or want to be. So as you think about starting the year, take the explorer's view. Keep your goal in sight, but keep your plans flexible. 

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