I was recently engaged with a client that works in an industry where heavy-weight processes are like a security blanket when it comes to project management. I was helping out as a “traditional PM”, but anxiously looking for “an in” to get some agile influences injected through their seemingly impregnable armor of committees, change control requests, and governance review boards.
My first meeting with the client was to review: a) what was going on b) what projects where in progress, and c) what their goal was. Almost immediately (call it 2 hours into the engagement) I lept out of my chair and said, “Mr. Client, what we need here are some agile processes- you simply have too much that ‘has to get done’, and too little time to do it, following your current processes.” Much to my delight, we spent the next 2 hours talking about the visibility of a backlog, and the flexibility of adopting it. Fast forward a month, and you’ll see me working on data management via their clumsy collaboration system, if you want to call it that; generating reports; and attending regular, drawn out 3 hour meetings. Very “non-agile”. What was more readily apparent to me than it had been in the past (I was very fortunate at prior clients that they really wanted to change!), was that agile isn’t a project management methodology- it’s a people management and cultural shift- that you have to “want” in order for it to take hold. You see, while the client saw value in the exercise we went through on my “Day 1”, it wasn’t familiar, and the rest of the folks that would be impacted didn’t share that brief, wonderful, “a-ha” moment. From then on, it would be business as usual.
Critical mass was quickly approaching: an immovable deadline, which all the work we had in flux rested upon- with legal ramifications. You could almost see this coming like background music playing for the last 2 months, and someone would turn up the volume 1/4 of a point each day- slowly building. It came to a head, and I was notified on Thursday, that I would be flying out to a project coordination meeting on Sunday. I was also tasked with making sense of all of this mess, above and beyond the narrow scope of things I was working on. My first 3 attempts to map, graph, and articulate the situation were rejected. The problem was that I was thinking like them, not like me.
Do you ever notice how inspiration has her own schedule, and that you are simply at her mercy? I was sweating out a creative deadline, and the hands on the clock were accelerating. In a moment of sheer desperation, almost like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story”, while dazed, sitting on Santa’s lap and feeling the moment slipping away, I blurted out “Kanban!” (in lieu of ” I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine…”). It was digital nirvana- I blasted out a Visio version of blocks and swim lanes that represented everything that absolutely had to be done as a first pass. Thank you, inspiration.
Giving up security blankets. I felt like I was going to have to have a heart-to-heart with the client representatives, one at a time (like Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom- weaning his kid off of his security blanket, telling him that if he doesn’t give it up now, he’ll be twenty-something, and will find himself strung out on bed-spreads). Not so- I showed this to the corporate guy, “Sr. Project Manager”- his first words- “can you mail that to me right away?” I did, and do you know what we spent the next few days doing? That’s right, building a task board. Fast Forward 6 weeks. This gave visibility to all the ‘stuff’ that had to get done. This gave flexibility to the plan. This highlighted the ability for multiple work streams to execute in parallel. And we did it without ever saying “agile” or “kanban”. To boot, we even started doing a daily stand-up of sorts, with reference to the task board. Ultimately, we finished what we set out to do, on time. Many folks attribute it to the modified approaches, and this group celebrated a success that is seldom seen.
Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?