Apply Agile Principles to grow career
Agile has been there for a while. Enough has been written about it. So, I won’t.
On a Covid winter morning, I was enjoying my morning darjeeling tea in my favourite quiet corner. Didn’t realise when I had dozed off into a reflection of my 22 years of professional career. How I performed, what I learnt and what I could do better. As I pondered, I found a surprising link between agile principles and how to apply them to grow career.
Agile is meant to be relevant to software development and we are talking about career here. I promise, this is not an attempt to shove Agile into everything just because it is in vogue though I admit, I know a thing or two about it. The lessons agile taught me, were quite logical, they were there, just I hadn’t seen them before.
I am conscious that some of the readers could potentially come from a cross section of industry and may not be aware of the nuances of agile. Agile is software development methodology and provides 12 principles as the guiding light for us to adopt it in practice. I will attempt to rephrase and adapt those principles to our context and hope, my summary of what I have learnt from them and how we can apply them to our career, will make sense.
Agile Principle 1. Customer satisfaction through early and continuous software delivery
Career Principle 1. Deliver the expected outcome as quickly as you can
My three-year-old was getting bored at home during Covid restrictions. So, we ordered some books for him, online. After placing the order, we just hoped the books would arrive as soon as possible. Next day however, the bookstore emailed that all the books we ordered weren’t available. So, they dispatched the books in 3 batches. First sending us the ones they already had in stock immediately and then, sending us the other ones as they received. How thoughtful of them, isn’t it?
Notice, two things happened here:
- As a customer we wanted to get the deliveries as soon as we could
- The bookstore delivered the order in parts. This enabled us to enjoy some of the books sooner than we having to wait for weeks for all of them to arrive together.
Whether we work for an organisation or we have our own enterprise, we want to get the outcome as soon as possible. My manager would want to see the report he asked of me quickly so he can use it in his meeting or you as a business owner would want to deliver an order sooner, so you can get revenue. But, both of us, want it asap.
So, what can we do to deliver sooner:
1. Deliver an initial version of the deliverable so stakeholders dependent on it, get a first view of what to expect or be able to use that to some extent.
2. Decompose the work into logical chunks so you can start delivering it part by part to enable stakeholders benefit from the early drops sooner than waiting longer for the whole job to complete.
Agile Principle 2. Working software is the primary measure of progress
Career Principle 2. The final outcome is what matters.
So, this was a couple of years ago. I was flying internationally to Copenhagen to present at a company event. I did burn the proverbial mid night oil two weeks straight before the event, packed myself, got all tickets done and set off … and oh! before I forget, at that time I was leading the India function of my team and this was my first meeting with my new Finnish manager. Personally, for me, this was an important event. But the only thing that went wrong on D-Day is that I managed to reach the Airport one day late for my flight. (Pauliina, if you ever read this article … you now know what happened)
However, funny this might seem, my preparation and the hard work didn’t matter, as I couldn’t be there on time, on the day I was needed.
How many of us had those occasions when we have worked very hard to deliver something but it either didn’t meet expectations or wasn’t delivered on time. The bitter truth is, it doesn’t matter, if you had the plan chalked out, if you had discussions and meetings, done analysis and put in a lot of effort. Finally, what will matter is — if you were able to deliver the expected, within time.
So, stay focused on the deliverable and the desired outcome.
Agile Principle 3. Accommodate changing requirements throughout the development process
Career Principle 3. Be prepared for late requirement changes or feedback
I will be honest; we needed some warm fleece track pants for the Melbourne winter. Shops being closed due to Covid, I ordered them online from two different stores. One store didn’t offer any opportunities to make any changes after the order was placed. The other one allowed me to cancel or edit my order until they had dispatched. Which one would you order from?
No one likes surprises or last-minute changes. But the reality is, it happens and will continue to happen. Can we stop last minute changes? Likely not, but we can take actions to reduce the impact of such changes to our work.
Changes can come due to various reasons — not enough clarity on requirements, all stakeholders were not consulted and sometimes it is just human that until we see the outcome visibly, we won’t know if this is what we wanted.
To reduce the impact of such changes or last-minute feedback we can do a few things:
1. Ask questions before getting started. Replay to clarify your understanding.
2. Show the progress to your stakeholders periodically and ask for feedback which you can incorporate thus reducing last minute changes.
3. Dividing the work into smaller logical chunks could help localise the impact than having to rework everything
Agile Principle 4. Enable face-to-face interactions
Career Principle 4. Face to face conversations are most effective to exchange information
No, I am not forcing you to meet someone with the mask on and with social distancing. Face to Face conversation is not always about being in front of each other physically, I am advocating connecting over video or phone call over emails. When we talk with someone face to face, the body language and the emotion involved helps to understand each other better and clarify things quicker.
While the benefits above are true, from a career point of view, all such opportunities to connect ‘face to face’ help build relationships across the business. People remember our faces and interactions longer than our occasional email.
Especially, if other senior leaders or key stakeholders are involved — this is a chance to connect with them, be visible to them and market yourself. If you haven’t yet realised the value of connecting with people — use these opportunities, NOW.
Agile Principle 5. Collaboration between the business stakeholders and developers throughout the project
Career Principle 5. Make attempt to connect with your stakeholders across the business
All of us collaborate with our stakeholders as part of our job, don’t we? Have you made an effort to connect and make friends during over such collaborations? Over the years, I have got more help from colleagues, with a friendly ping than the official email.
I have learnt that, from a career point of view while these opportunities helped me make friends and get help from unexpected corners, these are also the exchanges where it is an opportunity to connect with leaders and key stakeholders and be ‘visible’.
Agile Principle 6. Frequent delivery of working software
Career Principle 6. Deliver results predictably in regular intervals
When you are at the rail station or bus stop, is it helpful when we have a visible and predictable timetable?
Fundamentally, this boils down to being predictable. My organisation or my customer, would like to know when they are receiving what they asked for. Isn’t that fair?
A weekly subscription for a product indicates delivery at a regular predictable interval. Perhaps, if the deliverable is big or has multiple sub parts, customers would like to see a plan how we can deliver them and needless to say, expect to get the deliveries at the promised times.
So, if I am working on a big initiative which could take weeks to deliver, what can I do to deliver results at regular intervals?
1. Slice the work in smaller, logical and equal chunks as much as possible.
2. Decomposing work into chunks, helps us focus better on one thing at a time.
3. Equal chunks help deliver at regular intervals.
Delivering results incrementally at regular intervals increases visibility of your progress and gives stakeholders confidence on what to expect.
Personally, I have had a situation where we were working on an initiative that had every leaders’ eye on it. I worked hard on it with my team but didn’t showcase to our key stakeholders, as we progressed. To my leadership, this meant, we were not making any progress and were in dark as to what was going on.
Lessons learnt: Decompose the work into smaller chunks, deliver results at regular intervals and showcase periodically.
Agile Principle 7. Self-organizing teams encourage great architectures, requirements, and designs
Career Principle 7. Motivate your team, empower and support them. Harness their collective strength.
As a leader sometimes we get into the trap of believing that we need to do everything ourselves or be obligated to know everything. No, we don’t. Why recruit smart people then?
As a leader I have focussed on building trust and empathy within my team, clarify our goals, seed sense of accountability and empower them to make the best decisions. When you have all these ingredients, you will notice that the team is autonomous, they can solve their own problems and actually help share some of yours.
During the lockdown, our toddler was at home and me and my wife were working from home, like rest of our organisation. At some point we were struggling to juggle between our son and our own work commitments. I talked this with my team. They, empathised with our situation, and offered to distribute some of my work load so I can work my day out.
So, when we empower the team and trust their abilities:
- Team can share your workload freeing up time which you can use for learning and thinking beyond the roots into future.
- They can work out their own problems and you don’t have to be omnipresent
- Provides chance for them to empathise with you, learn and grow.
Your team can help come up with better solutions collectively, help you execute and share your load.
Agile Principle 8. Simplicity
Career Principle 8. Decide what you must NOT work on
Simply put it is far more difficult to decide what I must NOT work on than to decide what I must. We all have those moments when we have bunch of emails to read and respond, chased by actions from meetings, things we are working on and everything seems important and urgent. But being able to prioritise helps you work on what is important but not necessarily what is urgent.
Everything seems urgent and must be done now, but can you? So, my mantra is: Prioritise, Prioritise and Prioritise.
How can we possibly make it happen?
- Either beginning of the day or end of the day make a list of ‘things to do’
- For the tasks for the day, I like to ask the following to myself: are these the highest priority and need to be done now?
- Based on this priority, which task I won’t be able to do today? What are the impacts of those?
- Can I delegate some of my tasks? Why not?
When you make a habit of asking these questions daily to yourself, you will realise you are a blocker to your own growth coz you can’t either prioritise or delegate appropriately.
Agile Principle 9. Regular reflections on how to become more effective
Career Principle 9. Take time to retrospect regularly so you can improve
How can you improve, if you don’t take time to pause and retrospect? Very frequently we get so busy working on our deliverables, managing the team and juggling our stakeholders that we forget to take time off to reflect on ‘how am I doing’.
Being an Agile practitioner, I do frequent team retros but realised I didn’t take time out to think about personal career. What I will do going forward is to set aside 30–45 mins weekly, to reflect on:
- What were my achievements and low points.
- Identify challenges within/outside the team that I can convert into opportunities.
- Setup 1–1 sessions with leaders, 1 or 2 levels up. Talk about their goals and priorities, poke a bit into the problems they see. These are nuggets of gold that can help you get opportunities to shine.
- These 1–1s help you get face time with your leadership, understand their thoughts and also showcase to them directly what you are working on.