What Losing Touch with My Yoga Practice Taught Me about Technical Debt

TOLYAfter years of being a Transformation Consultant and a yoga enthusiast, I have learned that technical debt and being out-of-touch with my yoga practice share many similarities. This dawned on me the other night as I struggled with pigeon pose—a pose I once mastered—while my instructor eased into it as if she’d been born in that position.

This session taught me that, to be manageable over time, technical debt and yoga require two things: regular, consistent practice and very clear intention. Here’s why:

Lack of Practice Hurts Long-Term Goals

For the past 25 years, yoga has been in and out of my life. When it’s out of my life, my focus and intention suffers, which impedes my long-term goals of health, wellness, flexibility, strength, and stamina. The domino effect is incredible and somewhat destructive: I don’t eat as well, I am prone to a shorter temper, and I have trouble focusing. When I do attend an occasional class, I grunt, I struggle, and I find that more often than not, my nose is nowhere near my knees in Forward Fold pose.

Like falling out of practice with yoga, technical debt has many long-term hindrances. Most development teams strive to become a high-performing team with a reputation for delivering meaningful business value, but when technical debt creeps into their work—whether it comes from the client or our shortcuts—the value they deliver decreases. Unmanaged technical debt often costs the client in hard dollars—ROI, competitive advantage, and market loss—and the team in soft dollars—credibility, productivity, and trust. Technical debt is non-trivial, insidious, and best handled as soon as it is discovered—or at the very least, before it has a chance to take hold and hurt you down the road.

The Solution: Include a conversation about technical debt in your team’s Retrospective. Ask the question, ‘Did we incur any tech debt this Sprint?’ If you did, dig in and learn from it: What happened that caused the tech debt? Where did it originate? When did we learn about it? How did we make the decision to incur it? How much will this cost us (and the client)? These and other questions (coming from a place of curiosity and not blame), will help your team remedy the situation, and raise awareness that everyone is responsible for tech debt.

Intention is Key to Team Success

In 1993, when I first discovered yoga, my practice was superficial and not much more than a routine set of poses and movements. I found satisfaction in simply doing the same movements repeatedly, almost mindlessly. A year or two in, something shifted: I became intentional about my practice, my breath, and my movements. I noticed how in Eagle pose, my right shoulder would twinge from a previous rotator cuff injury, which forced me to breathe through that stiffness and imagine the scar tissue releasing. I also noticed how my torso tingled as it was being stretched from one side of the room to the other in Extended Side Angle pose.

After a few more years and taking it a layer deeper, I would enter and begin each class with an intention: A plan for the session that would move me from harried, tired, and sore to calm, restored and focused. I would exit and end each class with a renewed vision, questions answered and clarity of thought.

Similarly, newly formed Development Teams are often told to ‘just start sprinting’ because ‘you’ll figure it out as we go along.’ This leadership direction fosters a lack of clear intention at the team level, which in turn, creates a short-sighted recipe for disaster, re-work and a backlog of high-priced technical debt. This becomes a business agility anti-pattern, leading to the destruction of the team’s productivity, morale and success—and it happens frequently, even when teams use Scrum as a framework.

The Solution: Before successful teams begin ‘sprinting,’ they envision, they create, they brainstorm, and they engage critical thinking skills that tap into a wealth of knowledge. And because of this, when they do start ‘sprinting,’ there is an overall plan, an intention, and a vision for the product. This is strategic, Quadrant II work, which according to author Stephen Covey, is important but not urgent, and yet it moves us closer to our long-term goals more effectively. Additionally, this approach encourages myriad voices to contribute to a rich, robust conversation that challenges assumptions, uncovers deep technical considerations, and highlights risks and dependencies before they occur.

As I sit here this morning and look at the absence of yoga classes on my calendar, I’m reminded to be gentle with myself. An outsider might say I’m not committed to yoga. But getting back into practice requires a change in thinking and a willingness to start with a clean slate. In fact, the mental toll that occurs is probably the worst part of falling out of practice. Instead of berating my waning yoga practice, I’ll start small, get curious about why the classes have fallen off, and let go of the endless excuses for not going so that I can re-introduce one class a week into my routine.

When my team recognizes that technical debt is creeping into their Sprint—and feels the same burden—I emphatically remind them that they can start with a clean slate, apply empiricism and move forward with a renewed and refocused dedication to technical excellence.

Mom: My First Product Owner

Two years ago, earning my PSPO certification from scrum.org awakened in me a desire to better understand, communicate and advocate for the Product Owner role. The course, certification and subsequent work with Product Owners stirred an enigmatic connection with this role. Then a few weeks ago, while traveling to North Carolina for my grandmother’s 100th birthday party, it hit me: my first Product Owner was my mom.

My First PONo wonder I had strong feelings and was passionate about this role. As my first Product Owner, my mom set a high standard for all future POs! While I didn’t know it then, I know it now: to be an excellent and effective Product Owner requires vision, discipline, steadfastness, attention, and nurturing— all qualities embodied by my mother, then and now.

My mom had vision

My mom had a vision for what she wanted me to become. Like all good Product Owners, she knew what she wanted to create and why she wanted it; she wanted to raise a strong, independent, imaginative and thoughtful daughter who would contribute to the world. Why? Because she loved and believed in me.

She diligently worked with other stakeholders (other family members; school, ballet, and piano teachers; and others) to learn what mattered to them. She continually brought that feedback to me in an age-appropriate manner and tone, filtering or softening feedback that could be perceived as hurtful to a young, impressionable girl, without straying from the truth.

My mom’s ability to meld this stakeholder feedback with her ultimate vision provided safety—especially during those awkward years for a skinny, freckled, serious and sensitive little girl—and allowed my first Product Owner to nurture me out of my shell. She knew her tender, introverted bookworm and dreamer perceived far more than her years belied, and would need a steady, safe space in which to experiment and grow.

While there were many ‘features’ on her Product Backlog, two vastly different—and seemingly simple ones—specifically shaped who I’ve become: Learning to get dressed and learning to clean.

She showed me ‘what’ she wanted me to do

Me in the HatMom wanted me to dress and be able to take care of myself. At a young age, she let me pick out my school clothes each night. Like a good Product Owner, she knew that stifling my creativity would prevent me from learning – and evolving – my style over time. It was quite funny at times, especially as a child of the early ‘70s, and yet Mom let my spirit shine through, rarely dampening my experiments with various patterns and colors.

She also wanted me to know how to clean. She taught me how to vacuum, do dishes, wash laundry—all the basics of keeping a clean and tidy home, that were appropriate for a 5-, 8-, or 12-year old. Here again, my mom let me experiment in how to get this work done, and each time I vacuumed more uniformly, washed the dishes more thoroughly, and folded the T-shirts more evenly than before.

Good Product Owners share with Development Teams what they want and need, and work to clarify requirements, design parameters and business value. Through the Retrospective process, both the PO and Dev Team get better at working together and delivering more value each time, like mom did for me.

She helped me understand ‘why’ she wanted me to do it

My mom knew that if I were able to successfully make small decisions repeatedly about what to wear, as I grew, I’d have the confidence and history of making hundreds of small decisions upon which to rely. Later, I would use that data as the foundation for making bigger and better decisions beyond what clothes to wear, thereby fulfilling her ultimate ‘why’: the ability to make good decisions.

Quilted SkirtWhile developing my personal style was about experimentation, she taught me that cleaning was about the Big Rocks. For example, if expecting company, sweep and vacuum the floors, clean the toilets, wipe down the counters and set the table. After all, company is less likely to see (or care about) the little things like dust. But clean toilets matter! In this case, her ‘why’ related to developing my strategic thinking capabilities.

Product Owners with a clear ‘why’ empower and compel teams to want to fulfill that vision. They draw and attract teams to a higher calling when the going gets tough mid-Sprint and remind Dev Team members of the product’s central purpose.

She gave me the guardrails of when she needed it by

She provided a clear sense of when a completed chore is ‘good enough’ and to move on—and making the bed was one of those. She didn’t expect much time to be spent on that task but did insist it be done daily. Pull up the covers and straighten them, tuck your pajamas under the pillow and place any throw pillows back on the bed. Similarly, thoughtful Product Owners help Dev Teams succeed by pulling them out of the perfectionist track and giving them the ‘good enough’ guardrails through clear Definition of Done and Acceptance Criteria.

She left me alone

My mom wanted me to be self-sufficient. She encouraged me to form my own ideas and to choose my own ‘path less traveled.’ And she understood that if that were to happen, she’d need to leave me alone—metaphorically, not literally. She gave me ample ‘contemplating bellybuttons’ time, as she called it, during which I noodled on creative ways to solve a problem, make something unique, or digest a piece of music thoroughly. I didn’t have to outwardly be ‘doing something’ to be doing something meaningful or productive.

Thinking—and thinking deeply—was enough, and she let me alone to do it. And in that, she gave me a precious gift: the ability to strike a good balance of thinking and action.

Insightful Product Owners also know how important it is to carve out thinking time. Development Teams have big, complex problems to solve, and that takes brain power. Confident POs realize that teams need to be left alone during that Sprint container, and that a good part of the work is quiet contemplation, noodling, drawing on the white board or keyboard, and internally putting the disparate parts together. Having been left alone for that contemplation, Dev Team members can then take the right action to validate their thoughts and ideas.

She was open to new ideas

Mom embraced my creative and inventive thinking. At the age of 5, as I walked home from Kindergarten and through the back patio sliding door, I would hold out my seemingly empty, cupped hands to show her how the leprechauns and fairies accompanied me home. She gladly indulged my make-believe journey and wanted to know the details: what were the fairies wearing and what color were they? How big were the leprechauns, and did they have a pot of gold? On and on, she’d ask for details, and I’d give them.

What she may not have known then, is that by encouraging exploration of the unknown, and asking for details, she was building my creative muscles that would serve me well as an adult faced with solving complex problems. Similarly, supportive Product Owners build trust by encouraging their Development Teams to bring creative thoughts to the fore, thereby strengthening their interdependent and symbiotic relationship.

She embraced fear of the unknown

BalletMy mom raised me to be courageous. She taught me to feel the fear and do it anyway. Whether it was auditioning for the part of Clara in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (I didn’t get it) or the lead in the school play (I did get it), or the hundreds of other leaps made into the empty sky, she encouraged me to just take that first step—and then the next one. And before I knew it, I had embraced and moved through the fear.

When I whined and said, “But Mom, I don’t know how to do that!” she’d retort, “That’s OK. Go figure it out. What do you think is the first step?” And so the dialogue and coaching ensued, with “what’s next?” and “what about this?” The inherent message was “Just take that first step, Christy. Soon you’ll know which way to go.” This emboldened and strengthened my decision-making capability, and ultimately ended with her claiming, ‘See, you figured it out.’

Product Owners who embrace the fear of the unknown, who let go of the ‘how’ and trust their Dev Teams to do the work, find that their ideas are masterfully created in ways previously unimagined. I encourage Product Owners to release their fear, thereby freeing the Dev Teams to exceed their expectations.

She inspected the quality of my work

My mom often checked in on me with a quick, “How’s it going, Christy?” However, she never checked up to see if I were doing the work. If I ever paused or stopped doing the work, she’d always ask, “Hey, what’s going on?” and let me share why I’d stopped or the cause of my distraction instead of asking, “Hey, why aren’t you vacuuming?!” When it wasn’t what she expected, she shared that feedback and then together we identified ways it could be better next time.

Mom_Christy_ScooterI learned that she trusted me. And that I made really good decisions. Not every time, but that was OK, too, as we’d come together and talk through what went wrong. What could I do differently next time? What did I need to learn in that experience, so that I wouldn’t repeat the mistake? Regardless of the outcome, together we kept going—me figuring out my how, her guiding my what and why—and we bonded over our common goal: my transformation into who I am still becoming.

*****

Perhaps mothers are Product Owners without knowing it. I know that I’m forever indebted to my mom, my first Product Owner, and have become who I am due to the initial vision, diligence, care, and nurturing she applied while bringing me to life.

#becausehuman

 

Surviving the Annual Tornado: A Family’s Adoption of Kanban to Bring Order to Chaos

For the past five years, my sister’s family has come to Florida in late March to spend some of their Spring Break with me and my husband, Bruce. Each year has been different, but the one constant has been the rush from the time they arrive until the time they depart. Bruce and I fondly say, ‘The tornado has arrived!’, and breathe a sigh of relief and exhaustion upon their departure.

Make no mistake – I adore my sister and her family, and there’s a part of me that can’t wait for the lovable chaos that tumbles through our front door each spring.

But last year was different. My sister, Rebecca, was exhausted. It had been a trying year for them after her husband, Brian, was almost killed in a bicycle accident. As she slogged through the front door, I could tell she was tired, frustrated, and burned out.

During our sister-to-sister greeting, she shared how last Spring Break with us she didn’t feel like she’d had a vacation, and she was afraid she’d leave this year feeling the same. I asked her why she felt that way. She said, “I want some down time, but Brian wants to cram all these things into the week. He feels he has to get every ounce out of life every single minute. Plus, we have to go to Sarasota to visit Uncle John and we may have to go to Fort Meyers to visit my in-laws. I’m exhausted. I want to just sit on the beach and watch a sunset!”

This was my baby sister asking for help without asking for help. I asked her a few questions, and then shared what a Kanban board is and how teams use it to plan, prioritize and watch their work flow (or not!) across the board. At the end of her rope, she exclaimed, “I’ll try anything!”

Out of this frustration and exhaustion, our family Kanban board was born.

The Sticky Note Showdown

We gathered the materials, corralled our husbands and her two kids, and began. The stickies and markers were already laid out on the dining room table. A large easel-size stickie note hung on the blue dining room wall. As I explained how we were going to spend the next 30 minutes, I drew out the classic three-column board: To Do, Doing, Done.

Then I posed the question: “How will you know you had a great vacation?” and invited them to spend a few minutes writing their answers on individual stickies.

And they began. This usually rowdy group of extroverts became quiet and focused. The markers flew as stickies were pulled and stamped on the table. Thoughtful consideration was underway, and at one point, I observed that my niece, Sarah, had inherited my penchant for sticking out her tongue when concentrating. Spencer, her older brother, played with his hat – taking it on and off as he thought through his ideas. Brian’s knee bobbed up and down – it seemed he couldn’t get the ideas out fast enough. Rebecca pursed her lips and tilted her head, thinking, ‘Do I really want to put this down?’ I could see her rejecting ideas before they made it to paper.

An interesting and good-natured quiet competition – who could create the most stickies – ensued. Slowly pens paused, and then stopped as heads peered up, eyes questioning, “What now?”

Spring Break Board 4I shared the next step…it’s time to come to the board.

Tentatively they stood, except for 12-year-old Sarah, who jumped up and put her stickies in the To Do column. Others followed and then without any prompting or saying a word, Sarah recognized similar themes, ideas and words, and began grouping them together.

When we were all satisfied with the grouping, the conversation turned to what was most important and why, and who whom. We dot voted on our favorite ideas, and even estimated which activity would be best to do on what day. In the end, we were able to agree to a relative priority and chose the first thing we wanted to do: Super Scoops Ice Cream!

Spring Break of Scrum  

Throughout the week, we all moved the stickies – many times racing to the board and then hip-checking each other out of the way to be the first to move a stickie to ‘Done’. Sarah spent the most time at the board. Her cry of, ‘Hey, we haven’t gone shopping yet, Aunt Christy!’, or ‘What time is the movie?’ would spark a brief ‘family standup’ to ensure we were on track or that our priority was still good for everyone.

Spring Break Super Scoops

Relax and Retro

The very last thing we did before they left that final day was a retrospective. It was simply a verbal check out – but I wanted to see how well they felt the vacation went – did we have a great vacation? In a word, YES! We connected, created great memories, had awesome conversations, and everyone got to do what they wanted – from skeet shooting and jet skiing, to shopping, Super Scoops (multiple times!), beach time and boat rides. The kids and husbands were all enthusiastic – we did it! They loved the sense of accomplishment, and seeing the stickies in the ‘Done’ column.

Spring Break Retro_1

What was usually a chaotic, Tazmanian devil-like whirlwind of a vacation was instead peaceful, fun and stress-free.

My greatest gift, though, was the look of peace and contentment on my sister’s face, and the knowledge that she’s looking forward to her next vacation, knowing she’ll get exactly what she wants in 2018 – relaxation and more beach time!

Choosing Excellence

During a recent conversation I said, “I strive for excellence because perfection is impossible”, which resonated for the other person. Later she shared that she ‘used the two interchangeably, when there is a difference’.

I pondered her statement all weekend, perplexed by really what was the difference for me.

Here’s where I landed: excellence and perfection are different because of how I feel, which in turn changes my behaviors…I feel inspired and uplifted when I strive for excellence. It’s a personal benchmark and fully belongs to me. Energy courses through my body and my mind is electrified. My eyes sparkle, sometimes I sing, and the process is effortless. I become more creative and easily move on to the next project or ‘thing’.

On the other hand, I feel defeated and frustrated when focused on perfection, which seems imposed by ‘them’, a moving target, and outside of my control.  I get mentally blocked, procrastinate, feel tired, and often just quit. I don’t want to do the next ‘thing’ and am more easily overwhelmed.

Even in just writing thses two small paragraphs, my energy waned writing the second one!

So for me, I will continue to strive for excellence, and let go of perfection.

What do these two words mean for you?

~ Christy