The Gorilla Salutes Teamwork, An Agile Value

“You did what?” I could feel my blood pressure rising as fast as a thermometer dropped into the sun. I was hoping I had just misunderstood what Jake had said. They hadn’t really changed the release plan, had they?


Jake nodded at me, “We were completely blocked on the database layer performance enhancements so we shifted that out to the next release and focused on the new user friendly interface.”


I shook my head, okay, they really had. “Jake, Jake, Jake, we can’t just go and change the release plans on the fly like that. We have procedures for this.”


Jake gave a shrug, “Well we could have kept pounding our head against the database and gotten nothing done this month, or we could put it aside and get work done. You were out and the VP was to busy to “play sponsor.”


I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Jake, changing the release plan requires a change order. That’s got to go to the oversight committee before we can even start evaluating the request.” I waved at room, filled with a buzz of developers hunched, in pairs, over computers.  “This just flies in the face of procedure.”


Jake gave another shrug, he just wasn’t getting this was he? “Not sure why it matters anyway. These are all internal releases. Everything will still be done before we ship to the customer. All we did was move some internal work around so we could get around a roadblock. Figured you’d be happy, it means your precious schedule isn’t impacted.”


I waved dismissively. “That’s great, but we still have procedures.” I pulled out my tablet ‘puter and brought up the product lifecycle document. “See, here’s the change control process loop…”


An hour later I strolled into my office. It took a little bit, but Jake was all sorted out. I wouldn’t have to worry about development changing the plan again. They wouldn’t so much as change the order of two bug fixes now without going through the right procedures.


“So how’d it go?”


I sighed. Maybe if I got rid of all my plants Hogarth would stop hanging out in my office.


“Then I would just have to BYOP and that would make me an angry gorilla,” Hogarth said.


Propped in the corner of my office I eyed him as I made my way to my desk. My gorilla was gently nibbling on a leaf from my bamboo plant. I’m not even sure why I had a bamboo plant, it wasn’t all that pretty and Hogarth seemed to like eating them even more than my fichus. Come to think of it, wasn’t it his idea to get it?


Dropping into my seat I shoved  those thoughts from my mind. I’d just had a big win and nothing was going to dampen my mood. “It went great. I sorted it all out and the developers won’t be changing the order of the release again anytime soon.”


Hogarth gave a snort, “Oh, good. We wouldn’t want them to be productive or anything now would we?”


I looked over at him. “Look, we have processes and procedures to follow. Decisions need to be made at the right level or there will be chaos.” Hogarth didn’t seem to be convinced, though how one can tell with a gorilla I’m not sure. He just kept nibbling at the bamboo leaf while keeping one eye on me. I sighed, “Look, you wouldn’t let a corporal decide if his squad storms a building would you? That’s what general s are for.”


“Oorah!” Hogarth’s voice reverberated off the windows behind me.


Somehow I just knew I’d been led down the primrose path and then bludgeoned with it..



CORPS VALUES- Can we learn agile values from the Marine Corps?


I recently sat down with a fellow project manager to talk to him about his next steps in his career. We were talking about agile and its impact. He’d first learned about it while taking a PMI PMP class, when the instructor briefly talked about the team focused values of agile projects and how. I still remember the look on my colleagues face. He started to speak “When I heard about the focus on teams I was like..” He paused for a moment, as if he were self editing, before he continued, “right on, they get it. When I was in the military, that’s exactly what they trained us to think. There is no “I”, there is only “we.”


At that point I knew exactly what my colleague had probably self edited out.


“Oorah!” the quintessential Marine Corps slogan. Whether shouted in agreement or in raw enthusiasm, it has become synonymous with a military force known for rapid response, quick reactions to the changing battlefields and ability to “think on their feet.”


You know, just like an agile team? It made perfect sense to me that he had instantly identified with agile. Despite having served in a hierarchical military structure, I knew his experiences as a marine positioned him to see the true value in the values and principles of agile .


How did I make that jump?


Last year another colleague, Bernie Maloney, turned me on to a great article at called “Corps Values.” This article was writing in 1998, three years before the Snowbird gathering gave us the Agile Manifesto. Not only is  this another example that agile is just a new term for long standing values, it also shows us that one of the most hierarchical organizations in the world, a military army, can operate on concepts that empower soldiers from private to general to make decisions.


The Marines hold two beliefs at their the core (no pun intended):


“1. War is chaos, confusion, and the unexpected.

2. Because of that difficult fact, the only way to succeed as an organization is to push the ability and authority for decision making down to the marines who are on the spot.”


What this means is if the Corporal needs to decide if this building needs to be stormed and he can’t reach anyone above him, then he’s empowered to make the decision. He’s not only empowered, he’s trusted.


Empowerment isn’t just in the trenches, when the bullets are flying. It also happens in the planning stages. In the article a Marine Colonel comes in on a group planning a mission. His first question is why there are so many people in the room. “The marines tend to inversely correlate the number of people on a task with the likelihood of the task’s successful completion.” And the planning session is three hours long. No matter the mission, it’s three hours to plan, three hours to prepare. If you over plan, you don’t end up getting better, you just over plan.


Another agile concept is that Marine Corps planning focuses on the “End State,” and fully recognizes they probably don’t have a perfect solution. Marines look for the “70% solution, by which they mean an imperfect decision whose saving grace is that it can be made right now.” Sounds a lot like the advice of many agilists, “just start.” You can refine as you go, you have to start going though to ever know if you are getting there.


Generic Leaders:

Beyond the similarities to agile values and principles, there was something else that really called to me when I read this article. When training officers (managers) the Marines have a program that is designed to promote “chaos-proof leadership.” The way they do this is not by specialized training. The Marine Corps instead “unabashedly favors breeding generic, high-speed, chaos-proof leadership over imparting specific skills. “Experts and specialists are a dime a dozen,” sniffs Lee, dismissing in one fell swoop a century of business-management theory. “What the world needs is someone who can grasp the workings of an entire organization, understand people, and motivate them.”


Regular gorilla readers know that I passionately believe that management (people and project) should focus on the team, not the technical skills. Managers need enough “subject matter” knowledge to interact with and help the team. If the manager is the world’s leading expert in database performance, then he’s not going to have the skills to help his team. There is a common insult,  “Those that do, do. Those that can’t, teach.” I don’t see it as an insult. I see it as the people who “do” are not leaders. If you can’t teach, coach, motivate then you are not going to be a good leader.


I spend a lot of word count giving advice. I know it can be hard taking advice from a man who talks to an imaginary gorilla. So why not try taking some advice from one of the most successful military forces in the world? Go and read “Corps Values,” hear it from some real experts. 



Saving the world, One Gorilla Project Manager at a Time

I leaned back with a heavy sigh. “What on earth ever possessed me to choose a career in project management?” I asked the blank ceiling.


Lacking a response from the blank ceiling I looked back down at my computer screen. Sigh, another day, another status report. I was starting to wonder if it was all worth it. Sure it was a paycheck. But so was digging ditches and at the end of the day digging at least you can see what you’ve accomplished. I felt more Sisyphus endlessly creating status reports, only to have to start all over next week. Which brought me back to the same question I had just asked the ceiling.


What on earth ever possessed me to choose be a project?


A deep voice spoke from the darkness of my after hours office. “Oh, that’s simple. Because you wanted to change the world.”


Save the world? I looked into the depth of the darkness and said, “What, are, you, smoking, Hogarth?”


I watched my gorilla materialize from the darkness of the corner, half eaten fichus branch in hand .  “Well I’ve heard dried banana leaves make a good kindling. Not sure what that has to do with saving world.” He waved the fichus branch at my computer. “You’re doing this job because ditch diggers don’t tend to change the world by themselves.”


I threw up my hands. “Hogarth, I’m just a cog in the machine. At the very best I’m the project glue, but that’s only because I’ve been crushed in the machinery of process and gummed up the works.”


Hogarth nodded his massive head, “Glue you say? So you’re saying you hold the project together?”


I gave a shrug, “I suppose so. Feel more like a border collie most of the time as I chase everyone down for status.”


Hogarth cocked his head to the side. “You know what else is a lot like glue?”


I shook my head and turned back to my computer screen. I wasn’t really interested in playing his games.


“A nail,” he said causing me to snort.


I looked back at him, “You know what they say about the nail? The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.”


Hogarth nodded sagely, “True. They also say, ‘For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.”


Uhh…. Had Hogarth just hit the proverbial nail on the head?




I don’t have some eye opening revelation for you. I don’t have any statistics to point at. And I’m sorry to say set super powers to suggest. This isn’t a call to specific “go do this” action.


This is a call to action.


I believe that Project Management can change the world. I believe it can make it a better world.


Now this does bring up the whole “project management” title issue again, that I’ve talked about in a past blog. In that the title project manager really doesn’t fit what we who hold that title do. Whether we are “Project Leaders” as Kimberly Wiefling espouses or my own “Catalyst Leader” idea, we are no longer well defined by our 20th century title. So to prevent confusion and rat holes, I’ll stick with calling us Project Managers for this blog.


Project Managers have become an integral part of business. Across the business lines and across industries we are in every corner of the business world. Like the grizzled sergeant major of war movie trope, we have seen it all. When the new kid (Product Manager, Engineering Manager, CEO) comes in, we see them stumble there way through like so many have before. When they reach out to us for help, we can easily step up and let them know where the coffee, staplers, process documents and even mine fields are. We are the common denominator that pervades our companies and within us lies not only the institutional  knowledge of our firms, also within us lies the wisdom and moral compass of our firms.


Our role as project shepherd coupled with our relationships within and without the organization, gives us a great amount of influence over others. And as the famed statesman, Winston Churchill, said “The price of greatness is responsibility.”


We not only can change the world, it is our responsibility to.


It isn’t even that hard for us to effect change. Just the act of being the best and most ethical business professional we can be, can create change. As a key figure on project teams, our visibility within companies is great. If we do our best, we are doing our best in front of a large cross-section of the company. Our example becomes there example and they in turn will influence the rest. We become the butterfly whose wings create a hurricane a half a world away.


We have a responsibility to help our teams, our projects, our companies be better.


We have the power and ability to do that.


We have the power to make a better world.


We have a responsibility to make a better world.


Sure, we may do it one team member or one project at a time. And that’s okay. If the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step, then the journey to a better world can start with the first project manager who believes we can change the world.


I believe.



The Gorilla argues, rework is faster

“What do you mean you’re throwing the prototype away?”


Wally nodded, “Yeah, we’re done with it. Time to start on the production design.”


“Are you crazy?” I squeaked. “We’re a month behind schedule and you’re going to start over? Has everyone lost their senses around here?” I pointed at the prototype, sitting on my desk. “You’ve got a working model right there. You take it back to your mad scientist lab and you make that work. Sales set up a big demo with a customer next week.”


I watched Wally sulk out of my office, the prototype clutched in his sweaty hands. “Seriously,” I said to the ceiling, “what part of move fast doesn’t anyone understand? Rework the whole hardware design from scratch? What next, we’re going to rearchitect the database.”

“Probably wouldn’t be a bad idea,” a deep voice said. “It was built seven years ago for a product that didn’t have half the technology we do today.”


“Go away Hogarth,” I said without looking down from my ceiling tiles. Staring at acoustical tile can be so relaxing. Especially when the alternative is to talk to the gorilla in the room.


I could hear him shuffling across the floor (do gorillas generate static electricity when they shuffle?). “Seriously, old Wally has the right idea, you know that?”


I dropped my eyes to give Hogarth a baleful stare. “Right…. And I’ve got some great property to sell you on the moon.”


Hogarth shrugged, “hasn’t been a primate on a space mission since the 70’s. Wally is just trying to build a better product.”


I waved my hand dismissively. “Maybe, but if its late it won’t matter how good it is. He’d be redoing a ton of work if he tossed out the prototype.”


Hogarth nodded, “and by starting over, he could make the unit more efficient, more stable and more reliable. With the prototype he’s got to work around the initial mistakes. Kind of like using suction cups to put a luggage rack on a car instead of having rails built into the car to start with. It will never be the same.”


“Hogarth…” I was getting annoyed with his argument. I had real work to do.


He dropped into the chair across from me, “Or how about house painting?” My total confusion at his non- sequitur gave him a chance to continue. “To do it right, you paint more than one coat. If you try and paint just one, really thick coat, it ends up not working and will start pealing before too long.”


“Why are you hear anyway?” I snapped. “If you’re here to pester me about the prototype, forget it. It works and we just need to tweak it to make it ready to ship.”


“Oh, right,” Hogarth said. He laid a sheaf of papers on my desk. I don’t know where he produced them from and I’m pretty certain I didn’t want to know. “I’ve been writing book and I wanted you to look at it.” He held up a massive hand, “Sorry, it’s in long hand. You ever tried to use a human keyboard with fingers this big?”


“A book?”


Hogarth nodded, “Yep, ‘Conversations With The Gorilla In the Room.


I took the stack of papers from him and started to look them over. My eyes were instantly assaulted by a riot of writing. The regular paragraph structure was all but invisible underneath a multitude of struck out words, overwritten corrections, whole sentences inserted in the margins, and lines moving words, sentences and even a whole paragraph around the page. I never made it past the first page.


Looking up from the papers I looked across a Hogarth. His face was eagerly looking at me for reaction (note- Gorilla eager looks a lot like “I’m going to eat you”). “Hogarth, this is a mess, I can’t read it.” I held the page in front of him and pointed to the first paragraph. “You’ve got two sentences crossed out and three new ones hand written in. We won’t even go into the grammar issues you’ve introduced into this.”


Hogarth looked at the paper, “Yeah, well I really didn’t want to write it all over again. You can still read it, right?”


I boggled at him for a moment. “Well, yes, I can follow it. But that’s not the point. It’s like you took spit and bailing wire to your writing. It’s haphazard and inconsistent. I’ve bloody got to turn the page sideways to read this added stuff.”


“Rewriting it would have taken too much time though,” protested Hogarth.


“Hogarth,” I slipped into my professor voice. “Rewriting is part of the process. Not only does it make your work better, it makes it easier for others to follow it.”


Hogarth’s eye lit up, “Oh you mean it will work better? Kind of like the carpentry maxim of ‘Measure twice, cut once’?”


All but standing up in my chair, I replied, “Yes, precisely!…” And then I stopped dead. Looking Hogarth straight in the eyes I said “You did it to me again, didn’t you?”


Hogarth pulled a fichus branch from somewhere and began to merrily nibble at it. “Uh huh, I did.”


Hoisted on my own gorilla, again.





“Go slow to go fast.” I’ve heard that motto since I first got into project management.


Agile and Lean development practices recommend the use of rapid prototyping. In essence, build something, see how it works and then build it again, even better the next time. This is more like “Go fast, to go even faster.”


It’s no wonder then, that Big Design Up Front (Waterfall) schools of development rail against this concept. They don’t see this as incremental improvements. In their mindset it is like tossing out the baby with the bath water. You’ve got a perfectly working “product” (software, hardware, lifecycle, whatever), so why start over? This is even more insane than going into existing code and “cleaning it up.” At least with refactoring existing code you aren’t tossing out the original work.


One of traditional project managements all time favorite fables is the “Tortoise and the Hare.” We love to quote this fable. We also love the old maxim of “eight hours of planning will save eight weeks of work.” Even years into my Agile/Lean journey I  have trouble letting go of this fable.


Only this concept isn’t as full proof as I once thought it was. If you spend a year planning without any doing , you’ve got a year farther from being done and a year farther from when you validated (we hope) your requirements with your customer. In his book, The Lean Startup, Eric Ries successfully shows that rapid prototyping can be successful. He demonstrates how doing this can allow you to succeed even when the final product looks nothing like what you started with.


Yes planning is important. Planning though is not the plan. Planning is communication. Planning is making sure everyone is on board and moving in the same direction.  Only planning without doing is like trying to teach dancing by talking over the phone. If you can’t see what you’ve built, you can’t know if your plans are any good.


Like Hogarth and carpenters for centuries have said. “Measure twice, cut once.”


Let me modify that.


“Build twice, ship once.”