Just say “No” to Gorilla Debt in your Teams

By ccPixs.com

Debt Free by ccPixs.xom

You’d think with the amount of time I spend hitting my head on my desk it would have a permanent dent by now.

My most recent forehead abuse was brought short by the one thing I hated more than coaching a team that thought they we’re already perfect. The deep, rumbling bass of my personal gorilla cut through the sound of my head hitting the desk. “The SPFA called, they are filing a restraining order against you for furniture abuse.”

I blinked and looked up at the hulking form of my conscience in physical form. Why couldn’t I have a little cricket like Pinocchio? It would be so much easier to lock him in a jar and toss him in the ocean. “The SPFA?”

Hogarth  nodded, “Yep, the Society for the Prevention of Furniture Abuse. Their motto is ‘Desks Have Feelings Too’.”

“Go away Hogarth, I’m busy.”

Hogarth broke a branch off the nearest office plant and plopped into a chair next to my desk. “Pretty sure, destroy desk with forehead isn’t the most important thing on your backlog. What’s up?”

I sighed, he wasn’t going to go away so I might as well get this all over with. “The team didn’t take into account planned vacations and the product owner used their expected velocity to promise a feature to sales. Half the team was out and the other half was almost totally consumed by blocker bugs.”

Hogarth asked, “Didn’t they have this issue the last three months ago?” 

I nodded.

“And I seem to recall it was raised after the first sprint, over six months ago. Right?”

I nodded again.

“Well,” Hogarth said. “Sounds just like that problem you had with the original login server not being able to scale beyond 1000 simultaneous logins.”

“Don’t be silly, Hogarth”  I snapped. “You know very well we already fixed that issue two sprints ago.”

Hogarth was smiling, I hate it when he smiles like that, it usually means I’m about to be setup. “That’s right, we did didn’t we? How is it we took care of that?”

I didn’t know where he was taking this and I couldn’t just leave it alone, “We identified it as Technical Debt. We put it into the product backlog and worked with the product owner to prioritize it alongside new feature work.”

Hogarth nodded, “So we had  a problem with the product architecture, we recognized it and put it into a backlog with everything else to be prioritized?”

“Yes!” This was starting to get annoying since he was just reviewing what we all knew. Where was he going with this?

“So where is the backlog for the problems with the team? ” Hogarth asked.

Backlog for the team’s problems, like we do for Technical Debt?  Team Debt?

And he’d done it again…


Team Debt is just as destructive as Technical Debt

If you have any doubt that we are worried about the effects of Technical Debt, just Google the term. I get just over one million hits when I do. With the concept of agile development now considered in the mainstream, for software development if not all product development, the recognition that we can’t build our way out of technical problems with new features is taking firm hold. While how we approach it may still be an area of wide debate (TDD, BDD, dedicated legacy teams, rip and replace architecture, etc.) we are coming to a fundamental agreement that we need to slow down and deal with the problems we’ve created before we can speed up and build the next wave.

What about our teams though? It can be very easy to forget that agile is not just a new product lifecycle process (PLC). We have been so ingrained that PLC process is about what we are building that we often forget that agile is as much about “who” is building something as “what” we are building.

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done” –Principle 5  of the Agile Manifesto

Team Debt is the term I use to describe the impediments, issues and blockers that prevent the team from improving. Where testing and product usage will generally uncover your products Technical Debt, it is the Team Retrospectives, manager one-on-ones and coaching observations that will uncover the Team Debt. On the whole, something we are getting pretty good at doing in most agile organizations. Thanks to Scrum, we have built in the concept of the retrospective at the end of every sprint which gives us the mechanism to uncover our impediments.

Of course knowing the problem is only half the battle. We see this with Technical Debt all the time. Sure we know that our infrastructure can’t handle over a 1000 simultaneous logins, or that our core server has legacy code no one even remembers who wrote. We’ve known this for years and we’ve never done anything about it because we were too busy build the next new, wizbang, feature instead.

So just as we need to put Technical Debt into our product backlog and actually prioritize it to be fixed, we need to discover, track and address Team Debt.

The Impediment Backlog

Here, at AOL (Yes, AOL, they  are still around and doing cool stuff in 2016),  I’ve been experimenting with the concept of creating an Impediment Backlog. Just as the product has a backlog of everything we want to do with it, we need a backlog to track the issues impacting the teams. I’ve started coaching my teams to create an impediment backlog and include items from it into their Sprint Planning right alongside items from the Product Backlog. I’m also advocating for the creation of an Organization Impediment Backlog where we track cross and multi-team issues that cannot be solved at the team level.

By making the issues visible and putting them into the same formats as our Product Backlog, we can more easily understand and fit them into our day to day processes. If it looks like a duck, and we’re in the business of making ducks, then it will fit right in. If it looks like a fork and we’re in the business of making ducks then we’re likely to ignore it.

Ask me in a few months how we’re doing, it’s an experiment in the making.

How Agile Coaches are Like Vampires?


By Screenshot from “Internet Archive” of the movie Dracula (1958)

For the love of!!!” I bit off my oath before it could move into not safe for work territory. Resisting the urge to slam the door I walked into my office. It had been another banner day in the world of agile coaching and I was ready to collapse into my chair so I could drown my sorrows in Facebook.


“Shhhh…. this is the best part”

I did a double take as I realized my chair, heck my entire desk was occupied. With his size gargantuan feet propped up on my desk, Hogarth the Gorilla was watching a video on my monitor screen.

“Hogarth, what the heck are you doing?” Only after speaking did I realize I probably didn’t want to know the answer.

“Watching a movie” he said. His hands were crossed over his chest so only his finger moved when he pointed to the screen and continued, “Bloody revenge of the Nosferatu Clan, awesome 1930’s era flick.” Turning his head towards me ever so slightly he then asked “How’d the coaching go today?”

“Huh, what?” I was thrown by his sudden change of conversation and quickly forgot all about his misuse of my computer as I recalled my day. Tossing myself into the guest chair I sighed, “Lousy, absolutely lousy.” I started ticking off my fingers. “One of the teams is in a tailspin after a disastrous planning meeting, to which I was not invited.” I ticked my second finger, “Another team can’t get anything done in a sprint and seems to think they don’t need to do retrospectives they just need to work harder, and they won’t listen to any of my advice.” I ticked a third finger, “I held a story splitting workshop for the scrum masters and product owners, only no one showed up. Too busy they say.” I started to raise a fourth finger when Hogarth raised a hand to stop me.

You know?,” Hogarth began. I knew this lead in. His next words were going to be some brilliant epiphany that even though I’d want to deny it, he’ d be right. I just sipped my coffee, waiting for the gorilla to drop.

“Agile coaches are really a lot like vampires.”

“What?” I spluttered coffee across the desk in my shock. There was no way this was some brilliant epiphany. Hogarth had finally cracked. “How on earth is my job like that of a blood sucking soulless demon? I am not an attorney!”

Hogarth waved to the monitor screen. On it the vampire was thrashing about in an open doorway unable to reach his intended victim who was only just inside the door. “Vampires have to be invited in.”

Invited in? Hogarth was relating me to an evil creature of the night and how it couldn’t cross the threshold of your home if you didn’t invite it. As long as you didn’t invite it, it was powerless to do anything.


And once again, Hogarth had hit the crux of the issue.


How are Agile Coaches like Vampires?

  1. We have to be invited in.
  2. Our greatest power lies in influence.
  3. We need blood to survive.
  4. A stake through the heart destroys us.

We have to be invited in: Fans of 90’s era Buffy the Vampire Slayer will know this one very well. Vampires can’t cross the threshold of your home without your permission. So long as you don’t invite them in, they are stuck outside throwing taunts and jeers at you.

Whether you’re consulting or a full-time coach, if you don’t have an invitation you are not going to be effective. Something you learn in life coaching is that success requires something akin to a ‘rules of engagement’ with your client. You can’t just show up and start telling them what to do.  If your coaching client doesn’t want your help, or doesn’t want it in a certain way, no amount of talking or prodding is going to make you successful.

It’s the same thing for agile coaching. Even if the CEO personally hires you, and anoints you as the holy expert of agile, if you don’t get buy in from the teams, you won’t be effective at all. You can’t force yourself on the teams, you have to make yourself valuable to them. Start by asking questions, gathering feedback and observing what is happening with the teams. The act of doing this will help to build trust with your teams. You won’t be able to do anything without that trust.

Our greatest power lies in influence:  If you ever watched the 1990’s Dracula, with Gary Oldman and Keanu Reeves (You can be forgiven if you didn’t ), there was a big emphasis put on this aspect of a vampire’s power. And no wonder they have these power, when sunlight kills you, holy objects burn you and common garden herbs make you recoil, it’s hard to use the direct approach to get to your victims. So vampires use their mental powers to lure their victims into their deadly embrace.

Like the vampire, the agile coach can’t bull their way through a transformation. In order to be effective, they need to use personality and influence. We’re talking about “soft skills” here. You know, those things that have been made fun of for the last three decades, only suddenly now people are realizing they really matter (thanks to influencers like Sinek, Pink and Gladwell). The agile coach has needs to ask what the team think instead of trying to tell them. You have to let the team find the answer, not push it in their face.

We need blood to survive:  Okay, bit of a stretch so stay with me. Vampires need life force to survive. They get this through the blood of their victims.

Agile Coaches need energy as well, the energy of interaction. If we are locked away in a tower, with no interaction, we are not effective, we will fade away. If a motor is not used, it will stop working.  Having really smart coaches sitting in some central office, writing blogs, giving remote advice and the like is a waste of good assets and won’t make your teams better.

A stake through the heart destroys us:  Well, yeah wouldn’t a stake through the heart kill you too?

So yes, Agile Coaches are a lot like vampires. We need to look to be invited, we need to build trust with the teams, we need to be a light in the dark and we need to wear sunscreen outside.

Have you invited your agile coach in lately?

A Gorilla is more than the sum of its parts. So is Agile.

Car_Exploded _View_David_Wall_6999872214_93978664bc_z“Agile is failing, can you believe that, he actually said that to me?” 

You know you’re having a bad day when you willingly engage in a conversation with an 800 pound imaginary gorilla. I was striding down the hallway fairly vibrating with emotions. Hogarth lumbered along beside me uncharacteristically quiet. Which I guess should have been my first clue as to the rabbit hole I was being led down. 

“How can he say that?” I looked directly at Hogarth, “I mean we’re doing standups every day now. I even got them down to 30 minutes.” 

Hogarth finally chose to speak immediately making me wish he hadn’t, “What about the backlog?”

I threw my hands up “What about it? The backlog is being pulled straight from the PRD and we got the product manager to rank order them instead of the stupid P0 stuff. I mean how much more agile do you want us to get?”

Hogarth nodded sagely, or so I thought and I turned to walk into my office. Where I promptly stopped. 

“Hogarth, where’s my fichus?” The pot that held my latest incarnation of my favorite fichus was empty. Not just denuded of leaves and branches, empty. Even the dirt was gone. 

“Oh, that” Hogarth said. “Sorry, about that. I did replace it though. Here.” 

Hogarth reached under my conference table and started laying several objects on the table. A sack of dirt, a trunk, several loose branches and a sack of leaves. 

“Hogarth…. What’s that?” 

Hogarth smiled cheerfully at me. “Oh that’s your new Fichus. Well at least it’s all the parts to a fichus, you just need to put it together.” 

“HOGARTH!” I put up with a lot from my imaginary gorilla. His eating my plants wasn’t the end of the world, they made for a nice tax deduction. But this… This was going too far. “Do you think I’m some kind of Dr. Frankenstein? I can slap this all together with some glue, yell ‘IT’S ALIVE’ and suddenly I’ll have a fichus?”

I stared at Hogarth, my eyes blazing with a demand for an answer. 

Only no answer was forthcoming. Hogarth and retreated to the corner of the office and was sitting in his ‘happy budda’ pose with his hands clasped happily over his hairy belly. He just kept staring at me, as if he’d already answered me and was waiting for that inevitable moment when all the pieces would crash together making whole the monumental idiocy I’d…. 

Pieces… Made whole… Sigh…

Putting my head in my hands I said “and we’re so focused on doing the artifacts of agile we’re completely missing the spirit and purpose which would make it whole and successful ?” 

“Pretty much,” said Hogarth. 


A pile of parts does not Agile make

“We’re doing stand ups, we must be agile.” Admit it, how many times have you heard this? Honestly it’s grown to internet meme status and is one of the go too jokes for mocking a company that has failed to “get agile.”

That doesn’t mean it isn’t hitting the truth smack dab on the head.

Yes, the practices of agile are incredibly important. So is structuring your organization with interactive support from all tiers of the company. If you only do the motions though, you’ll end up with an organization that is a soulless automaton not unlike Frankenstein’s monster. The monster was “alive”, but lacked a purpose and drive, a soul if you will. It at least had the intelligence to know it lacked something and spent the story trying to find acceptance and love.

In some organizations they are just like the monster, in that they know what is missing, but their efforts to find the missing is stymied. This can be the teams own roadblocks or barriers imposed by the company or even external partners and customers. These organizations are almost sadder than those oblivious to what’s missing in their agile transformations. They know they are not getting what they should out of agile while being forced to go through the motions of agile every day.

The same cannot be said for all attempts at agile transformations. They muddle along doing the practice of agile, without the purpose of agile and they either gain minimal benefit from agile or fail completely. Often blaming agile they then fall back on whatever they were doing before because it has the comfort of familiarity. These organizations then face an even greater challenge in improving because “we tried it already and it didn’t work.”

An agile transformation is more than just predictability, stability, shipping early, or even transparency. Agile is a tool that can lead an organization from being extrinsically driven to intrinsically driven. From unengaged to fully engaged. From passive process following to active innovation creation. In short all those things we are hearing about from such modern luminaries as Steven Denning, Dan Pink, Eric Ries and past visionaries such as Peter Drucker, are things that an agile transformation can help with.

If you truly set out to do it and not just pick up a couple of pieces and expect to be able to have the value of the whole.


Gorillas use the 5 Whats not the 5 Whys

“Can someone tell me why I just spent two hours on the phone with a screaming client?”

“They dropped a server rack on their toe and it really hurt?” asked Greg.

I glared at Greg until he went back to studying the dirt under his finger nails. The I turned to Jake, our development manager. “Jake, why can the client only load half their user base into the DB?”

Jake gave a shrug. “No clue, why didn’t QA test that?”

Vinnie jumped forward in his seat, “That’s not even in our test cases, why on earth would we test that.”

The room seemed to pause for a moment and then all eyes slowly turned towards to Tully, our junior product manager. With Bob visiting a potential customer, Tully the product management representative.

An hour later I walked into my office, tossing my coat on the conference table chair. “Poor Tully” I muttered.


I jumped. Turning to look where my coat landed I saw instead Hogarth holding my coat in one hand and looking at me with a questioning gaze.

“Why? Because Tully got torn to pieces in that meeting.” I said.


I blinked at my Gorilla. It wasn’t like him to not know everything. After all wasn’t he just a figment of my imagination? “Because Bob wasn’t there. And Bob is the one who made the requirements that didn’t address the customer’s number one need.”


Now I glared at my gorilla, was there a point to all of this? “So do you have a point with the annoying string of ‘why’?”

Hogarth nodded, “I do. What do you think would be a better way?”

“What?” My brain started spinning, how was this an answer? What did he mean? What was the right answer? Wait, wait, What?

And Hogarth nodded, “Exactly.”


Why the 5 Whys should be the 5 Whats.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve almost certainly heard of Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota. He calls it Five Whys. Unless the rock was really heavy, you’ve also no doubt heard Simon Senek’s “Start with Why” TED Talk.

The Five Whys:

5 Whys is an iterative question-asking technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships of a problem. The goal is to get to the root cause of a problem, because all too often the first cause is not the true cause. Doctor’s call this “treating the symptoms, not the disease.”

An example the 5 Whys :

Why did our service go down?

  1. Why? – The servers lost power. (first why)
  2. Why? – The backup power supply didn’t work. (second why)
  3. Why? – It couldn’t handle the load. (third why)
  4. Why? – A replacement hasn’t been bought that can meet the power needs. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – The DataCenter budget was frozen last quarter and we haven’t had the money to perform upgrades. (fifth why, a root cause)

Starting with Why 

Simon’s talk is an incredible exploration of how companies can be inspirational and change the world. His Golden Circle places the question “Why” directly in the middle of the circle and What is placed at the edge. As Sinek pounds home, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy how you do it”

The danger of “Why”

“Start with why” is an excellent for a company exploring how they can better market their products. It can help them to better connect with their end customers and provide greater value.

And “why” is completely the wrong word to use when trying to get to the root of a problem.

What makes me say that? Professional coaching has a key concept of using powerful questions. These questions are deigned to help the coach guide the coachee to the answers they need. The coach doesn’t give the answers, the coach doesn’t even guide the answer. The coaches job is to ask the powerful questions that will allow their client to get to the solution. Examples of powerful questions are:

  • What is important about that?
  • What is stopping you?
  • What is the lesson from that?

What you won’t find in powerful questions is “Why”. What is the reason for this?

“Why” questions rests on the popular belief that « to succeed, one should understand how one has failed ». In other words, to learn how to swim, one must carefully analyze how one has almost drowned. In effect, why questions only let clients meander within their same-old limited past frame of reference. A good coaching process needs to gently lead the client out of their box.” (quoted from www.metasysteme-coaching.eu)

The question “why” carries a lot more emotional content than it’s cousin “what”. When you ask someone “Why didn’t you take out the trash” you are essentially putting them on the defensive and laying blame. Even saying “why is the trash still here?” creates an adversarial space.

This is “Why” is not used in coaching. You don’t want the client to get defensive, or wrapped up in the “why” of the problem you want to ask them “what” they need to do to get out of the problem.

Why 5 What’s is better

You see, Toyoda’s 5 Whys could get to the root cause, but all too often I find they side tracked by the personal agendas, defensiveness and the tragic corporate blame game circle. The 5 Whys can so easily go wrong, let’s look at the example above again, this time with real people involved.

Why did our service go down?

  1. Why? – Because we lost power. (umm duh)
  2. Why? – Bob hasn’t replaced the damn UPS yet, I’ve been on him for weeks. (the buck is passed)
  3. Why? – Don’t look at me, I’ve been trying to get the UPS replaced for weeks, finance won’t approve the PO. (the buck passes again)
  4. Why? – Unless sales starts signing up more customers, we won’t be approving a lot more POs. We’re broke.

We didn’t even get to the 5th why at this point and totally missed that the UPS isn’t broken, just can’t handle the load, so you can’t even explore how to make what you have now work for you.

Let’s try with What.

What caused the service to go down?

  1. What? – We lost power to the core servers and the UPS didn’t work
  2. What happened to our UPS- It can’t handle the load we have.
  3. What are we doing about it?- Well we’re trying to get a new one, only budgets are frozen right now.
  4. What else could we do? We could try putting just half the servers on the UPS. If we lost power we wouldn’t be able to handle a full login load, but we’d be partially up at least.
  5. What do we need to start doing that? – Give us the okay and we’ll have it done tonight.

Asking “What” is about creates an environment of clearer answers. If you ask “What is the speed of light” you get a very specific answer of 299 792 458 m / s. If you ask “why do people fight?” you could fill a Google datacenter with the results. Not a fair comparison? You’re right, it’s not. “Why” is used when the answer isn’t as clear or there are more than one answer.

So let’s try and experiment. What would happen if we used the 5 Whats instead of the 5 Whys?

The phone’s for you, it’s the Gorilla

Bob, if you will read my response six emails down, you will see we are already
aware of that solution. It is not working…”


I leaned back and rested my head against the wall. I needed to take a mental break from this email before I started imitating a wildfire and flaming Bob for his idiocy. Why did they have to make it so difficult? Trying to get my bearings I started to scroll back through the email chain. I gave up after the tenth page down.


This was hopeless, no one was listening to anyone and Bob was sitting at the middle of this like some big land mine that was keeping anything from moving for fear it would all blow up. I’d exhausted myself trying to sort this all out. I didn’t have a clue how to finish this email and I didn’t think any email would solve this anyway..


The worst part of this all is I knew it was a simple understanding. I just couldn’t get through to Bob. He didn’t seem to be even reading the emails anymore, just kept responding with the same dogmatic hash over and over.


What was I going to do?


Hogarth dangled my Android in front of my face, “Have you tried this?”


I should know better to ask rhetorical questions to the myself. The problem with having an imaginary gorilla is they can eavesdrop on your thoughts. Turning to take in the lumbering form of my gorilla I shook my head. “Hogarth, don’t be ridiculous, I can’t send a text, I need way more than a couple hundred characters to get my point across.”


Hogarth nodded in that annoying manner that usually meant he was about to zing me hard. “You’re right. It will take a lot more character to solve this problem.” He waggled the device at me again, “You know this thing here has an incredible power? One that can cut through all the emails and all the miscommunication and get you to a solution in just a few short minutes.”


I sat up, “Seriously? What’s this App called?”


“A phone call…”


Huh? A phone… oh, ouch.





I’m half afraid the next generation of iPhone will have the revolutionary new feature of doing away with that pesky telephone. I mean why does it need to be there anyway? You can send email, send texts, post to Facebook and Twitter, and even log into your companies portal to post to the internal sites. Why on earth would you need to make a phone call?


Maybe because they work so very well? Of course face to face is even better. The phone is a good substitute, email should be the last resort of the desperate.


Now the exact numbers of course vary on this. Still, if you Google “percentage of communication is nonverbal” you will get a mess of hits that put non-verbal communication at a minimum of 60% and up to 93%. And then whatever percentage is left over gets cut down significantly by your tone of voice. By the time you get to only the words you say, it can be as little as 7% of your total communication.


So when you are in an email conversation, up to 93% of your communication is lost? Makes me think of that old kid’s game called telephone. You know the one, the kids all sit in a circle, the first one whispers to the kid on his left and then the message gets passed around until it comes back to the start. “My cat has fleas” could easily turn into “Hapsburgs flee from the Martians.”


Now I’m not saying we should toss out our Exchange servers and go back to the 1970’s. If we did nothing else, we’d only be replacing electronic emails with the old fashioned memo.  That’s not the problem. The problem is what we are using the email for.


Email is great for things like status reports, assigning tasks to directs or team members, communicating already decided changes or policy on a one to many basis.


Emails are horrible for solving problems, carrying on a conversation, dealing with anything that requires more than the cold hard facts that can be properly communicated in email. If there is one iota of emotion involved in the communication, then email is not the ideal medium.


Sure, there are times when email is the only option. These times are however vanishingly small. Even leaving a voicemail can often be more effective than an email.


Now diligent readers will point out that this is counter to how some DISC profiles work, as I discussed in “Talk to the Gorilla, Not At It.” True, there are DISC profiles that cringe at the thought of talking on the phone or face to face. That doesn’t mean it’s not the best solution. It just means you have to be careful about it. You don’t just call a High C unannounced, you use email to schedule a time to talk instead.


Let’s go back to the math for a minute. If non-verbal is truly 93% of communication, does that mean if we only ever do email we can take a 93% pay cut?


The phone won’t bite you and it may very well help you tame those monster email threads so you have something approaching a sane mailbox.


Ring… It’s for you.

Gorillas don’t juggle – The Sins of Multi-Tasking

“Yeah hang on a second there Pete.” I shifted the phone to my other ear so I could grab my cell phone. “Go on, I’m listening.” I brought up the screen on my cell phone to see a text message from my wife asking if I’d done the research on website design I’d promised. Setting the cell phone down I tried to shift my desk phone back to my other ear. Only to drop it on the desk.


Scrabbling it up I tried to sound nonchalant, “Oh sorry, wind caught my office door.” Pete started talking again so I hit the mute button and then put the phone on speaker so I had two hands free. While Pete continued on about the project status, I think Bill was actually asking some questions now though it wasn’t important, I brought up my web browser and  quickly shifted it to my second screen so it wouldn’t block the web session I was hosting. I needed to get my wife an answer. I could do that while the conversation went along, just had to keep it on track.


“Yeah, Pete, that’s a good point. Can you talk about how you’re going to…” Why were people talking over me like I was on… Oh right. I hit the mute button and steered the conversation back the right direction.


Mute back on I dove into the website I had pulled up.


Why was the phone ringing and people talking at the same time. Oh, cell phone. “Yeah, honey I’m looking at it right now.  What? No, hang on.”


Unmute, “Yeah, Bill can we get a summary of the Icarus work?”


Back to my wife, “No, I haven’t had a chance to do anything, I’ve had thing to get done first.”


“What, no, Bill Icarus is the highest priority I, uh, had someone come into my office. Please proceed.”




“Honey, what? No, I understand how important this is. Hang on.”


Unmute “Yes, Pete the website will be ready on June 12.” Mute


“Now honey,” Oh crap, did I just.


UnMute, “I mean the software release will be ready on June 12, sorry about that.”


And before I could hit the mute button a massive hair covered hand reached over me to hang up my desk phone. Before I could protest, another similarly hirsute hand plucked my cell phone from my ear. “Mrs. BC, he’ll need to call you back. Oh, I’m good, thanks. Just doing a little intervention. Yeah, he’ll be better. Soon.”


“Hogarth!” I snapped, trying to snatch the phone out of his hand. “I’m working here!”


My gorilla drew back across the desk and settled into my guest chair with a creaking groan of protest from the chair. “Really,” he said, “It looks more like you are juggling, badly.”


“Wha…” I tried to come up with something sharp to say, but the image of dropping my desk phone wouldn’t leave my mind.


Hogarth set my phone down on the desk. “Think of it this way, ever seen a juggler try to eat an apple while he’s juggling?” I gave a mute nod and Hogarth continued, “Yeah, it’s a mess isn’t it? The worse one I ever saw was the guy juggling one apple and three eight-balls.” Hogarth shook his head, “I hope he had a good dental plan.”






Let’s do a little exercise. You’ve got a smart phone, right? If you don’t I’m betting you have a watch with a second hand. If you have both, pick your poison. You’ll also need a piece of scratch paper and a pencil or pen.




For the next fifteen seconds I want you to write from number 1 to as high as you can get in that time. Ready? Go!


Okay, how far did you get? Not bad, huh?


Another fifteen seconds now. This time I want you to alternate between numbers and the alphabet. 1A2B3C etc. Ready? Go!


Wow… didn’t get as far, did you?


And these are easy tasks. Try a third time only this time start at number one and the letter Z. Go forwards on the numbers and backwards on the letters.


Yeah, didn’t go so well did it?


Multitasking is not really multitasking. Instead what we are doing reminds me of the early days of main frame computers. We have one CPU, our brain, which can only do one primary task at a time. We aren’t multitasking, we are switch-tasking. Like the main frames of the 1960s and 70s where the CPU would give each user a slice of time and constantly rotate. Only, we are not computers and that means we can’t switch tasks instantly like those old IBM main frames could.


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The human brain is not capable of focusing on more than one primary task at a time. Yes, we can do a lot of secondary things (breathing, peripheral vision, etc.), we can only face one focused tasked at a time. We might be able to switch quickly from task to task. We just won’t be nearly as efficient as focusing on a single task. The cost of switching tasks high.


Some studies say we can take up to fifteen minutes to get back on track after being interrupted. If we are multitasking, we are interrupting ourselves.


The same thing applies to teams, that applies to people. If your team is only working 50% of the time on your project, the reality is they are probably only working 40% on your project as they have the overhead of switching back and forth between your project and other projects. The more projects they are working on, the less time they can devote to each project.


Jim Highsmith, in Agile Project Management gives a great example of a team doing multitasking.   In the first example, the team switches between three projects, one day on project one, two days on project two, etc. In the second example, the team works on project one until it is done, then moves to the next project.


In the multitask example, the first project completes on day 48 and all three projects are done on on day 52.


In the sequential projects, project one is done on day 20 and all three projects are done by day 36.


I’m no math major and I can tell sequential is a better idea. The first project is done in less than half the time and all of them are done in two thirds the time.


Multitasking, all it does it make you look busy.


Results matter.


Do the math.



Ask not what your Gorilla can do for you

“Go away Hogarth…”

I knew it was him. I mean who else would loom in my doorway at 8:30 at night? Every sane person in the company had gone home hours ago.

“So what does that make you?”

Sigh… I really hate when he does that. Pushing back from my keyboard I looked across the dark office to where my gorilla stood. The few lights illuminating the hallway lit him in an eerie haze that made him almost ghost like in appearance. Given how he haunted my every move, it wasn’t that far from the truth.

“I’m not dead yet,” he said before he swung his arms forward to propel his body into the darkness of my office. I lost sight of him for a moment, as he moved out of the faint light cast through the door. And then there he was, his leathery muzzle poking into the light given off by my monitor and his teeth flashing as he offered up a toothy smile. “Though you’re not looking so great. When was the last time you saw the sun?”

“Very funny, Hogarth, I don’t have time for funny. I’m three chapters behind on our book. You do want to see this book published someday, right?” Looking at him, I gave a triumphant grin. I had him on this one. It’s not like I was toiling away on office work. I ‘d learned my lesson on that long ago. I was just taking advantage of the quiet of after hours office to get in some quality writing time (using my own laptop of course).

I could feel Hogarth’s eyes boring through me from the darkness beyond the monitor glow. As he spoke, his white canines sparkled in the light. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can and are good, do both.”

I blinked, “What? Seriously?” Okay, he’d gone to far this time. “I’ve done everything you’ve told me. I’ve gotten better at being a person, a project manager, a manager, a coach, you name it. I’m applying your lessons and things are going great here.”

He nodded, “Yep, you are. So why aren’t you at the agile coaching circle tonight?”

What the heck? “Are you smoking banana peels again? I’m not there because I’m here, writing. You’d think with you hanging around me, you wouldn’t have to ask. What on earth can anyone there teach me that you can’t?”

Hogarth leaned back into the darkness, his entire form become just a faint outline in the greater darkness of my office. “Who said anything about learning?”

Now I was really confused. And that usually meant he was about to hit me upside the head with some painful lesson. I’d gotten a lot better about seeing these coming. Only I didn’t know what it was, I only knew it was coming. “What?”

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Yep, he did it again… Oh, my head.


The Kennedy Approach to Being a Professional

Until recently I never really understood why I have become so passionate about helping others. I spent a long period of my career trying to stay below the radar. Don’t rock the boat, don’t stick out your head, don’t go the extra mile.

After Hogarth entered my life (See Wake up and Smell the Gorilla) , I found myself coming out of the bunkers and reaching out to help others. Even during the dark times, when I too was unemployed, I found myself reaching out to help others. I didn’t even think about it or when I did I was just thinking about my own karmic bank account. I was still early in my path and had much still to learn from Hogarth.

For the last year I’ve been regularly attending the Silicon Valley PMI Job Search breakfast. Why? I can hear many of you ask. After all I’m gainfully employed and am very happy with the job. Why would I be going to a breakfast for out of work project managers? For a long while, I thought I was just building my own network for a rainy day. I had a job, surely I can help others. The roles might be reversed someday and I’d need that persons help. Ultimately I thought I was doing it just to build up job karma for myself. It was all about me, right?

Then came the day I finally heard and understood what the facilitator had said many times before. Skip Le Fetrawas also employed and yet was devoting many hours a month to running the breakfast. Skip regularly said “I keep doing this because I get as much out of it as I do giving to it.” This took a while to sink into my head and it took another conversation for it to really gel.

We’d had a particularly intense meeting. One of the attendees had been facing some very specific challenges and the meeting had entered what I call “Group Coach” mode to help this one person. Now being a regular, and employed, I tend to be someone people turn to a lot, especially if Skip has to run off to a meeting. So on this day I had one of the attendees come to me. The attendee (We’ll call this attendee Pat) had something on their mind and needed to get it off. I was there to help. They said (I’ll paraphrase heavily), “This was a great session, X really needed it. I’m just curious, we did something like this for Y two weeks ago and while it really helped X and Y, I don’t feel like it is addressing everyone’s needs.”

I mentally rocked back on my heals on this one. Not so much by what Pat said. What got me was how everything was dropping into place as I formed my reply. I suddenly realized it wasn’t about building karma for myself. I suddenly realized why I help people and why it makes me feel so good.

Because it’s the right thing to do.

On that day I was Hogarth to Pat. President Kennedy’s speech came to my mind and the whole picture became clear. When I explained to Pat that what they should be getting out of the meeting is “what can I give to others.” As Skip had said for the last year, he learns and gets so much just from giving to the meeting.

Do it because it’s right, the rest will follow.

What can you do for your team?

Indiana Gorilla and the Artifacts of Agile

“Okay and Eric, you were working on the shopping cart ordering story, right?”
Eric nodded, but remained silent.
“And tomorrow you should be done and moving on to the Wish List story, right?”
He nodded again, still silent. He was a good engineer, never spoke unless he really had something to say.
“Any impediments?”
Eric looked around the table at the other seated engineers. None of them met his gaze, intent on their own computers. Then he shrugged and turned back to me. “No.”
“Ah, excellent!” I gave a thumbs up sign to the assembled team. “Great stand up, guys, I’ll see you all again tomorrow.”
I happily began entering data into my uber status report spreadsheet and didn’t notice the engineers talking quietly amongst themselves as they filed out.
I was cheerfully humming away five minutes later, when Hogarth wandered in. I looked up and pointed at my uber sheet projecting on the wall screen. “Man, this Scrum stuff is great! I love the daily standups. Just great to have everyone giving daily reports on their status. Can you imagine? A year ago I had to hound them for their slide decks every week and I almost never got a full report.”
Hogarth cast a glance at the screen, before he flopped down near the window. Reaching out the window he pulled a branch from the tree outside. After a careful examination of the branch, he used it to point at the screen. “Pretty picture, but you know its completely wrong, right?”
“What!?” I turned to stare at him. “What on earth are you talking about? The project is going great! Look at that burndown! I just cross referenced it with my detailed MS Project file and we are at least a week ahead of schedule. We’re doing AWESOME!”
Hogarth shook his head. “Nope, all an illusion. Take Eric for example, he’s got a massive database integration issue that’s going to end up making all of his stories crash and burn. He’s stumped on how to solve the problem and it is going to cascade into a total failure of the storefront in about two sprints.”
I blinked. “What on earth are you talking about? Eric just walked out of here and he didn’t say word one about any issues.”
Hogarth nodded, pealing a long strip of bark from the tree branch. “Course he didn’t, no point saying anything if you’re not going to listen to him.”
“What?” I said incredulously. “We just had our stand up! I was sitting right here! I didn’t set up all these Agile meetings just to have things be the same as before!”
“Just because you have the magical artifact, doesn’t mean you have a clue how to use it.”
“What?” I hated it when Hogarth spoke in riddles.
Hogarth rolled his eyes. “You remember in the original Indiana Jones, the Germans had the Ark of the Covenant?”
I stared at Hogarth, “I don’t have time for movie quizzes, Hogarth.” He gave me a “humor me” look and I sighed in surrender. “Yes, I remember. It ended pretty badly for them.”
Hogarth nodded. “Ayup, they had the artifact. But they didn’t know how to use it. If you put a MacDonald’s fry cook in the Iron Chef kitchen, he’s not magically going to become a great chef. The tools don’t make the chef, the chef does.”
I stared at him for a long minute.
“Ah, crap…”
Agile Artifacts vs. Agile Values: Holding Daily Standups, planning work in two week iterations, and tracking progress on a burn down chart are all excellent tools for the Agile team. They are not  Agile. Agile is a set of values and principles. It’s more about the how of team and not the what of the product.
You can’t take a handful of engineers, start having them meet once a day, and declare yourself Agile. Like Hogarth’s examples from above, having a tool (A Daily Standup is a Tool/Artifact) and knowing how to use it are two entirely different things. And the more advanced that tool, the more knowledge you need to use it.
Back in college I got a part time job at a little coffee shop/deli (Back before Starbucks took over the world). The owner was a quiet Turkish man who wouldn’t let me touch the espresso machine until after I’d learned not only the history of coffee but the why’s of exactly how the machine worked (this was an old manual style machine, no automatic buttons or anything). I must have frothed gallons of milk before he let me pour a single ounce into a customer’s cup. He told me, “To make good coffee, one must first understand coffee.”
Success in Agile requires a look beyond the tangible of meetings, code drops, requirements documents and into the heart of how the organization runs. The values and principles are as much, if not more about the team and not the product trying to be made. Make a better team and you make a better product.
Throw around a bunch of Agile Artifacts, like a five year old using a Ginsu Steak knife set, and you just replace one bad process with another.
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

Death by PowerGorilla

C… O… C… L… S… I… O… N…
The typewriter sound as each letter flew onto the screen gave me a satisfied grin. Nothing like great sound effects to go with some killer slide animation. It had taken me the better part of a week, but I was done with the quarterly report. It was my first report and I was determined to make it memorable.
I hit save and sat back to wait for status bar to creep towards complete.
“You misspelled ‘conclusion.”
“What?” I spun around so fast I nearly spilled my coffee.
Hogarth was perched in on the window sill soaking in the late afternoon sunlight. He pointed a half-eaten fichus branch at my computer, “you misspelled ‘conclusion.’ Easy to do when you put spaces between each letter.”
I turned back to my computer and groaned in realization. He was right. To make a better visual impact I’d put each letter in their own text box and had them spaced across the screen. I was missing the U. “Okay,” I said, “thanks for the catch. Soon as this is done saving I’ll fix it.”
“Done saving?” Hogarth’s voice showed a level of genuine confusion I wasn’t used to in his voice.
I nodded. “Yeah, should be another twenty seconds.”
“How big is your file?” He asked. By now it was starting to dawn on me that he was really confused and I tried not to smile at that. For once I was in the position of knowledge over him. This was great.
“About seventy slides, but the file itself is around twenty-five megabytes.”
A fine spray of chewed fichus leaves showered across my back, with no small amount of spray coming over my shoulder to coat my screen. “HEY!” I yelped. Turning about in my chair I looked at Hogarth. He had somehow managed to fall off his perch and was on his hands and knees wiping plant matter from his lips. “What the heck was that for?”
Picking himself up, he recovered the, mostly-eaten branch and looked at me. “I’m sorry did you just say twenty-five megabytes?”
I nodded, “yeah, animations take up a lot of memory.”
“Any seventy slides? Don’t you only have twenty minutes to present?”
I nodded again, not seeing where he was going.
Hogarth did some math on his fingers. “Let’s see, that’s an average of 3.5 slides per minute or one slide approximately every 17 seconds.”
I shrugged, “Yeah, that does seem like a lot, but the project is miserable shape and we have a lot to cover.”
“And you think if you bludgeon the execs over the head with a twenty-five meg file they’ll be too senseless to ask question?”
“Huh?” I replied.
Hogarth sighed. “Slides are there to make a point, not to bludgeon your audience into a stupor.”
Hogarth looked heavenward with a “why me” look. Returning to look at me he said, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”
“What?” I stared at Hogarth as if he’d grown and second head. “What kind of poppycock water cooler wisdom advice is that? That’s got to be from some arm chair TV shrink, right?”
“Albert Einstein” 
Sometimes it can be so very easy to make your point. And sometimes it can be so very, very hard. Unfortunately it seems that, all to often, the way we try and explain something is to throw more words at it. I’m certainly guilty of this one. Why try to explain something in ten words when one hundred will do?
Because by the time I get to thirty words, my listener is asleep, tuned out, moved on or made up their answer.
Man spent centuries practicing the art of communication. Great orators could empower a speech with nothing but their words and body language. When you think of famous speeches names like Kennedy, Caesar,  Churchill. These great speakers used their words and their gestures to communicate everything they needed to say.
Visual aids of course factored into even famous speeches and the advertising industry grew up around iconic images that conveyed an incredible amount of words, in single images. The crying Indian, the Marlboro Man, the hungry child, the oh so appetizing looking TV Dinner. But these were individual images. They were there to support the words being spoken, to anchor our minds to those words. They were not there to be the message.
Then suddenly it was as if man had forgotten the power of speech. The universe handed us  PowerPoint and we said, “this is good.” We started putting everything into these mighty slide decks. Why show one table, when we could show twenty? Why memorize anything when we could put all the text on the slide. Heck, why even bother to present, just send the slides to your audience and ask for questions by email. And so came to pass the terms “eye chart” and “death by PowerPoint.”
Did you know that Sweden has a political party right now who’s sole platform is the desire to outlaw the use of PowerPoint in government?
PowerPoint is a visual aid. An aid, as in “to help or give assistance.” Assistance, not to be the subject, but to assist the subject.
Manager Tools has a great podcast on slides for business presentations. They recommend no more than one slide for every five minutes of presentation time. Like many experts they recommend no more than five bullet points.  Don’t use animation. They also stress that the slides are to support the conclusion not to present information. You don’t show a graph of population data to let the viewer decipher. You show the specific result that supports your point.
These are great tips for a business slide deck and good starting guidance for a speaker deck. Speaker decks are more focused on backing up the physical speech and the rules are not as strict, you can even get away with some animations. Within reason. I recall Manager Tools describing a truly awful sales presentation. The woman had every single letter flying in, one at a time. And to make it worse, she had her computer piped into the auditorium speakers and every letter made a typewriter sound.
When I think of greater speaker decks, I really like one I saw recently by Bernie Maloney on building Rabid Rapport. It’s  48 slides, which breaks the MT rules on one every 5 minutes, but the entire deck is focused on backing up the words Bernie spoke. Honestly I think the best speaker decks are the ones that make nearly no sense if you just look at the slide decks. Bernie’s does a great job of that.
I’m currently working on an hour long speech for the PMI Silicon Valley annual Symposium. For a 9000 word speech, I have a slide deck with less than 550 words. Many of these are repeat words and only two pages exceed twenty-five words and only one exceeds 50 words. The animation consists entirely of replacing one image with another or with adding another, large image to an existing slide.
You can make your point with out bludgeoning your audience to death with your slides.
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

Gorilla Spam- Not appetizing, Not good practice

Or- How not to be a Twitter Sinner

Matthew W. Jackson

Photo by Matthew W. Jackson

My computer finished resuming with a happy chirp. In seconds it was pulling down data from the internet and my applications were all madly updating. Taking a slug of coffee I popped open Tweetdeck and looked to see what gems the night’s rest had produced. Two minutes later I’d already pushed out at least a dozen retweets, it was a banner day for tweets.  

“Whoa there, Tex, slow down with that keyboard. Do you know how fast you’re tweeting there?” 

I didn’t bother to look at Hogarth. He was no doubt looming behind me with a disapproving scowl on his face, that’s what a gorilla in the room does. I shrugged, “about a dozen in the last two minutes.” 

My gorilla stepped close enough for me to see his reflection in my monitor. He was counting on his fingers. “About a dozen? So you’re saying that you are pushing out a tweet every 10 seconds? You do know that it takes on average five to eight seconds just to read a tweet? You actually want people to pay attention?” 

“Hogarth,” I said. “I’ve got just a few minutes to retweet here, before I have to get to work. I have to go fast.” 

Hogarth grunted. “You remember Tommy, the engineer?” 

I shuddered, “Oh god, he used to write emails in the middle of the night. By the time I got in the office, I’d have twenty emails from him.” 

Hogarth nodded. “And how many of them did you read?” 

Ouch…  Okay, Hogarth had a point. I threw up my hands, “Okay, fine! So I I’ll cut back to one tweet a minute.” 

I turned back to my computer. Giving a sigh I watched my clock tick down a full sixty seconds. As the second hand swept past the 12 I clicked on a tweet and selected the retweet option. With a satisfied grunt I hit enter. “There!” 

“Don’t you even read them?” 

Shaking my head, I said “These are pure gold, I only follow the best, I don’t need to actually read them.” I pointed at my screen, “Look at this one. It’s from @PMUberGuru. This guy pulls down high five figures for a one hour speaking engagement. I don’t need to read his stuff, it’s guaranteed to be good stuff!” 

Hogarth gave a grunt of surprise. “Well that’s interesting.” 


“This email I just got,” Hogarth said.  

I spun about in my chair, “what email?” I began only to stop before I finished the thought. 

Hogarth had a banana shaped device in his hands. It was lying flat in his palm and split open down the middle. He pointed at the device.”iBanana,” 

Giving me enough time to roll my eyes he continued. “It’s an email from @PMUberGuru. Seems his Twitter account was hacked and the hacker sent out tweets pointing to some really nasty malware web sites. You know the kind, soon as you hit the page its trying to convince you your computer crashed or something, just click this button to reboot your computer.” 

The sheer insanity of Hogarth using a banana shaped phone was quickly shoved to the side as the full impact of his words sunk in. 

“Oh…. Crap…” 



Are you a Twitter spammer sinner? 

TSSS- Twitter Spammer Sinner Syndrome. So like any good, social media using, project manager I follow the #PMOT hash tag. It has been a source of some truly great project management insights. Unfortunately, I often wonder if it is worth the effort. Much like a needle in a haystack, you have to really hunt for those gems. And when I have to hunt for useful information in a Twitter feed, then it’s not really worth it. 

One evening I was working late. I could tell that this one project manager had just fired up his computer (maybe in meetings all day, maybe he’s in AsiaPac). In the course of five minutes he’d retweeted close to thirty tweets.  With the settings on my Tweetdeck that meant that just about when one tweet was fading from my screen, it was replaced by another (I’ve since change Tweetdeck to only show new tweets every ten seconds and am considering disabling notifications all together). At that point I’d had enough and I closed my Tweetdeck. When I fired it up the next morning and scrolled back through #PMOT there was an hour’s time period where this PM was the only tweets on the hash tag and there were a lot of them. 

You know what happened? I don’t even give his tweets a second glance and I certainly have no plans to ever follow him directly.  When I see his picture, I just look to the next tweet. He may be a truly brilliant project manager, but he spammed me and that’s just not okay. 

Spamming is the first sin of Twitter. 

I think there are at least two other cardinal sins and I’m not alone: 

Sin #2: Multi Blasting

Irene Koehler first put words to this sin for me. In her blog, “Connecting Twitter to LinkedIn: Just Say No,” she gives an impassioned argument on why you shouldn’t have your tweets automatically post to LinkedIn.  I can’t agree with her enough on this and it also goes for doing the same with linking tweets to Facebook. It is not uncommon that if you are following someone in one Social Media, you follow them other places. They are all different communication methods and the last thing I really want to do is see the exact same post in LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. 

More importantly, LinkedIn is about professional status and networking. I do not need to know where you just had dinner. I’ve removed people from my LinkedIn network for this. 

Related to this is Foursquare. I’m not on Foursquare. I don’t want to be on Foursquare and I absolutely don’t care if you just became mayor of Costco. If I want to follow your Foursquare progress, I can add a Foursquare thread to my Tweetdeck. I’ve unfollowed people who tweet their Foursquare. 

Sin #3: Twitter is not a bulletin board

I hadn’t even realized this was bothering me until I read Tim Tyrell-Smith’s (Tim’s Strategy web site for career tips and advice) recent blog; “Don’t Follow Me on Twitter – Talk To Me 

Tim points out this sin wonderfully well, but I’d like to offer up an analogy of what is going on here. 

I walk into a coffee shop. Ignoring all the patrons in the shop I wander over to the bulletin board and tack up my lost dog poster. Then I walk out of the coffee shop and go repeat the process at a half dozen other shops. Meanwhile, back in the coffee shop, a lady finishes paying for her coffees and heads out to her car where her husband waits. I helpfully hold open the door for her, before heading off to my next place to post flyers.  When she gets into the car, she asks her husband “so should we make flyers for this found dog?” The dog in the back seat just wags his tail.  

Twitter is becoming the bulletin board of the internet. People don’t post to have conversations, they post to convey information. They use it as a sign post to their blogs (I have been guilty of this). Instead of being a destination, Twitter are the signs on the side of the freeway. Gas, Food, Lodging, Blog posts… 

I maintain two Twitter accounts, one is for my professional project management and the other is a cross between personal and for my freelance fiction writing. As I examined my two accounts I found my professional account was filled with sign posts. Whether it was myself or the people I follow, the tweet feed was filled almost completely with posts to other places. There are no conversations. In contrast, my private feed is filled with dialogue, interaction and “community.” 

Twitter has the potential to be a powerful communication medium. Unfortunately we are in danger of it turning into a mind numbing information pipe. Ever heard the expression, drinking from the fire hose?   

Make Twitter, “cocktails with friends”, not, “drinking from the fire hose”. 

Leave the Spam to the professionals:

Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP