Agile Project Management–What Agile Isn’t


Anthony Mersino, in his new book Agile Project Management:  A Nuts and Bolts Guide to Success, takes a unique approach in his first chapter Introducing Agile Project Management by explaining not what Agile Project Management, but what it isn’t.

It’s like the story I heard one time of someone who was in an art class.   The students were all given a block of marble and a model of an elephant, and were told to sculpt an elephant from the marble.    The students were all perplexed at the difficulty of the task, because they had all been given rather simple assignments in class before.   The teacher thought for a moment, and said “it’s quite simple.   Just take your block of marble and chip off everything that isn’t an elephant.”   The point of the story is that sometimes illuminating a problem via a negative example isn’t that illuminating after all.   But in Anthony Mersino’s case, I think it has merit.   Let’s see how he undefines Agile Project Management.

1.  Agile Project Management ≠ A New Software Development Method

Agile certainly includes software development methods, like Dynamic System Development Method (SDM) or Crystal Methods, but in reality the roots of Agile, if you look deep enough, are in Lean Product Development and the Toyota Product System.   Therefore, it has had from the beginning potential for being used beyond the realm of software development.

2.  Agile ≠ A Silver Bullet

If you watch any amount of television, you are bound to come across an add that promotes weight loss with a magic pill that allows you to lose weight without dieting and without exercise.    It often sounds too good to be true, and that’s because it usually is.   in the area of management techniques, there have been many contenders for the equivalent of a “diet pill”, but the reality is that Agile is not a quick fix or miracle cure.   It is, after all, a methodology but one that requires not just the mindless application of a algorithm, but the adoption of a mindset.

3.  Agile ≠ Iterative and Incremental Development

Well, here we are getting closer to what agile is.  Although Agile relies on iterative and incremental development, that is such the form that the process takes.   The purpose of Agile is a lot more important, and that is to “design and build … projects in a highly flexible and interactive manner.”   The word “flexible” is implied by “agile”, but the “interactive” is very important in that Agile is highly dependent on teams that are cross-functional and self-organizing.

4.  Agile ≠ Anti-Project Management

Traditional project management is for projects which are “temporary endeavors undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.   Agile teams, on the other hand, are not temporary but endeavor to stay together indefinitely.   Agile teams work on a steady stream of repeatable activities, and resemble product development rather than project management.   However, Agile is not the opposite of project management.   Agile takes the role of a traditional project manager and distributes them to the team or to the business owner for the team.   The “emergent property” that Agile Project Management has over traditional project management is that it:

    • helps reduce management overhead
    • puts accountability for results on those individuals who are in a position to impact those results

Project managers, according to Anthony Mersino, need to unlearn what they may have heard about Agile Project Management, and understand Agile so that they can play a role that adds the most value.   In order to reinvent themselves to participate in an agile team, they need to uncover the spirit of invention that is at the core of Agile.   Explaining that spirit of invention is what Anthony Mersino does in the rest of his book, which I intend to continue blogging about.

The Four Principles of Values-Based Leadership: A Presentation at the 10th Annual Leadership Forum by Harry Kraemer


I was fortunate to be invited to the 10th Annual Leadership Forum sponsored by the Chicagoland Chapter of the Project Management Institute on Friday, May 8th.   There were not just one but two keynote speakers, Harry Kraemer, who presented his ideas on how to build a world-class organization through values-based leadership, and Jon Mahalic, who was a member of PMI Global Board of Directors from 2009-2014.

Today’s post will cover Harry Kraemer’s presentation.   It was an introduction to his four principles of values-based leadership that he introduced in his previous book From Values to Action.   Those values are described further in his latest book Becoming the Best, which shows how to take those values and how to build values-based organizations at all levels.

1.  Introduction to Harry Kraemer

Harry M. Jansen Kraemer, Jr. is an executive partner with Madison Dearborn Partners, a private equity firm based in Chicago, Illinois and a Clinical Professor of Management and Strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.   He was named the 2008 Kellogg School Professor of the Year.   He is the former chairman and chief executive officer of Baxter International Inc., a $12 billion global healthcare company.   He became Baxter’s chief executive officer in January 1999, and assumed the additional responsibility of chairman of Baxter’s board of directors in January 2000.   Mr. Kraemer is active in business, education and civic affairs. and serves on the board of directors of a number of corporations, in addition to being a member of the Dean’s Global Advisory Board of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

2.  Characteristics of Leaders

In an introduction to the subject of leadership, Harry Kraemer took us to a typical water-cooler conversation among employees who were complaining about a problem at the office.    He said there are those that complain, there are those that complain and say, “somebody should do something about this,” and those that complain and say, “let’s fix this!”   The latter group are the leaders, even though they may not yet have the title of leader within the company.

As he was saying this, I was reminded about how Douglas Adams said that the most useful problem-solving device for corporations and bureaucracies throughout the galaxy was the SEP field, where SEP stands for “Somebody Else’s Problem.”   If someone sees a problem, you just activate the SEP field, and voila, it disappears from view.   Well, yes, but the problem still exists.   Leaders are people who do NOT use the SEP field, but rather roll up their sleeves and start working towards a solution.

I was introduced to this principle right after I had taken a project management certification prep course.   After passing the exam, I went back to the VP Education of the PMI Orange County chapter I belonged to and told him that I thought that, although it was a good prep course, I thought there were some things that could be improved for the next group taking the course.    He immediately asked me, “hey, would you like to stick around and volunteer to help me put on the next course?   In that way, you can participate in improving it.”    I took him up on his challenge and did just that, helping out with the next three courses before moving to the Chicagoland area where I am now.   I think he instinctively felt that I was not just complaining for the sake of complaining, but had framed it in terms of process improvement for the future, and he dared me essentially to put my, well, not money, but my muscle where my mouth was.    That was an example for me of how to nurture the leadership instinct in others, and I’ve used it on others who have come up to me and said that things needed to be improved.    Well, I tell them, this is a great opportunity for you!

3.  The Prerequisites of Leadership

However, before leading others, Harry Kraemer said you need to lead yourself.   This is where the four principles of values-based leadership come in.   You need to develop the following:

  1. Self-reflection
  2. Balance
  3. True self-confidence
  4. Genuine humility

4.  Principle #1:  Self-Reflection

This is an examination, like peeling the layers of an onion, to find out what your values are, what your purpose is.   What really matters?   What kind of leader do you really want to be–are there are role models that come to mind?

Self-reflection is not self-absorption:    you need to challenge yourself on a regular basis by asking yourself these questions.

  • What did I say I was going to do?   What did I ACTUALLY do?
  • What am I proud of?   What am I NOT proud of?
  • How did I lead?   How did I end up following instead?
  • If I had today to do over again, what would I have done differently?

The Confucius-like formula he tells his students is:

  • if I’m not self-reflexive, how can say I know myself?
  • If I don’t know myself, how can I lead myself?
  • If I don’t lead myself, can I lead others?

5,  Principle #2:  Balance

You need to take the time to understand all sides of an issue.   You need to empathize with those who take those sides, even if you do not agree with those who hold them.     Or rather, ESPECIALLY if you do not agree with those who hold them.    One leadership secret he let the audience in on is that leaders actually rarely come up with the answers themselves.    However, they recognize the answers when they see them.    You have to be more interested in doing the right thing than in being right.

6.  Principle #3:  True Self-Confidence

You have to be comfortable in your own skin, but not complacent.   You need to surround yourself with people who are better at what you are NOT good at, to give you inspiration to improve.   So you need to know really only two things:

  1. What am I really good at?
  2. Who do I know who is really good at what I’m not good at?

As he talked about the subject, I thought about the Dunning-Kruger effect.   It is a cognitive bias where unskilled individuals have the illusion that they are competent, mistakenly assessing their own ability to be much higher than it actual is.   Conversely, highly competent individuals tend to underestimate their relative competence, mistakenly assessing that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.     

7.  Principle #4:  True self-humility

If you ask people who are successful, “how did you get where you are today?,” most will say that they worked very hard or that they were born with talent.     However, a closer examination of the genesis of their success often shows factors which were outside of themselves, such as:

  • luck or timing
  • good people working with you

You should always have people in your life who knew you BEFORE you were successful so they can remind you of those humble origins.   When you look back and remember what it was like while you were climbing the ladder of success, and think fondly of those people who gave you help to get up that ladder, remember that feeling and treat those who are coming up the ladder behind you in the same way.

These four principles can ground you in the knowledge of your own strengths and weaknesses, and give you impetus towards always working on improving those strengths and shoring up those weaknesses.    A great leader is always a work in progress.

On that last point, I recalled a book I am reading called Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, which recounts Washington’s turning of defeat at the hands of the British in the winter of 1776 into a tactical triumph.   The purpose of the book is first to describe why this was such a pivotal moment in American history.    But it also is a pivotal moment in Washington’s evolution as a leader, because he was NOT always the consummate military genius that he showed himself to be during that crucial period.   During the French and Indian War, he made many mistakes, but he showed the ability to constantly learn from them.    He always demonstrated this last principle of true self-humility time and time again, which was a quality remarked by many of the other Founding Fathers who knew him.    I am going to finish the book with Harry Kraemer’s principles in mind and see how they apply to this sterling example of leadership, without which our country may have never survived the War of Independence.

I also plan to read Harry Kraemer’s subsequent book “Becoming the Best” and hope to apply its lessons to the organizational domains he sets forth in the book.    There is so much to learn from his principles of values-based leadership and for those who want to hear more about them, you can see a talk he gave at the Northwestern University Alumni Association in the Fall of 2013

If you want to be a leader, take charge of your life and watch the video and/or read Harry Kraemer’s books!.  I plan on investing the time to do so myself, and am confident it will reap dividends for years to come!

My Three-Year Blogiversary–A Project Management Odyssey


On April 9, 2012 I embarked on a quest to produce an article or “blog post” every day for an entire year.    For the first two years after that, I kept up with this production schedule.    However, I’ve allowed my increased responsibilities after July 2014 to deter me from my previous devotion to blogging, and I realized today that I missed my three-year blogiversary on April 9th.   It really made sit back and look at what I’ve accomplished so far, and what plans I have for the blog in the future.

When I celebrated by one-year blogiversary, I had about 30,000 or so views from people in over 120 countries around the world.   Now I have over 400,000 views from people in 180+ countries around the world (practically every country that exists!).   So I have gone through tremendous growth, but I need to take stock of where I am so I can move to the next level, which is to get a million view.    I know I’ll probably reach 500,000 by next summer, but if I could increase the growth of my blog to one million views by April 2016, that would be fantastic.    And it’s not just how many people, but who the people are that’s important.    From the beginning, my focus has been primarily on professional development, and secondarily on my personal interests including foreign language learning, global affairs, and science fiction.   I’ve always written about what I’m interested in, and see no change in the future regarding that!

1.  My blog at the start

I had an idea of my blog being a public journal.   I have kept a private journal for almost as long as I was in college, and it has served as my dream journal, planning journal, and in general my attempt to mine words for inspiration and then to record the inspiration when it comes.    I don’t use the blog for planning, but I do use it to explore topics and to create notes for personal use with the aim of using some of them as the basis for teaching certain subjects like project management.

In fact, that’s how my blog started.    A friend of mine when I was living in California named Greg Johnson, had a career development business called “Above the Rim”, and I engaged him for advice on how to build my brand as I was changing careers to become a project manager.    He suggested using social media, but specifically he recommended becoming a “Subject Matter Expert” by creating a blog and writing articles about project management.    Hey, I was skeptical at first–not about blogs, because I could see he was doing a good job creating his own brand with one.   But I was just entering the field of project management.    How could I put myself forward as an SME, rather than as an SMB (“Subject Matter Beginner”).

I put a blog together but was really posting only sporadically, until I took a course from the Project Management Institute in Orange County to prepare myself to take the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification exam.    I helped organize a study group for about a half-dozen or so people who were taking the course along with me.    We met every Thursday at a member’s house who generously donated the use of her living room for our study group sessions.  However, sometimes people couldn’t make it to the session, so I volunteered to put up on my blog my notes for whatever chapter we were studying that week out of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).

This allowed any member to review the notes online if they happened to miss a week of our study group.   And then, the magic of the Internet took over as people who were searching for various topics within project management started being directed to my blog.    I remember the excitement I felt at getting 10 views in a single day.    (Now I’m excited when I get 1000!)

As a result of putting my notes online, it helped cement the material in my own mind and this helped me pass the certification test in October of 2012, about six months after I started my blog.   I discussed with the VP Education of PMI Orange County, Dan Healey, ways to improve the PMP/CAPM exam prep course, and he then asked me to help run the course and organize the study groups.

2.  My blog at present

I moved to Chicago in the summer of 2013 in order to assist my father who was convalescing from a minor stroke.   I immediately volunteered at the Chicagoland chapter of PMI as a project manager for their Professional Development Day (or PDDay for short), and through my contacts got to know the VP Education for the Chicagoland chapter, Andrew Soswa.    Because I had always been concerned about process improvement and learning from the challenges our project faced, he asked me to be the Program Manager for the PDDay project in 2014.    Since the event itself was in October, the preparation work really started to ramp in the summer of 2014.

But I was soon faced with a double challenge, because I was asked by the new VP Education, Ravi Avasarala, to be the new Director of Certification, based on all the work I had done in Orange County.    I used my blog to rewrite the entire series of notes on the PMBOK Guide, based on the new 5th Edition that had come out in the fall of 2012, and my blog was instrumental in my interview with the president of PMI Chicagoland, Jim Karthan, in demonstrating that I was the right person for the position, which I started on July 1st, 2014.

However, that double challenge of starting my duties as Director of Certification AND being the Program Manager for the Professional Development Day project took a toll on me, because I no longer could find the one hour a day I used to have to write in my blog.    Oh, and top it off, in July 2014, besides being the President of my home club Homewood-Flossmoor Toastmasters Club, and VP Education for my project management-themed Toastmasters Club, PMI Chicagoland Toastmasters, I took on the duties of being an Area Governor, which meant I was responsible for five separate Toastmasters clubs in my area.

So I stopped writing in my blog for the first time since I had started it in April 2012.    This really weighed on my mind, and I was determined once the Professional Development Day project ended to return to blogging.

Then in January, I got the idea of starting up an online version of the study group I used to run back in Orange County, for those PMI Chicagoland members who had completed their PMP/CAPM Exam course.    From July through December, the #1 question I got as Director of Certification was “is there a study group for the PMP/CAPM exam course”, and I decided since there wasn’t one, that I would create one, and run it myself.

In fact, the first cycle of the study session ends this week, and I am proud to say that it has grown from a half-dozen to about 15 members, and the first member of our study session to take the exam passed it on the first try!

I have been busy from January through April creating all of the course materials (review materials based on my blog posts, review questions, detailed answer keys, and special handouts on subjects like Earned Value Management), but with the new cycle of the study group starting next week, I realize that I don’t have to create any new materials!    So that alone will give me an additional hour a day, which I can start spending again on …. BLOGGING!

3.  My blog in the future

To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, “The Blog is a Harsh Mistress.”   Having the will to sit and compose an entire blog post every single day is a tremendous discipline that I have sought after and have succeeded in accomplishing for over two years.   But the fact that I missed my three-year blogiversary on April 8th was a real eye-opener.    Fortunately, there is a new project that I am passionate about that will fuel me in my return to my former productivity, namely, Agile Project Management.    The keynote speaker I arranged for last year’s PDDay 2014 event was Bill Fournet from the Persimmons Group in Tulsa, OK.   His topic was “PM:  The Next Generation”, and he reviewed several trends that will shape the project management profession over the next 15 years.    I got a lot of feedback from PMI Chicagoland members who enjoyed the talk, but I was personally inspired by it as well.    In his talk, he said that by 2030, most projects will not be done using traditional (sometimes termed “Waterfall”) project management methodology, NOR will they be done in the new Agile project management methodology predominantly used in the IT field, but will rather be HYBRID projects using some elements of BOTH methodologies.   I realized right then and there listening to Bill Fournet on that stage that, as the Director of Certification, I needed to offer an Agile Certified Practitioner (“ACP”) course in addition to our PMP/CAPM course.   But on a personal level, I needed to start blogging about Agile methodology in the same way that I did about traditional PM methodology over a two-year period from 2012-2013.

What do I know about Agile methodology?    Frankly, nothing at all.   But then I took myself from not knowing about project management methodology to having a blog that has over 400,000 views, and becoming the Director of Certification in a little over two years.    How did I do it?    The methodical, systematic practice that I got by doing a daily blog.   I realize now that the journey to also becoming an Agile Subject Matter Expert is a long one, but it’s not like I haven’t done it before.    I know the way is long, but at least I know there IS a way.

Besides that main project of taking the Agile Certified Practitioner and Certified Scrum Professional material and putting in online on my blog, I also want to put the BABOK (Business Analysis Body of Knowledge) online as well.    By putting the PMBOK material online, I became a member of the project management profession, but by putting these additional bodies of knowledge online, I will become a LEADING member of the profession.

That’s a dream worth sacrificing an hour per day for!

PMI-ACP® and Scrum Alliance CSP–Two Complementary Certifications


In John Stenbeck’s book “PMI-ACP® and Certified Scrum Professional Exam Prep and Desk Reference” (or as I refer to it, the “Agile Desk Reference” for short), he combines the material to study for two certifications, the Project Management Institute’s Agile Certified Practitioner or PMI-ACP® certification as well as the Certified Scrum Professional (CSP) certification sponsored by the Scrum Alliance.

This is particular true if you are software development, because that is the industry orientation of the CSP certification.  The PMI-ACP® certification, has a wider industry orientation, and so going after that certification alone would make sense if you are in a different industry.

Some of the other major differences are that the CSP test is slightly longer, requiring one to answers 150 questions in 3 hours as opposed to the 120 questions in 3 hours required by the PMI-ACP® certification exam.   Interesting enough, the work experience requirement for the two tests seems to be more intense for the PMI-ACP® certification, which requires 2,000 hours of project management work experience plus 1,500 hours of experience using Agile methodlogy.   The CSP test merely asks for 2,000 hours of Scrum related work.

The last comparison is that the CSP requires you to maintain your certification with a continuing education requirement over a two-year cycle, the PMI-ACP® certification requires a three-year cycle instead.

This blog is going on the assumption of looking at the PMI-ACP® certification first, because of its wider application in the PM community.   The last post in this preliminary material on Agile will discuss the Ethos of Agile Project Management, that is the justification for using Agile methodology on a project.

The Need for an Agile Desk Reference


In John Stenbeck’s book “PMI-ACP® and Certified Scrum Professional Exam Prep and Desk Reference” (or as I refer to it, the “Agile Desk Reference” for short), he talks briefly about why he created the book in the first place.

As you may be aware, for those studying for the Project Manager Professional certification exam, there is a single reference called the guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge or the PMBOK Guide® for short.    However, in creating the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner or PMI-ACP® certification exam, PMI has not yet created a definitive guide that is considered “official” by the PMI organization.

Instead, they give a list of reference materials which include the following:

  • Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby, Diana Larsen, Ken Schwaber
  • Agile Software Development The Cooperative Game by Alistair Cockburn
  • The Software Project Manager’s Bridge to Agility by Michele Sliger, Stacia Broderick
  • Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins
  • Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products by Jim Highsmith
  • Becoming Agile: …in an imperfect world by Greg Smith, Ahmed Sidky
  • Agile Estimating and Planning by Mike Cohn
  • The Art of Agile Development by James Shore
  • User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development by Mike Cohn
  • Agile Project Management with Scrum by Ken Schwaber
  • Lean-Agile Software Development: Achieving Enterprise Agility by Alan Shalloway, Guy Beaver, James R. Trott

The practical problem faced by someone wanting to study for the PMI-ACP® certification exam is that these books cost over $500 if you bought them all.    However, John Stenbeck found an even more fundamental problem faced by someone who decides to buy all 11 of these textbooks:   they don’t always agree with each, which creates the risk of confusion among those who are studying for the exam.

That is why John Stenbeck created a single-volume Agile Desk Reference that taught the core principles of Agile and, in doing so, created a set of Agile project management processes that are analogous to the 47 traditional project management processes outlined in the PMBOK Guide®.    It is for that reason why I have chosen John Stenbeck’s Agile Desk Reference, not just because it does combine all of the Agile principles in one volume, but because of his innovative approach in presenting those principles.

The next post will talk about one additional innovation, and that is the fact that he has a version of the Agile Desk Reference which also contains the principles of Scrum for those who are going after the Certified Scrum Professional Exam from the Scrum Alliance.    His rationale for combining these two sets of principles in one volume is the subject of the next post.   Of course, you can get the Agile Desk Reference as a single volume without the added Scrum material if you so choose, but the next post contains a convincing argument for getting the expanded Agile Desk Reference.

Memrise–Building the Memory Palace a Brick at a Time


In a previous post about language learning, I discussed Duolingo, a language-learning app that I use on a daily basis to learn European languages.   The ONLY criticism that I have about the program is that I wish it also offered non-European languages, that is, languages other than those in the Indo-European family which for the most part (with some exceptions such as Greek) are written with the Latin alphabet.    The languages I had in mind in particular are Chinese, and Japanese, both of which I have studied before, and Korean and Hindi, which I have not.

However, the interface can only handle the current languages based on the Latin alphabet, so I remained contented in my disappointment, until I found a recommendation by Benny Lewis, author of the blog Fluent in 3 Months (and a new book with the same name), that to memorize vocabulary in ANY language, one should try Memrise.

I tried that recommendation and now am practicing Japanese and Chinese an a daily basis along with my daily Duolingo language practice for European languages.   In the rest of this post, I would like to discuss the features I like about Memrise.

to be continued on 03/02/2015

Agile Principles


In John Stenbeck’s book “PMI-ACP® and Certified Scrum Professional Exam Prep and Desk Reference”, he talks briefly about the origins of Agile Methodology, in particular the development of the Agile Alliance that grew out of a seminal meeting of seventeen luminaries in the field of software development who met in the Snowbird resort in Utah in February 2001.    Out of that Agile Alliance came the Agile Manifesto, the Agile Principles, and the Ethos of Agile Project Management.   This post describes the Agile Manifesto, the immediate outcome of the first meeting of the Agile Alliance.

The Agile Manifesto

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

John Stenbeck mentions a key point, that the manifesto is saying that, while there isvalue in the terms on the right, Agile software development values the items on the left even more.

This key point is crucial, because many people interpret the Agile Manifesto incorrectly by thinking that it says “Individuals and interactions instead of processes and tools”, etc.  This couldn’t be further from the truth:   processes and tools have their place, but individuals and interactions have priority over them.

The Agile Alliance then published the philosophical background behind the Agile Manifesto, in the Agile Principles, which I will describe in my next post.

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