When Life is Fragile, You Gotta Get Agile

This is the draft of a TEDx talk I plan to give some time next year (Spring 2019).   I am pitching the idea next Friday, November 2nd, at an event given by the four organizers of independent TEDx talks in the Chicagoland area.   The main purpose of this “Shark Tank” of ideas is to give immediate feedback to the participants to see if the idea they have is truly worth sharing in the TEDx format.

Here’s the two-minute pitch I plan to give:

Agile is a term used to describe a new form of project management that relies on self-organizing teams, meetings at regular intervals, and constant communication with stakeholders.   When my father suddenly passed away, my siblings and I ended up following these same principles to work together to put together his funeral in a short amount of time.   It was afterwards that I realized that these methods not only help in an time of rapid technological changes, which is what they were original meant for, but they were also help to me and my family to help cope in a time of rapid emotional changes.   So that is why I say, “When Life is Fragile, You Gotta Get Agile.”

If the pitch for the talk is accepted and I am chosen by one of the organizers, here’s the outline of what I plan to say:

Project management has been traditionally done in a way that is predictive or linear, in the sense that you make a project plan once for the entire project at the beginning, and you follow that plan until your project is done.   But in the field of information technology, because the changes in technology are so rapid, you need to develop your product rapidly and to adjust to changes that may happen during the project.   This is why a new type of approach was needed which is called agile project management.  Although I was familiar with traditional project management because of my background in manufacturing, I was fascinated by this new method which emphasized speed and frequent feedback with customers to make sure that what is produced is what the customer really wants.

While I was studying this, my world was turned upside down by the sudden illness and death of my father.   He had been complaining about pains in his side which my siblings and I thought might be a gall-bladder attack.   We took him to the hospital and the doctors confirmed that and said he should have surgery on the following Monday.

I went in Saturday morning to see him and he looked like he was uncomfortable.  I asked his caretaker “he is in pain?”   “No, the doctor gave him something for that.   He’s just being stubborn.  There’s nothing on the TV that interests him and he’s bored.”   Well, my father had been a reporter for the Sun-Times in his first career so I know that he wanted to watch the international news programs to see what was going on in the world.   Well, I had something that might get him out of his mood…

“Hey, Dad, look what I brought?   A newspaper!”  Suddenly, the scowl turned into a look of interest, and he took it from me eagerly.   Then he did something extraordinary, he sat up straight in bed, and said in a very formal sounding voice, and said, “I’ll remember you in the will…”  “Oh, Mr. Rowley,” admonished his caretaker.  “Don’t say such things!”

Well, the next day I went in to the house after church and made sure to pick up the big, fat Sunday paper from the porch.  “THIS will keep his mind off the surgery,” I thought.   Just then, my sister called…

“Oh, hi Nora, I was just on my way … no, I’m not driving just now.  Oh … oh no.  (Sigh.)  Well, I guess I was on the way to the hospital, so I’ll meet you there.”   My sister said my father had suddenly passed away just a few minutes ago and she got the call from the nurse.

When I got to the hospital, they showed me the room they had put him in.   The nurse had said she was attending the patient in the next bed over, when she heard my Dad call out.   When she opened the curtain, she saw him with his hand outstretched as if he was reaching out for somebody.   She said he said the word “Dorothy” (my mother’s name), and then his eyes rolled up, he collapsed in the bed … and he was gone.

Seeing him lying there, he looked like he was just sleeping, as if any second, he would sit up, look around, and say, “now, where the hell did I leave my reading glasses!”  But no, he was gone and what the nurse had said gave me some picture in my head of him reuniting with my mother.

“Well, Dad, there’s nothing more I can do for you now.”  Except maybe there was.  I had brought my planner with me as I always do–maybe I could start on making plans for my Dad’s funeral and make sure to invite everybody that ever meant something to him.  THAT’s something I could do for him.   I had nothing else to do while waiting for the hospital paperwork in any case, so I sat down and started writing.

When my sister came in and we hugged and she had her chance to say goodbye, she came out and asked me what I was writing.  I told her I was starting to write down a plan of what needed to be done for his funeral, and she asked to take a look.   “Do you mind if I add something?”  This was her polite way of saying, “hey, you missed a spot.”  So she took over my journal and was adding things that she thought were important to do.

My younger brother came in and the same thing happened:  after he visited with my Dad, he asked if he could add to the plan.   And then we called my older brother in California, and after telling him the sad news, we told him about our plan and HE asked if he could add to it.   So between the four of us, we organized what we had to do and then picked out those parts of the plan we wanted to take care of.   We decided we would meet after day at 11 AM with my older brother to go over what had been done the previous day and what needed to be done the following day.   Our goal was to have his funeral some time during the next weekend.j

I was in charge of communications with his relatives and friends and I found out pretty quickly that we would have to change our plan.   My Dad’s extended family lived in St. Louis, and they had to travel about six hours to get up to where we live in the Chicago South suburbs, so we knew we wanted to hold the funeral on Saturday afternoon.  However, my Dad had a ton of friends in an organization called NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, where he had been President for many, many years after his retirement.  They were having a NAMI Conference … Saturday afternoon, when we were planning to do the funeral.   We came up with a compromise.   We would have a wake on Friday night for his friends from NAMI, so they could end up going to the conference, and then on Saturday afternoon, we would hold the regular funeral for his family members and any other friends that lived here in the general area.

It was through this constant communication with his friends and extended family that we got many of the ideas for pictures to display at the funeral, and one idea that I particularly thought Dad would have enjoyed was to invite people to write stories about their encounters with my Dad, because he was natural storyteller and would have enjoyed hearing them.

That whole week, the regular communication between members of my family, who met every day to discuss our plans, and the constant communication with his friends and extended family allowed us to include as many people as possible in the process and so they all felt they had contributed to the sendoff which went off without a hitch on Friday night and then Saturday afternoon.

It was only afterwards, when I returned to my studies of agile project management, that I realized that our family had unwittingly been following some of the principles of agile.

  • Self-organizing teams–in traditional project management, there is a project manager who acts as the director of the team.   This wouldn’t have worked in our case anyway–my siblings  didn’t allow me to boss them around when we were younger, and they certainly wouldn’t have allowed me to do it now!   In creating our plan organically and having people choose what part of it they wanted to take care of, we were able not just to get everything done, but to do it in a way that helped strengthen our relationships at really stressful time in our lives.
  • Regular team meetings–in order to make sure we were moving along with our plan, or could ask for help from each other if we needed it, we met every morning at 11:00 AM or so after breakfast, late enough so that my brother in California could participate in our conversations before he flew out to Chicago to join us.   This helped uncover any issues quickly so we could solve them right away.   In addition, having this ritual of regular communication helped us have some sort of an anchor to hold on to when our emotional lives were going through a roller coaster.
  • Frequent feedback with stakeholders–in this case, the stakeholders were my father’s friends and extended family.   Being in constant communication with them allowed us to adjust our original plan and do two separate events in order to accommodate everybody.   In asking for their ideas for the funeral itself, we allowed them to participate in the process and so they all felt they had been able to contribute to it, as well as giving us the emotional support our immediate family needed at such a time.

And that is why I say, when life is fragile, you gotta get agile!

And one more thing, but those of you who may have been wondering:  my Dad did remember me in the will.





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