Just previous weekend, I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on “that whole Agile thing” on a conference in Cracow, the capital of Poland for majority of its known history. While explaining the Agile onion concept, origins of which I couldn’t find (though I would love to buy whoever thought it out a beer or two), I made a comment that the single personality trait that makes the actual agility possible was humility. Which, contrary to what you might think, is nothing about religion and is not, in any way, related to modesty. Especially the popular, false one. Coincidentally, I have a strong belief and evidence that humility also enables one to be the proper leader.
Isn’t that what we all want? Agility, leadership – widespread, across our workplaces? Now, that would make sense, wouldn’t it?
First, a personal touch. A long one. For majority of my life, I was everything but humble. At school, at college, first workplaces – you name it. Badass with an attitude boosted with some proper knowledge – why would I ever care? No reason whatsoever. Then, a company I worked for went Agile. They followed the usual protocol. All project managers were sent for a two day long Certified Scrum Master course. Funnily enough, it was conducted by a guy whose LinkedIn comments to this day indicate he has no idea whatsoever on the reality of large scale companies. Anyway, I took the course, took the test, and then a certificate arrived in my email account.
Well, clearly, now I was the man. Not only I was experienced with project management (dubious at best, as I look at it now), I had a CSM certificate! So, I would, without a doubt, be a great Scrum master, wouldn’t I?
Oh damn, I wasn’t.
I was pretty close to what I would call the worst Scrum master ever. Now that I, occasionally, take part in recruiting for the role, I would never hire anyone showing even the slightest symptoms of my behaviour back then. I did not sit with the team – why the hell would I give up my EPIC corner office? The retrospectives were a parody, with a guy wearing a tie – me – forcing the team to play stupid games, just because I was told on the training that it was a good idea. The planning and review sucked the same, with client’s product owner never giving a damn about that Agile thing. She just wanted everything in, within scope, on budget, on time. Not wanting to rock the boat, I complied. Why wouldn’t I? After all, I was the man of all the knowledge, power, and insight. At least, that’s what I thought. In reality, I was the bastard constraining growth of his own team.
Fast forward many years, to the day directly preceding the conference.
I rode a bus to Cracow. It’s just a touch over three hours, for fifth of a price of the fuel it would take my car to get me there. As a bonus, I could spend most of this time reading my Kindle, which is a bit complicated while driving – though many Americans would disagree. Next to me sat a guy looking like action figures were modelled after him. With his tall figure and athletic build, he acted kind of nervous, even psychopathic. Definitely, no one you’d like to seat next to. As the bus was running late due to highway traffic, he made a phone call to his future landlord. Unwillingly, in a limited space, I overheard the conversation. He explained why he’d be late – in an extremely focused and concise way. Suddenly, I knew the type. He was a war veteran. As we stroke a conversation, it turned out I was right. The guy served two turns in Afghanistan.
Then, as the bus arrived and we went out, I saw the rare perfect execution of Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act cycle – the vet looked around, noticed key landmarks, shook hands with me and took off, rapidly.
Now, I’m no slouch. I can orient myself very fast and make smart choices, especially when shit hits all the fans around. But, with all my training and experience, I cannot make a call that fast. Also, as you can see reading my posts, I’m unable to share my messages in a concise way. I need a setting, a backdrop, a stage to flourish.
That guy, whom I first labelled as psychopath, could teach me a thing or two.
Later that evening, I went for a dinner. A very unusual one, recommended to me by my good friend – a roasted sausage. It doesn’t seem that special, until you realise a few things. First, the sausage is served of a several decades old, Communist-designed Polish van – a blue Nysa (the very car is shown on the feature photo). Second, it is only served from 8 PM to 3 AM, with exception to Sundays and holidays – when it’s not served at all. Third, it is roasted on the aromatic wood, not charcoal. Fourth, it is cheap. Like, peanuts cheap – less than two Euros for 10 inches of sausage, with some mustard and a bun. Fifth, the guys running the show are doing it for over twenty-five years. Sixth, against the modern European universal reality of crap food, they have their sausages custom made, which makes them taste like nothing you can buy in stores. Seriously, if you are to visit Cracow, ever, you must go there. Here’s the link to their location.
The place is very egalitarian. As I got there, there was a twenty-people-long line. In it, there were: tourists from China, a group of lowlife thugs, some students, two undercover police officers (you’re not doing it right, guys…), and a family with kids. Just a random sample, but it’s typical there.
While most people eat using their cars (or knees) as picnic tables, they do have a single table set up nearby. As I got to the place, it was already full, with one guest being clothed in his work attire. Given its orange colour, reflective patches, and broom nearby, I could only assume he was a street cleaner – an extremely necessary job, that’s likewise underrated. The guy, about a decade older than me, kept eating all the time I was in line. That was fifteen minutes. Then I got to the table, got the amazing feast, and left. And he was still eating.
That guy could teach me a thing or two about enjoying my meals. It’s been one week since and, seriously, I eat at half the speed. And damn, I really enjoy it. Plain micronutrients turned into experience, that’s something.
Almost two years before as my Agile coaches team decayed, I went to support the sales team. That was a surprise. I had no idea how the delivery value looked at this end. All I saw previously were projects, which appeared out of nowhere (apparently), were delivered and then, sometimes, turned into support and maintenance operations. The sales, presales, all those crazy activities – they did not exist. Funnily enough, majority of agile coaches out there had no idea of the whole concept of sales. I was lucky enough to explore the terra incognita. As it turned out, a whole new, unexplored land of opportunities for all things Agile was waiting there.
The sales team did teach me a lesson – a valuable one.
How did I realised that all? It’s very simple. I was looking for it.
Which, finally, brings me to the point. The single personality trait to enable you, your team, and your whole organisation to get the best of leadership and agility is: humility.
The idea that you might not know everything about the world around you, your clients, your employees.
The idea that you might not know everything about yourself, what you want, what you need.
The idea that you might be wrong.
The three above, while not stated anywhere in the Manifesto or anywhere else, lay the foundation for anything Agile. That’s the point of it. The single fact, that the actual reality is not likely to be what you perceive it to be, at any given time.
Universally applied, humility is the idea that every single person out there can teach you something.
Of everything I’ve learned in my life so far, it’s the most important one.
Just keep it in mind, as you go to work, roam the streets, or sit at the family table – every single person within your sight can teach you something.
It will make you happier, as it relieves the stress of “I have to know it all”.
It will make you more successful, as it allows you to fulfill your clients’ expectations better.
It will make you more of a human, as we are, by definition, imperfect.
Can you afford not to give it a shot?