You are on page 1of 9

The Agile Minded Professional: 7 Habits to Agility Success

Eddie Merla, PMP


Principal, Duende Project Management Services

Abstract
As a project manager, your success is dependent on your mastery of many skills, both hard skills as well as soft
skills. In todays business environment, are these skills enough? Are you dispensable or indispensable? Are you
agile enough to adapt to significant demands, changing business environments, and external pressures?
Do you only execute orders or do you provide value above and beyond what is expected? Are you called on because
you can execute a plan or because you can create value out of complex situations? Become indispensable as a
project manager by raising your agility intelligence through the seven habits shared in this paper.
The great news is that these seven habits can all be learned and practiced. This paper will share habits that will
improve your ability to create value and innovate, habits that will distinguish you from dispensable project
managers.
This paper provides seven habits to be embraced by the agile-minded professional project manager. This paper
supports the premise that todays project manager must not only excel in hard and soft skills but also must be agileminded in order to become indispensible. The paper is organized around the seven habits:

Habit 1: Question Everything To become effective and more agile as a project manager, learn to ask
simple but powerful questions? Challenge the status quo. Challenge thats the way weve always done
it. Become aggressively curious. Ask why? Ask why not? Ask what if? Agility is enhanced not by
taking orders but by questioning.

Habit 2: Relate to InnovateExpand your vision, your experiences, and your networks to uncover novel
approaches to your work. Harness this exposure to become more creative and innovative.

Habit 3: Fail Your way to SuccessLearn to fail your way to success through the power of
experimenting. Use experimentation to discover what works. Fail in small steps to achieve the big
successes. Experiment to improve your ability to adjust and adapt.

Habit 4: Communicate Thoughts and IdeasUnleash your creativity by giving it a voice. Agility cannot
be enhanced if important thoughts and ideas lay dormant without expression.

Habit 5: Deliver Value FrequentlyBecome indispensible by delivering tangible value frequently.


Harness your leadership power to deliver more than asked and sooner than expected.

Habit 6: Change IncrementallyMake small incremental changes consistently over time to achieve
quantum leaps in productivity and agility.

Habit 7: Connect With Your PurposeConnect with your purpose for enhanced creativity and agility.
Connect with your purpose to release those hidden reserves of personal power within you.

2011, Eddie Merla, PMP


Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Dublin, Ireland

-1-

Introduction and Application


When the situation gets too complex, its impossible to follow the manual because there is no manual (Godin,
2010, p. 220).
Todays project manager faces many challenges. The demands and pressures on the project manager have increased
due to competitive environments, complex solutions, changing technology, demands for faster time to market,
marketplace demands for innovative products and solutions, and much more. The project managers challenge is
further complicated by changes in the economy that can affect owner attitudes, funding, and project resources to
name just a few.
To deal with these challenges, todays project manager needs to rethink project thinking and traditional approaches
to project management. Effective project management not only requires a mastery of traditional project management
techniques but also the knowledge, wisdom, and ability to bend, throw out, or rewrite the rules when the situation
requires it. Seth Godin, the author of Linchpin: Are You Indispensible?, proposes a list of seven abilities that make
an individual indispensible to an organization (Godin, 2010, p. 218):
1.

Provide a unique interface between members of the organization.

2.

Deliver unique creativity.

3.

Manage a situation or organization of great complexity.

4.

Lead customers.

5.

Inspire staff.

6.

Provide deep domain knowledge.

7.

Possess a unique talent.

This list can easily convert to a job description for the agile minded professional project manager. Let us take a
hypothetical (or perhaps not so hypothetical) situation that requires a leader for an organizations most critical
project. Perhaps this project will launch a product that can significantly enhance the organizations financial
situation or perhaps save the organization from financial disaster. Perhaps the project will revolutionize the way the
organization has performed business in the past. Perhaps the project is the most important project the organization
has ever undertaken. What if this critical project also requires creating something or doing something that is never
been done before in your organization or any other? How important will it be then to find a leader with these seven
abilities?
In his book The Leaders Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century, Stephen
Denning proposes a changing approach to work for organizations, an approach that is radically different than what
has worked in the past. This proposed approach provides for a system of continuous innovation based on seven
principles (Denning, 2010, p. 4):
1.

Focus work on delighting the client.

2.

Do work through self-organizing teams.

3.

Do work through client-driven iterations.

4.

Deliver value to clients in each iteration.

5.

Be totally open about impediments to improvement.

6.

Create a context for continuous self-improvement by the team.


2011, Eddie Merla, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Dublin, Ireland

-2-

7.

Communicate interactively.

The items on Dennings list are very consistent with agile project management approaches. Although agile project
management approaches were originally developed to enhance the software development cycle, these approaches
are now being adapted to projects outside of the software development and information technology realms.
An agile minded professional project manager will embrace both Godins list of seven linchpin abilities and
Dennings list of seven principles of continuous innovation. Exhibit 1 highlights some of the key differences
between the traditional project manager and the agile minded professional project manager.

Objective

Traditional Project
Manager

Agile Minded Project Manager

Develop Vision

Creates contract of work with the


customer

Understands that the Product Owner


owns the Vision

Communicate Vision

Communicates Vision as the agent


of the Product Owner or Sponsor

Understands that the Product Owner is


responsible for communicating the
Vision

Plan the work of the project

Leads the project team to develop a


detailed plan upfront; this plan
becomes a contract of work for the
project team

Facilitates processes to plan to deliver


features in short iterations with predefined timeframesno contract of
work is required

Organize the work of the


project

Organizes through top-down


leadership

Creates an environment to allow the


work to be performed through selforganizing teams

Execute the work of the


project

Leads the team to deliver the work


of the planning contract

Facilitates processes to allow work to


be performed in short client driven
iterations

Schedule the project

Leads the team to create well


defined activity-based schedules

Facilitates processes to allow iterations


of fixed durations which always end
when time is up

Make decisions

Facilitates top-down decisions

Facilitates environment for team-driven


decisions

Improve productivity of the


team

Takes responsibility for


productivity of the team

Facilitates the environment to allow


team to be responsible for its own
productivity

Manage change

Protects the scope of the project


using change management
processes

Facilitates the environment to allow


team to self manage change (formal
project change management does not
exist)

Communicate progress

Leads team to report what is


contractually required

Facilitates open communications

2011, Eddie Merla, PMP


Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Dublin, Ireland

-3-

Coach team members

Coaches the team members on


work performance

Coaches on processes not on team


members performance (members are
self-managed)

Manage the customer

Manages the customer through the


contract of the project; customer is
usually removed from the day to
day work of the project

Creates environment to allow customer


to be part of the team not outside of the
team

Exhibit 1: Traditional Project Manager versus Agile Minded Project Manager


As a coach for project managers in both traditional and non-traditional (agile-like) project management
environments and leveraging the lessons learned from managing agile projects, I propose seven habits that will
enhance the agility of the project managers mindset. These seven habits incorporate the teachings of Godin and
Denning and also draw from agile/scrum practices. The seven proposed habits are:

Habit 1: Question everything.

Habit 2: Relate to innovate.

Habit 3: Fail your way to success.

Habit 4: Communicate thoughts and ideas.

Habit 5: Deliver value frequently.

Habit 6: Change incrementally.

Habit 7: Connect with your purpose.

Habit 1: Question Everything


The meaning of work isnt in the bread that were baking; its in the response of the audience to those words
(Denning, 2010, p. 65).
To become more effective and more agile as a project manager, the agile minded professional should question
everything. Sometimes the simplest questions are the most powerful questions. Questions should be asked that
challenge the status quo. Questions should be asked that challenge thats the way weve always done it. The
agile minded professional should use questions to become aggressively curious. Key basic questions include why,
why not and what if? Agility is enhanced not by taking orders but by questioning.
The agile minded professional should ask key questions to uncover and better understand the needs of the project
audience, which includes the project sponsor, the product owner (if different than the project sponsor), and the
members of the team. Brian Tracy, in his book, Speak to Win: How to Present With Power in any Situation, states
that the starting point of preparation is your audience. Remember, it is not about you; it is about them (Tracy,
2008, p. 19). Dig deep with questions to understand the purpose of the project and what defines success. As a
starting point for assessing your audience, you can use Abraham Maslows Hierarchy of Needs to determine the
state of mind and situational status of your project audience. Of course, the needs of the organization and the project
audience may differ depending on many different factors. Exhibit 2 identifies the five stages from a project audience
perspective:

2011, Eddie Merla, PMP


Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Dublin, Ireland

-4-

Maslows Stage

Project Audience

Key Assessment Questions

Lowest: Physiological
(Basic necessities)

The project is critical to the survival


of the organization.

Is success of the project critical for the


organization? What is the motivating
fear? How will the project
sponsor/product owner be affected if
the project fails?

Security/Safety

Project provides a safer environment


or provides an improvement in the
level of security for the organization.

Whats wrong with the environment


today? Whats at stake? How can we
make it better, safer? Whats the effect
of failure?

Social

Project provides an improved social


environment for the organization or
for the stakeholders.

How can we improve our relationships?


How can we improve our working
environment?

Esteem/status

Project provides recognition for the


organization or the individual
participants and stakeholders.

Whats in it for the team members?


Whats in it for the stakeholders? How
does it improve our status? How will
we be recognized?

Highest: Selfactualization

Project provides an environment for


actualizing the organizations or its
members goals.

How does this help us achieve our


long-term goals or vision?

Exhibit 2: Project Audience Hierarchy of Needs


In the Harvard Business Review article titled The Innovators DNA, the authors identify questioning as a
discovery skill that allows innovators to break out of the status quo and consider new possibilities (Dyer, 2009, p.
1). Agile minded professionals should use questioning techniques to not only become better innovators but to
encourage an environment of innovation.
Agile project management techniques that question and challenge the traditional project management status quo
include the following:

User stories vs. requirementsInstead of focusing on detailed requirements, agile uses user stories that
focus on the features from a user role perspective.

Fixed sprint durations vs. fixed scopeInstead of fixing scope, fix the duration and allow the scope to
change to fit the sprint timeframe.

Self-organizing teams vs. project manager led teamsAllow the team to manage the work without topdown leadership.

Low-tech communications vs. formal communications documentsLow-tech whiteboards and post-it


notes facilitate enough information to advance the project without unnecessary administrative overhead.

Stand up meetings vs. traditional project status meetingsShort time-boxed meetings of 15 minutes or
less are more effective than traditional often time consuming meetings with varying agendas.

2011, Eddie Merla, PMP


Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Dublin, Ireland

-5-

Habit 2: Relate to Innovate


Associating, or the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas from different
fields, is central to the innovators DNA (Dyer, 2009, p. 3).
The agile minded professional is in a unique position to relate unrelated ideas and concepts during the agile project
cycle. The open communications encouraged by the agile processes allow a sharing of different perspectives and
ideas without filters. The agile minded professional can help facilitate the exchange of ideas and perspectives by
promoting and facilitating the removal of work silos. Self-organizing teams take ownership of all the work and
attempt to eliminate the not my job mentality. As Steve Jobs has frequently observed, Creativity is connecting
things (Dyer, 2009, p. 3).
The agile minded professional can employ this habit in the definition of user stories. User stories should be defined
from the perspective of a user role. For example, instead of taking the traditional approach of defining requirements
for a web page, the agile minded professional can define user stories for the web page from multiple perspectives
such as a first time visitor to the webpage or a first time buyer or a repeat buyer.

Habit 3: Fail Your Way to Success


The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the worlds
problem.Gandhi (Brainyquote.com, 2010).
I have not failed. Ive just found 10,000 ways that do not workThomas Edison (Brainyquote.com, 2010).
The agile minded professional learns to fail on the way to success through the power of experimenting.
Experimentation is used to discover what works. Failing in small steps helps to achieve big successes.
Experimentation helps improve the ability to adjust and adapt.
The agile minded professional does not fear experimentation or failure. By nature of the definition of a project, all
projects are experiments. The agile project approach minimizes risk on large or complex projects by breaking down
projects into smaller iterations. Risk is further minimized by addressing multiple user stories in a single iteration.
While there is some risk that some user stories may fail or fail to be completed within a sprint, self-organizing
teams will work toward successfully completing as many stories as the teams capacity allows.
The agile approach also allows for retrospectives to be performed at the end of each iteration to allow the team to
determine what worked with the successful stories versus what did not work with the failed stories. The team learns
from the retrospectives and adapts to continuously improve. The agile minded professional should also employ
retrospectives for personal initiatives.

Habit 4: Communicate Thoughts and Ideas


Deep within each of us there is an inner longing to live a life of greatness and contributionto really matter, to
really make a difference (Covey, 2004, p. 28).
The agile minded professional unleashes creativity by giving it a voice. Agility cannot be enhanced if important
thoughts and ideas lay dormant without expression. The agile minded professional project manager is uniquely
positioned to develop voice through the talents that are developed through the application of project management
practices, both hard skills as well as soft (interpersonal) skills. The agile minded professional is willing to take on
challenging projects that invoke their passion. Critical and significant projects need agile minded professional
project managers who can clearly communicate thoughts and ideas.

2011, Eddie Merla, PMP


Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Dublin, Ireland

-6-

The agile minded professional communicates thoughts and ideas through interactive communication,
communication that requires authentic dialogue with the team. Agile minded professionals understand that thoughts
and ideas can be developed through open communication.
In agile projects, the development of user stories through open communications lends itself to creative expression
and innovation. Denning states that radical management involves a shift from seeing teams and organizations as
entities that produce things (goods and services) to that of groups of people who delight clients sooner, more often,
and more profoundly (Denning, 2010, p. 219).

Habit 5: Deliver Value Frequently


More crucial than the specific iteration length chosen by a team is that during the iteration they transform one or
more imprecise requirements statements into coded, tested, and potentially shippable software.Mike Cohn
(Cohn, 2006, p. 24).
The agile minded professional should focus on delivering value frequently. Traditionally managed projects are
usually progresses through taking a contract approach (i.e., agree contractually to the requirements and then deliver
in a big bang approach). The agile approach is to break the work into smaller iterations with each iteration
providing tangible client value (a potentially shippable product).
The agile minded professional can facilitate the process to produce value in each iteration by empowering the team
to focus on delivering value. The team should decide how to organize the work to produce value. Agile projects also
call for a product owner who can help set priorities on the user stories that produce customer value.
The agile minded professional can also help manage the process within an iteration to ensure that the team is not
distracted. Once user stories have been selected for an iteration, no additional stories should be added. Generally, on
agile projects, stories can only be added if the iteration has not ended and the team still has capacity to take on
additional work.

Habit 6: Change Incrementally


An assumption that there are no limits to improvement is the spur to continuing improvement.Stephen Denning
(Denning, 2010, p. 205).
The agile minded professional seeks continuous improvement through small incremental changes. Incremental
changes consistently over time help achieve quantum leaps in productivity and agility. While traditional project
management may allow for a lessons learned review at the end of a project, agile project management allows for
retrospectives that provide the team with implementable change from iteration to iteration. The key to achieving
productivity gains is to allow change to be sponsored by the team. Retrospectives are not only useful for evaluating
iterations they can also be useful in evaluating personal performance for the purpose of generating immediately
implementable change.

Habit 7: Connect With Your Purpose


The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the worlds
problems.Gandhi (Brainyquote.com, 2010).
The agile minded professional discovers purpose and learns to connect with that purpose for enhanced creativity and
agility. The agile minded professional connects with purpose to release hidden reserves of personal power. The agile
minded professional should proactively develop unique talents and interests that indicate and support a purpose. In
his book, The 8th Habit, From Effectiveness to Greatness, Stephen Covey defines voice as an expression of unique
purpose. Per Covey, voice lies at the nexus of talent (your natural gifts and strengths), passion (those things that
naturally energize, excite, motivate and inspire you), need (including what the world needs enough to pay you for),

2011, Eddie Merla, PMP


Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Dublin, Ireland

-7-

and conscience (that still, small voice within that assures you of what is right and that prompts you to actually do it)
(Covey, 2004, p. 5).

Conclusion
The agile minded professional project manager is uniquely positioned to become indispensible to an organization.
By employing the seven habits, the agile minded professional can make a difference. Each of the habits discussed in
this paper can be used not only to make projects more agile but also to make individuals more agile minded.

References
Cohn, M. (2006). Agile Estimating and Planning. Upper Stradle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Covey, S. (2004). The 8th Habit, From Effectiveness to Greatness. New York: Free Press, A Division of Simon &
Schuster, Inc.
Denning, S. (2010). The Leaders Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century.
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint
Dyer, J., Gregersen, H., & Christensen, C. (2009, December). The Innovators DNA. Retrieved 12/01/10 from
www.hbr.org
Edison quotes. (2010). Retrieved 12/15/2010 from Brainymedia.com: website:
http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/t/thomas_a_edison.html
Gandhi quotes. (2010). Retrieved 7/15/2010 from Brainymedia.com: website:
http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/mohandasga150718.html Brainymedia.com
Godin, S. (2010). Linchpin: Are you indispensable? New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Tracy, B. (2008). Speak to Win: How to Present With Power in any Situation. New York, NY: AMACOM, a
division of American Management Association.
Vince Lombardi quotes. (2010). Retrieved 7/01/10 from Family of Vince Lombardi, c/o Luminary Group. LLC
website: http://www.vincelombardi.com/quotes.html

2011, Eddie Merla, PMP


Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings Dublin, Ireland

-8-

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner.
Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to
reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.