How project managers can pursue these three career paths : Coaching, Product Owner and SCRUM Master – with Joseph Flahiff

Joseph Flahiff, President & CEO of Whitewater Projects Inc. Passionate about Agile and provides training, mentoring, coaching and consulting.

Listen to the interview:


You learned Agile under Ken Schwaber, the co-author of Scrum. What did you learn from Ken?

You know, the class was amazing. I still point back to it as one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. I hope to emulate some of the quality of his work in the classes that I teach.

It’s interesting. A lot of times you’ll hear about the evil project managers and how they command and control everything. I wasn’t a command and control project manager, even before Agile. So, the things that I learned from Ken are more around the idea of keeping it simple, you know? Don’t make it so stinking complicated.

As a traditional project manager, I had a tendency to want to make things complicated, right? Not because I wanted to make them complicated but because they gave me more control. The thing that I learned, I think, from Ken, among many things, was more about the way to structure a project than about trusting people. When I was doing traditional projects, I would never have built a project plan myself. I would have the team do it because they’re the ones that do the work and they know all about that. That may just be a personal thing for me. But servant leadership has always been a part of the way I lead projects, and it was then, too.

Ken was just an amazing, amazing instructor. The class was non- stop from start to finish. It was information-packed and all of it relevant. It’s one of those classes that you leave and you go back to work and you go, “Dang, I’m gonna do this now!” It was very, very exciting and engaging course work. And I, to this day, recommend, even during my own classes, if you get a chance to hear Ken speak or take a class from Ken, do it, because it’s well worthwhile. The man that is very passionate about his work. Today, I disagree with some of the things that he says and some of the things that I learned. But, that does not in any way diminish my respect for the man and his passion and heart for what he’s doing with Scrum.

Yes, I bet. I bet. I spoke with Jeff Sutherland, who is the co-author of Scrum along with Ken, and I could see that he has the same passion for him, too. I bet it must be very wonderful. You did one of the large Agile projects at The Regence Group. You know the project I am talking about? With 100 team members. This is a large Agile project. Can you tell us something more about it? Did you have a single-product backlog? What sort of problems did you face?

You’re right. This is large-scale Scrum. I’ll tell you what I did and then I’ll tell you what I would do today if I were to do it all again. We had five teams, around 130 people, federally- mandated requirements. I did multiple projects of this size when I was with The Regence Group. Yes, we did the Scrum of Scrums, but we did it several different ways.

On my blog, I actually have three different video podcasts where I talk about the three different ways that we did it and the one that I finally ended on that actually made the most sense and made it work for us. I wouldn’t try to do Scrum, scaling Scrum with Scrum, beyond four or five teams anymore, because it just starts to fall apart. It’s just a scalability issue, right? Scrum is designed to work with teams and to be a team issue. It resolves all kinds of team-based problems.

For larger organizational issues, you need a different structure. I would use Lean for them. The same way that Alan Shalloway does and says, “Let’s scale Scrum with Lean and put some Lean structures on top of the Scrum development work.”

So, yes, we did a Scrum-of-Scrums. At first, I started with them trying to just come and do the Scrum-of-Scrums just like you do your normal Scrum and that didn’t work. It just took too much time. You’ve got all these folks and they’re very, very busy and half their day is spent in Scrum meetings.

The final version, was a pull-based system. So, again, you look at that and I’m scaling Scrum with Lean concepts. And that’s what made it work.

The problem was the Scrum-of-Scrums was kind of a waste of time to the Scrum Masters, because sharing what my team did yesterday: (a) took a long time, because you’re talking about the whole stinking team, and (b) most of the time, is completely inapplicable to the rest of the team. They really don’t care what you were working on or what you plan to work on. They may care about your impediments. But they only care about your impediments as they are organizationally leveled, not team leveled.

So the third one that we landed on was Scrum Masters attend the other Scrums, listen as a chicken, come to a quick 15 or less minute meeting, and rather than pushing your information on us all and telling us what you’re doing, I want a pull meeting. Where, you heard something, if you had questions, ask that question and that’s it. We go around and go, “Any questions? No? Okay, see you later.” Many of these meetings lasted a minute or less because that’s all we did. Nobody had any questions. They understood what was going on. There weren’t any organizational level impediments that day. So, we hung up. They were often over the phone. So, there’s another distributed large scale scrum. So, that was what we ended up doing, this pull based Scrum-of- Scrums where you asked only questions about, “I heard this in your Scrum. What did you mean by that? Because I think that affects my team.” That’s it.

That seems so appropriate. I mean, essentially, they want to know what’s going to affect them. And that’s what they want to get out of it.

Exactly. So, we called that the chicken coop chat, by the way.

We called that getting the chicken coop chat because you attended all the other teams’ meetings as a chicken. Then you came back to the chicken coop and chatted. That’s the chicken coop chat method.

Chicken coop chat method. I know, that’s a pretty cool name. I want to talk a minute about the Whitewater Projects, your company that you have now. And I want to talk about it in terms of a career path of a project manager. You have been through a project manager path, you have been a consultant. Now, you are the President and CEO and you run your own company. Would you recommend this sort of a career path for a project manager? If so, any words of wisdom for them?

The two questions that I actually heard were, one, “Would you recommend project managers in Agile going and starting their own business?” The answer to that one would be, “No.”

I would recommend, people who want to start their own business and are passionate about something, to start their own business. Starting a business as a career path, generally, takes a certain personality that is willing to go out there all the time. Does not get taken down by the multiple no’s that come your way. Where rejection doesn’t hurt you. All the things that it takes for an entrepreneur. If you are the entrepreneurial type and have always wanted to own your own business. That’s me. In fourth grade I was selling origami off of my desk and got in trouble with the school for doing that. So, I’ve always had this proclivity to start my own businesses.

Definitely, if you want to start a business, that’s a great thing to do. I am personally passionate about Agile and, particularly, about taking the word about Agile to the project management community, because project managers have a bad rap in Agile. And they need to: (a) know it; and (b) do something about. I feel like part of my mission in this business is to get the word out there.

I just spoke last night at the Madison, Wisconsin chapter for PMI. It was just a great time to share some information that I know, some knowledge and wisdom that I’ve gained over the years of doing this, with project managers who are, most of the time I find, “I just heard about this,” or “I’m really new to Agile.” They need to know this. It’s like a moral imperative that they become familiar with and well-versed in Agile, because it’s not going away. See, I’m getting passionate about it already. It’s something that project managers just need to know. So, that’s my passion, doing that.

Let’s talk about career paths for project managers in Agile. I see frequently, and other people I have talked with have said the same kinds of things. There are three paths that I see people go down. I have friends that, actually, have done all three.

One is what I do, which is teach. But, I also do coaching. Being an Agile coach is one of the career paths that I see project managers going into. If you’re the kind of person that likes organizational change, that is passionate about changing things that are ineffective and inefficient. Project managers are often that, right?

I did an exercise last night with the class members here. Part of the exercise is that you have to follow the rules first, so that I can show you what’s wrong with the exercise later. With a room full of project managers, there was a certain percentage of them that already were fixing the system because there was something, obviously, broken in it. There are a certain percentage of us that just like to fix things. If you like to make it more efficient, more effective, if that’s your tendency, then yeah, doing Agile coaching is a great way to do it.

But you don’t have to start your own business to that, right? You can be a coach at a company. You can be a coach for a consulting company. So, there are all kinds of ways that you can do that.

The other direction that I see project managers go, from a career path perspective, is from the teams that are doing Scrum into the product owner role. Those are the project managers that you know who are all about the requirements. They really like the requirement gathering process, the refinement process, the defining of what those new features and functions are. If that’s your passion and you really like that, I see people going that direction. Into the Product Owner or backlog manager role.

The third place I see project managers going, in Scrum, is into the Scrum Master role. Those are the people who like the process and building teams of people and are all about wanting to follow the rules of scrum; That we are on track with following the process that we’ve defined as a team. Those are the three areas I see people going into. Coach, Scrum Master and product owner.

I’ve seen some project managers who like the product owner role. They want the domain. They want to do it. They want to own it. They want to sort of define, prioritize. They know it’s all that and it’s almost like you can see the passion in those people there. You know, you go, you teach and coach and mentor. What do you see as some of the barriers today, for either companies or people, in adoption of Agile?

I think one of the biggest barriers is getting past the team level to the organizational level transformation. One thing that can help is understanding the financial impact of agile. The financial impacts are insane. You can have such a positive impact on the company. But we don’t have the time to get into that in this podcast. It’s very complex. But, the financial impacts are huge. Read the book ‘Software By The Numbers’ and that will give you an idea of some of the financial returns that you can get by using Agile.

One of the things that happen for organizations that do adopt Agile, and adopt it deeply, not just at a team level, but at an organizational level, is huge. You wind up not just having a team based Agility. That’s the place where it usually starts, right? You have a team and a project that you want to be able to adapt to changing conditions in the environment, whatever that happens to be. Whether it’s customer requirements, or whatever happens to be changing. That’s usually where it starts, at a team level. But, when you adopt Lean and Agile at an organizational level, what you end up with is business agility, not just technical agility or project agility.

And business agility. the value of the business being able to make quick decisions and get things to market, develop products more quickly and effectively, for what the customers really want. That kind of Agility is what we need in the current economy, right?

Businesses that don’t have business level agility, businesses that have 12 to 24 month projects that encumber all of your capital for the entire next year or two, are businesses that are not going to last very long in the future, right? In the current economy, you can’t afford to be locked down like that. If you implement lean portfolio managements instead of managing all these projects that are locking in your budget for the whole year, but, you are incrementally allocating your budget, you are managing not large, year, year and a half, two year projects, but, you are managing the next feature set that’s being implemented in your portfolio. Your ability, then, to make decisions and say, “You know what? These next 15 features, we’re going to delay the implementation on this product line. Not this project, but this product line. We’re going to focus our attention over here because this is where the customer demand is coming from right now. Now, we focus it there and we switch back later or we switch to the next one.” That business level agility is the huge value that businesses are getting.

On the personal level, it’s just much more enjoyable to do. I don’t personally think you have to use Agile in order to get some of those benefits. You just have to change your mindset and be more servant leadership oriented and more collaborative in what you do. Agile facilitates those things happening. So, I see it more often in organizations that have moved to Agile than traditional or sequential, I hate the word waterfall, or sequentially based organizations. But, you don’t have to use Agile to have those personal benefits. That’s what I’m saying. Business agility is a huge value driver that I’m seeing that organizations get out of implementing a Lean and Agile model.

You talk about enjoyable. In my own experience, getting to that state of people feeling in control, people really taking on the task and doing it. Being in charge of part of that equation is so much more productive. You can’t quantify it. But, it adds so much enthusiasm and fun into the projects which is hard to beat.

Yes, absolutely. Yeah. When you are enjoying your work your quality goes up, right there. There’s so much purpose in making work enjoyable. I love what I do. I’ll text my wife, “I love my job,” every now and then. It’s just so enjoyable. When you enjoy what you do, you do better at it. Your blood pressure goes down. Hey, “The health benefits of Agile.”

On your website you listed your strengths. Futuristic, focuser, activator, maximizer, learner. If you were to design a Strength Finders 3.0 for project managers, are there any strengths you would like to see on that list?

Wow, I wouldn’t presume upon Marcus Buckingham, who wrote Strength Finders 2.0, to say that I could add to his incredible knowledge and wisdom. He’s amazing. But, you asked the question, so I will.

I would like to see servant leader on there, definitely. I think that’s one of the skills or strengths that a project manager should have. They should have a perspective of being a servant leader and trusting the team. So, maybe trust, or something like that. Those are strengths that project managers in today’s world need to have.

The idea of telling people what to do or assigning tasks or assigning work to someone really is very old school. That servant leadership approach is really where it’s at. That’s the strength that you need to have. Trusting your team, trusting the people, recognizing that they already want to do good work. So, help define what that work is, right? You’re the person who’s going to help them see the vision of what this is. But, they are the ones that do it.

I would never presume to know anything about development work. I’ve been a project manager for 20 years. This is what I do. I don’t know how to write a line of code. Well, okay, I can write a little bit of HTML, but not much. So, trust that they know their domain as least as well as you know your domain. You know project management, they know whatever it is: server building or network design or software writing or car building, whatever it is. They know their domain, trust them to do it and then, facilitate their ability to do that.

As a servant leader, put yourself at the bottom. You take that leadership triangle, where the leader is on the top, and flip it on its head. And you are the leader, but at the bottom. Your job is to clean the toilets and to get the water for the people who are thirsty and to remove those impediments that are in their way. Organizationally, interpersonally, you need to be a person who’s emotionally intelligent, that can facilitate discussions; who is not above doing the menial things of, “This person needs more RAM in their computer and I’m going to go request that and I’ going to make sure it happens.” Because that’s the thing that they need in order to get their job done and feel supported. Our job is to be that bottom of the triangle that supports the rest of the organization and leads from the bottom. So, servant leadership, I think, should be on there.

So true, so true. I think people are recognizing that but still a long way to go.

I see more and more of it. But, I still see some of the old school folks out there. Again, that’s my passion, to get the word out there.

Who are some of the role models who you learned from? You spoke about Ken Schwaber, but any others?

Role models? Yes, Ken, obviously is one. Like I said, these days I disagree with some of the things he says. He’ll try and scale Scrum up to whole organizations and I can’t see that happening.

Other role models? I really like the work Alan Shalloway is doing these days. If I wasn’t doing my own business, I think I might go work with him. He’s the CEO of Net Objectives. I just like the work he’s doing. I’ve read some of his books, and I like what he’s doing there. Yeah, he’s definitely one of my role models and leader of a business, as well as a good, forward thinker, a leading thinker in the Lean and Agile space.

One last question I have is other than all the travelling and the teaching, and the coaching and consulting you do, any other interests or hobbies?

Oh, heck yeah. I have three daughters and they are enough of a hobby by themselves. Not a hobby, but they take up most of my time, for sure.

Yes, three young girls I have. They are thirteen, nine and four, and each of them have their own challenges. So, I definitely love to spend time with them. I’m also a painter.

I haven’t painted for quite a while right now. But, I’m wanting to get back to that and I would . . .

Maybe you should paint an Agile poster?

There you go. That would be fun. I should do that. I’ve done woodworking in the past. I built a canoe out of cedar strips. That was very fun. I project managed that down to the nubs. So, I made it on time to take it out to Glacier National Park and float it for its first time. I did a time lapsed video of building that canoe on YouTube. So, if you go to my YouTube channel, you can look way back in the channel and you’ll find that video of me building the canoe. Lots of little hobbies here and there.

Great, great. Well, thank you so much for your time, Joseph.

Oh, you bet. Thank you for having me. It’s been a good time.

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