Agile Parenting: Focus on the Environment

by Geof Lory, PMP

As I write this final article in the series on Agile Parenting, my wife and I have officially become members of the empty-nester demographic. Yes, both daughters are off to college, and as a parent, all the heavy lifting is behind us. Eight boxes up four flights of narrow dorm stairs and a sore back are proof of it.

This major milestone is a great time to pause and reflect on the past two decades and assess the learnings. Like project postmortems (I prefer to call them retrospectives or after action reviews), it is important to take time to look back and assess what went well, what was a challenge, and what I would change.

I believe that life is a series of events designed to teach. I know that I developed this life view in part from my parents, coaches, teachers and other childhood mentors. I was always given plenty of time to reflect on my experiences, often from the corner of the room nursing a sore backside. I was an energetic boy with a propensity for trouble, so my time for reflection was frequent and rarely unwarranted.

Times may be different today—the debate on corporal punishment not withstanding—but the need to step back and reflect as objectively and productively as possible is still a necessary life skill. Without this feedback loop the learning is unpredictable and haphazard, and progress is at best a bumbling series of loops and retreads that lead to frustration, or to accidental, unrecognizable lessons.

Upon further reflection though, the real gift of my childhood was not the appetite for learning, but rather an environment in which learning could occur: safely, naturally, and without too much fear of the inherent risk of the learning process. I may have taken this wonderfully safe and supportive ecology for granted as a child, but as a parent I understand the amount of work it takes to create something that is so powerful, yet hopefully so ubiquitous. It may have been just natural for my parents, but I can honestly say I have to work at it (really hard at times).

Just as the creation of a safe environment is necessary for children to learn and grow, it is required for teams. As a project manager, I have a similar obligation to foster an environment that is wonderfully safe and supportive if I want the teams I work with to maximize their potential. And I find the work to do this is every bit as difficult and equally rewarding.

So, to honor my mentors and acknowledge their ability to foster a safe and protective environment, I offer up this final Agile Parenting value:

As a project manager and a parent, I have found I add my greatest value when I can do the things that create an environment where people can excel and achieve their potential. When I think of what it takes to do this, I break it down into two primary areas of focus.

The first is a focus on the structure. Structure is a mixture of the personal and organizational cultures, processes, policies and procedures that provide the foundation of certainty for behavioral action and reaction. The value of this certainty cannot be understated. In its simplest form, it saves time by not recreating an already working wheel, vastly improving productivity. At higher levels, it provides a safety net in which the experimentation and risk required for creativity is fostered and encouraged, allowing each individual to excel.

Structure can be thought of as a set of norms, a code of conduct or the rules of the road. These are mutually agreed upon behaviors the team can count on when interacting. They are sometimes formed during the storming to norming phase of a team and are the essential glue that binds the team. In our house, my daughters called them "Beth's Rules," after my wife and their step-mom. Not because she makes all the rules, but because she took the time to write them down and post them in the most conspicuous spots, a practice I highly recommend for both parents and project managers. Put them on the refrigerator door or on your project web site, wherever they will be seen regularly.

The second focus is on the team or family psyche. Unlike structure, which is somewhat controllable—or at least can be managed—the collective psyche of the team or family responds better to feeding and nurturing. The team psyche can be interpreted as the interdependent average of the individual psyches of the team members, that part which allows them to feel, think, and reason. If you thought this was not part of your job as a parent or project manager, think again.

The team psyche may be difficult to grasp because of its abstract nature. In general, it resists being managed. Much like a water balloon, it will take on the shape of the surrounding structure, however any attempt to squeeze it too tightly results in it slipping through your hands or worse, bursting. Therefore, refer back to the first focus: structure. Structure is the visual expression of the true team psyche. Interpret the structure and the psyche will reveal itself. Focus on the psyche and the structure will begin to define itself.

When it comes to both structure and psyche, I deliberately use the word focus, as opposed to manage, because being focused on something implies a high level of conscious concentration. Focus affords you the opportunity to see it completely. Real focus is difficult because it means blocking out or letting go of other "noise." Staying focused emphasizes the feedback loop that is necessary to implement the changes to the structure that will affect the psyche.

Trust is a foundational value that is part of the team psyche and revealed in the structure of the team. Trust requires a commitment to avoid false communication and a desire to reach closure on all interactions. When trust is lacking in the team psyche, the structure often attempts to compensate for what the team is missing. Needlessly formal or excessively bureaucratic structure may be an indication of a lack of trust. Similarly, a lack of desire to bring closure on critical decisions (e.g. meetings where much is discussed but most is deferred to another meeting or a non-present authority) is another possible indicator. However, neither is a certainty, only a clue. You need to block out the noise and let go of your personal prejudices to make the connection and correction to the structure that will impact the psyche.

The next time you are in a meeting, instead of fighting for airtime, or IMing a co-worker or checking e-mail, sit back and focus on the team dynamics. Meetings are symptomatic of both structure and psyche. I guarantee you will learn something about both.

Because we recognize the importance of creating a safe and supportive environment, we follow these principles:

This manifesto has been fun to write because it has prompted me to propose a collection of ideas that have guided my 20 years as a parent. It would be wonderful to think that those years have been filled with perfect decisions and impeccable parenting. The truth is, they haven't. And perhaps that is just another great lesson to be included in this manifesto: You will never get it perfect and you won't be right all the time, but that's OK. You can deal with it. We are not our children and they are not us. Our job is to create the environment for their success. If we get to share that with them, all the better, but that is theirs to work through before they become the next generation of Agile Parents.

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