"So what do you do?"
See, this is why I hate dinner parties. Now if I was a doctor, a pilot, heck even a mechanic, it would be easy. I'd just say it and we'd move on to the meaningless small talk portion of the evening. But no... I had to decide to become a project manager, even worse an agile project manager. With a deep internal sigh I sized up the person who had just asked me the question.
Neil was nice enough, but I could already tell it was going to be an uphill battle. He was the neighbor of the host who was a friend of my wife's. I already knew Neil was in Real Estate (he'd left a stack of his business cards in the bathroom), I didn't relish the next few moments.
"I'm a project manager."
Neil cocked his head to the side. The look of confusion on his face was all too familiar. Taking a breath I tried to explain. I don't know why I did. It's not like I'd ever had any success before. And yes, I've tried the "I heard cats for a living." I really didn't want to be asked what circus I worked for again.
"I'm responsible for managing the scoping, planning and execution of project deliverables with a cross functional team in order to get a product shipping."
"Oh, so you're a manager?" Neil asked. Of course what he was really asking was if I was in charge of people. Why is it that a measure of your worth is how many people call you boss?
I shake my head, "No, I don't have direct reports. My job is to facilitate the project and help the core team deliver."
"Like a hostage negotiator?"
I sighed. Smiling, I nodded my head. "Yeah, just like that."
I wasn’t even going to try and explain how agile project managers were more like coaches. Not being a sports fan myself I didn’t want the conversation to go down the rat hole of how I thought the local pro sports teams would do this season.
Just then I spotted a dark shape duck around the side of the house. Hiding a groan I excused myself from Neil and left the smell of BBQ cooking on the patio behind me. Coming around the corner of the building I found what I feared most.
"Hogarth, let go of that branch."
Hogarth turned towards me still holding onto a large branch sticking out from the tree in the side yard.. "This is an Arkansas Black apple tree, do you know how rare those are?"
"Hogarth, you can't eat that tree, it's not yours."
He gave a sigh and let go of the tree. "Fine..." He flopped to the ground and picked at the overgrown lawn. "You won't begrudge me a little grass, will you? I'll give you the secret of explaining your job."
"Hogarth, I've been a project manager for years. There are even people in my company that don't have a clue what a PM is."
Nibbling some of the green grass he looked up at me a smiled a toothy white grin. "That's ‘cause you never told anyone that you're R2-D2."
R2-D2 - Robot side kick to the Skywalker's of Star Wars and Agile Project Manager: He's not the hero of the show and he's never been a leader, but it would be hard to imagine the Star Wars universe without this plucky little trashcan on wheels. But what does R2 have to do with being project manager?
Everything! R2 is the ultimate Agile Project Manager. Or perhaps we project managers are the ultimate R2 Astromech droids.
R2-D2 knew all about responsibility without authority: Princess Leia, his project sponsor, assigned him the project but gave him no resources to do it with. He even had to track down the product owner for more information. He enlisted C3PO on the force of their relationship alone. As the project progressed he collected more resources on influence or by working with his project team.
R2-D2 understood that project requirements change: When his sponsor first gave him the project it was very simple, get this message to Obi Wan Kenobi (his product owner) so that Kenobi could stop the Death Star. But he knew the requirements would change. He didn't demand a full list of requirements before he headed for the escape pod. He was confident that future backlog grooming would reveal more requirements. He also knew that iteration planning would break the epic scale user stories down into smaller stories and tasks. So he started the first sprint with just a couple of user stories. Engage existing resources. Get off the Ship. Don’t get shot.
R2-D2 knew how to motivate his teams: When R2 met Luke Skywalker, he knew who the boy was. He leveraged past project retrospectives for that (Okay, he was in the first three movies). So with that in mind do we really think he accidentally showed Luke the holo of the princess? Heck no! He remembered that Obi Wan told Senator Bail Organa he would watch over the boy. So by revealing the holo, not only would he possibly find a clue to where his product owner (Kenobi) was, but also could motivate the young man to help the project.
R2-D2 knew his job was to guide the use of proper process, but also knew that sometimes you trust your team: Process said you used a targeting computer when firing a proton torpedo. But he chose to trust his team member, Luke, when he turned off the computer. Good thing he didn't stick to rigid process enforcement, right?
R2-D2 knew all about removing impediments: Shut down the trash compactor. Fix the hyper-drive. Stop the elevator from falling. Shift power to the rear deflector shields. Open this door. Put C3PO's head back on. Put C3PO's head back on, again. When his project team encountered an impediment he jumped right in and owned clearing that impediment.
R2-D2 was the ultimate servant leader: R2 knew exactly what needed to happen. After all, he'd been working on related projects since the Phantom Menace. By the time it came time to destroy the Death Star, good old R2 knew all the players. He could have told Luke that Vader was his dad on the first day they met. But he didn’t. He knew he had to let his team member discover some things himself. Instead he carefully guided his team member on the path.
He was never the hero, but he always saved the day. He worked quietly and tirelessly in the background to ensure all went well. Emperor Palpatine may not have known who he was, but his team did and they appreciated him for his efforts.
So you see, the next time someone asks you what you do for a living. Stand up proud and declare.
The Gorilla Project Manager
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP
Who is Hogarth? Read Blog 001 to find out all about my personal gorilla.