continuous improvement

Using a Hero’s Journey to Create an Inspiring Vision

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About a year ago, I was at the St. Louis airport waiting out a summer weather flight delay. As one might do in these scenarios, I went on a quest to find some easy reading that peaked my interests. I stumbled upon a relatively new book called Building a Story Brand by Donald Miller. I picked up the book because I’m always looking to be a better storyteller and, by the looks of it, it seemed like an easy read (I’m a slow reader).

As it turns out, the book was a pretty easy read, and I was able to extract some better ways to tell a story. The basis of the book is the Hero’s Journey story structure and using it for messaging the brand experience of a business. What I didn’t see coming was the book teaching me a new way to frame a vision. Similar to using a postcard from the future, the hero’s journey is a fun way to express the vision. Whether describing how a product changes the lives of its’ users or how a person represents their own “badass” future, the hero’s journey is a great way to inspire and clearly express a direction worth heading.

If you are not familiar with the Hero’s Journey, in a very general sense, it goes something like this:

There is a character who is our hero, who has one or more problems and challenges that is keeping them from reaching their dreams. Our hero is joined by a guide who is a trusty confidant and wise advice giver that helps our hero to come up with a plan to overcome their challenges. Together, they spring into action to successfully overcome the problems and avoid the cost of failure. They emerge on the other end of their journey, having learned and ready for their next challenge together.

Step 1 – Establish the Character (a.k.a. Our Hero)

For this article, we are going to focus on how a team can use Story Brand’s hero’s journey structure to drive continuous improvement. So our character is going to be an Agile Team and let’s have a little fun and add some minor adjectives to describe the current state of the team. For the story, let’s call them the fledgling Code Avengers.

Step 2 – Describe the Challenges and Problems

A vital part of the hero’s journey is the challenges and problems the character is facing. Donald Miller identifies four sources of challenges:

  • Villain(s) – those who promote the failure of the hero — they may even actively work for the hero’s demise.
  • External – the forces that make the journey daunting, if not impossible.
  • Internal – things the hero might not be able to do either because of lack of skills or self-doubt.
  • Philosophical – the beliefs that challenge the hero or conflict the hero.

Not every hero faces these challenges, but these challenges or problems are what makes the story exciting.

The biggest challenge the fledgling Code Avengers face is that they were just formed and added to an existing significant initiative that has profoundly aggressive expectations. They are a team that is made up of several folks new to the organization and a few others plucked from parts of the organization. Fifty percent of the team have agile software development experience, and they all know very little about the capabilities that their product provides it’s users.

Step 3 – Identify the Guide (and Maybe a Sidekick)

All right, the next step on the hero’s journey is introducing an unlikely sidekick — someone who’s supporting the hero on their journey and acts as a guide. Now, the guide on the hero’s journey brings knowledge and insight and provides supportive direction that the hero can choose or choose not to, to follow.

In our continuing story of the hero’s journey, we give homage to Ally, our wise Scrum Master and guide. Ally has been with the organization for a while. She has the experiences necessary to help the Code Avengers to jump in and learn the processes and context of the users’ needs.

Step 4 – Plans and Knowledge, Shared and Gained

Now, it’s time for the sidekick or guide to shine. The next step in the hero’s journey is for insights to be shared by our guide and gained by our hero. These insights can come in the form of new ideas, plans, coaching, and mentoring — all focused on helping the hero overcome the challenges.

As the Code Avengers guide, Ally is planning for training to instill the basics of using Scrum as their operating model and work with the team to establish working agreements. Then, she and the team’s Product Owner will negotiate with another team working on the same initiative to get some work that the Code Avengers can immediately work on and deliver. The plan is that by doing valuable work right away, they would start getting insights into what the technology stack is like, and start learning about users’ needs.

Step 5 – A Call to Action

At this point in the hero’s journey, it is time for action — or as The Story Brand points out, it is “a call to action.” The guide and trusty sidekick, jump in working with the hero to nudge the hero to start tackling the challenges — confronting the villains and work hard to overcome internal and external problems. In doing so, the guide elevates the hero and helps the hero learn along the way. Every good hero’s journey has a point of inflection and aspects of learning that lead the hero to a new state of being.

Back to our own hero’s journey, Code Avengers is now working hard. Moreover, Ally, our guide, establishes a simple “badass” learning board that reflects on the team’s adoption of Scrum. Each of the Scrum events, including the daily scrum, sprint planning, and sprint review, are tracked until the team feels they’ve achieved mastery. In addition to this, the team tracks the feedback from the users. They work together with the users and learn quickly, building themselves as trusted partners in solving the users’ needs. The leaders of the initiative take notice and consult with the Code Avengers to best set expectations with the user community.

Step 6 – Arriving at Success and Moving On

So concluding the journey, the hero hopefully has success and avoids the pitfalls of doom. The guide and, possibly, the sidekick stand back with pride as the hero stands with a glow all around. So now, it’s time … to do it all over again and face the next adventure.

Hopefully, you enjoyed what you read here, and are inspired to try using the Hero’s Journey to express a vision. I encourage you to give it a go. I found The Story Brand book to be hugely helpful, and they have online tools and other learning resources that make it easy.

I’d love to hear your experiences and ideas, please share with comments below.

Five Simple Guidelines to Agile Metric Bliss

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Over the past couple years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many great teams in many industries. I often work with teams and their managers to generate reports. In doing so, I quickly realize that although teams may be working to adapt and leverage one of the frameworks that fall under the Agile moniker, they are not yet adopting or clearly understanding the Agile Principles and Values. This comes through clearly when we look at the kinds of reports people are using.

kittenI’ve seen dashboards that compare multiple team’s velocity. Or, the classic utilization report that shows time worked by team member. Or, the quality reporting that focuses on who versus what. And then there is the singular snapshot that represents percentage of backlog done – doesn’t sound that bad until you have a manager have kittens because the percentage is not what as expected.

Now, I have to admit — I’ve made all these reports before and used them myself. Sometimes the purpose of the report had an intended outcome, but my best intentions sometimes resulted in gamesmanship of the numbers or fear by the team and in one case, a team member pulled me aside worried that he may be culled.

Let’s face it, all metrics and reports can be used for bad. But what do you need to do to create good metrics? There are some great resources all over the internet that help answer this question, but let me give you my top five things you can do to make your metrics effective while fostering an agile environment:

  1. Make them Transparent. This is obvious, but often I see people create reports and don’t share them. I get that there are some reports for “their eyes only”; however, in most cases, if not all, unless it has salary information — make the reports visible to everyone – the Team, Stakeholders, Managers, and even Customers.
  2. Make them Visual. Use charts, shapes, colors, and or pictures over a table of figures. We do this for three reasons – easy to read, reduces the likelihood that people focus solely on outlier values, and in many cases — creates conversations. By the way, use colors wisely — just like words, colors mean stuff.
  3. Follow the Trends. Goes hand-in-hand with visualize — a good metric should be informative provided indicators that make it easy to see if the needle is pointing up or pointing down. Trends generally allow you to decide if what we are doing is good or bad, and reduce snap decisions.
  4. Make them Relevant and Timely. There are the out-of-the-box metrics — burn downs, cumulative flow, burn ups, cycle time, and or velocity – that should be maintained on a daily, weekly, or iteration basis — updating them in arrears does no good. This is the same for all agile metrics. Since the goal of any metric should be to continuously improve in some way, reports/metrics that are created or updated weeks or months after the fact does us no good. And, couldn’t we better utilize the time and brain power on something current.
  5. Have a Purpose. Every report or metric needs to be leveraged for importance. If you cannot answer two questions about a report or metric, maybe you should stop spending time and money to create the report. First, why are we creating this report? And, second, what will we do if the report is indicating a need to adjust or change?

Now, these are my five simple (and in some cases, general) guidelines – what are your’s? Do you have any suggestions?

Always keep in mind …

Working software is the primary measure of progress.

Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.Agile Manifesto