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Everything I needed to know about Agile I learned from mountain biking

By:  Kathryn Kuhn, Agile Evangelist - Product Development IT, Hewlett Packard Company


First paragraph.jpgAbout two years ago my family started picking up Mountain Biking in earnest.  I am blessed with living in Northern California where all this open space means we have fantastic single track which winds through forests, meadows, creeks and rewards you with fantastic views of the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.  We invested in the bikes, protective gear, trail maps and eventually a GPS.  I've been practicing Agile in its various forms for about 11 years now (much of it prior to joining HP I must add) and it dawned on me on a recent ride how similar the two pursuits are.




Bend your knees

If you play any sport where balance is important the first thing they always teach you is about your stance.  In almost every case the first thing you learn is to bend your knees.  It helps your body react to the need to change direction, jump, stop.  In the case of mountain biking, bending your knees helps you better cope with the ever-changing terrain beneath you.  In mountain biking, you are constantly assaulted with rocks, branches, dirt or whatever that is always on the trail in unexpected places.  Bending your knees is the best way to cope with all these small unexpected changes so that you "float" over these small obstacles.knees.jpg


In Agile, we embrace change as a fact of life and even plan on change.  Instead of dreading or trying to control change, we expect change and instead "bend our knees" so that the team can more easily float over daily distractions and disruptions.


Lift your gaze

One of my first times out mountain biking I found myself staring intently at the ground about 3-5 feet in front of me and tried desperately to steer my front tire around every obstacle. I found myself constantly nervous and anxious, afraid to peddle too fast for fear of making a mistake and I was constantly surprised by the change in elevation so that every climb up a hill (no matter how small) was a grind.  My coach (aka my husband) said "lift your chin and therefore your gaze to be about 100 feet in front of you and only glance down as necessary."  What a difference!  I could now plan so much more of the ride taking into account changes of elevation, technical sections and even enjoy the scenery.  I stopped sweating all the small stuff under my tires and learned to trust that my bike would just ride over all these small rocks and ruts I was so obsessed with.


In Agile, we insist on all layers of planning all the time - product, release, sprint, and daily plans all inform each other as does real-time feedback from production.  As an Agile leadership team, if we make sure we "lift our gaze" ahead to each release and even multiple releases ahead, we can build up enough momentum (think roadmap or runway) for the team so they can more easily execute on their sprint-level and daily plans without the constant scrutiny (and disruption) of management intervention.


Earn your downhill

We recently rode on a trail at the top of Skyline Ridge called "Crazy Pete's Trail."  We parked the car at the top and rode Crazy Pete's Trail through some fantastic downhill, descending awesome switchbacks, jumping logs and dodging branches and rock outcroppings.  We got to the bottom and celebrated with high fives and proclamations of "what an epic downhill!"  Then it dawned on us.  We had to ride back up that trail (or its equivalent) to get back to the car.  We seriously considered abandoning the car but eventually relented and spent the next hour plus climbing slowly back up and bemoaning the effort involved.  After that experience, we always plan our rides to front-load big climbs so that we can feel like we have earned that thrilling downhill.


In software development the equivalent experience is "The Pilot."  All too often we peel off the easiest scope to implement and put it into production (with much fanfare and good-feeling) and call it The Pilot.  Then we turn our attention to the next set of scope priorities and find out that a lot of that work is "hard."  This often leads to long gaps between the launch of The Pilot and the launch of a true Release 1.  Agile values insist that we face our fears early and work on the riskiest/most difficult scope items in our first sprints.  Agile embraces integrating systems early and often during the development of a release.  This way we can enjoy implementing some of the easy scope along the way with the assurance that we have indeed "earned" it.


Enjoy the journey

On the first couple of trips I was really busy getting oxygen to my lungs, focused on shifting properly, picking a precise line through technical sections and trying to bike "perfectly."  Then I fell.  It hurt.  Then I fell again, and again and . . . well you get the idea.  Sometimes you fall for really good reasons (for example, learning to lean your bike at just the right angle to descend through a sandy switchback - yup - got that wrong a lot).  Sometimes things just happen and you fall.  We have a saying in the group, "if you're not bleeding into your shoe keep peddling." We bike as a team.  We encourage each other, celebrate our own mini-accomplishments with shouts of "cleaned it", laugh at ourselves and make sure that everyone in the group enjoys themselves. It's not about finishing "first" or "best" but enjoying the journey together.


Enjoy journey.jpgIn software development projects, all too often we bemoan mistakes, sometimes even seeking blame.  We try to optimize decisions so much that we are often paralyzed into making late or no decisions (which in itself is a decision). Agile encourages teams to take risks, make mistakes. 

Embrace your falls and learn from them (maybe even laugh) but then get right back on that bike and peddle.  We celebrate the small things in Agile by doing brief retrospectives at the end of every sprint.  It's the equivalent of shouting out "cleaned it" or voicing an encouraging word to a teammate who accomplished something hard. 


A fundamental Agile principle is "People Over Process."  We enjoy our projects because of the people we work with not because we completed a project.  Life (and mountain biking) is a group project.  Enjoy the journey.


Note:  The pictures are from a recent vacation trip to Stanley, Idaho in pursuit of single-track mountain biking.


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About the Author


kkuhn_Profile.jpgKathryn Kuhn, Agile Evangelist - Product Development IT, Hewlett Packard Company

Kathryn is a self-described Agile Evangelist and Chief Analogy Officer at Hewlett-Packard. Kathryn began her career at Accenture in Washington DC, has done service work in Guatemala, moved her family to Singapore and now calls the San Francisco Bay Area home.  She’s been practicing Agile techniques in its various forms for about 11 years in large and small companies.  She has the usual Agile certifications.  She hopes to be a disruptive force to anyone who thinks that the way we develop products is just fine. @kathryn_e_kuhn

MikeC | ‎01-15-2014 08:54 AM

In parricular I enjoyed the what goes down must go up description!

Edward Raigosa | ‎01-16-2014 09:35 PM

Great article!  I learned something new after reading this.  Love the stuff in Enjoy the Journey.  Nicley done.

Camozzato | ‎01-16-2014 11:54 PM

Nice analogy Kathryn Smiley Happy

Kathryn | ‎01-21-2014 04:51 PM

Thanks for all the awesome comments.  Really appreciate the kudos.

KellyS | ‎02-20-2014 03:03 PM

I'm looking forward to you sharing the HP IT Agile Management journey at the HP Software Customer Forum in Atlanta on March 13!

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