We All Experience Stress
Work can be stressful. Hell, life can be stressful. Between that next impending deadline, a worldwide pandemic, family members in need of our attention, and so many other demands on our time, it can be difficult to maintain your own personal well-being.
There is no easy answer. And the answer for all of us may be different.
I was feeling the pressure this past week. With a multi-day Product Definition Workshop planned for the UHC 3.0 leadership team, my calendar was already stacked. For an introvert like me, that can be draining enough. But then there were the added concerns of how the message might be received by this important audience… if it went well, it could substantially propel our product transformation efforts forward. But if I failed to deliver, it might stop the effort in its tracks.
Workshop days often mean starting early to prep, and then staying late to answer questions and clean up the room, or attending social functions. The week prior, someone asked me, “What is your secret sauce for the PDW?”
I thought about this for a minute, and then responded, “Happy hour.” He laughed, but then realized I was serious. I went on to explain how each day of the PDW builds on the other. In day one, we set the foundation by creating a shared understanding of terminology and concepts regarding how agile and product work together at the team level. Then, on day two, we explore the implications as we scale, and discuss how to preserve adaptiveness and the ability to pivot towards high value while keeping the cost of change low. On day three, we apply what we’ve learned to our specific product spaces, now having the necessary alignment across the leadership team to really assess and design our system with intent.
It is common to see attendees have lightbulb moments over the course of day one and day two. But the real change happens in-between the lecture and activities… in the hallway conversations, side whispers at the tables, and — yes — at happy hour on the end of day two. It is not often that a cross-functional group of leaders from the business, operations, and technology all get to spend this sort of time together, let alone in-person. Couple that with the seeds we plant during the workshop, and ply them with a little alcohol, and suddenly everyone is seeing opportunities to really make a go at this. Take that momentum into day three, and get everyone to agree on the specific action steps they will take coming out of the session. Now, we have a real change initiative.
As mentioned, I am an introvert. The last thing I want to do after spending two full days at the center of the spotlight — with one more day still pending — is go to a social event like happy hour. By the time I get home, my wife understands that I need to let my voice rest. So we sit together while she tells me about her day, or we share the space and the silence and just enjoy a quiet moment of togetherness. She understands the amount of energy it takes for me to get through these three-day sessions, and how I need to conserve as much of it as I can to perform to the best of my ability.
It isn’t that I don’t enjoy socializing with our co-workers. After two years in a pandemic, it’s extremely refreshing to spend time together. In addition, discussing agile, or product, or wine, or music, or cooking, or how the Green Bay Packers continue to dominate the Minnesota Vikings, are among my favorite topics. It’s just that I’ve been speaking all day, and even my reserves are depleted.
Yet, I attend anyway. Because, as I said… that’s where the real change happens. This is a human-centered game. To make a change of this magnitude, we must connect with one another on a personal level. We don’t transform the company, we transform the people within it. If enough of the people make the transition, then the company will hit the tipping point that turns a minority view into the operating majority.
Although, while attending happy hour, I do often spend more time listening than talking. The attendees have been listening to me all day. Now it’s time for me to hear them. It’s wonderful to hear how they’re processing the information… the way the pieces of the puzzle are coming together, how they’re connecting the dots, the questions they still have, the assumptions they still wish to challenge. This is the process of synthesis, and happy hour allows this team of leaders to go through that process together.
Adding to the above stress load this week was my supervisor — Todd — who asked me Monday afternoon to present to his leadership team on Tuesday morning, with little time to prepare. Mind you, his leadership meeting takes place at 7 AM, and I had the Product Definition Workshop kicking off at 8 AM, which typically requires 2+ hours to ready the room, content, and student materials. I probably should have said no, but instead of declining, decided I could make it all work. Instead of prepping for the PDW on Tuesday morning, I worked late into Monday evening getting everything configured and in place. Instead of creating slides for Todd’s leadership meeting, I decided to use an external camera and draw the picture live as we talked.
Still, I tossed and turned all night, thinking about the key messages I would need to communicate the next day.
So yeah, work can be stressful.
In the next blog post in this series, I’ll share with you some of the tips and tricks I use to maintain balance. Like so many other agilists… it begins by prioritizing my personal backlog.