Climbing mountains is considered one of humanity’s most glorious feats. A feat that requires one to undergo an unparalleled physical and mental transformation. Similarly, the challenge of transforming a conventional mindset to an Agile one is nothing less than climbing a mountain, metaphorically. Climbing mountains is a challenging journey that requires one to embrace change by surrendering to radical mindset shifts and altering the way one interacts with the world around them. I have often felt in my role as a Scrum master (and project manager before) Agility and mountaineering have a lot in common. Both challenge you to change the way you think and approach situations to achieve your goal.
1. Iterative & incremental:
Every mountain I climbed taught me something new. What I can be, what I could achieve. It helped me understand my fears and how I can work with them. Iteratively & incrementally with each climb, I kept improving and climbing higher. The journey from 2900 m to 6153 m wasn’t planned in one go, but it took some time to achieve what I did eventually while working on things I needed to improve to make the next climb a success. If my first climb was about changing my fitness goals, next it was about the importance of planning and so on. The focus was always to keep going for a higher peak which would be a new challenge and also at the same time show how much I had improved compared to last time. It helped me understand what my limits were and what I needed to push them further.
As a scrum master, I keep going from one team to another, working to enable a safe environment for them to succeed. Each team has its own distinct personality and with it comes its own set of unique challenges. Every project seems like a new mountain to climb. While working with the team, I keep learning something new about myself as a person and as a Scrum Master. As the team keeps delivering value iteratively and incrementally, along the way we keep finding ways to improve ourselves for the next step; limits to push even further.
2. It’s about the team:
On all my climbing expeditions, I had an amazing group of people with me. The people I climbed with, the support staff who took care of the logistics, and the guide who showed us the way up the mountain in the darkest of nights. I would have never succeeded without them even though I climbed with the best possible fitness level & equipment. All the climbs without the people would have been like a dish devoid of any flavour. It also taught me that the journey is as important as the destination & without the right set of people to go with, you will get nowhere.
In Agile, a lot of emphasis is on people and the bond they form as a team as the primary driver for success. You can get the best processes and tools in place, but without a “team” they would be as good as a car without a driver. Processes work well only as long as you have people who understand their role in the team.
3. Leadership is about showing the way:
When I was in Nepal for the Everest base camp trek, I spend around ten days with a wonderful community of people called the Sherpas. Sherpas are like the guardian angels to all the trekkers and mountaineers who visit the Khumbu region to trek to the Everest base camp or climb Everest. The Sherpa’s show the way up to the top of the world’s highest peak by fixing the ropes & setting makeshift bridges over dangerous crevices, carrying the load including the lifesaving oxygen cylinders. They keep changing their role depending on the situation and context. Sometimes act as a guide, sometimes a porter, & sometimes that of a motivational coach, and at times a lifeguard too. They are invisible but work in shadows doing everything possible for the climb to happen & the climbers to reach successfully to the top of the world. Without them, there would be no expedition.
In the Scrum Master role, we also stay behind the scrum team making sure the team has everything they need to deliver value. As a Scrum Master, your role is to make sure to build a safe high-performing environment for the team. Even if you have to play different roles like sometimes that of a teacher (by teaching them about Agile), a mentor (mentoring them to master their ways of working), facilitator (by facilitating communication and collaboration between the team) and at times being an impediment remover (helping them remove the obstacles in their way). A Scrum Master does all of this while staying invisible and ensuring the team reaches its summit of excellence.
4. Always keep learning
One of my good friends and guide who taught me everything I know about climbing once said “If you climb with an ego, the mountain will bring you to your knees till you give up on your ego; always climb with humility.” This has stayed with me ever since. No matter how high I climb, I always remember there is more to learn and more heights to climb. Never be arrogant about what you have achieved. If anything, then be someone who can guide, encourage or lead others to do the same. Different mountains pose different challenges. Someday you are the climber and someday the guide. There is always someone out there who knows more than you do. Learn wherever — and from whoever — you can.
I got the opportunity to work with amazing teams on multiple projects, and as a Scrum Master, I have learned that it is always about “What we have achieved” rather than “What I have achieved”. The “we” takes precedence over the “I”. Be open to learning, never hear yourself saying, “I know more than you!” Or “I know everything there is to know about my role”. One of the most important qualities to have while leading is humility. If you are in it for your ego, it will never work out. You will be left wondering,” What did I do wrong?”. Being a scrum master is all about showing the way with the humility to accept the mistakes and the courage to do the right thing. Learning is as much about improving as it is about growing, and growth without humility is like a tree without roots.
5. Change is the only constant
To prepare for the climb, there is always a plan in place, and it is also an essential part of any climbing expedition. But what we could never prepare for was the unpredictable weather on the mountain. It would change in a matter of seconds. On my last climb — Stok Kangri, we had prepared & planned for everything except what we couldn’t plan for was how the actual final climb to the summit will pan out. I knew (from reading accounts of other climbers) that it would be physically challenging to climb this mountain, but I never could have imagined at the time that it would be mentally taxing too. We had been climbing the entire night (around 10 hours) in extreme temperature with oxygen levels dropping as we kept moving up from 4000 m to 6000 m. With the weather worsening and people turning back to the base camp, we changed our plan to reach the summit. Though it was an unconventional approach, the change worked for us as we managed to reach close to the peak (over 6000m).
As a scrum master, you will face numerous situations where what you have planned or thought of won’t go your way. Sometimes you will have to think of a different approach and unconventional ways to make life easy for your team. Always have a plan, but when you come up against a wall, don’t be afraid to change your approach and try out something new. Remember, no plan is constant, but the only change is.
6. Challenges are good
Climbing mountains with altitudes of over 4000 m poses immense physical and psychological challenges. The higher you climb, the more precarious it becomes, and the oxygen available for you to breathe also drops. Less oxygen impairs your cognitive functions like problem-solving and decision-making. Hence, making high-altitude mountaineering very risky. Sometimes you have to make decisions in such conditions which not only affect you but your team as well. Complaining at that height won't help; only action does. Mountaineering helps you understand adaptability & resilience in you. It teaches you about decision-making in one of the most stressful environments in the world. The most important lesson mountaineering taught me was that real learning happens when you are outside your comfort zone.
We often deal with situations in our projects which are stressful and come with a lot of pressure. Instead of complaining about the situation if we try to adapt and be resilient the situation might get better, or we find another way of doing things right. Problems also show us what we might be doing wrong and also at times give us an idea on how to fix them too. Having a resilient and solution-oriented mindset will always help you get out of difficult situations on projects.
In the end, progressing on the path of agility requires vision, belief, persistence and hard work. If we want to climb the Agile mountain, we need to forgo our ego and embrace true leadership in its most authentic form. As with mountaineering, Agile transformation on an individual and organizational level often fails as we don’t realize how vital the start of the journey is. We might have all the right processes and tools, but without the appropriate mindset, failure is inevitable. Some challenges can only be braved after an exceptional change in mindset. Mountaineering is not only about reaching summits; it’s about learning to depend on each other in the face of immense pressure and adverse conditions which can bring out the best or the worst in you. And same can be said when working with teams. Maybe that’s the reason Sir Edmund Hillary said,” It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
*Picture copyright belongs to the author*