#80 - Personal Agility System - Peter Stevens and Maria Matarelli

 

 

“Focus on what really matters. If everything matters, then nothing matters. Make sure that what you do is aligned with what really matters."

Peter Stevens and Maria Matarelli are the co-founders of the Personal Agility Institute and the authors of the “Personal Agility”. In this episode, Peter and Maria shared what Personal Agility System is and how we can apply this framework in our daily lives. They highlighted how many people face typical challenges that hinder them from truly getting what they want by using the “life is an ocean” metaphor. Both of them then gave a complete walkthrough of the 6 powerful questions in Personal Agility System, especially highlighting the key question to find “what really matters”. Peter and Maria then shared how this framework is not just applicable to individual, but also to leadership and organizational agility, and how it can help create alignment and trust within an organization.  

Listen out for:

  • Career Journey - [00:05:55]
  • How Personal Agility Started - [00:10:10]
  • Personal Agility System -[00:16:43]
  • Life is the Ocean - [00:18:55]
  • 6 Powerful Questions - [00:22:26]
  • What Really Matters - [00:31:45]
  • Applying PAS to Leadership and Organizational Agility- [00:37:06]
  • Alignment - [00:41:04]
  • Alignment Trust - [00:44:59]
  • 3 Tech Lead Wisdom - [00:52:19]

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Peter and Maria’s Bio
Peter Stevens is an Executive, Coach, Author, Scrum Alliance Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), and Founder or co-Founder of the Scrum Ambassadors, AgileExecutives.org, and the World Agility Forum. Peter serves as Chief Agility Officer for a Swiss digital health start-up. Peter also wrote Ten Agile Contracts: Getting Beyond Fixed-Price, Fixed Scope and Extreme Manufacturing.

Maria Matarelli is an Executive Coach, Consultant to the Fortune 100, Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) and an international best selling author. Maria and her team consult businesses to reach breakthrough results by applying Agile methodologies. Maria is the founder and CEO of Formula Ink and co-founder of the Agile Marketing Academy.

Together, Peter and Maria founded the Personal Agility Institute with the mission of helping people and organizations align what they do with what really matters to become who they want to be and achieve what they want to achieve.

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Quotes

How Personal Agility Started

  • One of the things that I realized, first of all, the problem wasn’t limiting my work in progress. You hear a lot of people say, limit your work in progress. And this is good advice. But the problem is, work in progress is about what you’re doing. But the other thing you’ve got to pay attention to is your backlog. The list of things to do, and that was really my problem. My backlog was endless. No matter how much I got done, there was always something coming in to replace it, and so I finished every week exhausted. I just didn’t feel like I was making any progress.

  • This kind of led me to start reflecting a bit more, not just on the work that I did, but why did it matter? The question that came out of that was what really matters?

  • Over the years, I’ve applied Agile in my life to achieve so many incredible things. I remember it works. It’s very effective. Though I had the common challenge that a lot of teams have, the classic challenge, the sustainable pace. And so, you know you can apply Agile in your life. And I did, and I was achieving all kinds of things, but it was not at a sustainable pace.

Personal Agility System

  • The personal agility is a simple coaching based framework to align what you do with what really matters. It’s really just six questions or the core of it is six questions.

  • Coaching based. What we do is we use the tools of coaching to help you figure out what really matters, and connect what you do with what really matters. So this is where alignment comes in. The first alignment is you with yourself.

  • One of the things that we discovered along the way that kind of emerged is the same techniques that you can use with yourself, that is asking powerful questions and using them to make sense of the situation, you can apply them with the people around you. You can ask powerful questions to your managers. You can ask powerful questions to your stakeholders. You can ask powerful questions to your customers, and all sorts of amazing things happen when you do. Because a powerful question is an invitation to think, the start of a powerful conversation.

  • We could just as easily say personal agility is a simple leadership framework to help you create alignment around what really matters.

Life is the Ocean

  • There was one morning that Peter was sitting outside the coffee shop and he saw the screen that they had that had the tracking of our destination and our journey so far. You’ll see the same thing on airplanes. It was marveling how when you look at this journey, you could kind of see an indicator of where you’ve been and where you’re going.

  • We were realizing this is a great metaphor for your life. We have where we’ve been. We have an idea of the destination. But then we realized that you could get blown off course. And so where we intend to go is not always where we go. When you look at a goal that you’ve set or an ambition or dream that you’ve had.

  • A lot of times we forget about ourselves. Putting other people in front of our own wellbeing, our own goals, our own dreams, and, yes, we care for our family, but if you don’t take care of yourself first, how can you be your best for everyone else?

  • And so, it’s important, and it’s okay to prioritize your own health, to prioritize the things that make you happy, because then that is an uplift for everyone else around you. And so we realized that while you have this longer term goal or destination, you’re trying to get to, we often get blown off course.

  • Personal agility is a very kind framework. If you get blown off course, it’s okay. Just recognize that you’ve been blown off course and get back on course.

  • So we often refer to the “destination of Jamaica” because that was one of our destinations on the cruise ship. Where is the destination you want to get to? And oftentimes, we may get so rolled up in the busy-ness of life that we miss getting that progress toward our longer-term goals. So we don’t want to lose sight of Jamaica. We want to be able to keep sight of that.

  • Personal Agility System really is helpful in helping you visualize and identify those longer-term goals. Also, while not losing sight of the shorter term initiatives, and helping you maintain on your course, even if you get blown off course, to get back on course toward that destination.

6 Powerful Questions

  • We actually start this kind of a question zero, which is why do you want to do personal agility? What’s the change that you’re trying to achieve? Or what’s the state that you’re trying to achieve? We think of Jamaica is the destination. So having some clarity as to what your destination is, what’s this important goal that you’re trying to achieve, or state that you’re trying to maintain? This clarity can be really helpful.

  • The first question is “What really matters?”

    • The first time you ask it, it’s going to be a really powerful question because you may not know. And it may even take you a while to really come up with the right answers.

    • And that, by the way, is a concept which scales to any size organization. Once you get clarity on what matters, you get everyone pointing in the right direction, and you can start moving forward. Once you’ve got that, then the question is more kind of a reminder of what you care about. Just kind of setting the stage or setting the frame.

  • The next question is “What did you get done last week?”

    • How have you been spending your time? This is like looking at that trail of breadcrumbs. That trail of breadcrumbs not only shows you where you came from, but it also it gives you a hint about where you are going.
  • This comes to the “What do you do with your backlog?”

    • The first thing is, what’s on your backlog? What could you do? And you notice how we use the word, “what could you do?” rather than “what do I have to do?” or “what must get done?” or things like that.

    • These are possibilities. Now why are they possibilities? Simple reality is you got too much to do. So you’re not going to be able to do everything, and you’re certainly not going to be able to do everything this week. So the more interesting question is of all the things you could do, what are you going to do this week?

  • Let’s look at those things on the backlog. What’s important? What’s urgent? What’s gonna make you happy?

    • [Eisenhower] talked about what’s urgent and what’s important. There’s a third element of that, that we’ve added, which is “what’s going to make me happy?”

    • You and I in our daily lives, you can’t delegate the work of your life. This is where you can either actively make choices, or you can let the winds of fate make the choices for you. But at the end of the week, some things aren’t going to get done, and some things are going to get done.

    • This is where getting intentional about how you use your time gets to be important. Of all the things I could do, what’s urgent? What’s important? What’s going to make me happy?

  • And this is the next question, “What do I really want to get done this week?”.

    • So this is like setting a course. I’m starting a course which I think is going to take me to Jamaica. This is what you focus on.

    • As you kind of go through the week, we’ve got this week column, which is the list of things what you want to get done this week. In personal agility, this is what you’re going to come back to when you get blown off course. Because the problem is, you know, now especially with COVID, but even before COVID, life happens faster than you can plan.

    • So what do you do? Well, you deal with it, and you get it done, and you do what you have to do, and then you celebrate it. What have I get done? You celebrate whatever you got done. Even though this was different than what you set out to do. Hey, that boat is still floating. This is where we talk about storms. Storms blow you off course.

      • You deal with, you’ve got to have to do. When you get back a moment to do what you want to be doing, or what you care about, you come back to that stuff that you put on your this week column or your today column. And so we’re using our short list of things to do to bring us back on course when we get blown off course.

      • You go through the week and you get things done. Some of the things were things you’d planned at the beginning of the week, and some of the things are things that came up. And then you get to the end of the week, and you celebrate what you get done.

      • We call this celebrate and choose. Celebrate what you got done before. Choose what you want to do moving forward. That boat is somewhere out in the ocean. You’ve made some progress. Maybe you’re closer to Jamaica at the end of the week than you were at the beginning, but maybe not.

      • And maybe you still care about Jamaica, and maybe you’ve decided to set a new course. But the idea is to be intentional and aware of where you’re going.

  • Let’s go through the questions.

    • The first one is “what really matters?”

    • Second is “what did I get done last week?” which is the celebration part.

    • The next one is “what could I do this week?”

    • The one after that is of those things: what’s urgent, what’s important, or what’s going to make you happy?

    • Of those things, which ones do I really want to get done this week?

    • And those are five questions to kind of help you navigate through life.

  • The sixth question is “Who can help?”

    • One of the things that I’ve realized over the last couple of years, you can get almost anything done if you get stuck by either asking someone for help, someone that’s a friend, a family member, someone who you can share the vision, or just share the situation and say, “Hey, can you help me?” They may say yes, they may say no.

    • Chances are if you can’t get through that roadblock, if you can’t get through that today, you might have the same roadblock a week later. That same roadblock might be there a month later, and now we’ve completely stopped our progress toward our goal.

  • We want to actually start to work on the important things before they become urgent. If you have a lot of things that are urgent, why are they becoming urgent? So if we can sprinkle in kind of salt bae in some of these things that along the way are important and get to them before they hit that point of urgency. Now we can start to get a better rhythm of the way that we’re working.

  • What I’ve realized is that even if you use Agile to get things done more effectively, you achieve those goals faster, sometimes there can be an emptiness after achieving goals. What I really think is profound about personal agility is it helps you really take that step back and look at happiness and fulfilment. How do I feel about the things I got done? And so there’s so much more meaning behind what you’ve achieved when you take that time to celebrate and choose.

What Really Matters

  • If time is your most valuable currency, then how you spend your time, how you ought to spend your time, and how you want to spend your time, all actually give insights into what really matters to you.

  • When we look at the question of what really matters, there’s a couple of ways that you can begin here. Sometimes, it might be clear. You might know what matters, right? Some categories that tend to emerge. Some common themes we see are people that care about their health or fitness, relationships, people in their life, family, children, looking at their career, advancing their career goals, or starting a business, or maybe some hobby, something they’ve always wanted to achieve, financial freedom.

  • But sometimes it might not be so obvious. So if that’s the case, we start with the question of “what did you do last week?” Apparently, what you did last week is what mattered to you, because that’s what you did. Some people might say, well, no, I didn’t do what I wanted to do last week. Okay, well, if that’s the case, that too is a valuable insight.

  • And so you can look at those themes and say, “Hey, which of these things really do matter to you that you want to matter? And are there any things that aren’t where you want to spend your time?” So we can kind of see empirically here’s what you’ve done, and if you continue that, if you carbon copy last week, till next week, last month, till next month, last year to next year, will you be where you want to be fast forwarding a year from now? And if the answer is no, then what do you want to do differently? What do you want to matter?

  • Sometimes people might have things on their priorities map that really matter. We recommend limiting this to three or four things. Not more. Because if everything matters, then nothing matters.

  • There’s so much that we could do, and there’s so many possibilities that you might make it into progress in multiple areas, but not a mile progress in any one area. So we tend to see when people have more than three or four, those other items don’t really get their attention, or they’re spread so thin, they don’t really make the progress they ultimately want and desire.

  • So we can start looking at what you think matters. You can look at what you’ve done. You look at what themes emerge, and then once you start going through your priorities map, you might say, “Hey, I noticed this one thing isn’t getting as much attention. Does this really matter to me? Either do I want to spend more attention toward it or do I want to change what really matters? Is that actually not as important as I say?”

  • These patterns repeat themselves. They scale. You see them at the personal level, the team level, the organization level. It’s like this question of what really matters and what are we trying to work on? How many things are we working on in parallel? Too many things matter and we don’t make any progress on anything.

  • Most companies that I’ve visited. They’ve all got way too many initiatives going. Too many things matter, so nothing matters, and their progress comes to a crawl. But saying yes to this and later to that is one of the deepest challenges of personal agility or any other form of agility at any level. Because you know, focus means saying yes to this, saying later to that.

  • Just getting us to focus on a couple of small things, this proved to be very powerful concepts that you can scale really up and down your organization. Not just to you as an individual but (also) all the way up to the entire company.

Applying PAS to Leadership and Organizational Agility

  • Everybody is passionate about what they do. Everyone’s got their mental model about what’s important and what they want to achieve. Some of this they talk about explicitly. One of the things you start to see is the concept of hidden agendas. To some extent, I’m not even sure if people intentionally do that. They see that they have goals that they want to achieve, but they don’t have agreement across the organization on these goals. And so they fight about these things without knowing how to do it.

  • For me, the first thing to do is listen. I would actually go and kind of identify who are the people who I need to talk to. Stakeholders, in the broader sense. Not just important managers and customers who can helicopter in and completely change everything. But also people who are really doing the work, who really understand the problem. The idea is to get the whole picture.

  • And then you go and you talk to them about what are we trying to achieve, why are we trying to achieve it, what’s the outcome we’re trying to achieve, what’s making this difficult, we can look at this at an emotional level. What are you afraid of? What are you frustrated by? And we start trying to build this picture.

  • You talk to each person individually, and get their version of the picture. What this does is it helps you identify common themes.

  • What we did is we basically help them discover what it is that they could be. Now, notice that word “could” is a really powerful word. Because “could” is an idea that’s kind of floating out there in space and it doesn’t really belong to anyone. Whereas what should we do? This is the start of an arm wrestling tournament. We’re going to do my thing or your thing, and one of us is going to lose. That actually makes it very difficult to have a conversation about the real problem.

  • So we get into talking about what we could do? What could be important? And then we start to look around that. We can build a consensus about what really is important. And once we’ve got this common understanding, this consensus on what really matters, now it’s possible for us to take decisions, and the decisions are all focused in the same way.

  • We call this process creating alignment. If the first half of personal agility is having the individual get their act together, the second half is about the interactions. You get your own act together, and then you can start working on the interactions with the people around you. With that, you can create things bigger than yourself.

  • The basic approach is to facilitate these discussions around what really matters. Get agreement on what really matters, and then it’s a relatively easy thing to get an agreement about what to do to achieve our goals, and you get everyone working in the same direction.

Alignment

  • Less than 10% organization actually could successfully execute their strategies due to this lack of alignment. Alignment is a big problem in organizations. It’s kind of the holy grail of organizations.

  • I’ve come to believe that the reason why alignment is so challenging is because most organizations first think about “what”. Who does what by when? The main objective of a good project leader is to identify who’s going to do what by when. The problem is the why question. What are we trying to achieve? What’s the outcome? There’s nowhere near enough discussion about that.

  • Coaching is the new management. We have conversations first about the outcome that we’re trying to achieve and why this is important. And then we go from the outcome to the problem to the solution. Whereas the more traditional approach is to dive straight into the solution, which is really easy to do. “What” is the easiest question to answer. “Why” is really tough and who’s going to buy it is even tougher.

  • So, actually by going after the hard questions first, by having this clear understanding of who and why, this is what enables true alignment. And once you get this alignment, then it’s much, much easier to align themselves around the “why”.

  • Having this clear understanding of what really matters, this allows you to give simple guidance to help people move in the right direction.

Alignment Trust

  • When you want to work together fully aligned, you also have to trust the other parties.

  • In the Agile community, we talk a lot about a trust culture. Google uses the term psychological safety.

  • We talk about a lot of different kinds of trust. The term that we’ve actually coined is what we call alignment trust, which is basically, I listen to you, you listen to me, and we care about what each other is saying. Notice this doesn’t mean that we agree. But it means that we’re listening.

  • If you go into an organization, and you look at the discussions that they’re having, either amongst stakeholders to a project, or even the board or the C-suites, you see how people argue with each other. They don’t even let each other finish each other’s sentences.

  • The first thing that you do is you listen to them. You let them not only finish their sentences, but finish their thoughts.

  • One of the first ways, one of the first steps to achieving that is what we call alignment trust, which is really listening to the people. That’s basically segment in leadership is teaching people how to listen. How to ask questions that elicit real answers. But also how to really wait for the end of the sentence, and then make sure, oh, have I understood you correctly?

  • This combination of listening, you know, using “could” rather than “should”. This is all kind of a collection of techniques that we teach to enable people to have really constructive conversations at the leadership level. To figure out what really matters and what are we going to do next?

  • Really when you look at trust, it’s really the foundation of so many things. When you look at a dysfunctional team, usually that is missing.

  • And so at the foundation, it’s really understanding. And when you understand what really matters when you’re in alignment, then we can go back to that. And when you can assume best intent, reconnect with people, listen for understanding.

  • When we have that foundational assumption of best intent and we have that clear alignment, it really helps that foundation of trust to be there. So that we can get past those roadblocks or mis-communications much faster, and move on closer toward that goal.

  • I say I’m going to do something and I actually do it. We call that commitment trust. I do what I say I’m going to do. That is the basis of everything. If you say you’re going to do something, and you don’t do it. Or better still, you say you’re going to do something and then you go do something else. This undermines the trust.

  • One of my favorite techniques is, you know, I’m trying to build alignment trust. The first thing I do is I look for a way to build commitment trust. I’ll ask the other person, is there anything I can do right away to help us get started?

  • It gives him the information that he’s asked for. But it’s also sent him a message. I’m trustworthy. And because of that, he’s going to be more likely to trust me, and he’s also going to be more likely to fill his own commitments.

  • If we take this to the level of Agile teams, one of the big challenges that many Agile teams have is they don’t produce something that works every sprint. So where are we on commitment trust? We’re nowhere.

  • One of the things that Agile teams can work on is to say our first goal as an Agile team is to create commitment trust. We say, okay, we’re going to create something that’s done. And my definition of done is something you can use in real life, test in real life, or better yet, sell in real life. Even if they deliver a little bit and they deliver that little bit every two weeks, that creates this commitment trust.

3 Tech Lead Wisdom

Maria

  1. Lead by example so that you can really maximize your results in Agile.

    • Too often, we see leaders say, oh, Agile team, go get trained. You go do the Agile. But they don’t necessarily get that as well as a leader.

    • We’ve seen time after time when leadership really gets it, that’s where huge transformation happens.

  2. Listen with empathy and connect with people.

    • Too often, we hear the teams. They’re running into roadblocks or trying to escalate impediments, but nobody’s listening.

    • So if you can truly listen with empathy, and truly look for opportunities to connect with people, and listen for understanding, help them feel heard, actually follow up on the things that are in their way. That’s going to help your teams thrive.

  3. Watch your blind spots.

    • Your teams often have the answers and you aren’t listening.

    • To be able to listen to your teams, watch those blind spots. That can really make a huge difference in the results that you get with your teams and your organization, and help you really lead by example as an inspirational leader.

Peter

  1. Build commitment trust.

    • Get good at making small promises and delivering on them. This process increases your credibility and just makes your life so much easier.

    • In fact, if you’re an Agile team, and you can deliver something that works every sprint, most of your problems with the stakeholders just go away. Because they’re so stunned.

  2. Listen before you talk, ask before you tell, and when you ask, ask clarifying questions.

    • There’s no such thing as a healthy debate. Debate drives people in their corners. It puts the emphasis on winning rather than the emphasis on coming up with a good answer.
  3. Focus on what really matters.

    • If everything matters, then nothing matters. So figure out what really matters and use that kind of as a guide to help you make decisions about pretty much everything.

    • How you use your time? How your teams use your time? How your companies use their time? Make sure that what you do is aligned with what really matters.

Transcript

[00:01:21] Episode Introduction

Henry Suryawirawan: Hello again to all of you, my friends and listeners. It’s really great to be back here again with another new episode of the Tech Lead Journal podcast. I am your host Henry Suryawirawan. Thank you for tuning in listening to this episode. If this is your first time listening to Tech Lead Journal, subscribe and follow the show on your favorite podcast app and social media on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. And if you are a regular listener and enjoy listening to the episodes, will you subscribe as a patron at techleadjournal.dev/patron, and support my journey to continue producing great Tech Lead Journal episodes every week.

Have you ever felt that despite many things that you have done, you still feel that you’re going nowhere? Or if you are a high-performer, despite accomplishing so many things, you still feel not fulfilled and thus feel unhappy? Or for some of us, you just don’t know where to start in order to live the life you want. Life can be challenging at times, and despite wherever you are in your journey, we are going to learn a powerful framework called Personal Agility System in our episode today.

My guests for today’s episode are Peter Stevens and Maria Matarelli. Peter and Maria are the co-founders of the Personal Agility Institute and the authors of “Personal Agility” book. In this episode, Peter and Maria shared what Personal Agility System is and how we can apply this framework in our daily lives. Learning from their own stories and lessons, Peter and Maria highlighted how many people face typical challenges that hinder them from truly getting what they want by using the “life is an ocean” metaphor. Both of them, then give a complete walkthrough of the six powerful questions in Personal Agility System, especially highlighting the key question to find what really matters. Peter and Maria then shared how this framework is not just applicable to individual, but also applicable to leadership and organizational agility, and how it can help leaders and teams create alignment and trust within an organization.

I really enjoyed my conversation with both Peter and Maria, learning about Personal Agility System, the six powerful questions, and how we can use them to achieve what really matters in our lives. Not to mention that this is my first episode having more than one guest at one time. If you also enjoy and find this episode useful, please share it with someone you know, either your friends or colleagues who would also benefit from listening to this episode. Also leave a rating and review on your podcast app or share this episode on your social media. It is my ultimate mission to make this podcast and the knowledge available to more people, and you can play a part towards fulfilling my mission. Before we continue to the episode, let’s hear some words from our sponsor.

[00:05:08] Introduction

Henry Suryawirawan: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to another new episode of the Tech Lead Journal podcast. Today is very special for me because this is my first time having two guests in one episode. So we have Peter Stevens here and Maria Matarelli. Both are actually co-founders of the Personal Agility Institute. They have a mission to help people and organizations to align what they do with what really matters to become who they want to be and achieve what they want to achieve. So today we’ll be talking a lot about this personal agility. What is this concept all about? How it helps people? And maybe you can also implement it in your life. So Peter, Maria, really looking forward to this conversation. So hopefully we have a great conversation today.

Maria Matarelli: Yeah. Thank you, Henry. We’re excited to be here.

Peter Stevens: Yes. Thank you. We’re delighted to be here.

[00:05:55] Career Journey

Henry Suryawirawan: So I always tried in the beginning to ask my guests to share your career journey or any highlights, turning points in your career. I guess we can take turns for you to spend maybe one or two minutes to share your journey so far.

Peter Stevens: Maria, ladies first.

Maria Matarelli: So my background started. I actually started working when I was 15 and worked three jobs to pay my way through college. One of those jobs actually got me into the professional IT world. So I started working at Caterpillar Inc., a Fortune 100 company, managing some IT projects using Six Sigma. That was my first exposure to something in the Agile realm. We were always looking at streamlining the processes, increasing efficiencies. I went on to work at State Farm Insurance corporate headquarters in their systems technology department. That’s where I was managing about $5 million projects, telling people twice my age when we need the milestones done. It felt a lot overwhelming. I really realized I was really good at project management.

We started using traditional project management. Though with a background in Lean Six Sigma, I was able to streamline the processes, reduce the inefficiencies in the project. On the enterprise server release Windows and Unix server upgrades, we’re able to go from two releases to three releases a year, streamlined the projects where we could offshore and outsourced some of the work to other teams, freed up our onsite people for more strategic work, and saved the company 1.5 million passive residual cost savings every year. And then, began to explore using Scrum as a framework on many projects. Saw how incredibly efficient and effective that was. Along the journey, decided to get more into coaching and training and discovered I loved it.

Over the years started exploring Agile outside of IT. Looking at agile marketing, I co-founded the Agile Marketing Academy. Some of the first companies that we worked with, we got some incredible results. 300% increased revenue in six months. 780% increased revenue in a year. From there, we realized we’re onto something here. Launched a case study program. The first person that invested $5,000 returned over $30,000 on their first Agile marketing campaign. And we continued to explore Agile outside of IT, that’s where Peter and I connected. We started looking at this concept of Agile planning your life to do more of what matters. And that’s where personal agility really began to grow as we began working together in the industry. So it’s absolutely incredible to see the results people get with Agile. I love sharing these concept strategies, specific frameworks with people, and just helping them work better and live better.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks Maria. Over to you, Peter.

Peter Stevens: Okay. So for me, it’s funny. My voyage, I think, starts in high school when I was an exchange student to France. Somehow, my mom passed her love of French onto me, and my revenge was becoming an exchange student. A couple of years later, I finished university. I studied computer science. I went to work for this little company called Microsoft, which no one had heard of at the time, but you’ve probably heard of them in the meantime. Spent three years there. At which point, the calling to France kind of started ringing in my ear again. And I decided to come on a European vacation, which led me to learn German and move to Switzerland. Switzerland is one of those places where, if you survive your first six months, you’re never going to want to leave. I think it took me a little bit longer than six months, but really, I decided to stay here and I’ve been there ever since.

My journey took me through a variety of things, including system management. While I was doing that, this is 1993, I kind of discovered Scrum without really knowing it. And that’s kind of interesting because Jeff Sutherland was creating Scrum back then. I didn’t really realize what I had done, but for 10 years after that, I called that my best project. In fact, sometimes I still do cause it was really a great project. It was the basis of my career and my business for quite some time thereafter.

Fast forward quite a bit later. I stumbled on this book called “Agile Project Management with Scrum”, and I opened it up and it was really life changing for me. You know, finally a way to organize people that made sense. And I found a Scrum project. We took the worst project in the company, made it into the best project in the company, and I never looked back. I’ve been doing Scrum ever since. So today, if you ask me what’s my day job, I still say that I’m a certified Scrum trainer. I take exactly the same thing. In fact, that’s how we met is because we were both Scrum trainers. We first met through the community and then connected a bit later at a conference around Scrum. And so, Agility has been a center of my life since 2006, 2008. It’s been a calling for me, and personal agility is a continuation of that voyage.

[00:10:10] How Personal Agility Started

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for sharing both of your stories. Really interesting. Both of you actually came from different backgrounds, but actually met through common interests, which is Agile, right? So today we are not going to talk Agile in the sense of Agile project management or Agile methodology, but more about applying Agile or agility here to your personal life. Maybe initially to personal life, then maybe we can talk about how to apply them to organization. But tell me more about personal agility concept. From my conversation with you before this, actually Peter started out with this concept earlier, right? So maybe, Peter, can you tell us more about how did you come up with this concept? And what kind of problems did you see back then?

Peter Stevens: Okay. So as I told you, I discovered Scrum and decided I wanted to be a Scrum trainer. I eventually became a certified Scrum trainer, and I was basically running a sole proprietorship with a couple of people that orbit around me kind of helping me out. After about four years of this, I realized the business was going good, but I was working like crazy. It was going good, but I didn’t feel like I was making progress. I felt like the wheel was just kind of spinning over and over. I’ve been trying things like personal Kanban or desktop Kanban, or the Pomodoro method. I tried doing things like that, and somehow they weren’t helping. And then one day I said wait a minute. You’re a Scrum trainer. Why don’t you try doing Scrum? I thought, what a radical concept. There were reasons that speak for it, and there were reasons to say maybe this won’t work, but I thought I’d give it a try and experiment.

One of the things that I realized, first of all, the problem wasn’t limiting my work in progress. You know, you hear a lot of people say, limit your work in progress. And this is good advice. I don’t disagree with it. Okay. But the problem is, work in progress is about what you’re doing. But the other thing you’ve got to pay attention to is your backlog. The list of things to do, and that was really my problem. My backlog was endless. No matter how much I got done, there was always something coming in to replace it, and so I finished every week exhausted. I just didn’t feel like I was making any progress. This kind of led me to start reflecting a bit more, not just on the work that I did, but why did it matter? And in fact, it took about maybe three months to find this question. What really matters? A colleague of mine talked about the Eisenhower method. What’s urgent and what’s important? Much, much later we discovered the question, what makes you happy? Another colleague of mine I was sharing with this, talking about productivity and impact, and he says you need something more profound than that. The question that came out of that was what really matters?

By the end of about six months. So we’re now talking October, November of 2016. The basics of personal agility were kind of coming into place. This is where Maria and I met each other at a conference. At the time, it was known as Scrum Day Portugal. Today that’s grown into Experience Agile in the World Agility Forum. So I had a brief chat with Maria and said, “Maria, I think I’m onto something there”, and I was really intrigued by her concept of Agile marketing, and I realized that she was doing something very similar, and I thought maybe Agile marketing could be helpful. And I thought, yeah, whatever. So let’s see where this leads. So we met again at the Scrum gathering and we sat down for half an hour to talk about what I was doing. I asked her the question at the center of everything, which is what really matters to you. And she thought, and that was kind of the first iteration, which was about the things that she was doing and the people she was with and what she was trying to accomplish. I let her tell the full details of it. But she realized that what really mattered to her, or what needed to matter to her, wasn’t on her radar screen.

At that point, she says, Peter, you need to learn about marketing because this could help millions of people. And if you want to reach millions of people, you got to learn about marketing. And I’ll let Maria tell the story about marketing, because this was really the birth moment for the Personal Agility Institute. That was personal agility, which kind of started here and took shape over the course of about six months. And then there’s the Personal Agility institute, which is kind of taking this idea and realizing that it’s important enough and then sharing it with the world. So at this point, I think I’ll pass the talking stick to Maria, and say how did we go from this cute little idea to the institute and maybe something that could change the world.

Maria Matarelli: Yeah. Thank you, Peter. I remember when we were talking in Lisbon, Portugal, that first time. You were saying, “Hey Maria. I’d love to get your thoughts on this”. I just finished my Agile marketing presentation. He’s like, “Could you take a look? I’ve been doing something. I think I’m onto something”. I remember just being like, “Oh yeah, Peter. Oh yeah, of course Agile work in your personal life. Yeah. Everyone knows that like, of course. Yeah. That’s great”. I don’t remember really listening. I don’t remember it really sinking in exactly how impactful this concept was. Over the years, I’ve applied Agile in my life to achieve so many incredible things. I remember it works. It’s very effective. Though I had the common challenge that a lot of teams have. The classic challenge, the sustainable pace. And so, you know you can apply Agile in your life. And I did, and I was achieving all kinds of things, but it was not at a sustainable pace. And I realized that the way that agile teams struggle with it, when you apply it in your life, it’s easy to struggle with that as well.

And so when Peter and I reconnected in Munich, Germany, a couple of weeks later, I remember we were sitting in the lobby of the Western Grand in Munich at the Scrum gathering. He said, “Maria, I’d love to get your thoughts one more time”. As he asked me the core question, “what really matters?” That time, I actually heard him. I actually thought about that in my context. And I remember thinking, of course, this is really powerful. And I was like, what matters to me? Freedom and flexibility. I’ve been traveling the world and had always wanted to get out of that nine-to-five job office. Started my own consulting company, had that freedom. But that was really lonely. And I realized that what really mattered was also like meaningful conversations and relationships with people that mattered throughout this life. I was like, wow. That’s something that really matters to me because sometimes when you travel every day, every week, you don’t really see those people from day to day. Also quality of brand. That’s so important to me. And I was like, oh yeah, I know what matters to me, Peter. But then I realized that there was something that didn’t even hit my radar. And in fact, nothing that mattered really mattered at all without this other item. And that was my health.

My health had been so challenged. Because after I left my last consulting engagement in Chicago, I literally started traveling the world for five years with no home, just city to city, country to country. While that was helping me achieve these other goals that I thought mattered, my health completely tanked. And I realized I couldn’t enjoy anything if I didn’t have my health. It got so bad that I ended up in the hospital, in and out of the hospital in a wheelchair for a year. I couldn’t walk. It was so severe that I realized I had to completely shift my life. Having that core question, “what really matters?” helped me to do that. I put health as the number one thing on my priorities map, and started completely re-navigating the lens at which I looked through life. And I’ve been using personal agility ever since, and have been so incredibly passionate about helping share this concept to the world, and working with Peter to help make this framework available for the world.

[00:16:43] Personal Agility System

Henry Suryawirawan: Wow. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story. When I listened to both of you explaining it, I can see literally myself, maybe following you from Lisbon to Munich, seeing your life journey and how you implement it in your life. It’s really fascinating. So for people to actually get the gist of this personal agility, after all your journey through life and now coming up with this institute, can you maybe tell us, like the elevator pitch, what is actually Personal Agility System?

Peter Stevens: For me, the personal agility is a simple coaching based framework to align what you do with what really matters. You know, we can explain the core of it in five minutes. It’s really just six questions or the core of it is six questions. There are other things that you can build on.

Coaching based. What we do is we use the tools of coaching to help you figure out what really matters, and connect what you do with what really matters. So this is where alignment comes in. The first alignment is you with yourself. One of the things that we discovered along the way that kind of emerged is the same techniques that you can use with yourself, that is asking powerful questions and using them to make sense of the situation, you can apply them with the people around you. You can ask powerful questions to your managers. You can ask powerful questions to your stakeholders. You can ask powerful questions to your customers, and all sorts of amazing things happen when you do. Because a powerful question is an invitation to think. The start of a powerful conversation.

This is where personal agility took on its character as a leadership framework. So we could just as easily say personal agility is a simple leadership framework to help you create alignment around what really matters. This is what’s happened with our case studies. We find some very personal case studies, but we’ve also found cases of startups achieving their profitability goals or their valuation goals. We’ve seen companies avoiding bankruptcy. We’ve seen all kinds of people getting their life sorted out. “What really matters?” question and the techniques for creating alignment have proved to be really powerful. That’s what our book is about, and this is what the Personal Agility System is about. Maria, would you like to add something to that? Did I miss anything important?

Maria Matarelli: That was phenomenal, Peter. I really feel that being able to see the application of this framework in the individual context and the business context, what’s been incredibly impressive is that the versatility of the application.

[00:18:55] Life Is the Ocean

Henry Suryawirawan: So before we actually go into these powerful coaching questions, what you mentioned a six powerful questions, actually, when I read the gist of the book, I kind of stumbled into this “life is the ocean” metaphor. I know, like we heard in the beginning, your intro about your journey, but maybe you can walk us through about this metaphor? For people to actually sink in and look at their life using this metaphor. Maybe either you, Maria or Peter can narrate what is this “life is the ocean” metaphor?

Maria Matarelli: Yeah. So several years ago, I had invited Peter to join me on an agile marketing cruise that we were doing. Basically, it was just a group of 400 marketers coming together as coordinating a group of 10 cabins. Who doesn’t love a conference on a cruise ship? And so Peter flew over from Switzerland with his wife and they joined us as we left the port and set sail for several days to some fancy Caribbean islands. There was one morning that Peter was sitting outside the coffee shop and he saw the screen that they had that had the tracking of our destination and our journey so far. You’ll see the same thing on airplanes. It was marveling how when you look at this journey, you could kind of see an indicator of where you’ve been and where you’re going.

As we were talking about this, we were realizing this is a great metaphor for your life. We have where we’ve been. We have an idea of the destination. But then we realized that you could get blown off course. And so where we intend to go is not always where we go. When you look at a goal that you’ve set or an ambition or dream that you’ve had. Look at parents, for example. You ended up having a child or a couple of children, and then they become your world, and you’re so concerned about helping them. A lot of times we forget about ourselves. Putting other people in front of our own wellbeing, our own goals, our own dreams, and, yes, we care for our family, but if you don’t take care of yourself first, how can you be your best for everyone else?

And so, it’s important, and it’s okay to prioritize your own health, to prioritize the things that make you happy, because then that is an uplift for everyone else around you. And so we realized that while you have this longer term goal or destination, you’re trying to get to, we often get blown off course. Personal agility is a very kind framework. If you get blown off course, it’s okay. Just recognize that you’ve been blown off course and get back on course. So we often refer to the “destination of Jamaica” because that was one of our destinations on the cruise ship.

Peter Stevens: Yeah, that’s actually where we were sailing to when I came up with the metaphor. That’s why it was Jamaica and not some place else. Yes.

Maria Matarelli: And so we talk about, you know, where is your Jamaica? Where is the destination you want to get to? And oftentimes, we may get so rolled up in the busy-ness of life that we miss getting that progress toward our longer-term goals. So we don’t want to lose sight of Jamaica. We want to be able to keep sight of that. Personal Agility System really is helpful in helping you visualize and identify those longer-term goals. Also, while not losing sight of the shorter term initiatives, and helping you maintain on your course, even if you get blown off course, to get back on course toward that destination.

Henry Suryawirawan: I really love that metaphor, actually. Because when I see myself as well and having listened to your journey as well, I could resonate with some of the challenges that I’m also experiencing. For example, like Peter said, endless backlog. Yeah. I mean, maybe we can be efficient and execute tasks over tasks, but yeah, the backlog seems to be endless. You know, it’s never ending and tomorrow there’s another huge amount of backlog that I need to do. And Maria saying about sustainable pace. We have that many backlogs. Of course, we seem to have the energy to actually execute all those things. Is it sustainable over the long-term period? We don’t know, right? That’s why I think I love this metaphor to seek where is your Jamaica? So where is the destination that you want to go?

[00:22:26] 6 Powerful Questions

Henry Suryawirawan: Maybe using me as the target coaching, can you walk us through the six powerful questions that you have in this personal agility?

Peter Stevens: So let me take a shot at it. I have to say Maria is a great coach, and it’s her coaching skills that have really brought the first really compelling case studies to the surface. We actually start this kind of a question zero, which is why do you want to do personal agility? What’s the change that you’re trying to achieve? Or what’s the state that you’re trying to achieve? We think of Jamaica is the destination. So having some clarity as to what your destination is, what’s this important goal that you’re trying to achieve, or state that you’re trying to maintain? This clarity can be really helpful. When we get to leadership, we’ll talk about how you could use this notion of Jamaica.

The first question is “what really matters?” So if we come back to our navigation metaphor, today we use the GPS. Before there was GPS or radio navigation, we navigated by the stars. You had the Pole star in the north. You had the Southern cross in the south. You had Orion’s Belt that was going around the equator. You know what time does this Orion’s Belt come up or go down. Where is the North star? How high in the sky it is? Knowing what time it is. You can kind of figure out where you are. So the navigation stars they help you take a fix and understand where you’re going. So the first question is “what really matters?” The first time you ask it, it’s going to be a really powerful question because you may not know. And it may even take you a while to really come up with the right answers. I mean, think of Maria’s example. She thought she knew. And then she thought about it and she had kind of this Eureka moment. Actually, okay, this is what really matters, and this led to her making big changes in her life. And that, by the way, is a concept which scales to any size organization. Once you get clarity on what matters, you get everyone pointing in the right direction, and you can start moving forward. Once you’ve got that, then the question is more kind of a reminder of what you care about. Just kind of setting the stage or setting the frame.

And then you go onto the next question, which is “what did you get done last week?” How have you been spending your time? This is like looking at that trail of breadcrumbs. You know, think Hansel and Gretel going through the forest leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so they can find their way back. That trail of breadcrumbs not only shows you where you came from, but it also it gives you a hint about where you are going. So, for instance, Maria realized, “Ah! My health is really important.” You look at what you did. What have I done for my health in the last week? Actually, nothing. So what does that mean for my health going forward? We’ve got a course. We say we want to go to Jamaica, but actually we’re heading towards Antarctica right now. Wait a minute. Where’s that? Oh, Antartica is there. Where’s Jamaica? Jamaica is about 90 degrees to the right. So what do we do moving forward? We’re going to start changing how we use our time.

So this comes to the what do you do with your backlog? The first thing is, what’s on your backlog? What could you do? And you notice how we use the word, “what could you do?” rather than “what do I have to do?” or “what must get done?” or things like that. What is my spouse, significant other, manager, whoever telling me has to get done? These are possibilities. Now why are they possibilities? Simple reality is you got too much to do. So you’re not going to be able to do everything, and you’re certainly not going to be able to do everything this week. So the more interesting question is of all the things you could do, what are you going to do this week? That’s what the next two questions are about.

Now, remember Eisenhower? You know, Eisenhower was a former army general. Commanded the allies in World War II, won the war, became president, he talked about what’s urgent and what’s important. There’s a third element of that, that we’ve added, which is “what’s going to make me happy?” Governments don’t really care what makes you happy, but they care about what’s urgent and important. Okay. So, we say of all, the first is what could you do? What’s on your backlog? Let’s look at those things on the backlog. What’s important? What’s urgent? What’s gonna make you happy? Eisenhower was at a very interesting position. As president or as general, the stuff that he doesn’t have time for, he can delegate. But you and I in our daily lives, you can’t delegate the work of your life. This is where you can either actively make choices, or you can let the winds of fate make the choices for you. But at the end of the week, some things aren’t going to get done, and some things are going to get done. Maybe some things are going to get done.

This is where getting intentional about how you use your time gets to be important. Of all the things I could do, what’s urgent? What’s important? What’s going to make me happy? And this is the next question, “what do I really want to get done this week?” And so this is like setting a course. I’m starting a course which I think is going to take me to Jamaica. This is what you focus on. So as you kind of go through the week, we’ve got this week column, which is the list of things what you want to get done this week. In Scrum, that’s what you expect to get done. In personal agility, this is what you’re going to come back to when you get blown off course. Because the problem is, you know, now especially with COVID, but even before COVID, life happens faster than you can plan.

So your son walks in and he’s got a skinned knee. Can you tell him to go away? Maybe, you know, some fathers, you never know. Moms would never send their kids away. On the other hand, your boss comes in or your customer comes in, calls the phone, “I need you to do something right away”. Are you going to say no? Sooner or later, that gets to be a much tougher choice. And even though you’ve set this course, here’s this heavy crosswind blowing you off course. So what do you do? Well, you deal with it, and you get it done, and you do what you have to do, and then you celebrate it. What have I get done? You celebrate whatever you got done. Even though this was different than what you set out to do. Hey, that boat is still floating.

This is where we talk about storms. Storms blow you off course. Rumor has it there were pirates in the Caribbean. They can do all kinds of wild and crazy things to your course. So, you deal with, you’ve got to have to do. When you get back a moment to do what you want to be doing, or what you care about, you come back to that stuff that you put on your this week column or your today column. And so we’re using our short list of things to do to bring us back on course when we get blown off course. So you go through the week and you get things done. Some of the things were things you’d planned at the beginning of the week, and some of the things are things that came up. And then you get to the end of the week, and you celebrate what you get done. Okay. We call this celebrate and choose. Celebrate what you got done before. Choose what you want to do moving forward. That boat is somewhere out in the ocean. You’ve made some progress. Maybe you’re closer to Jamaica at the end of the week than you were at the beginning, but maybe not. And maybe you still care about Jamaica, and maybe you’ve decided to set a new course. But the idea is to be intentional and aware of where you’re going.

Let’s go through the questions. The first one is “what really matters?” Second is “what did I get done last week?” which is the celebration part. The next one is “what could I do this week?” The one after that is of those things: what’s urgent, what’s important, or what’s going to make you happy? Of those things, which ones do I really want to get done this week? And those are five questions to kind of help you navigate through life. Now, some of you are counting and say, wait a minute, where’s the sixth question? Maria, would you like to take the sixth question?

Maria Matarelli: Yeah. What we realized is that there is a need for sometimes taking a step back and looking at your situation and saying, if I could do this myself, I would have already had it done by now. And maybe, just maybe, you might need to ask for help. So the sixth question is “who can help?” One of the things that I’ve realized over the last couple of years, you can get almost anything done if you get stuck by either asking someone for help, someone that’s a friend, a family member, someone who you can share the vision, or just share the situation and say, “Hey, can you help me?” They may say yes, they may say no. Or we have an incredible opportunity to hire freelancers off the internet today. If you look at Craigslist, you look at Angie’s list, you look at freelancer websites, like there’s so many freelancer websites, you could probably either just ask for help from someone else who might care, or delegate or outsource or hire someone that can assist you with what it is you’re stuck on. Because chances are if you can’t get through that roadblock, if you can’t get through that today, you might have the same roadblock a week later. That same roadblock might be there a month later, and now we’ve completely stopped our progress toward our goal.

A couple of the things that Peter mentioned that I really want to highlight that were impactful for me was there was one day where he was talking about the idea of asking what’s urgent. And the idea is we want to actually start to work on the important things before they become urgent. That was a game changer for me. To be able to realize, wait a minute, if you have a lot of things that are urgent, why are they becoming urgent? So if we can sprinkle in kind of salt bae in some of these things that along the way are important and get to them before they hit that point of urgency. Now we can start to get a better rhythm of the way that we’re working. The flow that we have.

And then we added in that question a little bit later of what would make you happy? That wasn’t even on my radar until recently. I remember it was actually about five years ago. I was talking to Alistair Cockburn, and he’s become a good friend over the years. Many people know him as one of the coauthors of the Agile Manifesto. We were talking about goals and setting goals for the new year. And I remember he was like, “where’s your happiness or joy?” Where’s joy in your goals? I had money goals. I had fame goals. I had achievement goals. I was like, I don’t understand the question. I literally did not even understand the question of what brings me joy in life or what makes me happy because I was so focused on achieving things.

But what I’ve realized is that even if you use Agile to get things done more effectively, you achieve those goals faster, sometimes there can be an emptiness after achieving goals. What I really think is profound about personal agility is it helps you really take that step back and look at happiness and fulfilment. How do I feel about the things I got done? And so there’s so much more meaning behind what you’ve achieved when you take that time to celebrate and choose. And see, wow, I got more done than I thought, or, oh, wow, look at this. You can actually make those better decisions of where you want to go based on what you’ve done. And it all really comes together in a very impactful way.

[00:31:45] What Really Matters

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for explaining all these six powerful questions concept. Really powerful in my view. I want to go back to the first question, which I think is really important to kick-start this thinking process. There’s one quote that probably I’ll read it first to let it sink. Because I think it’s really important for us to look back and reflect, right? So the quote says that “if time is your most valuable currency, then how you spend your time, how you ought to spend your time, and how you want to spend your time, all actually give insights into what really matters to you.” I think this is really a powerful statement as well, to actually look back and think what actually matters to us. Because how you actually spend your time actually explains what matters to you. Maybe you can dive a little bit deeper here, how should people actually look for what really matters to them? So any kind of powerful techniques to find out what really people want? Or how about if people have both Jamaica, Paris, Europe, whatever?

Maria Matarelli: Yeah. So when we look at the question of what really matters, there’s a couple of ways that you can begin here. Sometimes, it might be clear. You might know what matters, right? Some categories that tend to emerge. Some common themes we see are people that care about their health or fitness, relationships, people in their life, family, children, looking at their career, advancing their career goals, or starting a business, or maybe some hobby, something they’ve always wanted to achieve, financial freedom. These are the themes that we tend to see over and over. Sometimes people know that. They say, “Hey, this is important to me. This is important. This is important to me.” But sometimes it might not be so obvious. So if that’s the case, we start with the question of “what did you do last week?” Just like Peter just mentioned. Apparently, what you did last week is what mattered to you, because that’s what you did. Some people might say, well, no, I didn’t do what I wanted to do last week. Okay, well, if that’s the case, that too is a valuable insight. So great, that still tells us something.

So if we start with the breadcrumb trail. We might start by saying, “Hey, what really matters?” And people might know. They might list it off. The other day, I was bringing someone through Personal Agility System. You know, you had the first thing, maybe the second thing, but then kind of got stumped. I was like, wait, let’s look at what you did last week. As we started creating the breadcrumb trail, we started to notice some themes that emerged. And so you can look at those themes and say, “Hey, which of these things really do matter to you that you want to matter? And are there any things that aren’t where you want to spend your time?” So we can kind of see empirically here’s what you’ve done, and if you continue that, if you carbon copy last week, till next week, last month, till next month, last year to next year, will you be where you want to be fast forwarding a year from now? And if the answer is no, then what do you want to do differently? What do you want to matter?

Sometimes people might have things on their priorities map that really matter. We recommend limiting this to three or four things. Not more. Because if everything matters, then nothing matters. That’s a quote that Peter and I always liked to use because there’s so much that we could do, and there’s so many possibilities that you might make it into progress in multiple areas, but not a mile progress in any one area. So we tend to see when people have more than three or four, those other items don’t really get their attention, or they’re spread so thin, they don’t really make the progress they ultimately want and desire. So we can start looking at what you think matters. You can look at what you’ve done. You look at what themes emerge, and then once you start going through your priorities map, you might say, “Hey, I noticed this one thing isn’t getting as much attention. Does this really matter to me? Either do I want to spend more attention toward it or do I want to change what really matters? Is that actually not as important as I say?”

Peter Stevens: I would just add to that. One of the things you’ll notice is these patterns repeat themselves. They scale. Or if you want to get fancy, you could say they’re fractal, you see them at the personal level, the team level, the organization level. You know, it’s like this question of what really matters and what are we trying to work on? How many things are we working on in parallel? Too many things matter and we don’t make any progress on anything.

Most companies that I’ve visited. They’ve all got way too many initiatives going. Too many things matter, so nothing matters, and their progress comes to a crawl. But saying yes to this and later to that is one of the deepest challenges of personal agility or any other form of agility at any level. Because you know, focus means saying yes to this, saying later to that. We’re not going to say no, because we won’t even talk about how difficult it is to say no. But just getting us to focus on a couple of small things, this proved to be very powerful concepts that you can scale really up and down your organization. Not just to you as an individual where it seems really easy to explain and very obvious. But, as I say, all the way up to the entire company.

Henry Suryawirawan: So if I can maybe recap a little bit what Maria is suggesting. So sometimes early start of the year, we all make resolutions. We know what goals we want to do. But actually over the time, we actually didn’t achieve those. I think one thing that we could do is actually to do like time audit. What did we do past week, past month, past year, and look at themes. What actually you spent in those time. And then from there, actually, you can also see which one that you want to prioritize, and which one you actually don’t want to do. So this is also coming back to the concept of good habits, bad habits, right? So you also have to choose what things that you want to continue doing, or you want to stop doing. And then at the same time, once you identify the important things, you should limit it. Coming back to the work in progress limit, and maybe what matters to you, you should also limit it to three to four. So that you actually don’t work on too many things, having your energy and focus scattered, and then at the end, maybe it’s not maximum impact.

[00:37:06] Applying PAS to Leadership and Organizational Agility

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks for sharing this story. I think Peter, you add on later on, in the explanation that you can actually use this for other things outside of personal life, including the organization and leadership. Maybe let’s move into that segment. So how do you actually use this same technique to improve your leadership and also your organizational agility?

Peter Stevens: One technique that I’ve had a lot of success with. You come into an organization. It could be at any level. You’ve got stakeholders who are fairly important people in the company. But I’ve also seen it at the board level and the top management. Everybody is passionate about what they do. Everyone’s got their mental model about what’s important and what they want to achieve. Some of this they talk about explicitly. One of the things you start to see is the concept of hidden agendas. To some extent, I’m not even sure if people intentionally do that. They see that they have goals that they want to achieve, but they don’t have agreement across the organization on these goals. And so they fight about these things without knowing how to do it.

When I say we want to get an organization to do a turnaround, or a project to do a turnaround, or we’ve got issues. For me, the first thing to do is listen. I would actually go and kind of identify who are the people who I need to talk to. Stakeholders, in the broader sense. Not just important managers and customers who can helicopter in and completely change everything. But also people who are really doing the work, who really understand the problem. The idea is to get the whole picture. And then you go and you talk to them about what are we trying to achieve, why are we trying to achieve it, what’s the outcome we’re trying to achieve, what’s making this difficult, we can look at this at an emotional level. What are you afraid of? What are you frustrated by? And we start trying to build this picture. At the beginning, it’s like a mosaic. You talk to each person individually, and get their version of the picture. What this does is it helps you identify common themes.

So like I had this case once where I was working with a startup. They had some goals which I would describe as change the world, make life better for our customers and their customers. And another version of it, which was I want to make a lot of money through our exit. They had different people with different focuses. Because they had different priorities when it came to talking about what to do, they wanted to do different things. Because they did not have agreement on the priorities, they had lots of argument about what they should do. So what we did is we basically help them discover what it is that they could be. Now, notice that word “could” is a really powerful word. Because “could” is an idea that’s kind of floating out there in space and it doesn’t really belong to anyone. Whereas what should we do? This is the start of an arm wrestling tournament. We’re going to do my thing or your thing, and one of us is going to lose. That actually makes it very difficult to have a conversation about the real problem. So we get into talking about what we could do? What could be important? And then we start to look around that. We can build a consensus about what really is important. And once we’ve got this common understanding, this consensus on what really matters, now it’s possible for us to take decisions, and the decisions are all focused in the same way.

So we call this process creating alignment. If the first half of personal agility is having the individual get their act together, the second half is about the interactions. By the way, you may have heard of this little document called the Agile Manifesto, which starts out talking about individuals and interactions. They got it right, 100%, perfect. You get your own act together, and then you can start working on the interactions with the people around you. With that, you can create things bigger than yourself. That your department really becomes a team. So the basic approach is to facilitate these discussions around what really matters. Get agreement on what really matters, and then it’s a relatively easy thing to get an agreement about what to do to achieve our goals, and you get everyone working in the same direction.

Henry Suryawirawan: I love the way you explain about “could” versus “should”. Sometimes we, as leaders, unconsciously, what should we do? So in a way it’s arm wrestling people, right? But instead when we ask, what could you do? We expose ourselves to different options and different possibilities. And at the end, we can choose which one is the best. Either maybe through decision-making together, or it’s maybe based on leadership, or maybe some priorities and goals that we aligned together.

[00:41:04] Alignment

Henry Suryawirawan: If you could actually drill down more towards alignment. I think one fact that you quote in the book as well, you mentioned that “less than 10% organization actually could successfully execute their strategies due to this lack of alignment”. Maybe you can explore a little bit. What do you mean by this alignment? How can we actually create alignment easily inside the organisation?

Peter Stevens: So that quote comes from a correspondent on Forbes magazine. I had stumbled on a quote about alignment. This was back in 2012. I started working with Steve Denning on his Radical Management. I found this interesting webpage that, you know, alignment is a big problem in organizations. It’s kind of the holy grail of organizations, and I thought, wow, that’s cool. Two days later, I went to look for that link again, and I couldn’t find the tree because the forest was too big. There was just so much about how challenging alignment is. I’ve come to believe that the reason why alignment is so challenging is because most organizations first think about “what”. Who does what by when? The main objective of a good project leader is to identify who’s going to do what by when. The problem is the why question. What are we trying to achieve? What’s the outcome? There’s nowhere near enough discussion about that.

One of the quotes actually came from one of our personal agility ambassadors, a guy named Pierre Knights, who’s currently based in Zurich. He said in his observation, coaching is the new management. We have conversations first about the outcome that we’re trying to achieve and why this is important. And then we go from the outcome to the problem to the solution. Whereas the more traditional approach is to dive straight into the solution, which is really easy to do. “What” is the easiest question to answer. “Why” is really tough and who’s going to buy it is even tougher. But, so, actually by going after the hard questions first, by having this clear understanding of who and why, this is what enables true alignment. And once you get this alignment, then it’s much, much easier to align themselves around the “why”.

Just to give you a very short example. I heard this in the context of SpaceX. SpaceX wants to fly to Mars. So that means when we’re talking about doing something, or when we’re looking at a behavior, we can say, how does this help us get to Mars? And if the answer is, it’s helping, then great. We’ll do more of it. If the answer is it’s not helping, then we stop doing it. I’ve found examples of Elon Musk saying, “Hey guys, no kingdom building, no channeling communication through the manager. This is about going to Mars. Okay. This is not about building your kingdom. So let’s stay focused on the mission.” And by having this clear understanding of what really matters, this allows you to give simple guidance to help people move in the right direction.

Maria Matarelli: And this was really an incredible discovery of ours because we initially started looking at how does personal agility apply for the individual. And when we started seeing the results people were getting, applying the Personal Agility System in the context of an organization, it blew us away. There’s one gentleman, Walter from Switzerland as well, who was turning a company around. They were pretty close to going bankrupt. They were able to ask what really matters. Cut down so many initiatives that they had that were ongoing and say “No, what really matters” and turn the entire company around to being in the green and avoiding bankruptcy. We have a consultant from Denver, Colorado in the US, Larry, and he was only completing about 24% of projects on time. 24% is very low. After using the Personal Agility System, over 90% of his projects were being completed on time. We look at Ben Seaver, the CEO of E-remedy, here in Tampa Bay, Florida. They had a three-year roadmap. They achieved in one year, and had a $35 million valuation in just a year and a half, and during a global pandemic.

And so when you look at what’s possible, we took his entire leadership team through using personal agility. We were training them and doing coaching calls every week. It’s absolutely incredible to see the results to the bottom line that businesses get when they apply this, and ask what really matters, and then have that alignment in the organization. So this has really been an incredible discovery at how well personal agility scales from the individual to the organizational to get real results in business.

[00:44:59] Alignment Trust

Henry Suryawirawan: Yes, I agree. Alignment is really powerful once you get to agree on the “why”, the common statement of the problem. Two people can work out on some solutions together. But there’s an element of alignment which you also emphasize in the book, which is about trust, right? Because when you want to work together fully aligned, you also have to trust the other parties. Can you also elaborate a little bit more about this trust? How is it so important? And how we can cultivate trust within organizations, maybe using techniques in this Personal Agility System?

Peter Stevens: Yeah. So trust is a really interesting word. Because it means a lot of things to a lot of different people. In the Agile community, we talk a lot about a trust culture. Google uses the term psychological safety to mean basically the same thing. This is what I’ll call what are the basic forms of trust, which we often try to create in an Agile environment. Now, having said that, the closer you get to the money, to the top layers of the company, the harder it is to achieve that. Because there’s a lot of competing interests in this. There’s a lot of winning and losing that goes on in the upper floors. So, how do you do that?

We talk about a lot of different kinds of trust. The term that we’ve actually coined is what we call alignment trust, which is basically, I listened to you, you listen to me, and we care about what each other is saying. Notice this doesn’t mean that we agree. But it means that we’re listening. If you go into an organization, and you look at the discussions that they’re having, either amongst stakeholders to a project, or even the board or the C-suites, you see how people argue with each other. They don’t even let each other finish each other’s sentences. When they get cut off and then they start shouting and what are they trying to do? They’re trying to be heard. So what do you do? Well, you kind of turn this around. You know, it’s like judo or jujitsu. You kind of turn it around. And the first thing that you do is you listen to them. You let them not only finish their sentences, but finish their thoughts.

One of our case studies, Ulu Renzo in Portugal. At the time, he was working for a major consulting company, and he says people were practically in tears because no one ever listened to them before. I mean, we totally agree with the whole issues around psychological safety and creating that, because that makes it possible to have open and honest conversations about what the real problems are.

One of the first ways, one of the first steps to achieving that is what we call alignment trust, which is really listening to the people. That’s basically segment in leadership is teaching people how to listen. How to ask questions that elicit real answers. But also how to really wait for the end of the sentence, and then make sure, oh, have I understood you correctly? Kind of like the pilot talking to air traffic control. Air traffic control says, Singapore flight 325 clear for takeoff runway two seven. And the pilot responds, Singapore 325 clear for takeoff runway two seven. And they get that confirmation that they’ve heard each other. For airplanes, that safety relevant. So in the company, this read back is making sure that I’ve understood you. This is also safety relevant.

But the thing is, after you’ve listened to the other person, after that person has been able to finish their sentence, that’s the moment where you can start to say, “Oh yeah. Well, and in my experience, we also need to look at this.” “Oh, what is that? Ah, okay.” All you got to do is to posit the idea. But they’ve heard you. Now you’ve gotten the chance to introduce your idea, and that starts a new process of thinking and discussion. So this combination of listening, you know, using “could” rather than “should”. This is all kind of a collection of techniques that we teach to enable people to have really constructive conversations at the leadership level. To figure out what really matters and what are we going to do next?

Maria Matarelli: Yeah, really when you look at trust, it’s really the foundation of so many things. When you look at a dysfunctional team, usually that is missing, right? And so at the foundation, it’s really understanding. And when you understand what really matters when you’re in alignment, then we can go back to that. And when you can assume best intent, reconnect with people, listen for understanding. When we can assume best intent and say, you know what, we agreed upon what really matters, we’re both in agreement on that, there’s some misunderstanding here. It’s trusting that someone else is really just doing the best that they can. So there must be something misaligned. There must be something that’s just misunderstood or miscommunicated. And so when we have that foundational assumption of best intent, and we have that clear alignment, it really helps that foundation of trust to be there. So that we can get past those roadblocks or mis-communications much faster, and move on closer toward that goal.

Henry Suryawirawan: So sometimes I see this listening is counter-intuitive to trust. When people think about trust, it’s like trusting someone who can do the work, get things done, maybe in a high-quality manner. So that’s how I trust them. But actually, you brought up a counter-intuitive way of also exhibiting trust by actually listening, getting that person understood. And also, at the same time, you also convey your own message. I think that’s also critical.

Peter Stevens: I think that’s a really important point that you just mentioned. I say I’m going to do something and I actually do it. We call that commitment trust. I do what I say I’m going to do. That is the basis of everything. If you say you’re going to do something, and you don’t do it. Or better still, you say you’re going to do something and then you go do something else. This undermines the trust.

So let’s come back to those interviews. One of my favorite techniques is, you know, I’m trying to build alignment trust. The first thing I do is I look for a way to build commitment trust. I’ll ask the other person, is there anything I can do right away to help us get started? Oh, could you send me a link to this book? Yeah, sure. I’ll send you the link to the book. And then the first thing I do is send the link to the book. That’s helpful at two levels. One, it gives him the information that he’s asked for. But it’s also sent him a message. I’m trustworthy. Okay. I’m going to pay attention to him. And because of that, he’s going to be more likely to trust me, and he’s also going to be more likely to fill his own commitments.

There’re very simple tools like this that you can use to start building trust. If we take this to the level of Agile teams, one of the big challenges that many Agile teams have is they don’t produce something that works every sprint. So where are we on commitment trust? We’re nowhere. And so the poor management, they say, you told me that all this was going to get better when we do Scrum, and it’s not better. Sorry. I’m getting excited, but I’m just doing a role-play here. So, one of the things that Agile teams can work on is to say our first goal as an Agile team is to create commitment trust. We say, okay, we’re going to create something that’s done. And my definition of done is something you can use in real life, test in real life, or better yet, sell in real life. So use, test or sell. That’s something that you pass on to the QA department. Something you can use. Something you can test in real life. You know, think SpaceX. Let’s put that rocket up, light it up and see what happens. That’s test in real life.

Even if it’s only a little tiny bit, a lot of teams, their stakeholders, their managers, they want the moon tomorrow, and it’s hard to resist that pressure. But even if they deliver a little bit and they deliver that little bit every two weeks, that creates this commitment trust. And then all of a sudden the pressure goes away. Because I know while I might not get at this sprint, but I can get it next sprint. Build commitment trust. That would be one of my tips for the road.

Henry Suryawirawan: So, yeah, I mean, like, I’m also looking back to my own team. Sometimes we run Agile doesn’t actually necessarily mean we will deliver incremental working product at the end of the sprint based on what we commit. So thanks for reminding all of us here to actually look back and how you actually run your sprint, you run your Agile. Also, emphasize on the outcome. So in real life, not just finish development or finish testing. It has to be deployed in production.

[00:52:19] 3 Tech Lead Wisdom

Henry Suryawirawan: Thank you so much for spending your time. I think it’s really a pleasant conversation. But we are going to reach the end here. Normally before I let my guests go, actually I asked this one last question, which is what I call three technical leadership wisdom. So today I will get six in total technical leadership wisdom. So maybe either one of you can start. What do you want to leave our listeners here to think about as a learning maybe from you or maybe some kind of gist of your career journey so far?

Maria Matarelli: Yeah. So looking at three takeaways as a leader. The first thing I would say would be lead by example. So that you can really maximize your results in Agile. Too often, we see leaders say, oh, Agile team, go get trained. You go do the Agile. But they don’t necessarily get that as well as a leader. We’ve seen time after time when leadership really gets it, that’s where huge transformation happens. There’s several different examples and case studies that we have where this really is impactful. So, actually understanding Agile and that’s why personal agility as a leadership framework is so incredibly important. And Lyssa Adkins even talks about this. The benefits you can get as a leader by understanding concepts like limiting work in progress, and understanding what it’s like to have not a sustainable pace in your own backlog or priorities map.

Second, I would say, listen with empathy, and connect with people. Too often, we hear the teams. They’re running into roadblocks or trying to escalate impediments, but nobody’s listening. So if you can truly listen with empathy, and truly look for opportunities to connect with people, and listen for understanding, help them feel heard, actually follow up on the things that are in their way. That’s going to help your teams thrive. But it really does start with yourself as a leader to get those optimal results in your organization.

And then third, I would say, watch your blind spots. Your teams often have the answers and you aren’t listening. We see this time and time again when we go into organizations. And I just had this a couple of weeks ago. I was doing an onsite consult. The team members, they know exactly where all the bodies are buried. They know where the inefficiencies are. They know where the opportunities lie. And the leaders aren’t listening. And so really, to be able to listen to your teams, watch those blind spots. That can really make a huge difference in the results that you get with your teams and your organization, and help you really lead by example as an inspirational leader.

Peter Stevens: So, one thing you’ve already heard from me is build commitment trust. Get good at making small promises and delivering on them. This process increases your credibility and just makes your life so much easier. In fact, if you’re an Agile team, and you can deliver something that works every sprint, most of your problems with the stakeholders just go away. Because they’re so stunned.

We’ve talked a lot about listening. I phrase it as listen before you talk, ask before you tell, and when you ask, ask clarifying questions. There’s a big difference between a clarifying question and an inquisitive question or a confrontational question. There’s no such thing as a healthy debate. Debate drives people in their corners. It puts the emphasis on winning rather than the emphasis on coming up with a good answer. So, as I say, listen before you talk, ask before you tell, and when you ask, ask clarifying questions.

I think the last thing is also something that you’ve heard today is, remember, focus on what really matters. If everything matters, then nothing matters. So figure out what really matters and use that kind of as a guide to help you make decisions about pretty much everything. But certainly how you use your time? How your teams use your time? How your companies use their time? Make sure that what you do is aligned with what really matters. And if you do, then you will almost surely become that person or company or product or whatever that you want to be.

Henry Suryawirawan: I really love how you wrap it up. I don’t know whether it’s well-rehearsed or not, but you wrap it up by emphasizing the most important question. So what really matters? Where is your Jamaica?

So thanks so much for sharing your concept about Personal Agility System. I really appreciate that. For people who want to learn more about this, I know you are publishing a book, where can they find it online? Maybe you can share a little bit about this.

Maria Matarelli: We are excited to be publishing the book through the Business Agility institute and it will be available on Amazon for purchase, and you could also get a link to that from our website at PersonalAgilityInstitute.org.

Peter Stevens: One of the things I’d like to say, we’re really excited about the launch because we’re going to be working with partners. World today is a network. They need value and they produce value. What the networks can do is they can help each other. Remember that question who can help? So what we’re looking to do with the launch of our book is basically help people in their network and they’re helping us. So we’ve been reaching out to our partners, asking them for free gifts for buyers of the book. Now, we don’t have enough free gifts for all the buyers of the book, but we have enough free gifts for the first buyers of the book. We’re still building that network, but we’ve already got some commitments for several thousand dollars worth of gifts that are worth hundreds of dollars of each. So, the book is probably going to be around $20 or $30 depending on the version. Whether it’s Kindle or whether it’s hard back or something like that, there’ll probably be some sale prices. But the key thing is, you spend your $20 or $30 for a book. Be sure you’re the first one, because then you’ll be the first one to get a token to claim a free gift. And that free gift could be worth hundreds of dollars. So we’re really excited about that.

Steve Denning, by the way, pioneered this concept with the age of Agile. And so, we appreciate learning from the masters. Steve Denning, by the way, is also one of three Agile figures who’s written an introduction for our book, next to Lyssa Adkins and Alistair Cockburn. Something that we’re very, just beyond delighted about, that we’re getting this kind of high caliber support.

So anyway, the book is available for another couple of weeks as kind of a pre-beta test download for early adopters who want to participate in the launch. We’ll be taking it off the website. I think we said the 6th of February. So basically a week from Sunday. And then after that, the launch will probably be somewhere between two and three months later, depending on how the promotional program goes. We’re hoping for something really exciting. So, mark your calendars, and get into the early reader program so that you can participate in this.

And there’s an invitation, you know, Hey, if you’re out there hearing this, wow. I’m not quite sure when we’re going to be broadcast, but you know, if someone’s out there saying, gee, I’d like to participate in this program. We’d certainly be open to new participants who are looking to leverage their network to profit from the entire network of all of our partners to generate business back for them. So this could be a fun thing.

Henry Suryawirawan: Thanks. Good luck for your launch of the book and also with your experiment with this network. Hopefully, you get to save people’s life, and also transform their lives to be more happy and do more important things. So thanks Peter and Maria.

Maria Matarelli: Thank you, Henry. It’s great to be here.

Peter Stevens: Honor and pleasure to be here.

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