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  • Writer's pictureHelen G

Mother of Worms

I, Helen of ... my abode. First Helen in my family. Mother of worms. Proud owner of a bath filled with donkey crap, and vegetable scraps laid out in my garden. I want to share with you why Product Owners, Scrum Masters and Organisations seeking change need to get a bath and fill it with worms.

By now you should have the Game of Thrones theme tune in your head, if not, it goes something like this ... "Bah bah ba-ba-ba ba(t)hhhh ba-ba-baaa... repeat"

Who cares? Me. My worms taught me a lesson this winter. Where's this going? Well let's start here, I wanted a pet, an easy one. My wife wanted one that was functional, productive and gave something back. So we landed at a wormery.

A bath in the local village was being thrown out, and we took this as a sign, for a permaculture-focused garden, we needed a lot of good, nutritious soil.

Our customers; homegrown vege, "they" didn't give us many requirements, although there was a strong voice of zero pesticides, and naturally nutritious.

We'd been inspired by a number of YouTube videos, and seen many successes from wormeries, so hearing this we thought we'd give it a go. Much like what happens in agile.

We see it, we copy it, and we expect instant results.

Well, I needed instant results; I have kitchen waste, and I needed golden compost. So I called 'Bonnie & Clyde' two donkeys that could give me lots of donkey manure. Done. I got a layer of old compost. Done. I got a hand full of worms from my neighbour's nappy composter. Done. And finished by layering with vege cut-offs and shredded cardboard. Done.

Worms, apparently, can eat 20 times their body weight a day. Great. So for several weeks, I was topping up my bath with food scraps, and every time I went, there seemed to be very little movement. I lost hope, I cursed at YouTube's fake news. I neglected my worms. There were as good as being locked up in a cave with no light, and only scraps to eat.

I was asked, how are the worms? I would shrug and say, who knows?! I give them so much and yet there is not much progress to see.

After fifteen weeks of neglect (12 of them deliberate) and after some encouragement I unveiled the cover, and there it was 'the golden compost' I had been so needing. And this led me to think about the teams and organisations that copy-paste agile frameworks. Really??? Yes, it truly did.

I thought to myself isn't it funny? Funny how when we try something new, we expect instant results, whether that's a big something new or a small something new. A big something could be to support teams to bring value to the organisation sooner, or a “small” something, an incremental change in a team from a retrospective. Either way, we expect often to have instant results, if there are none over a short time period (1-4 weeks), we decide it's failed. In no time, our experiments turn to must-haves, rules and order.

Creating something new takes time, not just from a technical systems perspective but also a human perspective, which by the way are complex technical systems themselves (speaking as a human). Worms are complex too, the big difference between worms and humans are if you put worms in a dark space with plentiful food they flourish and multiply, this is an environment in which they thrive. If we treat humans in the same way, put them in a small space, ignore them, and just give them more and more to work through, they often will become unproductive and escape in some form or another.

And this is not unheard of, a confined space; such as an office for hours on end, endless piles of work; reports, emails, distractions... and then making cuts on people and teams. For some unknown reason, we still expect instant, golden compost that will provide nutrition to our customers.

Another trigger thought from the worms, was not only at the end of the 12-week period do I get this amazingly nutritious ‘worm casting’ compost, throughout the process, I also get "worm juice". The worm's "number ones" drips through and every day I get nutritious liquid fertiliser that I can use to feed my plants, fruit and vegetables. They bring value daily.

This bought me back to agility within organisations, you may have a number of product visions, OKRs, KPIs, goals... call them whatever, but make sure they also bring daily value. Are your employees feeling genuinely valued every day, are they heard and if not, what can you do today to get your team's juices flowing?

So next time you're with your teams and organisation, take a step back and think of a bath full of crap and worms. Ask yourself;

  1. Is this environment inducing effectiveness or escapism?

  2. Are we piling work on and expecting instant results with no vision?

  3. Do we have the right support system in place to enable a multi-player mindset?

  4. What are our quality and value timeboxes?

  5. How are you measuring daily value to market?

There is no such thing as work-life balance. Life and work are interchangeable. What I learn in work inspires me personally and those days I spend with Bonnie and Clyde, my worms, and of course, family and friends give me energy and focus for my work.

What seemingly random activity has changed the way you view your ‘paid-side-of-life’ for ideas and inspiration?

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