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Success or Burnout? Q&A on How Personal Agility Can Help

Key Takeaways

  • Without purpose, you can burn out even if you are successful
  • Agility is easy to apply at the personal level by extending the idea of customer value to what really matters
  • A few simple yet powerful questions can help you figure out what really matters
  • What really matters scales from the individual to the organization for achieving alignment and purpose
  • Personal Agility is both a coaching framework and a leadership style

How can you find out if you’re being successful or heading for a burnout? The only person who can really answer that question is you. Peter Stevens and Maria Matarelli spoke about success or burnout and personal agility at eXperience Agile 2018.

There are warning signs that you’re headed toward burnout, although people often ignore them, explained Matarelli. They may seem inconsequential at first, however over an extended period of time the fatigue adds up. The longer you wait, the worse it gets, she said.

Often, what we think is success turns out not to be a success, argued Stevens. He questioned, “What happens when you are doing what you want to be doing, but suddenly realize something else is more important? You might be successful at work, but what’s happening to your marriage?” This is where people realize that health and family and connections with other people really are important; it is these realizations that can be life-changing, said Stevens.

Personal Agility is a simple coaching framework to help you figure out and live your life in accordance with what really matters, said Stevens at eXperience Agile. It is based on six powerful questions:

  • What really matters?
  • What did you accomplish last week?
  • What could you do?
  • Of those things, which are important or urgent?
  • Which ones do you want to get done this week?
  • Who can help?

With these questions, you can get better at managing your to-do list and at deciding what not to do, to end every week with satisfaction and start every week with confidence, he said.

John Willis gave examples of how burnouts are impacting the software development industry in an InfoQ Q&A on Burnout in the Software Industry:

In general, any organization that doesn’t deal with burnout can be impacted by the following:

  • Increased Healthcare Costs
  • Possible Lawsuits
  • Turnover (losing key employees)
  • Optics (related to the perception of future employees)

Hidden costs can also impact an organization:

  • Missed Deadlines
  • Missed Opportunities
  • Missed Threats
  • Decreased Innovation

In the Q&A, Willis mentioned three areas as burnout indicators: Exhaustion, Cynicism and Efficacy.

Earlier InfoQ interviewed Ashley Johnson on Personal Agility and Setting Higher Standards. He argued that personal agility is a kind of skill that is of particular importance to someone who wants to be a coach:

If I want to help you with your problems, I'd better be able to deal with my own problems. It doesn't mean I'm perfect. Perfection is a journey, not a destination, just like Lean is a journey, not a destination. We'll always find more ways to reduce, I'll always find something else to work on, but if I can't face my own challenges how in the world am I going to help you face yours.

According to Matarelli, Personal Agility offers a solution to the alignment problem in organizations: each staff member, department head or division chief can understand how their part fits into the larger whole, and collaborate with the people above, below or around them to do their part to achieve the larger goals of the organization.

InfoQ interviewed Stevens and Matarelli, both agile coaches and Certified Scrum Trainers, about Personal Agility.

InfoQ: How can you find out if you’re being successful or heading for a burnout?

Peter Stevens: That’s a really good question! It’s a really personal question, too. Some people define success through what they have. The house, the car, the job, the travel, the spouse, the kids... I am sure you’ve met people like that. Others define success by the impact they can have on the world. For example, my father was most proud of (and most remembered for) how he helped other people develop themselves. Others define success as simply being happy, e.g. by doing the things they want to do, without imposing themselves much on the outside world or being too constrained by others. It really depends.

Who can answer the question whether you’re successful or headed for a burnout? The only person who can really answer that is you. Are you happy with the life that you are leading? Are you doing things that matter to you? Do you look optimistically to the future? And are you getting enough rest? Is your life taking you where you want to go?

Maria Matarelli: I think burnout and failure are related, but not quite the same thing. Burnout is about exhaustion. Failure is about not seeing a way forward. Things can’t continue. You have to do something new.

It is possible to be successful and also on the verge of burning out. I found myself there a few years ago while traveling at an unsustainable pace. My tour through 80 cities and 15 countries in a year produced great business results, but my health really suffered. So you can burnout without failing.

Think of it this way: life is like the ocean, and you are the captain of a ship. What you do reflects what you care about and who you are. So look at what you’ve done recently. Look at what you are planning to do in the coming weeks. This is like checking your position with the GPS navigator. This tells you where you are coming from, and where you are going to. Is that where you want to go? If you are happy with where you are, then all is good, and if not, you can choose to make a course correction.

InfoQ: How do you define “Personal Agility”?

Matarelli: Personal Agility is like a GPS navigator for your life. It encourages you to celebrate your accomplishments and choose what is most important moving forward so you can stay on track.

As a navigator, Personal Agility helps you see the bigger picture. Personal Agility helps you look at all the forces in your life so you can create balance. Even if you are working hard, you can still remember and prioritize important things like your family or your own health, so that you can achieve both personal and professional goals.

Stevens: Personal Agility is a simple coaching framework; it is based on just six powerful questions, a weekly event for asking the questions, and an “information radiator” to help you understand and act upon the answers. You can do it yourself without needing agreement or permission from anyone else!

The key question “What really matters?” provides guidance for deciding how to spend your time. The next question, “What did you accomplish last week?”  helps you understand where you are and to feel good about yourself and what you’ve done! The next questions help you to figure out what is (or is not) important to do this week. “What could you do?” looks at possibilities; “Of those things, which are important or urgent?” helps you to identify the essentials; finally, “Which ones do you want to get done this week?” helps you set a course with realistic objectives, so you can make steady progress to achieve bigger goals. Finally “Who can help?” is a classic coaching question that helps you get unstuck.

InfoQ: You mentioned in your talk that Personal Agility is also a leadership style. Can you elaborate?

Matarelli: Personal Agility scales from the individual level to the organizational level. It’s not just about leading your life; you can use the same framework to coach and help others to do projects, deliver value, and align their work with the goals of the organization.

Whether that is your family, business team, or your organization, Personal Agility helps you develop your capacity to be a catalyst for positive changes in other people’s lives, businesses, and organizations.

Stevens: Everybody wants to be “agile”, but who really knows what that means? For an organization, agility is about aligning on goals, on the problems to be solved, and then collaborating on the solution. A leader does not simply tell people what to do, but rather activates the intelligence in the organization to solve important problems.

InfoQ: How can Personal Agility help to improve collaboration in organizations?

Stevens: Running a large organization is a challenging activity. According to the article Strategy 101: It's All About Alignment on Forbes, 65% of organizations have an agreed-upon strategy. Only 14% of employees understand the organization’s strategy and less than 10% of all organizations successfully execute their strategy.

Any organization needs:

  1. Capability: the ability to get stuff done
  2. Priority: the ability to get the right stuff done
  3. Alignment: the ability to create agreement among stakeholders on priorities
  4. Mindset: the common values and principles of the organization or “how we do things”

The difference between an agile organization and a classical organization is the underlying mindset, which is based on trust, transparency and rapid feedback instead of detailed command and control. Steve Denning calls this “The Law of the Network”. Information flows effortlessly through the organization.

Matarelli: Unlike other agile frameworks, Personal Agility does not challenge the structure of the organization or define new roles for people. It simply encourages communication through the discussion of powerful questions. Everyone can start with themselves, then extend to the management, staff or stakeholders as needed. So Personal Agility encourages an agile mindset without formally demanding any changes.

While we are still doing our research on this point, we do see some organizations applying the principles of Personal Agility: 1) to create more alignment around the important initiatives of the organization, 2) to manage the “spaces between the projects”, that is anything the leaders don’t delegate into projects or other formal entities, and 3) to introduce a coaching style of dialogue. The goal is to discuss the why to figure out the how and what, rather than using one-way communication to tell people what to do.

InfoQ: How can people get started with Personal Agility?

Stevens: We just finished chapter 2 of our book on Personal Agility, which walks you through how to get started. You can download the Personal Agility Guide, the current version of our book, Personal Agility, and other free resources.

Matarelli: People can also discuss how to apply Personal Agility in our online community and discussion forums on the website, and we provide many learning opportunities through online and in-person workshops. We are excited to see people using Personal Agility around the world throughout Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, Poland, Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam, Canada, and throughout the U.S.

About the Authors

Peter Stevens is a Certified Scrum Trainer who has been inspiring companies and individuals to transform themselves for a better way of working since 2006. He has taught Scrum to over 2000 people, mostly in Switzerland, Portugal, Italy and India. In 2012 he partnered with Steve Denning and others to host a rethinking of management in Stoos, Switzerland.

Maria Matarelli, an agile coach and Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), is passionate about helping people and organizations reach a higher level of performance. Matarelli travels to consult businesses from Shanghai to Singapore, Thailand, London, throughout the U.S. and many other locations. Matarelli also co-founded the Agile Marketing Academy as a forerunner in expanding Agile outside IT.

Stevens and Matarelli are co-founders of the Personal Agility Institute and are co-writing their new book on Personal Agility.


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