Building Great Products Requires Presence Over Planning

Episode 120

September 18, 2013



The Agile Weekly crew and Jim McCarthy discuss what it means to be human. That prioritizing presence over planning helps in building great products.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: Welcome to another episode of the Agile Weekly Podcast. I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich…

Roy VandeWater: I’m Roy vandeWater…

Jade: I’m Jade Meskill…

Derek Neighbors: I’m Derek Neighbors…

Jim McCarthy: I am Jim McCarthy. You got me in here.


Jade: We found this guy…

Jim: A major breakdown in their standards has occurred.


Jade: …stumbling down the street, away from shelter.

Clayton: It’s like the Hotel California. You may enter, but you may never leave.

Jim: This is my second time to Chandler. There’s been no trips up to Crystal Lake. I can see that the mass of things…It’s pretty cool down here. Actually, it’s pretty hot. But it’s a pretty cool place to be. I’ve got to admit. So, I’m glad I’m here.

Roy: That’s good.

Clayton: We’re glad to have you.

Jim: I’m going to get you up to Crystal Lake. We’re going to do the pod cast up there, too.

How Important Is Prioritizing Presence Over Planning

Clayton: Today we wanted to talk about presence over planning. Presence is more important than planning?

Jim: I’m willing to talk about that. I was just suggesting that as the basis of our starting this podcast.

Clayton: That seemed like a really good idea. I figure we should talk about it.

Jade: We are present, and there’s been no planning. What a better opportunity?


Jim: [inaudible 01:21] could pretend there was planning. We’re doing a boot camp right now. We’re in the first part of the boot camp and it’s just starting to get rich. I get off when they start to get off. I’m excited, enthused, and happy and I’m in.

Jade: Welcome.

Clayton Welcome

Roy: Welcome

Jim: It’s beautiful to watch.

Jade: That’s awesome. Much better than yesterday. That’s for sure.

Jim: It’s amazing how a little bit of time and persistent focus from their boss makes a big difference.

What’s The Trouble With Planning

Clayton: What’s the trouble with planning?

Jim: It’s just fictional. It’s like science fiction. You could write a good science fiction book. That’s something to do about [inaudible 02:12] that’s basically a plan. I have always found, especially when it comes to talking, that your presence will trump your planning every day of the week.

I’m in this room. We got four high end or nice microphones. We’ve got a mixer. We got four men, plus me. Whatever that means.


Jim: I’m looking from my perspective, there’s four men here. Anyway and we are going to talk because we are getting to be friends and its probably going to be interesting cause we are in the middle of this interesting experience. So, that’s what I meant by our presence would probably trump…

Jade: Uh, I’ve definitely been in planning meetings where there is no presence…

[Others agree]

Jade: … those are really terrible…

Clayton: It’s going through the motions, but, uh, half the people are thinking about …

Jade: …they are just doing work, or…

Clayton: …yeah, they’re just trying to get through it.

Jade: And the results are usually very poor.

An Involved Team Is More Energized

Clayton: Yeah, I found that you can energize a team if you get everybody involved in what they are doing, which I think is getting towards having presence over planning, so that they actually feel like their physically there, they feel like their mentally there and they feel like they are actually in, you know, they are in to what’s going on.

That makes a bigger difference then any other game or gimmick or technique or whatever anything I would ever really use.

Roy: So it’s the specific value that we are trying to get out of both presence and planning. Like, we are saying presence over planning, but in terms of what?

Planning Is Not Doing

Derek: So to me, like, I almost think that planning is evil. It’s almost like discussion in the sense of, planning is not doing, right, if we are planning were not doing, we are planning.

People get bogged down in the, just like they get down in the perfection of doing, so they never ship. If you just do and never ship that’s a problem too. Well if you just plan and never do, that’s a problem. And I think that if, to me, if everybody is present, like really emotionally present and really wants to do great things, great things will happen by people that are present doing things.

Roy: So then…

Derek: …I think planning kills energy, like, I mean that…

Clayton: …as far as a formalized process of planning?

Derek: Yeah, like, lets not do anything, lets just sit and complain…

What’s Next Instead of What’s Now Mentality

Jim: …like ‘what are we going to do next?’ That’s what it’s all about. Instead of ‘what are we doing now?’

Derek: Right.

Clayton: If you look at the boot camp, the beginning of it, before people have any alignment whatsoever, and people aren’t really present, it’s all about planning like, ‘when are we going to do the next thing?’ and ‘when’s this going to happen?’ and all that stuff.

And then when the people become present, like Derek said they are kind of like emotionally in and invested in it, that I think that’s when the planning doesn’t feel important anymore. It just comes together…

Jade: …the facade falls away…

Clayton: ..yeah, like you don’t know how it happens, but it happens.

Roy: But you still need some kind of urgency, like, you need an urgency to achieve some goal. So, I feel like that’s a really light form of plan. Like, you have to be doing something. You can’t just put a group of people in a room together and say, ‘be great, whenever you get around to it’. [laughs]

Jim: …and whatever medium you choose, and, well sort of we are saying that in this thing, but…

Derek: …but we are giving them a timeline…

Jade: …right, they have been given a goal…

Jim: …given a goal by a boss and the boss hasn’t been relenting.

The Assignment Is More Important Than The Plan

Derek: To me, that’s absence of an assignment. A team needs an assignment. I don’t necessarily know if they need a plan.

Clayton: I’ve seen plenty of plans without an assignment.

Roy: That’s true.

Jim: I’ve seen a lot more plans than achievements. There are tons more plans than achievements, right?

Clayton: Yep.

Go Do It, Then I Will Talk About It

Jim: Michelle’s got this thing that usually annoys me, but she’s always right about it. If she wants to discuss that something that isn’t creative, it’s like, “Oh, I’m not going to talk about that user interface. Go do a user interface and then, we’ll look at it.”

But to talk about it as if it had merits of various sides of various arguments and treat it as if it were already done, she just refused to do it. It’s always good advice, so we have a fight.

Jade: Well, that’s real and you can fight over the…

Jim: It’s not what’s real, we can see the work. Opinions are like butt‑holes, everybody’s got one.

Jade: That is the ultimate expression though of having a highly iterative process, not an incremental process, but an iterative process where, “Let’s just create something. Get it out there. See if it actually does what we want it to do. Then, let’s talk about what it doesn’t do and let’s go make that happen.”

That’s where a lot of Agile teams get hung up is they focus on going through the motions of following that process instead of looking at the product that they’re creating. Ultimately, looking at themselves as the team being the ultimate product that’s been created.

It’s Not About Doing Agile, It’s About Doing Something Meaningful

Derek: I don’t know how many times we hear, “How can I measure that we’re doing Agile right?” It’s like, “Who cares if you’re doing Agile off, you’re not doing anything meaningful with it.”

Jade: Are you shipping? Are you delivering great products? Then, you’re doing it well.


Jim: Exactly.

What If Everybody Just Trusted Each Other

Clayton: Someone asked me yesterday, they just got out of the experience of having this painful process of deciding something in this big group which planning is usually a bunch of people have to decide something and nobody ever wants to, competing interests and everything. They were asking me, “Why is it so hard?”

I asked them what it would be like if it were easy. The laughed and they’re like, “The easy answer is everybody trusts each other. People could just go do stuff and it would be OK with the group.”

I was like, “Yeah, that’s pretty good.”


Clayton: That’s how it goes. That is the easy answer, right? You can imagine if you had a planning meeting where the user interface thing comes up, rather than everybody arguing about what it should be, it’s, “Yeah, OK. We got that.”

Then, you go do it….


Jade: I like the idea of not discussing it until it’s been created.

Agile Hates Process

Derek: Some of that is process starts to become more a crutch for bad behavior. I find myself more and more getting frustrated as people say, these clients tend to ask, “How do we know whether we’re doing Scrum well or doing Kanban well, or doing whatever it is? How do we know our process is working?”

I say, “I hate Agile,” because I hate process. In reality, Agile hates process, too. It actually says, “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

How do we get to the point where everybody who’s “doing Agile” is arguing about process when we should be valuing individuals and the interactions of individuals over those processes and tools? One of the things I love about boot camp is that it melts all of that away and it just gets down to people.

Invariable, whoever the high‑performer in the room is, the first thing I want to do is throw all sorts of process on how to get these people productive. When, in reality, if they would just get down to getting to know the people and getting transparent and vulnerable with those people, they’d find that they’d get much better results and there would be absolutely no process to do.

How do you do that in an organization?

Jim: Like you said, it’s a very wise thing. You’ve got the sage of desert here.

Jade: He’s been called many things.



Clayton: Sage is a four letter word.

Jim: That’s my story on him and I’m going to stick to it because I like it.

Roy: In Arizona, they spell “sage” A‑S‑S.


Jim: Oh, is that what it means? In Arizona, they have a sage among them. I’ll stand next to him. He’s got a bright, red passionate love suit on and he’s very cherubic looking.


Stupidity Should Be Illegal

Jim: He smiles more than anyone, cackles a time or two. So, anyway, I’m getting all these people. Then, everything works out.

It is funny in boot camp, though, we try to make everything that’s stupid illegal in boot camp, because it’s happened before and it’s wrecked stuff. We go, “OK, that becomes against the law, that becomes against the law.”

All you’re left with is you, these other people, and the question in the beginning is, “What do you want?” That’s what they’ve been working on here for a couple of days. What’s so beautiful is they answer it, and they answer it more deeply. They start to smile, and their wrinkles actually go away, their stress has disappeared. It never fails to impress me how beautiful people are when they do try to be authentic.

Jade: They become humans.

Jim: Yes.

Where Did All The Humans Go

Jade: I think that’s what we’re missing so much in a lot of these organizations, at least the ones I’ve been working with. There are very few humans working there. There might be robots and reflex machines, but there’s really not a lot of actual, wonderful, beautiful people. They’re trapped in there somewhere.

Jim: I’ve noticed with you four ‑‑ I’ve been thinking about you four. This is a great team here, they really love each other. They’re always laughing. You can hear Jade’s laughter booming…


Laughter And Crying In The Workplace

Jade: There is a laugh track.

Clayton: Check that out on video, yeah.

Jim: They’re always laughing, and it’s like, “Well, that’s it.” If you’re laughing you’re going to live forever, you know? Let’s at least believe that, what the hell.


Jim: Laughing, that’s what’s so great about my marriage. My wife loves to laugh. She laughs at my stupid jokes. Someone was just telling me that they really like listening to our podcast. He said, “I’m jealous ‑‑ Michelle thinks you’re the funniest thing.” I was like, “I know, I don’t blame you for being jealous!”


Jim: It’s just such a great thing to have to laugh. They’re starting to laugh a little more in there. You have to cry too. I said this morning, “It’s good to cry at work.” What a dumb thing to have to say. Of course, no‑one’s paying me very much to say it either.

One young woman who’s brand new to the workforce said, “Well, thank you for telling us that.” I told her afterwards that she was so encouraging, and that it was brave of her to encourage me on such a radical point.

Jade: Yeah.

Jim: It’s not radical, of course, that humans cry. I don’t know how I got into this [mumble] just present that’s what happened to me today that was impressive.

Clayton: Jade’s point of being human ‑‑ I think if you had a personal relationship with someone and they were telling you some issue, or explaining something about them, and they got emotional, started crying, all the things you’re not supposed to do at work. That’s an interaction that you have with that person as maybe a friend, a spouse or whatever.

You have this human‑on‑human connection, but then someone exhibits behavior like that at work where they act like they’re human. It’s like, “Whoa, this doesn’t follow the guidebook. I’m not supposed to have this interaction with this person. I’m not supposed to love them…”

Jade: “This is an HR problem.”


Clayton: Yeah, it’s an HR problem…


Roy: At the very least, I’m uncomfortable because now I feel like I have to reciprocate and I’m not comfortable doing that.

Clayton: That’s part of it, yeah.

Human Resource Violations For Relationships

Derek: I was working with a client. One of the topics that came up in one of their ‑‑ they do lean coffee on a regular basis ‑‑ is, “How do you foster relationships?” It’s against the HR policy to friend somebody on Facebook who is your direct report. You’re not allowed to be emotionally connected to people who report to you. How does that work?


Derek: How do you get results…

Jade: …Ask him, “How’s that working for you?”

Jim: I’m going to take a wild guess that it’s not working very well. It might be, but there’s a lot of surreptitious Facebook friends. It’s like when it’s not legal to make love with people you work with. OK…Then a lot of [inaudible 14:24] takes place.


Jim: Any time you try and outlaw basic human qualities, you just create lawbreakers.

Derek: Maybe they’re just trying to ingeniously promote that behavior?


Derek: They’re trusting in the rebellious attitude of their employees.


Jim: …That’s what the boss says, then that might work. It seems like a long way to go.

Jade: Our question was, “How do we do this in organizations?”

Jim: Yes, that was the question you asked.

Jade: We have to be organized very differently. The organizations still.

Loving Our Co-Workers and Ourselves

Jim: We have to be committed, personally, to loving our neighbors and ourselves. That’s enough. We don’t really need a degree or a different boss. It’s true that some people might come down on you, and you have to be willing to move on. Your own love and life is more important than a particular job.

The example we have before us today is the guy that brought these people to this boot camp. Took a big risk. I had a boss, he’d say, ” [inaudible 15:38] you’re acting like a one‑armed paper hanger!”


Jim: That’s what ‑‑ boom, he’s working his ass off trying to keep it all going, taking a big risk. He cares. I did say to him and his wife both ‑‑ he brought his wife and his child, which is very telling. He’s just a very admirable guy. If you’re in a position of authority and you want to have a great team, you have to do the sorts of things he’s doing for his team. He’s discharging his responsibility as an adult [inaudible 16:15] in their behalf.

Roy: What good is having a lot of responsibility if you never use it?

Jim: That’s my point. That’s the guys that’s sitting around trying to control people.

Derek: Now that you’ve opened up that door, one of the interesting things to me about this boot camp is that several wives attended.

Jim: Yes.

Derek: It was interesting. At the end of the first day, I challenged the other interim guys. I said, “I suspect we’re going to lose a wife between today and tomorrow.”

Jim: Not permanently?

Clayton: [laughs] No. That they wouldn’t come back.

Separating Work and Life

Derek: One or more won’t come back, this is probably too awkward for them. We ended up gaining a wife ‑‑ a spouse ended up showing up that wasn’t there during the first day, and we didn’t lose any.

Why is it that as a world, we try so damn hard to separate work from who we are? Why do we insist on being prostitutes to our work? What dynamic is at play that we just can’t, for whatever reason, allow ourselves to integrate who we are with what we do?

Jim: Possibly it’s our heritage of slavery. Work was something you wanted to spare your loved ones, because basically you’re checking in to be a wage slave at best.

Jade: I think some of it is the shackles of modernism. That’s how it’s supposed to work, things are supposed to be very clean, sanitary, separate and compartmentalized. It’s not actually how we work best as humans. We’re very messy and sloppy, and things are all over the place.

Roy: And things are fun. We have heard so many times, “Hey, you guys are having too much fun. You can’t be working hard.” Or, “You can’t be doing good work, because you’re having too much fun. You need to stop that. Work is a place for work, not a place for fun.”

Jade: Like Jim said, my laughter tends to permeate the building. It causes trouble.

Why People Hate Their Jobs

Clayton: A lot of people just hate their jobs. They have crappy jobs they don’t like, but they’re too afraid to get out of them.

Jade: That’s because they don’t like themselves.

Roy: They think they’re supposed to hate their jobs.

Clayton: Yeah, they think they have to do this rat race thing and all that stuff, but if I hated my job, you bet your ass I would not ever want to think or talk about it. I would totally separate those two things.

Jade: I think that the modern story is that you do hate your job and you hate your boss. You hate all these things. If you went around telling people that you loved your boss, which I encourage you to do…


Jim: In this place, yeah. I love my boss…


Jade: People would think you’re insane, right? They wouldn’t want to relate to you.

Roy: I’ve got friends that get upset at me when I talk about the fact that I love my job. They get mad at me like it’s my fault that I enjoy what I do.

Jim: It is your responsibility. You have created it.


Jade: You’re breaking the system.

Roy: That’s true, but I’m not ‑‑ like I’m slighting them, I guess, which is not what I’m doing.

Jim: Derek, I think you and I were in a workshop somewhere in an open space. We went to this thing. We just barely knew each other. The thing was the work‑life balance. It made me so mad to even hear that phrase that I went in there to attack it. Before I could, the sage…


Jim: …of the desert spoke up and said, “I don’t think there even should be such an idea as work‑life balance.” I went, “You got that right.” We just really got into it.


Jim: Everybody in the room was afraid to go talk and brag about how they achieved this balance, which, by the way, I’ve asked thousands of people if they’ve ever lived the work‑life balance.

Jade: What does that even mean?

Roy: That means you do as little work as possible.

Jim: It means that you must have civil war between your job and your home.

Jade: Yeah. It’s like oil and water.

Jim: Work‑life balance. Good grief.

Jade: Work‑life integration, right?

Jim: That’s exactly right. That’s my only solution I’ve ever been able to come up with, is you integrate your work.

Derek: I look at it, if you’re not doing your life’s work, stop whatever you’re doing and start doing your life’s work. What it means is, I’m punching a clock that has no meaning to my life at all. I’m simply showing up.

Jim: But I have a mortgage.

Derek: I think we said of the business, you’re no different than a prostitute. “I am only doing this transaction for money.”

Jade: Some of them like their work. [laughs]

Derek: There is no love. But that might be their life’s work.

Jim: That’s different.

Derek: I’m not degrading prostitutes here. I’m just saying…

[laughter and crosstalk]

Jim: My life’s work is my sexuality.

Derek: If I go to work every single day and I’m miserable and feel like I’m just being taken advantage of, but I’m willing to do that because there’s some paycheck on the end of it, I don’t see how that’s any…to me, is indistinguishable from prostitution or whatever you call it. I’m selling myself for…

Jim: It’s a type of slavery, is the way I look at it.

Derek: Yeah, slavery, prostitution, you name it.

Jim: It’s voluntary slavery similar.

Doing Meaningful Work

Derek: If you get to a point where I’m doing meaningful work, wouldn’t you want everybody that’s close to you to be part of that work?

If I’m doing my life’s work and I’m doing something that’s meaningful to me, by de facto standard, wouldn’t I want all of the people that I love to partake in me? If I can’t separate me from the work that I’m doing, and if I want to give me to the people I love, by default, am I not including them in the work that I’m doing?

Jade: I think that’s a great point. I get asked a lot about that, about the things that I do with Gangplank and giving so much away and doing all this stuff. “Oh, how selfless.” I say, “No, no, no, no, you don’t understand. This is the most selfish thing I can do, because this is all about making the world better for me.”

Jim: It’s self‑indulgent at its core.

Jade: Yeah, which I think has the greatest benefit. It benefits other people, as well, but, really, it’s about making the world better for myself.

Jim: If it didn’t, you’d still do it, right?

Jade: Yeah.

Jim: It’s just coincidental that we’re pursuing virtue in this BootCamp. It’s just a happy ‑‑ very happy ‑‑ coincidence that virtue tends to pay off. If [inaudible 22:23] were necessary, I’m sorry to say, I’d be recommending it [laughs] because the fundamental unit is to make your life effective, to make it achieve what you want to achieve in the time you’re willing to spend on it.

That is, as you say, Jade…The only problem I have with the idea of life’s work is, it’s too hard for young people to have that…”I don’t know what my life’s work is.” I got my 18‑year‑old saying that. I’m like, [laughs] “I really didn’t expect you to at this…”

Jade: [laughs] “You still got plenty of time to figure that out.”

Jim: I said, “How about if you pursue what you want, and that’ll probably…If you’re human, you’ll end up making that so noble that you get to keep doing it forever.”

Derek: You have been but [inaudible 23:08] we encourage, if somebody’s 17, 18, whatever age they are, and they don’t know what they want, we can start by saying, “If you don’t know what your life’s work is, you should get to work understanding what your life’s work is, whatever that is.”

Jim: Yeah, or just pursue what you want, and trust that that will work out.

Derek: Yeah, that’s what it means.

Jim: Right, same difference.

Derek: If you have something you want, you start there, and maybe that uncovers other things that you really want. But if you don’t start ‑‑ it’s like planning, like, “I want to plan the perfect career for me.” [mumbles] I don’t know. Why don’t you…?

Jade: Good luck with that.

Derek: Why don’t you start doing what you want to do? You might find out that that’s not what you want to do, and you…


Build What You Want

Jim: Right. Typically, you’ll find that you spent too much money and the whole decade of your 20s, typically, on something that someone else told you would make you secure.

Jade: That sounds just like product development.

Jim: Personal development?

Jade: No, product. We indulge in these things. We get these great budgets. We put together these wonderful plans on this thing that we think that we want. Then, we actually build it and realize that it’s not the thing that we want.


Roy: Or that other…

Jade: Where, if we actually pursued what we truly wanted, we would build a really great product that we would be proud of, that our teams would be excited about, that everybody would be invested in making successful.

Jim: You might even be disappointed in the first few rounds.


Jade: Of course, but, ultimately, if I continue to pursue that…

Jim: “Wait a minute. I thought of this beautiful thing, and this turd came out.” It’s hard, but if you just do it, you’re so much better off.

I spent a bunch of time pursuing poetry and fiction writing. Then, when I saw a computer, I learned what writing was, for me. It was like, “Oh, yeah, baby. Yeah, baby.” You pursue shadow things, maybe, at first, a little, when you’re a kid. Plus, it’s a list of things to choose from that’s pre‑ordained. Didn’t have any idea of a personal computer.

Find The Stuff You Can’t Avoid Doing and Must Do

Derek: I think my advice to young people is explore. Get out there and taste things, because whatever the current list is, is not what’s really available. In the end, you can…

Jim: That’s the old people’s version.

Derek: You can do great things that people don’t even know about yet. Once you get a taste of that, that’s where the good stuff is, is creating the stuff that nobody’s ever seen. But the only way you’re going to do that is to be exposed to a lot of different stuff, so you can have new ideas to create from.

Jim: Find the stuff that you can’t avoid doing, that you just must do, regardless, and then increasingly make more and more room in your life for that. It was funny. About a year ago, I asked Michele, “Michele, is there something that you just do, that when you do it, you’re totally happy?” She says, “Oh, yeah, when I play tennis.” I go, “OK, how about tripling the amount of time you spend playing tennis?” She did, and she’s much happier.

It seems like, again, a dumb thing to say. “If there’s something that you do that you love, do it more.”


Clayton: “The easy answer is to play more tennis.”

Jade: “Imagine that.”

Clayton: “Good idea.”


Jim: I heard you in your talk, Jade, that great talk ‑‑ everybody needs to go listen to Jade’s talk at Livermore x.

Jade: TEDxLivermore?

Jim: TEDx conference. You said that your grandfather gave you the money to build a computer. Wow.


Jade: Not only that, he took me down and did it with me.

Jim: That was a good thousand bucks, wasn’t it?

Jade: Yeah.

Jim: Did he ever spend ‑‑ did anybody ever spend anything better than to give Jade Meskill a thousand bucks to build a computer? Gave him his life.

Jade: Even more so, he gave me his time to do it.

Jim: He did it with you?

Jade: Yeah, we did it together. It wasn’t just a check. He took me down and we bought the stuff. We built it together.


Jade: Not only that, he told me he learned things that he didn’t know he knew.

Jim: I would guess so. That’s the deal. They’re little learning machines. That’s why we love them so. That was so cool. Do something like that for your kids or friends or whatever. One little gift like that makes all the difference if it’s the thing they love.

Jade: I ran into somebody the other day at Gangplank. They were doing some stuff and they said, “I just can’t believe that a place like this exists. I would’ve never been able to do…” this thing that they were doing “…without having it.”


Jade: I was like, “That’s amazing.”

Jim: Right. That is amazing.

Jade: And so easy, so simple.

If You Are Struggling At Work You Are On The Wrong Path

Jim: If you’re struggling at work, you’re on the wrong path.

Derek: Don’t stay in pain.

Jade: I think that really comes down to what we’re talking about. If you’re fully present, then why are you…?

Jim: We’re having fun. The guitars aren’t out yet, but when they come out, things get even better. We got a couple of guitar players, and I’m going to learn to dance. So there, Michele.

[laughter and crosstalk]

Jim: I’m on it. I’m on it. That was my new alignment. That’s the evidence to my new alignment.

Derek: We can challenge his integrity now, Michele. We’ll help you do that.

Jim: That’s right. The Hippocratic Oath will take it from here.

Clayton: With that, we’re going to go to Jim’s dancing lessons. Thanks for listening. Thanks, Jim.

Jim: Thank you for having me.

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