0.5 Ways of Working
Our Guest This Episode: Kim Brainard
This week, the podcast team sits down with Kim Brainard, founder of Agile Brain and known “People Whisperer”, to discuss Scrum framework and humanizing the way we work. Kim reminds us to treat people as people…not as mere resources. Whether that be as a team or with other stakeholders—or as she calls them, people—humanizing the workplace can make a big difference in the success of a project. Kim also provides an overview of what Scrum is, how it applies to projects, and discusses the neurological triggers that attract teams to embrace it.
Kim is a trainer, speaker, coach, and former co-chair for Scrum Alliance’s Global Gathering 2017. Kim is sometimes referred to as “Unconventional” for her creative tactics to generate transparency and encourage self-development. She has experience in creating a shared vision among the enterprise and building a strong, united leadership to empower organizations to achieve a successful Agile transformation. Kim is a Certified Scrum Professional, an active participant in the Scrum Alliance Community, and has over 8 years of Agile experience and 15 years’ experience in IT project planning, implementation, and execution. She is founder of Santa Paysitforward, a non-profit organization where she’s applied Agile principles, and which gives back to elderly who are without family and in need.
Listen in to this week's episode to learn the benefits of Scrum and how you can enhance your knowledge, skills and abilities to increase performance in the workforce.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
"We all get dressed and go in to work, but let’s not forget to be human. And so my approach to things is let’s sit down and form relationships and build relationships. Let’s get to know one another so we can have a sense of trust. And so that’s what it’s – it’s just whispering, “Let’s be human to one another.”"
"It’s about ensuring that you take the time to communicate and educate and ensure that those individuals within your organizations know when and where to interact with the Scrum team."
"They’re self-directed on a Scrum team. They actually get excited. Those endorphins in their brain kick off, and they want to achieve and become better as a team, and ensuring that they’re continuously improving that product. And it gives them purpose. When you’re feeling that you’re the one that’s self-directing, and you’re continuously improving, you’ve found a purpose. And when we feel that we have a purpose, we tend to be happy."
NICK WALKER: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. This is our every-other-week time to meet and discuss what matters to you as a professional in the field of project management. We talk about trends in the profession. We share opinions and perspectives. And we pick the brains of some of the best in the business, getting to the heart of what motivates them and what makes them successful.
I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me is the one who is never hesitant to share his opinion, Andy Crowe. Bill Yates is on vacation; so Andy, it’s all on you today.
ANDY CROWE: And I’ve got an opinion about Bill choosing to take a vacation, but yeah.
NICK WALKER: Uh-huh. Well, today we are privileged to talk with someone who has built her reputation on bringing out the best in people. Kim Brainard is a trainer, a coach, a facilitator, and consultant. It is her passion to help organizations and individuals develop a vision for their potential growth and development. Through her company, Agile Brain, she utilizes creative tactics and street-style coaching that brings out the best in people. Kim has over eight years of Agile experience, and 15 years of experience in IT project planning, implementation, and execution. She is a certified Scrum professional and an active participant in the Scrum Alliance community
Kim is also the founder of Santa Pays It Forward, a nonprofit organization committed to giving back to elderly men and women who are without family and in need. She implements the Scrum framework and Agile principles to make the organization successful. Kim joins us from the Washington, D.C. area. And Kim, thank you so much for being here on Manage This.
KIM BRAINARD: Andy and Nick, thank you so much for having me. Happy Monday.
NICK WALKER: Over the years, Kim, you have become what some people have called the “People Whisperer,” connecting with people on an intimate, individual level. What is it about your techniques that have earned you that name?
KIM BRAINARD: So it’s very interesting. In fact, I just had a meeting last week with someone I had interviewed for a position with a client. And one of the things they said was, “Well, we felt maybe you would never act that way or be that way in front of a client.” And I said, “Oh, I’m sorry, which way is that?” And they said, “Well, you were a little goofy, and it almost just seemed like I was sitting down with you, and we were just having a good time. Would you really act that way at a client site?” I said, “Absolutely.”
That’s why I say I’m a little unconventional, because it’s about humanizing work. Sometimes we get dressed up in our three-piece suits and our heels, and we go out, especially in the D.C. area, and we speak one way, but we mean the other. And what I mean about meaning the other is humanizing what we do and say. And so we all get dressed and go in to work, but let’s not forget to be human. And so my approach to things is let’s sit down and form relationships and build relationships. Let’s get to know one another so we can have a sense of trust. And so that’s what it’s – it’s just whispering, “Let’s be human to one another.”
ANDY CROWE: You know, Kim, I started my career when I was in college, co-oping with IBM. And that was a really amazing experience. But it’s funny because I did not at that point get the importance of being human. It almost felt like everybody there was on their “A” game all the time, that they were so incredibly professional. And again, this is in the ’80s, and things have changed with IBM. IBM’s an amazingly resilient and adaptive organization, so they aren’t the same as they were then. But I was intimidated to no end. And I never wanted to bring anything personal into that office. I was all work, all the time.
KIM BRAINARD: Oh, yeah.
NICK WALKER: It seems like this is almost a paradigm shift maybe for some organizations. Is it?
KIM BRAINARD: Oh, absolutely. And it’s interesting. I love what Andy said, it’s that we always felt that we had to be on our “A” game at all times. And people still feel that way. But when you coach them and say it’s okay to not always be right, it’s okay to share your thoughts, people have that aha moment. And when you have that aha moment, these endorphins in your brain go off. I actually love to call these “ta-da moments,” where, hey, maybe I’m failing a little bit. Maybe we’re not meeting numbers or meeting quotas the way the company would like to. But we’re becoming more innovative because we’re sharing thoughts and ideas and allowing those ta-da moments, meaning, hey, I’m not right, right now, but I share them, so we’re generating ideas. We’re getting into conversations. And that way we’re building relationships, and we’re also increasing productivity, as well.
ANDY CROWE: Kim, I’ve got a question for you.
KIM BRAINARD: Sure.
ANDY CROWE: First of all, I’m really glad that you’re on the show today. For one reason, we have not done enough just pure Scrum. We’ve talked about Agile many times, but we haven’t really done much with Scrum. Can you tell me your role with the Scrum Alliance?
KIM BRAINARD: Sure, absolutely. So I’ve been an active participant with the Scrum Alliance for several years now. In 2017 I was the co-chair for the Scrum Alliance at the Global Scrum Gathering in San Diego. And really what it’s about is bringing these individuals together, and it’s about those interactions and the simplicity of just those words. Sometimes we get into this, let’s take this simple framework and begin to break pieces apart or add pieces in it. And really it is, when you’re doing that, you’re not doing Scrum. And even Dean Leffingwell will also say it with SAFe. If you can’t do Scrum well, then don’t do SAFe.
ANDY CROWE: Well, you don’t want to scale it, exactly.
KIM BRAINARD: Right, you don’t scale it. So if you’re not doing the simple things correctly, why try to break the small pieces of the frame?
ANDY CROWE: There’s a book that has circulated around here in the office quite a bit, the “Nail It Then Scale It” model. I have not read that book, but a lot of people who work here have. And the whole idea is you get your practices down before you start expanding them outward. Oftentimes that is not the case. People roll things out, these global initiatives, without ever really refining the processes on the front end.
Kim, I’ve got a question for you. You mentioned these interactions earlier. What kind of interactions are you looking for in a healthy, either a Scrum project or a Scrum environment? What are you looking for in that?
KIM BRAINARD: I’m going to answer that for you in two ways. The first is it’s good to approach the entire organization, meaning it’s important for everyone in the organization to understand their role and where they come in because Scrum has three roles. You have the product owner, you have the development team. And you have a Scrum Master. And nowhere does it say we have a project manager. We have a program management office. We have a CEO; a CCO. And so all of these individuals are still relevant in an organization.
And so it doesn’t mean because we’re going to implement Scrum that, hey, here’s your pink slip, and good luck on your next job. What it is, it’s about when you’re implementing Scrum in an organization – and you can do this at a small scale or large scale; see it work in our government sector as well as small start-ups. It’s about ensuring that you take the time to communicate and educate and ensure that those individuals within your organizations know when and where to interact with the Scrum team. And so that communication is just so essential because everybody truly plays a role in helping a Scrum team be successful.
ANDY CROWE: We’re doing a project here internally, and it is a pretty complicated project. And for this particulate one I’ve taken on the role of customer. And so it’s a very interesting dynamic within the organization because sometimes the team has a little bit of a question about how to relate to me on that because that’s a different role. Even though it’s internal to the organization, I’m their customer now and providing the voice of the customer on the project and advocating for certain elements of the product. But it’s just a different role. So it turns things upside down. That’s one of the fun things about Scrum.
KIM BRAINARD: Andy, I appreciate those challenges. It’s hard to be seen as one role and also play another role. And it’s important that a Scrum team, especially that development team, when they’re going to their Sprint Review, that they understand how to interact with those stakeholders such as yourself. I like to actually call those stakeholders “people” because I’m sure last time you checked you did have a heartbeat, and you were a person, and that’s a part of humanizing the work. But a lot of failures that I do see is that organizations actually don’t bring in the customer. They don’t bring in those stakeholders. They’re afraid to bring in the CEO because, oh my gosh, what if we don’t do something right? What if it’s not perfect? And there’s a lot of what ifs. And there’s almost a stigma around that, being afraid to show what may not be perfect.
What Scrum does is it says, hey, let’s have an opportunity for that CEO, for the customer to come in and see what’s there because what you’re doing is you’re showing a piece, a slice of value. Not the whole pie, just a slice of the value. And people get excited because they see those small pieces. And it also begins to build relationships. You don’t always see the development team meeting with the CEO. So you have these levels that have never come together before begin to form relationships that no other organizations used to have.
NICK WALKER: Kim, I should tell you that one of my privileges as an outsider to the world of project management is that I get to ask the dumb questions. So can you just give me sort of a little thumbnail definition of Scrum and how it applies to what you’re doing?
KIM BRAINARD: So the first thing I would say is that Scrum is lightweight. It’s truly simple to understand. However, it’s difficult to master because remember what I was explaining to Andy earlier was that people take the frame, and they begin to say, oh, well, we can just do this, and we can just do that, or add this and break this up and apart. The idea is that you want to have those three roles there for a purpose. The product owner is empowered to have that product. They have that experience around that product. They’re empowered by the organization because they’re that sole person, not a committee.
Then you have a Scrum Master. They are the master of the process. They’re the ones that are there to help coach and educate the organization, not just the Scrum team. They’re also there to help facilitate when asked. They’re there to remove any impediments because we as an organization, we always get in the way. And people want – they have that desire to get in and get their hands into everything. So the Scrum Master kind of just says, slaps them on the hand very kindly and says, “Let me educate you on when and where your role should be.” The Scrum Master really doesn’t slap anybody, but – at least we hope not.
And then you have a development team. And this is where organizations are really having a challenge. They are dedicated. They’re full-time. Their competencies consist of engineering, development, systems. This is your UX, your user experience. This is your business analysts. Whatever it takes to put a product together, that’s your development team. And so we want to ensure that we have T-shaped people, meaning we want to have breadth, not depth. We want to ensure that their people are cross-trained so that if, hey, I want to win the Lottery, we have all the competency levels there.
And then you have all the others in the organization. They come in, and they get to actually review your product every week, every two weeks, because Scrum is simple. We don’t want to have six months. We don’t want to have a year timeframe. We want to continuously deliver business value frequently. And so we want to have sprints. That’s the heart of Scrum. We’re not really running, but we’re trying to deliver value as quickly as possible and within less than a month. Typically nowadays we see sprints last one to two weeks.
And we also want to inspect and adapt. I have a hard enough time in my own personal relationships. I probably wish I would have had a retrospective. That’s one of the most critical events in Scrum, where we inspect and adapt our relationships. And so why wouldn’t we inspect and adapt our relationships in the workplace? Which is truly how Scrum is so successful because we actually take that time to see how we can improve and be more innovative. How can we improve our relationships on the Scrum team and maybe just in our organization with our stakeholders?
ANDY CROWE: And the thing I love about Scrum and Agile in general is that the way our team improves for the next iteration or sprint may look very different from the way another one does. It’s not a one-size-fits-all type adaptation; is it?
KIM BRAINARD: No, not at all. And one of the things that I do in my training is that I absolutely love Dan Pink. If you’ve ever heard of Dan Pink’s book “Drive”?
ANDY CROWE: Yes.
KIM BRAINARD: It’s what makes us tick. What makes you tick in the morning? And we want to apply that autonomy, mastery, and purpose among our Scrum teams. A lot of project managers, including myself, used to take, I used to call it “the hand,” and go in, and I felt like I had these puppets that I used to, you know, I would give them work, and I would tell them my opinion. But I found that when I’m giving my opinion and sharing my opinion, and it was me, me, I, I, that team began to go like this. Silence. Not sharing, not innovating, and not having those ta-da moments where they could have a safe environment to be wrong because their manager was overspeaking them.
But with autonomy, mastery, purpose, people have that. They’re self-directed on a Scrum team. They actually get excited. Those endorphins in their brain kick off, and they want to achieve and become better as a team, and ensuring that they’re continuously improving that product. And it gives them purpose. When you’re feeling that you’re the one that’s self-directing, and you’re continuously improving, you’ve found a purpose. And when we feel that we have a purpose, we tend to be happy.
ANDY CROWE: I like that. I’m a big fan of Daniel Pink, and he’s one of the few people out there really coming up with some really innovative research-based ideas, new ideas about teams and about performance. So I appreciate you bringing him into that very much.
KIM BRAINARD: Oh, yeah.
ANDY CROWE: I’m curious about something that we know about you, and that is that you’re a fan of brain-based learning. So say more about that. What is brain-based learning?
KIM BRAINARD: Absolutely. So think about it like this. When you were a kid – probably you’re around in our age group. When we went to school, I had a little desk. And I sat there in my classroom all day long. And who did the most talking when you were in school?
ANDY CROWE: Well, obviously the teacher. Well, probably me, but…
KIM BRAINARD: But in traditional learning, who does the most talking?
ANDY CROWE: Oh, the teacher.
NICK WALKER: Yeah, sure.
KIM BRAINARD: Yeah. In our traditional meetings, who does the most talking?
ANDY CROWE: Right. And that goes back to the quote/unquote “smartest guy in the room,” which is a really scary idea; you know?
KIM BRAINARD: Oh, yeah. And so one of the things that I love about – again, we’re humanizing the way we work. We’re humanizing our training. We’re humanizing how we get things done. Let’s not put people behind a conference table or on a virtual call and have them not speak. Again, they want to have purpose. People actually, if they’re attending something, they’re there for a purpose. And we want to have interaction, again, going back to the individuals and interactions. So therefore brain science actually states that when we’re applying these trumps, meaning the brain-based principles of learning, that we’re up and moving. We’re actually using illustration because we remember when we illustrate something.
Now, I’m not a – I can’t illustrate worth a darn, but my stick figures are improving day by day. And when we’re actually doing something that’s different versus the same old same in that you’ve had every single day, you’re retaining that information. The endorphins in your brain are being set off, and therefore it goes even to what Daniel Pink states. You’re beginning to have that – you self-direct because you’re beginning to have a purpose. You’re getting better at it because you’re enjoying it.
Now, there’s also the introverts and extroverts. Don’t worry, introverts, we’re not going to have you up doing jumping jacks and shouting out answers during meetings or in training. We’re setting a safe environment. The idea is that we’re allowing the brain to get more oxygen. We want to ensure that we’re timeboxing interaction between a speaker and those that are learning or listening.
ANDY CROWE: And so when you go on to an Agile team, and you begin to work with them, how do you facilitate some of this? How do you help them move in this direction?
KIM BRAINARD: First, we really just have a conversation. It’s getting to know one another. One of the first things I always say – because everyone’s like, “Well, let’s get started. We’re having these problems. We have to move on.” It’s that first let’s slow down before we ramp up. And meaning, again, you know, hopefully we’re not going to make out on the first date. We kind of should get to know one another a little bit. You know, dessert is good, but let’s start off with an appetizer.
And I apply that into the coaching world, as well, as well as in the training class. It’s, “Let’s get started in getting to know one another. What is your purpose?” Because sometimes these individuals and organizations are forced to be in that position, forced to be on that team. And we want to help the culture and help shift our mindsets of how can we actually improve our relationship. So it really goes back to let’s build a relationship before we have dessert, meaning before we start being productive, so we have that safety, we have the trust, and we want to be able to communicate well together.
NICK WALKER: Are you able to get to dessert fairly quickly? Or does that come much later?
KIM BRAINARD: We do. We really do. So one of the first things that I do…
ANDY CROWE: Yeah, Kim, how many dates does it take? Sorry.
KIM BRAINARD: Well.
ANDY CROWE: Yeah, you started it.
KIM BRAINARD: It’s really a great analogy. And what I honestly do is what we just did. It’s let’s have a little laughter here because a lot of times when I get called in to these organizations, and they say “Help,” you know, “We’re never going to dessert,” it’s let put a little humor into it. Let’s have a little fun. Let’s begin to have these conversations, how we can humanize our conversations. And so we do something called a “working agreement.” So I facilitate a working agreement. We also do some teambuilding exercises. And I do that in a workshop setting, where there’s also some type of training. But you get a sense of what has – and it’s also that retrospective, as well, mixed in that workshop. So you’re getting an idea of, all right, this is what hasn’t gone well for us. This is what I’d like to see. And then I also say, you know, all right, I appreciate that, and I understand how everyone feels because change is hard.
You know, a lot of people are like, all right, we’re going to do a transformation. We’re changing, and we need everybody bought into this right now. And it really is – let’s go back to brain-based learning is that you’re beginning to change brain structure, not the organization structure. And changing the brain structure and how we think is not just an overnight switch. So we have to be patient with the people that we’re working with because change takes time.
I mean, my mom actually said to me, “You’re getting into Agile transformation, meaning you’re supposed to be flexible, meaning you’re supposed to be open-minded.” She’s like, “What is my daughter doing?” She’s like, “You always have been reluctant to change.” And that’s because change takes time. And so I coach the leaders that understand that even you may not be happy with everything that happens. So please be open-minded and understand that change will take time in this organization. Transformation takes time.
And so to answer your question, how long does it take to get to dessert? Very quickly, as long as individuals can be open to humanizing their work, building relationships, and understanding that transformation will take time.
ANDY CROWE: One of the things that we’ve found when we’re doing an Agile project, and it takes a little bit of time to get – you mentioned this T-shape within the team, which is a great way of describing it. You know, Nick, we call the development team the “generalizing specialists” a lot of times. And what we’re looking at is people who can be applied and cover for each other because on a Scrum project you make a commitment as a team. And so it’s not – individual commitments don’t matter as much as the team is saying, “During this next sprint, here’s what we’re going to get done.” And they commit to a body of work.
And this whole idea, it takes a while, especially if you’ve come from a siloed environment, which is a lot of times very closed and protective. It takes a while to open up, to realize that, you know what, we rise and fall as a team. We are not going to – there are no superstars or standouts here. It’s really our success is bound to each other. So it makes a big difference.
KIM BRAINARD: And you have to be okay with that. And some people will not want to play with the team.
ANDY CROWE: Right.
KIM BRAINARD: And that’s okay.
ANDY CROWE: Eh.
KIM BRAINARD: I use the analogy that my mom made me go be a cheerleader when I was little. And so I did that for a year, and I was like, yeah, this is just not for me. And that’s one of the things that I love to talk to leaders about is that that’s okay. But be proud of that individual for trying, and allow them to then grow elsewhere in the company.
ANDY CROWE: Yeah. Kim said, “I don’t want to be a cheerleader. I’ll be a coach instead.”
NICK WALKER: Yeah, exactly. Hey, Kim, I want to ask you about something. And to our listeners, this may sound like a change of subject, but I suspect that it’s not entirely. You are the founder of an organization called Santa Pays It Forward. This is a nonprofit committed to helping elderly men and women who have no family. They’re in need. Tell me how this got started.
KIM BRAINARD: Ooh, you’re going to pull my heartstrings here. Ooh, okay. Hoo. All right. So this is a touchy one. That’s a good question. So I grew up mostly with my grandmother. She’s now 97 years old. Her name is Pauline, and she’s just an amazing woman. And I always made sure I spent some time with her, and I still do. And one day I went with her to a home to visit a friend, and it was just so sad and dreary and lonely.
And so one Christmas I was made aware of this woman, an older woman who was probably going to have her last Christmas. And so she had grandchildren, her family, her son and daughter who were in this home. And I went, and I made cookies, and had all this stuff that I went and bought for them. And I went and took this cart with a big stocking down the hallway, and all of these people looked at me with these hopeful eyes, that I was going to stop by their room.
And so I went into April’s room, and I delivered all the gifts, and they had a wonderful Christmas together. And a week later April had passed away. And when I checked up on April, and I found out she had passed away, I knew that I wanted to do something.
So the long and short of it was the next Christmas I had put a team together, and we adopted the home that April stayed in. And we had our challenges, but we inspected, we adapted, and we ended up creating Scrum teams. And so that occurred in 2009. And since then – it started in Maryland. We’re now in nine states. And I have, I think, 22 Scrum teams; and we put on events for the elderly who have no money, no family, no friends.
And I also now take care of people’s Meals on Wheels, homebound seniors, and we ensure that their lawns are taken care of, whether they can have medication, because a lot of people don’t realize the states are only given less – I think it’s about $3 per senior for the entire month. And so they have to – these homebound seniors are not getting medication or food, and so they’ll eat a cracker versus taking their medication. And so we raise money with the Scrum teams, and we deliver happiness. And so we deliver whatever it takes to ensure that we have happy, healthy seniors, and we do that utilizing Scrum.
NICK WALKER: That is so wonderful that you’re able to employ the techniques that we’ve been talking about in a way that maybe a lot of people haven’t thought about.
ANDY CROWE: It’s pretty amazing.
KIM BRAINARD: It is. And we do it all year round. It started out at Christmas. It has nothing to do with any religion, but it really has to do with that we truly deliver value frequently and fast because, when these requests come in, we have to have that product owner for that home who can prioritize them and ensure that we can deliver fast because usually the turnaround time is within a week we need to have the delivery.
NICK WALKER: Kim, thanks so much for sharing all this with us. Now, you do classes, obviously. How can folks get in touch with you to take advantage of your talent?
KIM BRAINARD: Sure, absolutely. I have an Eventbrite link, and I have a few classes coming up. I do an advanced facilitation course, and that is just how facilitators, whether you’re a manager, you’re a presenter, Scrum Master, if you’re just facilitating virtual meetings, this course would be for you. That’s being held July 30th through the 31st in D.C. And again, I’ll be doing the advanced facilitation August 29th through 30th in Austin, Texas.
And then we also have a course called “Training from the Back of the Room.” Sharon Bowman is the author of this fabulous book and training. And I’m one of Sharon’s trainers. I’ll be doing a weekend class in Chicago August 25th through the 26th. And then I also have some Certified Scrum Master courses. I’ll be doing one in Richmond, Virginia July 9th through the 10th, and then I’ll be out in California in early September in San Francisco. And so my Eventbrite page is tbrcertified.eventbrite.com. So tbrcertified.eventbrite.com.
ANDY CROWE: Excellent. We’ll also add that to the show notes and make sure that there’s a link there.
KIM BRAINARD: I also have an active Twitter account, so it’s @agilebrain1. And so all of my courses are usually published there. I’m a pretty active Twitter person, as well.
NICK WALKER: Now, before we let you go, we have a special gift for you that we’re going to send you. This is your very own Manage This coffee mug. And you can use it with an appetizer or with dessert, whatever you prefer. So enjoy that.
KIM BRAINARD: I’m going to use it for both. Thank you so much. That is so kind.
NICK WALKER: Well, Kim, thanks again for being with us. We appreciate so much your sharing your expertise.
KIM BRAINARD: Andy and Nick, thank you so much for what you do and ensuring that the message is always out there for all of our listeners. It’s truly valuable. So thank you, and thanks for having me.
NICK WALKER: This is a good time to remind our listeners that here on Manage This we’re committed to giving you more than what you might have expected. In addition to hearing from expert guests on our program, we also provide you with free PDUs, Professional Development Units, toward your recertifications. You just earned them by listening to this podcast, and you can go claim them now. Visit Velociteach.com and select Manage This Podcast from the top of the page. Click the button that says Claim PDUs and just click through the steps.
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