Episode 110 – A Project Story – Pivot without Mercy

Episode #110
Original Air Date: 08.03.2020


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Our Guest This Episode: John Houser

In our current environment, many project managers are being forced to pivot, shift, change plans, and start over. In this episode, John Houser walks us through what happened with his company, Spectrum Healthcare, as they were wrapping up an adoption of a Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) just as COVID-19 started to impact their operations. John begins by briefly describing what SAFe is and what led Spectrum to implement SAFe. We ask John about the challenges his team faced and how they addressed these obstacles when the pandemic hit.

John explains how his team quickly shifted to working remotely, just as they were learning this new way of working with SAFe. The team analyzed nearly 2 dozen features and identified their top 3. John describes their decision to redeploy resources, the urgent requirement to produce a Telehealth solution for healthcare providers and patients, and how they addressed the new issues of working remotely. John acknowledges the SAFe Lean practice to “... pivot without mercy or guilt when the hypothesis needs to change” as he describes the challenges brought about by COVID-19.

John Houser, SPC, PMP, PMI-ACP, CSCP, LSSBB, MBA is Director of Agile Office at Spectrum Healthcare Partners and has over 25 years of project management experience in the Insurance, Manufacturing, Biotechnology, and Healthcare industries. John's teams have worked on the most complex and difficult projects that have significant global impact and range up to $60M and 100 people in size. His multi-industry experience has required the blending of concepts and tools from Lean, Six Sigma, Agile, and Traditional PM. John is active in the local project management chapter and teaches Agile Certificate programs.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"...change is okay. Don’t be worried about it. You may not know all the answers, but with that support you’ll absolutely get there."

- John Houser

"...to be able to have it escalate or go to the top of the organization, have them understand what you’re doing, ... And this ... actually forces the connection points. So SAFe kind of gives you that recipe book"

- John Houser

"...pivot without mercy or guilt. I’ve seen it. We’ve all lived it, and we’ve all seen it. Be able to do that. And ... finding that support in your organization, as well. The people who are going to have your back, find a couple key people that you can share honest feedback with."

- John Houser

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Many project managers are currently having to pivot, shift, change plans, and start over due to the coronavirus pandemic. John Houser shares his story about wrapping up an adoption of a Scaled Agile Framework(SAFe)just as COVID-19 started to impact their operations at Spectrum Healthcare.

Table of Contents

00:48 … Meet John
02:10 … Spectrum Healthcare Partners
03:05 … Scaled Agile Framework – SAFe
05:18 … Implementing SAFe at Spectrum
09:42 … COVID-19 Impact on SAFe Process
11:10 … Challenges the Team Faced
12:34 … Communication Tools
14:29 … Shifting Priorities – Pivot without Mercy
16:25 … Team’s Reaction to Pivoting
17:28 … How SAFe Helped to Manage Projects
18:57 … Conducting the System Demo
22:35 … Unexpected Projects due to COVID-19
24:54 … Keeping up Morale in Remote Working
26:08 … Twice Daily Stand-Up Team Meetings
27:58 … Biggest Surprise
28:28 … Leadership Tools on the Tool Belt
29:28 … Lessons Learned
32:42 … Closing

JOHN HOUSER:  …change is okay.  Don’t be worried about it.  You may not know all the answers, but with that support you’ll absolutely get there.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I’m Wendy Grounds, and with me is Bill Yates.

So particularly with COVID-19 still hovering around, many of you will have interesting stories about how your projects have been impacted, and we’d really like to hear from you.  If you have a noteworthy story, please email me at manage_this@velociteach.com and tell us about your COVID-19 project story. So that’s exactly what we’re bringing to you today; aren’t we, Bill.

BILL YATES:  Yes, I can’t wait to hear from John Houser.  So many project managers are having to pivot, shift, crumble up plans, throw them away, and start over, and John is going to walk us through an example with his company.  I can’t wait to dig into the details.

Meet John

WENDY GROUNDS:  John Houser is the Director of Project Management at Spectrum Healthcare Partners, so he has over 25 years of project management experience.  John, welcome to Manage This, thank you so much for joining us today.

JOHN HOUSER:  Glad to be here.

WENDY GROUNDS:  We want to hear your story, how you came to be a project manager.

JOHN HOUSER:  Sure, so I liked watching other people run projects, I think that’s where it happened, or where the light went off the first time, and how they were able to put things together, look at this as like a Rube Goldberg machine almost, where you’ve got these different people, these different tasks, these different objectives.  And somehow they’re able to weave it all together and create this beautiful-looking plan and then end up with a deliverable at the end, and so that’s what really intrigued me.  When I was younger I would do a lot of those machines, so how you put it all together is what really got me into it and got me exited.

BILL YATES:  That’s pretty cool, so that it’s a little bit of engineering, and it’s a little bit of teamwork that just appealed to you.  I get that.  Same kind of thing, so I mean, that’s one of the beauties for this podcast for me has been seeing some of the just amazing things that project managers have done, you know, men and women have accomplished because they put together a team and went out and did it.  I never thought about that comparison to the machine, though, so that’s great.

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, demented mind, misspent youth, I don’t know.

Spectrum Healthcare Partners

WENDY GROUNDS:  Can you tell us a little bit about Spectrum Healthcare Partners, the company that you work for?

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, sure.  So Spectrum Healthcare Partners is primarily owned by physicians, physicians that got together from their practices and really wanted to get that economies of scale  that you get.  When you have your practice, you don’t need three of these type of people or four of those people.  More back office, and to really get that leverage or that buying power that you would have when you come together naturally.  We’ve got radiology, anesthesiology, pathology, orthopedics, and interventional radiology as our practices, so it’s pretty wide spectrum.

BILL YATES:  I get it.

JOHN HOUSER:  There you go.

BILL YATES:  You guys are in Maine.  That’s your primary…

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, we’re in Maine, so I’ve got to put the plug,.  If you’re in Northern Maine, you’ve got a bone/joint problem or anything, come see us, or anything else.  We’d be happy to help, and we’re open for business.

Scaled Agile Framework – SAFe

BILL YATES:  I know that COVID-19 has impacted so many project managers like us in some basic ways, like having to work remotely, and then in some big ways like our projects have suddenly had a curveball thrown at them. What’s intriguing to me is we get into this story with you.  John, so you guys were just wrapping up your adoption of SAFe as a Scaled Agile Framework, right around the time that COVID-19 started to hit our shores.  So let me back up for a minute, for those who are not familiar with Scaled Agile, Can you give us an idea of what SAFe is?

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, absolutely.  When we train on this, I actually tell people, actually first part is ScaledAgileFramework.com.  Way better explanation than I’m ever going to give.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, go read it.

JOHN HOUSER:  But what I tell people is it’s taking Lean, taking Agile, and then the third piece is how do you scale it to your company?  So it’s those three things together is what really SAFe brings you. And so those that know Lean or like Lean, this actually joins Lean and Agile.  So those that like Agile, you know, they kind of come together.  And then how do you scale it for your whole company?  That’s really – that’s really it.


JOHN HOUSER:  The other piece, if I kind of like dive halfway into the middle of this, what does it give you?  You now think  on quarter boundaries, a lot of people, when we would run projects, we would say, hey, you know, what can we do this quarter?  Can we just do all these this quarter?  So this actually forces you into that mindset, which is good.  It’s far enough out where you can get some good work done, but it’s not so far where you just lose sight of it.  And then you get your executives aligned around that quarter boundary, as well, which is a good checkpoint for them.  So it gives you this quarter boundary.

And then in the middle of that quarter or during that quarter, you have these two-week boundaries.  Okay, we’re going to do this for two weeks, and that’s what the Agile teams kind of work on is, okay, so this is what we’re going to do every two weeks.  So that’s it in a nutshell-ish, where, okay, I’ve got a quarter boundary, and then I’ve got the two weeks.  And at the very end, the very last thing I do in my quarter boundary is I actually plan for what I’m going to do the next quarter in those two-week boundaries or iterations.

Implementing SAFe at Spectrum

BILL YATES:  Got it.  Yeah, that’s a great example.  I really appreciate that.  For those who have dabbled in Agile, or Agile purists, again, the idea is we need to scale this larger.  So we need to have multiple teams that are going to coordinate and use the same resources and work together under a portfolio.  It’s a great analogy you’re making there of the focus is 10 to 12 weeks, so you’ve got one quarter. You’ve got goals under SAFe, and then you’re taking on these sprints, these iterations, to get you there.

So step me back into how did Spectrum decide that they wanted to adopt SAFe?

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, I think it was a perfect storm in a good way.


JOHN HOUSER:  We had a Chief Medical Officer, CMO for us, come in second half of last year. Same thing with a new CIO at the second half of last year, and our Chief Medical Officer saw, you know, we need to get this out in our clinics, our operational places that we have, clinics and ambulatory surgery centers. They have a lot of projects they need to do, and then what we were doing required a little more heavy lift for project managers.  And then our CIO came in, and he had experienced SAFe at another company and says, you know, we can make this work here.

So I went to the training third quarter, fourth quarter last year, got a little more.  And then decided to roll this out in 2020.  We thought we would do it a little slower than what we ended up doing. But, you know, we said, okay, let’s put this plan together, we got some clinical people involved, we got some IT, and we got some HR, you know, some different dynamic of people which you would want on one of these teams. 

BILL YATES:  That’s great, yeah.

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, so that’s kind of how it came in.  Our executive team was very supportive of it.  I’m not sure if being the new CIO he was able to get to play the new card.

BILL YATES:  Mm-hmm, yeah.

JOHN HOUSER:  But, you know, we got the support, and they’ve been extremely supportive this far, which has been great in helping this along. 

BILL YATES:  I know one of the keys to implementing any kind of new framework, and especially this is true with SAFe, is getting senior leadership to buy into it.  And it’s one of the things I appreciate about SAFe is that they say, okay, when you take this on, all senior leaders have to go through the training first.  They need to buy into it at the top and then start being the evangelist or the sponsor for it all the way down.

What were some of the other, like when the CIO came in and recommended it?  Was it kind of a growth pain that you guys were addressing?  Or was it because you were decentralized and you needed to centralize in order to take on some of these new opportunities?  So what were some of those factors?

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, so a lot of it was, like I said, that CMO, our Chief Medical Officer, he wants to roll this out to the other ones.  They need this project management.  They’ve been doing projects for years, but just kind of, you know, no formalized way, no portfolio.  Oh, I didn’t know you were even doing that.  So a lot of those misses that you typically get when you don’t have some type of project management in there.  So we wanted to just grow it out there.

One of the failures I guess I would say, I remember my second day on the job, tried to roll out Agile, again at that team level.  We couldn’t even get that to go because we didn’t have all of the executive support like you have.  We couldn’t get the product owners into our meetings. So it was, okay, let’s go a different way.  We went down the more traditional one.  Which, you know, worked for what it needed to work for.  This was just the next level to change how we do projects at Spectrum.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  So I’ve obviously read up on John Houser, and, you know, I’ve seen you explain some things and read some of your stuff. So just to let people know, this is not your first rodeo, you’ve done traditional, you’ve done Waterfall, you’ve done Agile, and now you’ve done Scaled Agile.  You have many credentials.  You’ve been exposed to a lot of different things. So it’s got to be, for someone who it’s not your first rodeo, this must have been fun for you to see a new framework and be able to see it implemented in your organization.

JOHN HOUSER:  Absolutely.  So you know, 100 percent, and to be able to have it escalate or go to the top of the organization, have them understand what you’re doing, have them appreciate what the teams, I mean, they always appreciate it, but they’re not always able to connect to it.  And this helps them connect to it, actually forces the connection points.  So SAFe kind of gives you that recipe book, which is nice.  You don’t have to come up with the training of it.  You don’t have to continue evolving it.  I mean, they’re doing that for you.


JOHN HOUSER:  And that’s so helpful when you try to roll these out.

COVID – 19 Impact on SAFe Process

BILL YATES:  Okay.  Now I need to ask the big question.  This sounds wonderful; right?  Here you are, you’re in a mature organization.  You’ve been there a few years.  You’ve got new leadership, and they’re pumped about this new framework.  And you’re excited about it, too.  Then you start going through the training and implementation.  Then COVID-19 hits.  So where were you guys in the adoption of SAFe, the Scaled Agile Framework, when COVID really started impacting your business?

JOHN HOUSER:  So we completed the training.  And I talked about those quarter boundaries.  We were midway through the second iteration, which was at, like, week three.

BILL YATES:  Wow.  Oh, wow.

JOHN HOUSER:  So here we are, just starting out.  It’s like you just got in your brand new car, you’re driving it down the road, and you haven’t even gotten home yet.


JOHN HOUSER:  You say, what the heck, I got in an accident.  What?


JOHN HOUSER:  So we were right there.  Good news is everyone knew what we were trained, you know, hey, let’s be Agile.  What does that mean?  How do we deliver business values?  So all those pieces were fresh in their mind.  But that was definitely a – when we were, and it was very new.

BILL YATES:  Wow.  That’s just fascinating to me because I think of for our own company just the challenges that we’ve had, especially early on, back in March, when we had to adjust to working remotely and interact with our customers in a different way.  And to think that, you know, you guys have this whole new framework you’re just getting started with.  You’ve still got the training wheels on, and then this happens.  Man.

JOHN HOUSER:  Exactly.  You’re right.  Still had the training wheels on.  Great way to explain it.

Challenges the Team Faced

WENDY GROUNDS:  So what were some of the challenges that your team faced?  And how did you address these when the pandemic happened?

JOHN HOUSER:  So the first one was just the employee safety; right?  I mean, here we are, healthcare providers.  You know, there’s a lot of one-on-one interaction with people, you know, how do we keep people safe?  And how do we keep people that talk to those people safe?  And, you know, that whole larger ecosystem we’ve got going on.  And then, just like you were talking about, that working from home, that became a really big thing right off the bat.  Essentially everybody, don’t come in the office.  Take your stuff home and work from home.  And we weren’t prepared for that scale of working from home at all.  So a lot of our work was just responding to that or getting that running as fast as we possibly could.

BILL YATES:  I can relate to that.  Some folks have plenty of great space at home, so setting up at home is not a big deal.  But man, there are so many security issues.  And you guys, HIPAA comes into play.  There’s so much for you guys to consider in terms of security and systems that you need to be able to get to.  And then just the physical challenges of working remotely, as well.

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, exactly.  And you talk about HIPAA, you touched on, like, one of the big healthcare ones.  During this time people needed help, and practices didn’t have all of their ducks in a row and weren’t able to produce telehealth right off the bat.  So they were lucky, a lot of people relaxed some of that during this time, which is really helpful.

Communication Tools

BILL YATES:  Just a practical question on this, are there some tools that you guys use as a team that, once you got working remotely, you figured out, okay, here’s the best way for us to communicate?  What are some of the tools that you use?

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, so like most SAFe and most Agile, you’re used to these daily stand-ups where you’re all in a room, or you’re all there talking, or you’re face-to-face iteration planning.  And three weeks before we were just in this massive room, and we’d just finished our PI planning, our Program Increment Planning, the three-quarter plan.  And now all of a sudden we can’t even talk to one another, you know, face to face.  So we ended up doing a lot of stuff and converting that to be electronic.  We’re a Microsoft shop, so we used Kanban boards or Microsoft Planner.


JOHN HOUSER:  Very basic.  So that’s what we had and paid for and it was already running. The other piece was Skype for Business, so we’d made big use of that.  We actually found some issues with it, so we converted everyone to Teams.  That’s kind of one of the takeaways here is that we ended up converting a lot.  We’re actually going through the full conversion right now to Microsoft Teams, which is a lot better performance for us in our situation.

BILL YATES:  Good.  Yeah, you know, it’s so interesting, John, just from our side, too. Much of our training, we switched from traditional classroom training to virtual, and so in doing that, there were security issues.  There were performance issues with tools that we’d used in the past that maybe weren’t robust enough to maintain and do, you know, okay, now we’re using four of these a day instead of one every couple of weeks.  So there were issues like that, were little nagging things that, well, I’m fine with this because it’s just a few of us that are using it. Then you expand it out, the whole team’s using it, you’re like, okay, we need to change, and we need to change fast.

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah. So we’ve even seen vendors would pause, right?  I mean, the vendors to do this, to support that many people using Teams or Skype or Planner, all of a sudden it just bogs down where it never did before.


JOHN HOUSER:  So we even had that issue.

Shifting Priorities – Pivot without Mercy

BILL YATES:  So I know one of the things that you guys dealt with were priorities, and I saw on the website for your company, you know, you shared about how you guys had to evaluate priorities and do some shifting there.  Talk us through some of that, how you identified projects that were more urgent than others, and walk us through how some of that decision making took place.

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, sure, so one of those SAFe, Lean, Agile mindset mantras that you get is that pivot without mercy or guilt.  You know, so three weeks before we have this training and talk about this, and people think, oh, yeah, my priorities change.  Well, nothing was more true than COVID-19, you know, third week into our quarter boundary planning there.  It was like, wow.


JOHN HOUSER:  So that was big.  But one of the nice things of SAFe is you have this Kanban of just your features you’re working on, and the feature is at most the size of one of these quarters.  I mean, you’re going to finish it during that quarter or that program.


JOHN HOUSER:  So we have this whole Kanban that we’re working on.  When COVID hit, we just were able to bring that up. All our executives knew exactly what we’re working on, they knew the objectives of each of these features, and so we were able to quickly say, all right, here’s the three we’re going to do.  So we had about 20-something of these features, and we said, okay, these three have to go. For whatever reason, these need to keep going, so the people on those teams, you have to keep this moving ahead.

And then I think we introduced another one more about connecting people remotely.  I mean, there’s a lot of work to do there, and a lot of the new ones was about just connecting people, and so we were able to quickly switch and say, okay, let’s put these on pause.  These three are keep going, but all the ones that were on pause, now all of you people are helping out connecting us remotely, getting systems up, connecting to patients, whatever that may be.  You’re now redeployed to this other stuff.


JOHN HOUSER:  Or you’re going to help out on these top three that maybe you were just on the fringe of before.

Team’s Reaction to Pivoting

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  How did the team react to that?  I’m just imagining.  This sounds like chaos.

JOHN HOUSER:  I think because it was so fresh in their minds, you know, we all knew something had to be done, and this is bigger than any of us have ever seen.  But it was nice that we all talked about it, what, a month before, just a few weeks before, and said, okay, yes, changes.  We all talked about I always get my priorities changed, you know, during the week, I never know what is this, and we talked through it.  So it was very accepting, it’s like okay, yes.  We kind of knew it, it was there, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise. The people were willing to accept it, and then this just gave us a framework and a methodology to actually put that change in place.  How do we switch gears?  How do we go from going straight to a sharp left?

BILL YATES:  Like you said, that mantra, that pivot without mercy.  Everybody knew something needed to change.  Senior leaders helped identify the three top features, and then everybody just got onboard to go at them.

JOHN HOUSER:  Exactly, yeah.  It gives you that whole framework, which is nice.  It’s all visible. So everyone knew where all of them were and what was going to be picked, and they knew, okay, we can’t do them all.

How SAFe Helped to Manage Projects

BILL YATES:  John, thinking specifically about that, you know, we talked about paring down the features to see, okay, given the new environment we’re in, what should we be tackling?  Let’s talk about SAFe for a minute.  How did the Scaled Agile Framework help you manage projects during that time of challenge and change?

JOHN HOUSER:  I think the first one was actually the training that we had.  So that just helped share with people that, yes, change will happen, and priorities change.  And then SAFe also gives you that two-week boundary where, you know, or it gives you a boundary, gives you a quarter boundary to – where every two weeks you do what’s called a “system demo,” where you demonstrate what we are.  That’s really that boundary of where the executives check in and say, okay, I see where you’re going with this.  I want you to go this way now.  Or I want you to do something else different.

So at most you’re always, like, two weeks out of sync.  And it gives everybody on that entire Agile release train, you know, that same boundary, and everybody’s tied to it.  So it gives you that insertion point of when the executives can come in and just totally disrupt the apple cart and say, we need to be doing COVID.  So it actually gives you that piece, or that insertion point.

The other one is the executive involvement.  It’s right from the top down.  They all know what this is.  It’s not like in a backdoor, so that piece of SAFe is there, and it’s very helpful for things like this.  And the last one is probably updates, meaning everyone’s getting these updates.  They all know what’s happening every two weeks, if not on the daily stand-ups, you know, at least every weeks.  So all those pieces kind of play together to help out.

Conducting the System Demo

BILL YATES:  So I’ve got another curiosity,  I’m just thinking, you know, like even with a system demo, like you just mentioned, how did you guys do that?  Because you’ve got senior leaders who need to see this demonstration so that they can sign off on things, and you can do your next two-week iteration.  So how did you guys do the demo?

JOHN HOUSER:  We did it with Teams and sharing screens.

BILL YATES:  Okay, yup.

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, we actually go through, we give each team some set amount of time, and then they ripple through it very fast, hitting the highlights.  Then each team just shares their screen, or each person on a team, and they ripple through it, yeah.

BILL YATES:  Nice.  Okay, so I’ve got to ask you this question, what advice do you have for those senior managers who cannot stop talking?  So you’re trying to do the demo, or your teammate is, and they’re, like, peppering you with questions.


BILL YATES:  So did you guys, did you just go ahead and mute them?  Is that what you did?

JOHN HOUSER:  No, I haven’t tried that one yet.  We give a timer.  We actually time each team, and so we put the timer up and remind them, hey, your team has two minutes left, your team has one minute left.  And when it comes to that minute, we actually really have to cut them off.  Which is tough sometimes because they’re right in the middle of a good one.  But, you know, it’s just time management because nobody wants to spend three hours in this meeting.  So how do we shrink it down to an hour and make it worthwhile?  Because we want all our executives there, and spending more than an hour is just a very difficult thing to get them to do.

BILL YATES:  That is – I know I’m kind of shifting gears into soft skill when I’m asking you this or talking about it, but that is such a key, man. You know, many times I’ve fallen prey to that, or teammates have, where there’s a feature or there’s something that we’ve produced that we’re really proud of, we’re so excited. We cannot wait to show it, and so there are, like, 12 different things that it does, and I’ve got to show all of them; you know?  And then, to your point, you need to use a timer, and you need to stick to it because senior management, they’ve got other priorities. 

You’re right, I mean, you’ve got to get in there.  You have to be very respectful of the time.  Demonstrate the capability and get approval, get signoff, get any tweaks that need to be made, and then move on.

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, so having them there is more important than hitting all 12 items that you’re doing.

BILL YATES:  Correct.  Right.

JOHN HOUSER:  And so if they know they can be there, and they can dedicate an hour and learn everything that’s happening in the arc, they’re all in, and they’ve been all in and extremely supportive.

BILL YATES:  Well, kudos to your team for being able to do that remotely.  It’s hard enough just corralling everybody in a conference room or something, but being able to do that remotely, kudos.

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah.  We did this last PI planning in Teams. So we did it remotely.  And actually some people on the survey said they actually enjoyed it better remotely because they could do some items, okay, hey, I’m not needed for this next 30 minutes because my team’s all set.  I’m just waiting for the next check-in point when we all get together.  So they’re able to quickly go do something else, which has been…

BILL YATES:  Oh, that’s good, yeah.

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, quite surprising.  Now, there’s things you miss out, don’t get me wrong.  You don’t get the hallway conversations you typically had, but it’s impressive how much people have said, you know what, I really like it this way because I’m able to sit at my desk.  I can see this thing.  Oh, okay, this feature has nothing to do with me, I’m going to go do something for five minutes while someone else talks.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, that’s good.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, we’ve seen some of that.  So we’ve seen people in our office say they can get more done if they’re just focused on what they’re doing.  I’m missing everybody, though, I miss those hallway conversations. I’m just good at that, so I miss that, yeah.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  And it’s difficult, too.  John, we hit a milestone the other day, and Wendy sent a note out to the team letting them know about the podcast, and so she sent virtual cupcakes to everyone.  So we had to look at these gorgeous cupcakes on our screen, but we couldn’t eat them.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, we usually celebrate milestones with cake, so that was the best I could do.

JOHN HOUSER:  Everybody went to the cupcake store afterwards.

WENDY GROUNDS:  I think so, I wondered how many people were going to go out and buy some.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Who delivers cupcakes?

Unexpected Projects due to COVID-19

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah.  I have a question.  Were there any unexpected projects that you faced due to the COVID-19?  And how did you handle those projects?

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, absolutely.  So one of the biggest ones for us was telehealth.  We were talking about telehealth, but we were never geared up like everyone is right now to do this. So that was a big one for us. You talk about the HIPAA, how do you get patients.  You don’t want the doctors calling on their own mobile phones, you know, there’s a lot of things going out, so we found a solution and rolled that out.

We had a couple, so one primarily a doctor that was just helping pioneer and say, all right, give me that.  Get me – and I’ll log in, and I’ll try it, and so he was trying this thing over the weekend. So it was just great to have that engagement from our physicians to make that happen.  That was a big one, and just how do we scale that to more and more physicians.

BILL YATES:  Just describe telehealth, just for those who don’t have that available.

JOHN HOUSER:  Sure.  Absolutely, so telehealth is where, you know, you’re on a Skype call, or you’re on a Zoom call or a Teams call, face to face with your provider, and they can see you, you can see them. They can take pictures of the screen, like if you have something, you know, how is that healing?  How are those sutures coming?  You can show it.  They take a picture, and so you can have that conversation, versus going in and being at risk of catching COVID. You know, you’re not touching anything.  No door handles.  You know, you can actually be at your house.  You also save a lot doing this, too, right? So you save your time commuting, you save the gas.  All those things.  So there’s really some economic benefit for patients in this, as well.  Which we like.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, so that’s a great example of something that I think COVID-19, this pandemic, has forced us to rethink our business, and specific to healthcare and what you guys had to do there.  That’s something you’ll use and probably your customers will adopt and use more and more in the future as a result.

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah, absolutely.  Some of the things we found out that were holding us up is some of CMS or Medicare and Medicaid, those type ones, so they would only allow certain visits to be via telehealth or telephone.  During this, they actually opened it wide open, all insurance companies, and all of them.  Now, hopefully they keep it that open, so they don’t clamp it back down to just a couple in the future.  So that’s kind of like the give and take of this, is hopefully they keep it open, they realize the benefit of this, and the benefit to patients.

BILL YATES:  So we’re talking today, this is June 2020, are you guys still working remotely?

JOHN HOUSER:  A lot of us are, yes.  Yeah. So I’m actually in this office here, there’s probably supposed to be 35, 40 of us, today I’m the only one.


JOHN HOUSER:  So usually it’s maybe three.  I’m not in a clinic right now, but in the clinics, they’re in person, seeing patients.  But we’re also doing some telehealth, as well, for especially follow-up visits or things of that nature.

Keeping up Morale in Remote Working

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  So from a morale standpoint, have you found some practices that have been beneficial to the team that you’ve seen, that have kept morale up while people have been working remotely?

JOHN HOUSER:  You know, that’s a tough one because you can’t see their face, except when you’re on a big group call, so it’s more the one on ones that you can get that.  For my team, you know, it’s challenging some ways, but, you know, you try to keep it up by at least seeing their face. We try to turn on our cameras all the time versus not keep them on and just seeing the initials of someone. So that’s probably the best we can do.  We all know we need to have some party when this is, you know, over and we’re safe, that’s for sure.

BILL YATES:  Yes, yes.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, I’m bringing real cupcakes when this is done.

Twice Daily Stand-Up Team Meetings

BILL YATES:  You know, so one of the things I wanted to ask you about, John, you just reminded me, is the practice of the daily stand-up.  And so you made me think of it because we have what we call a “weekly stand-up” for our team, and we’ve been doing that remotely now for many weeks.  We found early on, we really appreciate being able to see everybody’s face.  The team really is able to reconnect during that stand-up meeting.  I understand you guys actually, instead of just a daily stand-up, you went to twice a day stand-ups early on in this COVID-19 crisis. Describe some of that and why you guys went to that.

JOHN HOUSER:  So when we were hot and heavy into this, and it was just starting out, we said, okay, let’s redeploy the teams this way.  But because it was changing so much, we learned so much, and some rules have changed, or how many people can do what, we actually had a morning and an evening daily stand-up, just because some people could work a couple hours extra into the evening.  Okay, so let me clear that up for you for the next morning.  We don’t have people in another country, you know, 12 hours away, it was just literally our team here in one place doing this work.  And it was just so that we could keep in sync because so much would happen during the day, and you’ve got all these hands in making changes as fast as they possibly can.


JOHN HOUSER:  You talk about dev ops and continuous delivery.  This thing was like, you know, on steroids at this time.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, I can imagine.  So our operations team, when we went to remote, the first two weeks they were going like crazy, trying to figure out where things stood and what needed to be done, put out fires.  Are you guys still doing the twice-a-day stand-up?  Or were you all able to step that down?

JOHN HOUSER:  No, we were able to step that down.  Probably at two months in, maybe a month in, we were able to step it back down to once a day, which gave everybody a little rest.  Our head is actually above water, we can breathe, but it’s not much more than that.


Biggest Surprise

WENDY GROUNDS:  So as you look back and assess where you are now, what has been the biggest surprise for you?

JOHN HOUSER:  So I think the biggest surprise for me is how much people are willing to help, I mean what a dedicated team. You know, some really rough patches in there, and they’re, you know, how can I help?  What else can I do?  One of our company holidays, nobody had any – so let’s just cancel this thing, it’s not needed for other reasons.  Just really amazing help and engagement and support from all the employees, so it’s just been amazing.

Leadership Tools on the Tool Belt

BILL YATES:  As a manager, so much of it is leadership, and you look back on your career.  Were there some relationships or some experiences that you had that helped shape who you are as a leader now, so that you stepped into this COVID crisis with some tools on the tool belt?

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah. So a lot of it is the support I’ve been given, you know, your family support, just to say “go ahead”, and “you can do this”, their support.  And no matter what happens, we’ve got your back here.  Also I think everybody’s got the answer in them, and do you have the trust in yourself to go do such a thing is probably the next piece. And so having that support really helps, whether it’s your manager, the executives, and your family, your peers, you know, all of them supporting you is probably the biggest thing. And obviously I’m big on education, and the more tools you can put in your tool belt, you know when to take out the hammer versus the screwdriver or the cordless drill versus the manual screwdriver. So it’s knowing those different times in the experience of seeing it.

Lessons Learned

WENDY GROUNDS:  What advice or lessons learned can you leave with our audience?

JOHN HOUSER:  First one, pivot without mercy or guilt.  I’ve seen it.  We’ve all lived it, and we’ve all seen it. So be able to do that.  And then the other one is just finding that support in your organization, as well. The people who are going to have your back, find a couple key people that you can share honest feedback with, and they’ll go back with you, and you can say, hey, I’m thinking of this, what do you think, and so they’ll shoot it down, or they’ll say it’s good.  I found that in a couple peers, and they’ve been fantastic with this.  And then the last one’s really that change is okay, don’t be worried about it.  You may not know all the answers, but with that support you’ll absolutely get there.

BILL YATES:  I so appreciate all three, and the second one really, I think, one of the things that I’ve had to struggle with or recognize during this time of isolation, working remotely, is I still need to reach out to others, to peers or team members.  Just because we’re all working remotely, shame on me if I give up that practice that I used to have.  So keep reaching out to people and saying, hey, I want to run an idea by you.  Can we brainstorm this problem together?  Just because we’re working remotely doesn’t mean we’re on an island.  We’re still all a part of a team and need to approach it that way.  So I really appreciate you bringing those up.

So as you think about Spectrum and just what you guys have learned and how you’ve pivoted through this, do you feel like your organization is going to be stronger in 2021 and in the future?

JOHN HOUSER:  Absolutely.  Actually, so we’ve already seen it during our first PI, our first quarter.  We’re already in number two, we’ve all said, okay, let’s cross our fingers, COVID, so there’s no resurgence of this.  And we’ve already seen, when you can put some successive pieces or successive iterations one after another, wow, look at what these teams can do.  The amount that they’re delivering is just amazing.  All our executives love what they’re putting together, how fast they’re able to do these things when we can just say, okay, this is the way we’re doing it in the time they can dedicate.  So we’re just going to get better and better and better.  I’m sure of it.

BILL YATES:  That’s great.  I love the timing, too. You know, you guys are like a case study of an organization that embraced SAFe, the Scaled Agile Framework, and got just enough under your belt so that when the tidal wave hit, your boats were already built.  So you were ready to go.

JOHN HOUSER:  Yeah.  Exactly right, yeah.  We had the ark.


JOHN HOUSER:  Hey, we know how to get in; we know how to get out of the ark.  This is good.

BILL YATES:  Right, so yeah, well, I really appreciate you giving us a look inside an organization.  And as we’ve thought about how other companies are dealing with COVID-19, and the changes that were having to come about as a result, we wanted to reach out to people like you, somebody who’s there as a project manager in the trenches and, in your case, embracing a new way of working, and how you guys are making it happen.  So again, thank you, and kudos to you and your organization for how you guys have pivoted and moved forward in very challenging times.

JOHN HOUSER:  Oh, thank you, it’s been so enjoyable.  Thank you very much.  Great to have the discussion.

WENDY GROUNDS:  We have this Manage This coffee mug that we send to our guests, and we want to say thank you very much, so it’s going to be a real mug.  I’m not going to just send you a picture of a virtual mug.

JOHN HOUSER:  Perfect.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Thank you, John.

JOHN HOUSER:  All right.  Thank you so much.


WENDY GROUNDS:  Listeners:  To claim your free PDUs, go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs and click through the steps.

So that’s it for us here on Manage This.  We hope you’ll tune back in next time for our next episode.  In the meantime, we’d love to have you visit us at Velociteach.com to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or, if you have any questions about project management certifications in general, we’re here for you.

Thank you for joining us.  Until next time, Keep calm and Manage This.

6 responses to “Episode 110 – A Project Story – Pivot without Mercy”

  1. Corrina Siciliano says:

    Great perspective on a remote work environment and staying connected and being productive.

  2. Cheryl says:

    Excellent presentation! Practical and inspiring!

    I tried to report PDUs and it doesn’t show up on the list. Please add it.

    • Wendy Grounds says:

      Hi Cheryl, we submitted this episode to PMI two weeks ago. We apologize for the delay but we are still awaiting their approval. We hope that it will soon be added to the list. Thanks for your patience, and thanks for listening.

  3. Megan says:

    Great example of how to morph into the Covid 19 working environment. We are not on islands and thankfully, where I work, the teams are very flexible.

  4. Scott Smith says:

    This was a good discussion of managing remote work in the COVID environment and interesting that the SAFe launch was able to proceed despite COVID. It would have been made better and more relevant, I think, with more specific examples of the projects that were coming together under the SAFe umbrella. For instance, what needed to be done to make telemedicine work? Who was involved? What other types of projects were taken on? It’s fascinating to imagine how a service industry like medicine could apply the framework, but I wish I didn’t have to imagine quite so much. Thank you for the podcasts, the PDUs, and for the unique insights you provide.

    • Wendy Grounds says:

      Thank you so much for your comment. Feel free to reach out to John on Linkedin if you’d like to hear more about his project. I will take your suggestions to heart next time we have a project story recording.

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