The Beauty of Blank Space

I was in Portland, Oregon a couple of weeks ago attending Agile Camp 2017 Northwest. I had a day before the conference to explore and decided to go to Portland’s Japanese Gardens. They are quite beautiful and invite peace and quiet as you enter the gates.

As I hiked through the gardens, I stumbled upon the sand and stone garden. I looked at the perfect concentric circles and I wanted to grab a rake and wander through the garden, making my own circles….getting lost in my thoughts.

I opened the brochure and found the description of the sand and stone garden: “An important Japanese aesthetic principle underlying this dry landscape garden is yohaku-no-bi, meaning ‘the beauty of blank space.’ This style of garden was not meant for meditation [zazen], but for contemplation.”

Maybe my presence in this specific garden was just coincidence, but I like to think it was divine intervention. I am currently coaching a group of leaders both individually and as a leadership team. Blank space (and giving ourselves the permission to create it) has been one of the main topics during my sessions with each of these amazing leaders.

The demands of the day-to-day keep us busy, but I find the “busy” is typically tactical. At the end of the day we may feel accomplished with several items checked off our list, but did we actually take any time to focus on strategy or self-reflection?

These leaders are so caught up in the day-to-day fire-fighting mode of supporting teams, answering to their leaders, managing projects, etc., that they don’t take any time to contemplate, strategize or even self-reflect. These leaders are all self-aware that they need to take this time, yet they rarely do.

So I have posed this coaching question: “What is stopping you from taking time for blank space?” The answer every time, “Me.”

Interestingly enough, this one question and a little nudge from their coach has given these leaders the permission they needed. They have all taken time to embrace yohaku-no-bi. The result has been leaders who are more settled, organized, confident and focused on strategy. So, I will ask you the same question. What is stopping you from taking time for blank space?

The Agile Practice Guide – A Personal Journey

Agile Practice Guide
Betsy Kauffman is one of the seven authors of the Agile Practice Guide (above).

When the Agile Practice Guide writing team convened to begin our endeavor, we spent quite a bit of time discussing our target customer. We landed on our primary customer being project practitioners who support agile teams, who may be in the midst of an organizational agile transformation, or who are just curious and want a better understanding. Being a part of this team and writing this guide are near and dear to my heart because several years ago, I was our target customer. Here is my story…

I jumped directly from college into a project management role and worked my way through several plan-driven, waterfall projects as a certified Project Management Professional (PMP). I was really good at leading teams and delivering according to “the plan,” but it didn’t really feel right. I was always a bit untraditional—I just wanted to focus on pulling the teams together to do the “real” work instead of spending time on documentation, audits and stage gates. (Some of you may be shaking your heads and thinking about confessions of a bad project manager while others may be excited and can relate.)

Fortunately, someone noticed my agile inclinations and asked if I wanted to go to Scrum Master training and then lead a couple of scrum teams. Sure…why not? I was excited about the opportunity to learn something new. (FYI-I did not have a clue what I was signing up for!)

That first training was eye opening. It finally articulated and formalized several of my beliefs, but also challenged my definition of success. The concepts were easy to understand and they made sense, but applying them in my work with cross-functional, self-organizing teams was difficult. I really struggled.

The tools and techniques I used as a PM were not so transferable to the Scrum Master role. I had to “untrain” my brain and learn new behaviors. I had to change the way I supported my teams and redefine how I delivered value to my organization. The biggest challenge of all—Scrum Master training invited me to get comfortable with failure—to allow my teams to fail so they could learn and improve. This was extremely difficult for me because on “my watch,” as a PM, there was no room for failure, personally or within my teams. Sound familiar?

I needed to embrace the fact that I did not “own” the project. Instead, ownership and accountability shifted to the team. My new role was to facilitate and support the team as a servant leader, no longer as a manager. This took immense pressure off my shoulders, which had been unconsciously weighing me down as a project manager.

After several years of learning, failing, working, training, being coached and coaching others, I realize it was all part of the journey. I needed to go through it to evolve both personally and professionally.

The Agile Practice Guide offers the combined knowledge and wisdom of seven agile practitioners. Our motley crew of writers representing both Agile Alliance and PMI, laughed, cried, argued and at times wanted to kill each other in passionate support of you, our target customer.

As the guide launches this week, I’m left with deep respect for my fellow authors. The amount of collaboration between these two groups has been amazing. Several of us will be at upcoming regional, national and international conferences. Please approach us—we enjoy sharing our experience and welcome your feedback.