"You can't switch on if you haven't switched off" -Rachel Atherton, 1st place: 2012 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup Series

Rachel Atherton switching it on at Fort William.
Image © Atherton Racing
Dan, Gee, and Rachel Atherton are arguably the world's most accomplished family in professional cycling. Certainly so in the past few years' gravity riding disciplines of Enduro, Downhill, and Big Mountain Freeride.

So what can we learn from this family about agility? Quite a bit, I would suggest. The three siblings have chosen to live in a rural area of Wales. They choose to come home to a world where their status as top-tier professional cyclists is essentially meaningless to the local population. A place that for them is summed up in Rachel's thought that it's a place to recharge, and for Dan and Gee to push the limits of their trail building on their own terms and riding skills. And that as a result, enables all of them to perform at the highest levels of international competition, and win. Often.

As an agilist I strongly value continuous improvement. That is my professional territory; and as part of my commitment there I apply intense effort and discipline to improve, to constantly look for the next angle, the next unfinished area. I would even go so far as to say I am relentless, ruthless, in that pursuit. I learned to be that way by putting it on the line in gravity.

And that's not enough. It is not enough to constantly drive to push the envelope, it is not enough to only look forward. I have to rest. I have to look back. Inspect and adapt. I have to find create the spaces to switch off. Even Red Bull, the multinational corporation selling energy drinks on the moniker that "it gives you wings" by expanding possibility, recognizes this: we must find ways to switch off.

It ties right into the concept of sustainable pace, of finding our rhythm. Of finding the leverage that boosts productivity that also creates an eddy to rest in. Switch on, switch off, switch on. As coaches we must model this, and we also must teach it; the best athletes in the world build their careers, their business, on it. I would suggest other businesses should, as well.

In the realm of software that so frequently has people working endless hours, how do we support individuals and organizations to switch off? How have you implemented a sustainable pace?

You can watch the both the Atherton family and Atherton Racing Team on their home turf, courtesy of Red Bull:

First of Many Videos

I can waste endless spend a lot of time looking around for great videos. And there are plenty to be found, though unless you're a hardcore bike/snowboard/surf geek for the most part they're pretty repetitive.

So I get extra excited when I find one that transcends the others. I'd like to start sharing them, starting with this stunner of a whitewater film. I've been on river trips, though honestly been too scared to ever get in a kayak.

Though I love the beauty, power, and metaphor of rivers, and appreciate those that make them their passion. Hope you enjoy Cascada. And please leave a comment if you enjoy and see the benefit of me sharing these.

Start (Over) Where You Are

One of the premises of Kanban is to start where you are. To begin to more deeply examine, know and understand where you are. Or your team. Or your organization.

Since I essentially hang up my bike each winter, I have to do this same process each spring. And I can tell you, it sucks. It hurts. Sometimes I puke on my first few rides because I want to override my body's need to slow down; to push too hard. I can say from experience that for me, that threshold is crossed very quickly and I'm pretty sure it doesn't gain much other than feeling bad the rest of the ride.

As an agile coach, I have access to a tremendous breadth of knowledge about what is possible. And of course, I want to give that to my teams, because I believe it will make their lives better.

However, I can't just stand at a whiteboard and talk it to them. That's not how knowledge transfer works. They have to live it. They have to earn it. And I have to be there with them. Just as every season I have to build my body back up and have to believe that this sucky part is worth it. They have to take it on faith, which really is another word for trust, that we'll get there, that whatever they're working on will get better.

When working with a team, or a coaching client, it is like this as well: I have to meet them where they are and help them find their pain points, and help them identify the solution and how they'll get there.

And it always has to begin with where they are, right now. And I'm not sure it is ever easy.

What have you found valuable in starting where you are or a team is?


Cam McCaul flying through both fears Image © 2012
Christian Pondella/Red Bull Media House North America, Inc.
One major reason I'm passionate about gravity sports is that while riding, it's real. I don't know how else to say it. In that moment of sensation of flight, I am acutely present and committed. It's a rush, not in the adrenaline way, though in the damn-this-feels-so-good, soothing sort of way.

Sort of the way it felt when I was on a scrum team for the first time, and we hit our stride both in work and in inspecting and adapting; finding what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi termed "The State of Flow" (and there's a whole other slew of topics waiting in there!).

Progressing into that space requires a couple things:
  • honestly assessing competence against the challenge
  • practice
  • hard work
With this we expand our limits. And when we get to our edge, there is something waiting for us there, a sensation letting us know we're officially out of our comfort zone: fear.

And most often, that's all it is, it's not indicative of any real physical threat, it is, as an old friend and Teacher of mine once said "False Evidence Appearing Real." Let's call this the first fear.

When we meet this fear, the best thing we can do is give it a nod, and then carry on. We ride the line, hit the jump and heed the call to fly, or speak our truth to the team. And we learn that in fact, we haven't died, on the contrary we feel lighter. And the edge progresses; goes a little further out.

This all said, fear serves us, for it can warn of actual danger, as another friend once said "Fuck Everything And Run." Let's call this the second fear.

Continuing in the face of the first fear is a powerful route to growth. Knowingly continuing in the second ranges from slightly risky to all out reckless. And here is the critical importance of that first bullet point: honestly assessing competence in context. Alternatively this could be an accurate assessment of risk.

There is a huge difference between the two fears, though the thing is, they both feel very similar in body and mind; learning to discern can mean saving substantial bodily harm, or in the business realm, money.

Agile fits into this equation in its constant pursuit of empirical evidence, frequent inspect/adapt loops, and open communication channels. If any of these were the default operating state, we wouldn't have a suite of approaches carrying the agile moniker.

In short, agile practice requires individuals and organizations to change, sometimes drastically, which can be scary. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. The best riders in the world, talk about their fear, about how terrifying it is to stand at the top of a line before dropping in. And then they do it anyway and ride through it. As agilists, we should strive to do the same.

How do the two fears fit into your work?

This Friggin' Thing's Warped! How Come I Always Get a Warped One?!

This is a only a tool.
That's one of the best lines from the film Blazing Saddles when Mel Brookes, playing the governor, can't get a paddle ball set to work. Of course we can see how silly this is, akin to blaming the hammer when we can't pound a nail straight into wood.

However when it comes to agile, it's all too often that the tools, process, or artifacts get blamed when desired results don't materialize: "The acceptance criteria were missing," "We could have finished more if we weren't in timeboxed sprints," "Things aren't working and we think agile will help."

As long as the focus remains on the tool it is more difficult to see what is causing pain.

I think it comes down to a simple test, and I tell my teams this: if fault is being assigned to a process, ceremony, or artifact, that's a clear indication that something went wrong along the way with a conversation. You know, that whole "individuals and interactions" thing.

As agile coaches, we can support those we work with by holding our Coaching Stance and shifting the focus from the problem to the underlying cause and solution using powerful questions: what interactions do we need to have, and what kind of individuals do we need to be, to prevent this? That is something we can work with.

Avoid The Trees

A few years ago my snowboarding had progressed enough that I began riding glades. Slowly. I would watch other skiers and riders seemingly effortlessly float past me, winding through the hardwood trunks. And I would wonder how they could do that; all I could see were the trees.

My second season in the glades something clicked, and rather than focusing on the trees themselves, I began to see instead the spaces between, and to plan the line I would ride. A snowboard goes where the rider looks and focuses; it makes a lot of sense that if I’m looking at trees that’s where I’ll end up.

Inspecting and Adapting is a lot like riding glades; there are always things that can be better, that have impeded us. They are the trees. As facilitators we can either focus on those things and thus continue to have them block us, or alternatively we can acknowledge their presence while at the same time looking for the spaces between and helping the team go there instead.

The balance point is to spend enough time close to the problems to know them, to surface the pain they bring. Hopefully we don’t have to smack right into them to experience it enough to change, though that is always a risk ;)

What glades are you or your teams moving through? How can you refocus on the possibilites rather than the problems?