You’ve got your process. Ironed out. Ironclad. Agile, scrum, Kanban, waterfall…it’s working. But then you get this new project, or new team members or new stakeholders, and suddenly your project management approach starts to break down. What is happening?
Anita Sagar, Agile Consultant at Enterprise Knowledge, has a simple explanation: not all situations or challenges are created equal. So no single process will fit all contexts. As Anita says, the context of a federal organization, a commercial one, a tech giant, startup or nonprofit—it’s all different. One organization may need Agile, whereas the solution for another may be scrum or Kanban. Or…dare we say it, waterfall. That’s right, Waterfall with a capital W.
So how does a DPM or organization truly understand context and visualize different solutions before diving into the wrong approach? Anita joins us to talk about the Cynefin framework, and how to use it to place yourself in the right scenario and right project management approach to achieve optimal results.
Join Anita at the Digital PM Summit for her interactive session, “Choosing the Best Project Management Approach for Your Team: The Cynefin Framework.”
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Carl Smith: Hey everybody, and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. Today, we have with us an Agile consultant from Enterprise Knowledge, a certified Scrum Master, a federal Agile facilitator, so mind your Ps and Qs, and a former teacher. It's Anita Sagar. How are you, Anita?
Anita Sagar: Hi there, how are you?
Carl Smith: I'm good. Tell everybody listening a little bit about how you went into teaching and then made the move to being an Agile consultant.
Anita Sagar: Yeah, it's actually kind of interesting. I went into teaching because I wanted to basically rebel against everything my parents told me not to do, but I fell in love with it. I taught in D.C. I taught high school students in low-income areas. It was just a blast. So I spent about five years doing that in D.C., and then I actually went to Chicago for a little bit to do it as well.
Anita Sagar: I can't tell you specifically how I got into Agile coaching, because I myself don't know how I got into it. But, I will say it is such a natural fit because Agile coaching, and teaching, and learning, and development, they all kind of go together. I don't really feel out of my element or that I've taken this huge departure away from teaching; because I'm still doing it, just in a different context.
Carl Smith: I just love that you turned around at the blackboard, you're working on something. The lights go out. They come back on, and now you're doing Agile. You're like, “I don't know what happened.”
Anita Sagar: I literally do not know.
Carl Smith: I do not know.
Anita Sagar: Also, the worst, because I'm also getting my PhD right now at George Washington University in curriculum instruction for teaching.
Carl Smith: [crosstalk 00:01:52] ...
Anita Sagar: Yeah, I have one foot.
Carl Smith: What will you be a doctor of?
Anita Sagar: I will be a doctor of education.
Carl Smith: Okay, good.
Anita Sagar: Yeah. But, so I guess I'm still teaching in every way possible, just not in a classroom setting.
Carl Smith: Well, I mean really if you think about project management, it is teaching.
Anita Sagar: It is. It's guiding, same thing.
Carl Smith: Yeah, there are assignments. You have to get people to work together on a team. You've got this interesting curve ball of a client that comes in. So you've always got something that you're basically getting people to understand. I think I've made the point here.
Anita Sagar: Yeah.
Carl Smith: I think [crosstalk 00:02:35] ... pretty good.
Anita Sagar: Also, I think there's a lot of tailoring things, and customizing things for ... To me, where I would meet the students where they are, but in this case, just kind of like meeting the clients where they are.
Carl Smith: Right. One of the things I'm excited about, so you're coming to the Digital PM Summit in Orlando.
Anita Sagar: I am.
Carl Smith: And hanging out with us.
Anita Sagar: Yes.
Carl Smith: You know, shameless plug because that's why I'm here. October 20th through 22nd. ... What I like is in your talk description, which is all about choosing the best project management framework, you use the context a lot. You just started it right there talking about the client, and meeting the client where they are.
Anita Sagar: Absolutely.
Carl Smith: So talk a little bit about your philosophy of project management.
Anita Sagar: Yeah, I think ... Actually, I would actually take it all the way back to my days teaching. A lot of my project management philosophy kind of comes from this idea of tailoring and customizing the project management, or the management style that I use, depending on the client. All the different facets of who they are, and what environment they're coming from. I don't think that one project management style is ever going to fit one client because then I might be out of job.
Carl Smith: [crosstalk 00:03:54] Your secret is safe.
Anita Sagar: What was that?
Carl Smith: Your secret is safe with us, doctor.
Anita Sagar: Yes, and all the people listening, but ... I think that's like one of the most important things. It took me a while to learn it, but now that I am learning it, and still learning it, it is a huge benefit to me.
Carl Smith: So when you say the environment they're coming from, how are you using the word environment?
Anita Sagar: Yeah, sure. So like you had said before, at Enterprise Knowledge, which is a consulting firm based right outside of Washington D.C., has this fantastic client base that serves both federal and commercial clients.
Carl Smith: Okay.
Anita Sagar: I have this great benefit of being kind of putting both my legs in two different places, essentially. The federal context of a company is completely, completely different than a commercial one. A commercial one could be different when it's a big tech company, a startup, or a nonprofit, and how they work. A more established company might like more waterfall approaches to project management than the Agile, the quick change, quick feedback way of Agile project management.
Carl Smith: We have a saying in the south. Shush your mouth. Waterfall?
Anita Sagar: Yes.
Carl Smith: What are you talking about?
Anita Sagar: I know, I know. It's like a bad word. It's like what no one should say anymore, but I will say that waterfall is ... You know what? I am definitely not opposed to waterfall. I talk about it in my blog for EK, and also what I'll be presenting in October, about the [Cynefin 00:05:46] framework. It talked about how looking at your context and your environment, and then maybe a waterfall is the right approach; but we need to know that. We need to embrace the fact that waterfall can be something that you can take and use.
Carl Smith: Waterfall served me well for a long, long time. Then, we started working in a more customer-centric fashion, which I later found out had elements of Agile, but we also held on to the parts of waterfall that made sense. So, I truly love what you're saying because it's about the context of not only the project, but the people working on it. What is the outcome? All of this plays into it. So how do you determine that project? What is your process to determine the best way forward?
Anita Sagar: Yeah, this was actually really funny because I myself was having so much trouble with this in the beginning because I would kind of like push everyone into the scrum bucket, or I would push everyone-
Carl Smith: [crosstalk 00:06:44] The scrum bucket. Oh, man.
Anita Sagar: ... Like, “Wow, you just need scrum. You're fine,” or whatever. Or, you'll have clients who would do that as well. Of course, I would like to say that if I push anyone to the scrum bucket, I'm very sorry; but I also did it when I was very, very green.
Anita Sagar: So one of the things that I think is really interesting is if you really break it down, like how I break it down for some of my clients, and I say, “Look at your project, and you tell me how much is like ... How easy it is.” Like for example, when something is a waterfall project, usually I think of it like baking a cake. Steps are the same, over, and over, and over. You're not going to really vary anything. If they themselves come to that conclusion, that's usually where I like to start. If they need to be in [Kanban 00:07:39], or if they actually do need to be in scrum, is my job as a Agile coach to guide them there.
Carl Smith: That's perfect, and I love the cake analogy, right? Because that's one of the things I remember telling people. It's like, a cake needs a certain amount of time to bake.
Anita Sagar: Yeah.
Carl Smith: Otherwise you get hot dough. You can't put icing on it, right? It's going to be gross. [crosstalk 00:08:00] Nobody wants that.
Anita Sagar: …You can take it from me, because I have tried.
Carl Smith: It also describes most of the projects that we delivered, right?
Anita Sagar: Exactly.
Carl Smith: They weren't that good. So you come in, one of your things, I think when I was reading up a little, is on turning projects around.
Anita Sagar: Yes, that's actually my favorite thing to do.
Carl Smith: So talk about that. You go into a project. It's kind of going off the rails. What do you do to try to get it going in the right direction?
Anita Sagar: Yeah, so one of the first things I do, and it's probably the easiest thing, is actually I kind of spend time applying the [Cynefin 00:08:36] framework with my stakeholders, like in a project. A lot of times, what happens is I have people going off the rails because they're trying to implement scrum into something that should not be scrum. It's not experimental. It's not something you're analyzing, and you're figuring out. It's something that should be Kanban, or it should be waterfall, really, and they're just being really extra about it. Moving them to the correct environment, and context, and applying the right project management quickly alleviates a lot of issues that they have in terms of being in chaos.
Carl Smith: For a lot of people, it's that capital A, right? Everybody jokes about it, Agile with a capital A.
Anita Sagar: Yeah.
Carl Smith: Do you find yourself sometimes coming up against these purists?
Anita Sagar: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. I will say openly that I'm still trying to figure out how to best facilitate those conversations with the purists. I've found that the really talking about where projects need to be, in terms of Agile, or maybe it's not Agile at all; and that's okay. That's usually my first step in having that discussion, but I will say those Agile purists, it's like ... They're very headstrong about how it should be executed.
Carl Smith: I remember this conversation. We had a process wiki. We lost a project because of it. Somebody felt we were too process-focused, and that we wouldn't be able to create something that was not only valuable, but felt original, because of the amount of process. For me, when somebody gets precious about the way something's being done versus where you're trying to get to, that can be a real challenge for the whole team, especially if that person's vocal.
Anita Sagar: Oh, my gosh. You know what? It's funny because I've just ... been dealing with this, like in a different context. You have these situations where they're so focused on Agile, Agile, Agile, implementing Agile the correct way, that the end product is kind of like ... has fallen by the wayside. I think that that's one of the things that people really need to take away from Agile. This is where Agile actually gets a bad rep sometimes, because there are these purists that are like so obsessed with the process, but really Agile is just really meant to help you, and help your team get to that end product in the best way and most efficient way possible.
Carl Smith: [crosstalk 00:11:17] Where are ...
Anita Sagar: ... understanding that.
Carl Smith: Where are the waterfall evangelists?
Anita Sagar: Yes.
Carl Smith: Where are the ones saying with a capital W?
Anita Sagar: Yeah, and you would not believe how much flack I get for being like, maybe this is waterfall. It's like it's unbelievable. I think one of the biggest problems right now, or issues, challenges, whatever you want to call it, is the fact that people are ... Agile has become such a buzz word, where waterfall is just this horrible, horrible word that should never ... It's like the Voldemort of ... [inaudible 00:11:52] ... It's horrible. I will get the stink eye every time I mention waterfall, you know, should not be named. That's how people- [crosstalk 00:12:07]
Carl Smith: You're a waterfall, Harry.
Anita Sagar: So yes, I am that anti-person who's like, maybe not bringing waterfall back, but just being like, [crosstalk 00:12:18] ... you are.
Carl Smith: But if it works, right?
Anita Sagar: Yeah.
Carl Smith: Then it works. So talk about the Cynefin framework a little bit, because I had not heard of it before. I'm a little bit out of the industry at this point, in terms of building stuff, but how does the Cynefin framework work? What is it?
Anita Sagar: Yeah. So the Cynefin framework was actually used for knowledge management. That was originally where it was introduced, but we kind of used it and we kind of changed it around to get the project management framework to ... for our Agile applications. It's basically a Welsh word by Dave Snowden, and it means “habitat.“ It loosely means the word “habitat,” and it was introduced around 1999.
Anita Sagar: Basically, it's just a framework that helps us visualize and understand that not all situations or any challenges in projects are really created equally, and that different solutions are warranted for different issues, depending on the context of that scenario that we're seeing. So really what it does, is it helps us place ourselves in the right scenario, or ... in the right habitats, essentially, so that we can basically pair the right project management approach with the actual situation so we can get pretty optimal results.
Carl Smith: So it kind of guides you in?
Anita Sagar: Yeah, because at no point ... when I introduce it, will introduce this in my blog, or other written work on it, you'll see at no point is this saying you must do this, or you must do that. It's like gently guiding you based on your project. Like, “Hey, this is going to need special skills, and you're going to need analysis, and there's a flow to this.” So usually, the preferred project management approach is Kanban. This is a complicated thing. The thing is the fact that it's not forcing itself down your throat, it really kind of makes for it to be like easily digestible.
Carl Smith: It's funny, the way you describe it, and even the way you do your voice, it's like Agile is more militaristic, and Cynefin is more hippy.
Anita Sagar: Yeah.
Carl Smith: [crosstalk 00:14:33] ...:et's take a look. Let's see what's going on. I bet we can figure this out in a way that works for everyone.
Anita Sagar: I know. Do you see, do you hear my facilitation skills coming out?
Carl Smith: I do. They're amazing. I'm a true believer right now.
Anita Sagar: Yeah, I know. I already got ... I sold you on it already.
Carl Smith: No, I'm coming back. I'm buying a second one.
Anita Sagar: Love it.
Carl Smith: When in the federal environment, though, do you still find you can get that flexibility, or do they want something kind of set in stone from the beginning?
Anita Sagar: Yeah, well it really depends on what branch, or what project you're working on. Some require a little bit more of a upfront approach. Others are kind of change as they go. I know I'm working for ... with one federal contract right now, and they've been awesome in terms of really ... At first they were doing scrum. Now they've changed it a little bit to Kanban, so they're kind of flowing with what's happening. It's really awesome to watch. I introduced the Cynefin framework to them, and that was like a good topic of discussion because they were all accountable. They made that decision together.
Carl Smith: It feels like the Cynefin framework, which is just fun to say; anyway. It feels like ... It's almost like a roadmap to process, or not even that. I mean it's ... I wish we had, had it, because it sounds like it just allows you to take from the best of every different method, and kind of put together not a franken-method, but like a true process based on the customer or the product.
Anita Sagar: Yeah, and like what people sometimes don't see ... Let's just talk about waterfall and Kanban, right? Waterfall is pretty cookie cutter. Kanban is flow-based, and it's analysis. It needs analysis and special skills. But a lot of the time, what people may not see right away until they're guided to it, is that going from something obvious like waterfall to something a little bit more complicated like Kanban, that has more to do with ... It's more quantitative. There's more steps, or there's more things to worry about, a little bit more. Versus when you go from Kanban to scrum, you're actually making a qualitative change. So things in Kanban are ... There's just more of it, but it's flow based, but then now you're going qualitative. It becomes more experimental, and it progressively evolves, and it's very uncertain. You're making these qualitative changes.
Anita Sagar: The Cynefin framework is awesome because it allows me as a facilitator to also kind of show you when you make changes, what kind of changes you're making.
Carl Smith: Do you get a point when you're working with a team where the lightbulb goes off, and they're like, "Oh."
Anita Sagar: Yeah, I mean like sometimes, there's this really cool activity. I'm not going to give it away because I'm going to introduce it at the Digital, the Summit, again in October, shameless plug.
Carl Smith: The one in Orlando?
Anita Sagar: Yeah, the one in Orlando. Are you going?
Carl Smith: I heard about that. I gotta go.
Anita Sagar: I don't know. I heard [crosstalk 00:17:50]
Carl Smith: Can't miss it.
Anita Sagar: Yeah, exactly. [crosstalk 00:17:51]
Carl Smith: I heard Cynefin ... Cynefin's going to be there.
Anita Sagar: Yes. ... I'll be playing this really cool not-to-be-named LEGO game with you guys, to introduce it, so come to my session. ...
Carl Smith: We're coming up on the end of our time, but I do have to ask you about a blog post you did.
Anita Sagar: Yeah.
Carl Smith: On the taxonomy of Game of Thrones.
Anita Sagar: Oh my gosh, you saw that?
Carl Smith: [crosstalk 00:18:22] I do very thorough research. Very thorough research. That was amazing.
Anita Sagar: That is funny. I did not know Carl that you were going to throw that at me at the end.
Carl Smith: So you come into the series late, and you're like, 'Ugh, I need some visualization for this.'
Anita Sagar: I was like, what am I doing? Is it at for me, ... I also think that's a testament to our company, Enterprise Knowledge, another shameless plug.
Carl Smith: Yeah, yeah.
Anita Sagar: That I have just working these awesome colleagues that you learn to build this taxonomy out. I've been on enough projects where I'm starting to see it, and how it works, and really just applying it to real life, so people can see how it applies to things like Game of Thrones.
Carl Smith: If I had, had the taxonomy of Game of Thrones, I might have been able to read the books.
Anita Sagar: Oh, see?
Carl Smith: By the time the 38th character got introduced, I was like, I am out.
Anita Sagar: Exactly.
Carl Smith: I cannot read this.
Anita Sagar: Yeah, it's wild; and like actually, I was so far behind that my fiancé had to help me. ... I have no idea what's happening, and my colleagues as well. It was definitely a group effort. That was not just my blog.
Carl Smith: I am glad that you had people that supported you in your time of need.
Anita Sagar: Yes, I am, too.
Carl Smith: I am glad that I was able to benefit from it as somebody who fell off in season five, and needs to catch up pretty quickly.
Anita Sagar: Yeah. Well, that last episode I've heard is a doozy.
Carl Smith: I've heard just enough.
Anita Sagar: Yeah.
Carl Smith: Not to jump ahead. I've got to go back to season five. I don't know what happened in there. It just got ... a little too ... I don't know.
Anita Sagar: I just heard [crosstalk 00:20:10] ... in the other room like screaming at the TV, so I was like, "Please stop."
Carl Smith: Well, I have to say, it's been an absolute pleasure to have you on the podcast, Anita. [crosstalk 00:20:19] Thank you so much. I'm looking forward to meeting you in person, when?
Anita Sagar: I know, Carl. I'm so excited. I'll see you in October.
Carl Smith: That's right, the 20th through 22nd. Look at us. This is the most plugs we've ever put in [crosstalk 00:20:32] per minute, and I'm feeling pretty good. But seriously, thanks again, and everybody listening, we'll talk to you next week. All the best.
Anita Sagar: Bye.