Yes, Bob Ross!

Even though Bob Ross failed his ultimate goal, to get me to pick up a brush and enjoy painting, he has never failed to relax me. I will probably never pick up a palette or hang any Bob Ross inspired artwork on my walls, still his soothing voice and repetitive brushstrokes calm me down after a busy day. Recently some of the things Bob says to help explain how he paints stuck with me and I noticed that they are directly applicable to any agile way of working. So, if you are like me and you won’t let Bob Ross teach you how to make (very cliché) artwork, at least let him teach you these five things to keep in mind.

1. “We don’t make mistakes, we have happy accidents.

You knew this one was coming, so best get it out of the way immediately. In spite of the term ‘happy accidents’ being mildly nauseating, there is truth to be found in the first part of this quote. If you are going to fail, you’d better fail fast. In that case you know that you have to adapt whatever it is you’re doing in order to be successful. That’s why making a mistake can never be a bad thing, it reveals something you haven’t discovered yet and it gives you the opportunity to do something differently the next time around.

2. “If you do too much, it’s going to lose its effectiveness.”

Used by mister Ross while adding detail and embellishment to his paintings to indicate that if you add too much, you will no longer notice that it’s there. This is also true for any model or framework you are using to help you get more agile. Kanban and Scrum – for example – are lightweight for a reason, if you add more meetings your team will lose momentum. It also holds true for your work items. Take user stories for example: the more detail you add, the more creativity you lose. It will fail its purpose of sparking a conversation between the development team and the stakeholders.

3. “This is very far away, it has almost no detail.”

On creating depth in his paintings, mister Ross teaches that if you add too much detail to things that are supposed to look far away your painting will lose its sense of perspective. Now this might be my favorite, because it’s simple yet deceiving. With painting this might seem obvious, things that are far away have very few discernible details. It relates, because it is visual. You can’t count the windows on a building on the horizon. Yet in our daily work we strive to plan as much as we can for things we won’t be realizing in the next few months. Large amounts of detail for work that is reasonably ‘far away’ (say, 5-6 months into the future) can be devastating for a team. Large amounts of work items cloud the overview. It pollutes forecasts and the perceived ‘busy-ness’ of the teams. If things are still ‘far away’ use as little detail as you can, you should only be able to tell what it is. Start adding detail as it comes closer. Just as if you are painting a landscape.

4. “Put a tree right in front of it! This is your bravery test.”

It takes bravery to work over something you put a lot of effort in. It’s no wonder that courage is one of the core values of scrum. But really, in any agile way of working the ability to change the stuff you already did is essential. If you can improve by changing something that took you a lot of time in the past (and as such: money), you should never let the earlier investments stop you from making a more valuable product.

5. “Don’t be afraid to make these big decisions, once you start they sort of just make themselves.”

Arguably, a ‘big decision’ is very relative. Deciding where to paint a nice boulder is a different kind of big decision than deciding to invest in a risky venture. But then again, the only way you are ever going to know whether or not your million dollar idea is in fact a million dollar idea is by doing it. Gather feedback from your (potential) clients, test it, adapt it, use that feedback! Once you know how to measure if your idea is successful, let these metrics guide you. If you make a change, be sure you know whether or not this change was successful. If you let this be your primary guide, making decisions will become very easy very quickly. They sort of just make themselves.

So in addition to painting Bob Ross has a lot of insights to share. I should probably look for something else to relax with though, now that I keep hearing all these agile mindset one-liners!

5 things every agilist could learn from Bob Ross

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