The Topping Out Party: How We’re Making FieldLens Agile

By Doug Chambers, Founder and CEO of FieldLens

Most new “core and shell” construction projects have what we in the industry call a “topping out party.” This is a celebration that the team takes part in when the last piece of structural steel is erected at the top of the new building. It’s symbolic of an important milestone reached—the completion of the major structural components of the building.

The topping out party is indicative of the way construction projects are managed. They have a beginning, a middle, and a definitive end. We manage towards major milestone dates, and when the project is completed we move on—literally. We’re off to a new jobsite, a new team, a new everything. Sure, we manage the construction schedule on a week-by-week, even day-by-day perspective—and concepts like Lean Construction bring a methodology that emphasizes continuous improvement. But ultimately construction projects have a clear goal and a clear end: When the building is built and accepted by the owner, it is done. This reality is a driving force for all in the industry. We have a clear sense of purpose because we know what “done” means and we can work towards it.

I recently recognized that ten years managing construction projects has had an unintended consequence on my management skills. I’m not very good at managing things that don’t have a clear end. And when things don’t have a clear end, I manufacture one—the “perfect” set of product features, the ultimate team, or some other impossible-to-achieve milestone.

In application development this mentality results in a “waterfall” development methodology which can prove self-defeating. Rand Fishkin wrote an incredibly honest account of the impact that waterfall had on his company here. This is why many software development teams have moved to what is known as Agile Development, and often a specific method called Scrum. Agile teaches us to manage projects by breaking them up into “sprints” and only concentrating on completing a set amount of work in a time-boxed period, emphasizing that only enough work be taken on to end in a result of truly “done.” Critical to the process is performing a retrospective at the end of the sprint so that the team can learn from what worked well and what didn’t. This means the process is continually improving and that the product created can evolve with market changes. It also means that nothing feels insurmountable—because everything is broken down into manageable pieces.

But what I’ve realized recently is that it is not just about application development. Managing a company is very different than managing a construction project. There is no “topping out party” in company development. Sure, we celebrate the big wins but ultimately we want the company to live on forever with no clear end to its development. But I haven’t been thinking about it this way. I’ve been focused on a milestone—a bright, shiny milestone, invented by me, that as I mentioned above is some combination of “perfect” product, “perfect” team, and “perfect” sales process. We’ll never reach that milestone and by managing towards it I’ve created a culture that can feel overwhelming and, worse, make us feel like we’ve failed.

Using Agile methodologies for non-technical development is nothing new, so it’s not like my epiphany is world-changing. But it is FieldLens-changing, and to be frank that is all I really care about right now. We’re breaking things down into more manageable chunks now. We’re not working towards our “topping out party,” unless you consider every one of our retrospectives a party—in which case we have them every Friday.  All that matters right now is what we’re working on this week and what we learned last week.

On a personal level I’m really excited about all of this. I’m not very good at enjoying the ride; I always just want to get there. But when you don’t know where “there” is you HAVE to enjoy the ride or you’ll drive yourself crazy (which incidentally, is exactly what I’ve been doing). Now I’m just excited about what we are going to learn this week. I’m excited about this Friday, not some Friday six months from now. I’m no longer saying “we’ll be able to do XYZ once we’ve achieved 123,” I’m saying “we achieved 123 this week, and next week we’re going to to do XYZ”.

As I mentioned to the team when introducing this new way of thinking to them, yes, we’ll make mistakes and yes, the transition may be convoluted. But that is all okay, we’ll get smarter every week and we will get great at this. The only opportunity for failure is not trying and not learning.

I look forward to sharing our successes and learnings as this process evolves for us. And don’t worry, we’ll still have parties at FieldLens, they just won’t be topping out parties!

Photo of steel worker © joegough/Bigstock