Nanny McPhee is one of my kids favourite films, the magical Nanny that helps really naughty children, and their parents, to understand each other and live in harmony. This blog post is about looking at some lessons Nanny McPhee taught and how to apply them to your context. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t stress, it’s not necessary viewing, but this post might contain spoilers.

The famous Nanny McPhee quote has also been a firm favourite of many agilists who get asked the question how do you know when to move on to another team?

I have often wondered if the 5 lessons that she teaches in the first movie could be applied to our work, but always struggled a bit. Then I watched the 2nd movie, Nanny McPhee Returns, and the lessons in that film were much easier to adapt, so let’s have a look at what they are. Before we do I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not advocating that you should treat your team members as if they are naughty children. If you treat your team members as kids, they will behave like kids. However these lessons can still be valuable if they are implemented with adult knowledge workers in mind.

1. Stop Fighting

In the film, the kids are all fighting with each other and acting like kids with no discipline at all. Nanny McPhee puts a stop to this by using her magic to force the kids to start fighting themselves rather than each other until they beg for it to stop. 

Sometimes when we engage with a new team, it’s common to see there are lots of frustrations that have been held within for a long period of time. When we start to talk about how the team works together there can be an initial outpouring of anger and emotion which can lead to uncomfortable, but powerful, conversations. Our job is to create a safe space where we can have the conversations in a calm and positive manner. Do not let the team hold back from speaking what needs to be said, but the manner in which it is said, and the intent behind the words needs to be carefully facilitated. One method I find really useful is to introduce the team to Non Violent Communication. If the team can practice how to speak to each other respectfully, and at the same time still let their feelings be heard and addressed, then the first lesson will be complete.

2. To Share

In the film, when the kids go to bed, there aren’t enough to go around and they refuse to share in a way that they can all be comfortable, with a little inconvenience to some individuals. “I’d rather share my bed with an elephant” one child screams, and Nanny McPhee’s solution is to indeed force the child to sleep next to an elephant for the night.

Some teams contain individuals that don’t like to share their stuff. It’s their knowledge, or their pride, and they may want to feel secure and indispensable to the company. In agile teams we want people to share as much as possible, share knowledge, share the workload, share their feelings. This constant sharing can feel overwhelming for some, especially those who aren’t used to it. In order to feel comfortable sharing we need to open ourselves up to being vulnerable. If we as servant leaders can show vulnerability, admit that we don’t know everything, share our failures and how we learned from them, then it’s more likely the team will open up in return and share their true selves in a vulnerable fashion. If we can manage that, lesson 2 will be complete.

3. To Work Together

In the film, some pigs escape from their sty and the kids have to learn to work together, using each others strengths, to capture the pigs and bring them back safely.

In agile teams, we want the team members to be “T-shaped” individuals that have a deep expertise in one specific skill, but are happy to stretch their skillset to help other team members when the load is too much. One way to do this is to implement a pull system with strict work in process limits on a kanban board. Even if you are using the Scrum framework, you can still track work in the sprint using a kanban board. Having WIP limits necessitates the need to focus on the flow of work rather than if any one individual is ‘busy’. When we are focusing on ensuring the work is flowing through the system, then it will naturally force team members to pair up and help out on tasks that they may normally would have avoided doing because ‘its not their role’. When team members swarm around blocked items to move them along, we will have observed a beautiful thing of an agile team working together, and lesson 3 will be complete.

4. To Be Brave

In the film, the children learn that their father has been killed in action in the war. Two of the children ask Nanny McPhee to take them to London where they can go to the War Office and ask a relative to check the telegram was correct, it took real bravery for them to do this.

Being brave is a motto of one of our founders, Sam Laing. it’s so important to show courage during our career and not shy away from difficult conversations. There is a reason ‘courage’ is one of the Scrum values. We have to step up and show bravery when things are holding the team back at an organisational level. It’s not easy to walk into a CEO’s office and explain to them that the structure of the organisation is holding them back for example. For our teams, sometimes their line manager is holding them back, perhaps they were promoted because they were really good at their job, and aren’t actually very good at showing leadership. That can lead to needing to be brave in order to have some tough conversations, home truths, laid out on the table. Geoff Watts book on Team Mastery dedicates a whole chapter to ‘Audacity’ which delves deep into teams needing to be brave. When the team can deal with difficult situations without shying away from them, but tactfully facing them head on with the aim of creating a better place to be, then lesson 4 will be complete.

5. To Have Faith

In the film, the childrens Father was found to be missing in action, not killed in action. It took great faith for them to not give up hope that he was actually alive and they would see him again.

Sometimes as agilists we can lose faith in what we are doing. No matter how experienced or qualified you are, imposter syndrome still hits all of us occasionally. Thats ok. Have faith that what you are doing is making a difference, even if you can’t see it right here and now. Have faith that you are doing the right thing even if there is resistance from people around you. Have faith that you are improving the lives of the people you work with. Teams also sometimes struggle implementing new ideas, its very easy to slip back into the more comfortable way of work they were used to. Over time they will see the benefits and it will become normal, they will gain the faith that you have. Then lesson 5 will be complete.

Once all 5 lessons are complete, the team will want you but will no longer need you. It will be time to go. There are always other teams out there that need you, and who knows, in the future that team may well need you again.