5 Agile Tips from Extreme Home Makeover

June 29, 2010

Last week, a few dozen of my colleagues and I donned hard hats and tool belts to volunteer on an ABC Extreme Makeover: Home Edition job in East Setauket, a Long Island suburb. Volunteering on the day the Lutz family’s house was demolished gave me some ideas that can be applied to Agile projects. (Thankfully, none of mine are as aggressive as building an entire home in seven days.)

Tip #1: Project Management is still important

Television magic hides the complexity of these projects ‘behind the scenes,’ but as I approached the job site in a hired shuttle bus, its sheer breadth and depth  made me dizzy. The entire neighborhood had been transformed in preparation for this “sprint.” A registration tent had been erected for volunteers to sign legal forms and pick up a hard hat and t-shirt. Back in the bus, we drove past hundreds of crowd control barriers, No Trespassing signs protecting neighbors’ property, and dozens of high-powered construction lights that enabled work to continue after dark. When I left the bus, signs directed me to the catering tent in one neighbor’s yard, portable toilets lining the street, and the volunteers’ staging area, where I must wait for my work assignment.

How many people, I wondered, were involved in accomplishing all of this? Someone had to obtain the necessary permits, contact the local police to close down streets, contact all the neighbors to determine the extent of usage each would permit on their properties. Someone had to communicate with local utilities to arrange for service interruptions while the house is completed. Someone hired the shuttle buses, ordered the supplies, and chose the various staging areas.

Tip #2: No Egos Allowed on Set!

Making the impossible possible takes a concerted effort by a whole bunch of people. I figured so many experts and actors on one project would result in a tantrum or two or some diva-like behavior. I was wrong.

I waited with the rest of my blue-shirted brethren to be called and watched, fascinated, as the countless crew members, radio’d as if to explore the ends of the universe, managed their various jobs with very little instruction. They intuitively knew what had to be done and did it. Yet, out of all this activity, I could not determine who was The Boss. Instead, there were many people in charge of various activities. There was “Chris” in his sun hat, working with the dancers (don’t ask) and operating the giant jib, which controlled a camera. There was “Tim” in his white sunglasses and ready smile, a construction foreman. Then, there was the tall man in the cowboy hat whose name I never did get. He directed the interior shot in which I participated. And dozens more, who all knew exactly what to do and when to do it. Where activities overlapped, all I heard was “Copy that.” The only ego I saw that day belonged to the host (who remained in his air-conditioned trailer until cameras rolled.)

Guess that’s important if you’re going to build a house in a week, right?

Tip #3: Don’t just work, do the best work you can

“Put some feeling into it!” Tim kept reminding us. “Energy! Smiles, everyone!”

If Ricardo Montalban just popped into your head, you are not alone. Fantasy Island jokes abounded and cracked everybody up. Tim is a construction foreman, directing a motley crew of volunteers to jazz up our efforts for the camera. It was ninety degrees in the shade that day but jazz things up we did, and then some because, as Tim told us, you never know when the camera is going to be on you.

Tip #4: Do the things you can do, even if they aren’t your job

This could be filed under No Egos Allowed, but I found it endearing to see Chris, the jib operator, ask to take a neighbor’s trash can up and down the street to clean up the plastic bags, water bottles and other detritus dozens of volunteers left in their wake. Tim, the construction foreman, continually gave camera direction. And Paul DiMeo, one of the show’s cohosts, displayed a heartwarming lack of ego when he leapt to his feet, jogged over to Chris, who was struggling to maneuver the heavy jib over a curb, and lent a hand. He really put his back into it, too. Jibs are very heavy, I’m told.

I’d done some yard raking up until this point and headed for the catering tent for a bottle of water and a snack. I was then asked to serve food, which I did for the lunch rush. Other members of my team worked off camera, stacking heavy concrete backer boards. Still others did nothing more than separate eggs for the caterers. But every bit of this work was critical for the smooth operation I witnessed.

Tip #5: Manners matter. Really.

Just as Chris got the heavy jib into position, the mail truck drove down the block. Neither rain, nor snow, nor television productions can be permitted to keep the postman from his appointed rounds. Once again, all available hands rushed to the big camera, pushed it away, waited patiently while the postman filled mailboxes. At no time did I see a single eye roll, or hear a frustrated sigh or unkind word. People dealt with the distraction and quickly moved on.


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