What You Can Learn By Flying a Kite

July 5, 2016 — Posted by Al Shalloway

So I’m spending the week in Carlsbad and I decide to get a kite. Dual Line Power Kite Not just any kite, of course, but a Dual Line Power Kite, one that you can do tricks with.  Now Carlsbad’s got a pretty good breeze going every afternoon so getting it up is not the problem.  But, being a dual control, means the lines have to be equally tight while it’s going up.  Here’s the problem.  How do you let the two lines out equally until you get to the ends (about 50’ of line) so you can then easily control it?

Day 1: Learning the impediments.  So day 1 I go out and hold the kite strings about 5 feet away from the kite, it immediately takes to the air.  Now I slowly let go of the lines equally, 10’, 20’ away from me.  Looking good. Only this thing is big and really catches the wind – soon the line’s going through my hand and it burns and I can’t control it so it crashes.  At one point a couple goes by and the woman asks me if I want her to hold the kite.  I thank her but say no, the problem isn’t in getting it up it’s in letting the string out.  She says “ok” and goes on. Try a few more times and figure, ok, I’ll come back with gloves.

Stepping back and doing a retrospection.  OK, so before day 2 goes on I’m thinking I’ve got to get a better control of things. Gloves sound good but perhaps I need a control bar or a spinner to let the string out.  Don't buy anything but I’m learning about kite accessories.  I’ve heard that flying a kite of this type is hard so I console myself that at least I’m trying and not afraid of looking stupid on the beach.  Chin up and keep ‘er going.  Sound familiar? Building software is complex, chin up and all. 

Day 2: Learning how to release the lines equally. So day 2 I now have gloves, but since they are the open finger types (they’re my bike gloves) I put duct tape over my forefinger to protect things.   I try a few times but letting the line out equally, even when it’s not burning your fingers is difficult because you’re trying to fly a sensitive kite while letting the string slip through your hands equally.  Some modest success, but typically crash the kite.  At least I had a cheering section behind me at one time – “10 more feet, 10 more feet” they’re having a good time at my struggles.  I warn them there’s an entertainment fee for all this, but they don’t give me a beer.

Stepping back and doing another retrospection. Actually, I’m pretty sure I got it solved and just need to practice more with the glove approach.  But I got lucky.  I had ordered a smaller kite of the same type.  And, I’m having so much troubles I’ve decided to emasculate myself and read the instructions.  They say the best way to get the kite up was for someone to hold the kite, to fully unwind the string, stand with the line taut and then just let it go with the string fully out.  Uh, why didn’t I think of this?  On day 1 I could have had the woman hold the kite, me unwind all the string and let 'er rip.  But, of course, I was focused on learning how to let the string out – not get the kite up!  I had let an interim solution become my target instead of the real target – getting the kite up in the air with the strings fully let out.   The instructions had another great idea.  Put the kite on its back on the ground, lay some rocks on the trailing edge, walk out the string, then pull on the kite slowly and it’ll catch the wind, start to rise and pull out from the rocks. This way I can launch the kite by myself. It occurs to me that i wonder how much the focus on impediments instead of what we're trying to do has us not see better solutions?

Day 3: Flying a kite. OK, so I go out with both my kites and put the big one on its back, put some rocks on its bottom edge, walk away with the strings fully extended, pull gently and the kite slowly rises.  In fact, I do it extra slow to give it a dramatic effect (people were watching).  After holding it steady about 2-3 feet of the ground I flick my hands to have it catch the wind the kite jumps up 30 feet into the air.  Wow, so great!  Fly it around a little bit, get a little tired, bring ‘er down.  Bring her back up.  Then down.  Then get the other kite and do the same.  Easy peazy when you know what to do.

So what did I learn?

That getting help frees you up to do the real thing.   In this case, it was having fun flying the kite not having fun learning how to get the damn thing in the air.  Making it relevant to software: I’ve had expert Scrum coaches tell me you shouldn’t help the team learn because they don’t learn how to learn on their own.  They’ve forgotten the team’s real issue is delivering business value not learning how to do Scrum (get the parallel?). Also, once you're having fun of actually delivering something, you learn better. 

That if you try to solve the wrong problem, even when someone offers to help you solve the right problem you may not recognize it because you get fixed on what you are trying to do. Even smart people get so focused on solving a problem they can’t see a better solution.  I’m no dummy, I have two masters (one from MIT), graduated Summa Cum Laude, and am a NSF Fellow, written five books and more.  But here I was, a woman asking me to hold the kite (day 1) where I could just back away, keep the strings taught, and let ‘er go.  But everyone knows a kite gets let out! No, not dual-line wing type kites – they're best starting let out. Making it relevant to software: when we get focused on our problem we may forget what we’re trying to accomplish.  Also, starting where you are and making incremental improvements may not get you there either.

If you focus on removing impediments you may miss the point – getting the value. I was so focused on removing my impediments (getting the string out while the kite was going up) I forgot to look for easy solutions to the real thing I wanted – kite in air with line out. Making it relevant to software: when you focus on impediments you may miss the opportunity to just get the business value.

Moral of the story: If you ever get mad at me, don’t tell me to go fly a kite.  I’ll just take that as you’re wishing me a good time.

Al Shalloway

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With 45 years of experience, Al is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design. He helps companies transition to Lean and Agile methods enterprise-wide as well teaches courses in these areas.


I did a little kiteboarding, as a break from windsurfing The kite is so big, that you have to start it with the lines out. So going down to smaller kites, I naturally did the same thing. If you start with a small kite, then the let-out-the-string approach is the only feasible thing. No one would ever unwind that entire ball of string to start flying. One's approach to things often is based on the context of their experience.

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