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Happy Accidents… living Agile Values

In our home life and work life, we need plans.

faceless ethnic worker making schedule at wooden table
Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

In making plans, we have the opportunity to discuss our priorities, our desires, risks, participants, and tasks. In making plans for an upcoming vacation, we talk about which cities we want to visit, which places we want to spend time at, how close to the city to choose our hotel, who we will travel with, and who we can visit. Those planning discussions help to ensure that we all get the most of what we want out of our time and money. And, it increases our anticipation and excitement of the upcoming trip. Even those who want to be totally spontaneous have to make a few choices about the city to start in. Even the choice to be totally spontaneous must be shared by the travelling group since there are risks.

At work, we are always planning. We might prefer short-term, flexible plans. We might prefer annual plans. Some businesses may still be making 5-year plans. Like vacation planning, the conversation is what matters most – priorities, risks, participants, outputs, and outcomes. The planners must all be in agreement, and the full group of participants then informed.

And then life happens.

There is a saying in the military:

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Chief of Staff of the Prussian army before World War 1

We have a great plan and then reality hits. Bam! We have to adjust.

The choice we have in that moment is how to feel about making the adjustment.

  • Will we be angry that all of our time planning was a waste of time?
  • Will we get moody that things did not turn out as we wanted?
  • Will we lash out at our fellow teammates that they (or we) missed predicting this might happen and planning for this contingency?
  • Will we just ‘pack up our toys and go home’, choosing not to proceed?

A short (and very real) story…

In 2014, my husband, myself, and our best friends planned a trip to France to honor 100 years since WWI, to visit those WWI sites, some WWII sites, Hundred Years’ War sites, and some castles in the Loire Valley. Covering all of that ground in two weeks required planning. We each had a few things we really wanted to see, and we wove these together into a plan.

All was going according to plan until we hit Rouen. We were planning to stay for two nights so that we’d have the whole day to visit all of the sights. We arrived in the afternoon of the day and enjoyed an afternoon visiting the plaza of old town, the old market street, and the plaza of outdoor restaurants (that location holds a crazy story for another day).

We had a hotel booked for two nights that was near a small park, and off of the main tourist streets which we had thought would be noisy. Unfortunately, the park next to our hotel and the street alongside it were home to a lot of very late night activity, and none of us slept much. I tossed and turned for hours as the noise outside continued into the wee hours.

As the primary planner for the trip, I was frustrated. I was tired and needed to sleep. I knew my friends and husband were tired and we all needed our sleep. I was now irritated with Rouen itself. We called down to the front desk, but there was nothing to be done. My ‘project manager’ hat got busy figuring out an alternative. We could leave. So… at about 3 a.m., I got online via my phone and started to search for another hotel. I was done with Rouen, and looking for another location with space for two couples. I found some options closer to our next city (Honfleur and Caen). In the morning, I checked in with the rest of the group, and we agreed that we’d seen enough of Rouen, and could move on.

We were flexible, we adapted. But we weren’t in a good mood about it…. yet.

We checked out of the hotel and loaded up.

We headed north west. During the drive, I couldn’t find an inn in Honfluer, but we were able to drive through the town to see the seaside. I was able to find an inn outside Pont-l’Évêque knowing nothing about the town or the inn itself. I hate going in blind, but so be it.

As we drove into the countryside, we were all amazed. It was lovely. We came around the final bend and saw an inn beside a lake set in idyllic parkland. All our fears and frustrations faded away. Stress melted. We checked in, and headed back in to check out the town of Pont-l’Évêque. It was a perfect French village with its own WWII history, and home to a famous cheese. We visited a local cheese shop and the local bakery (award winning, in itself), and found a spot for dinner later next to a small stream running through town. It was perfect.

For the rest of the trip, and ever since then, the four of us remind ourselves of Happy Accidents.

We had not planned to visit this town or stay at this inn, but it was one of the nicest days in our trip.

Our planning process was important, and still provided the general arc and pace of our trip, but flexibility in the day-to-day became more common.

Happy Accidents became a bit more of the way of my own life after that.

A few other Happy Accidents?

  • Walking upon the dress rehearsal for the Queen Mum’s birthday parade in London, late May, 2003.
  • Walking into the Euro Chocolate Festival in Perugia, Italy, 2005.
  • Visiting the Corn Festival in rural Acapulco, Mexico, in 2006.
  • A very late afternoon lunch with an old restaurant owner in La Spezia, Italy, after a frustrating trek to find our hotel (2011). With no internet and only translation books, we shared a great late lunch of local tapas and homemade limoncello and orange cello.
  • And recently, in Spring, 2018, a Happy Accident in walking into Braga, Portugal, during the week of Braga Romana, the Portuguese week-long version of the US Renaissance Festivals. It’s the very real living history of this country.
Risturante Cadorna, La Spezia
Our Happy Accident – Sauro, our La Spezia restaurant Host

Before our 2014 trip, I did not have the term ‘Happy Accidents’, but now, my husband and I use it a lot. It’s a way of looking for the nice surprises, and remembering that they can happen at any time, and are sweeter after those moments of frustration at ‘failed plans’. Moments when God smiles on us and gives us a pleasant present… something nicer than we planned.

This approach is prevalent in the Agile approach – lightweight planning but ongoing flexibility. Joy in the moments of change, moments of learning something unplanned, and joy in the new and better surprise. Adjusting based on experimentation and learning. We pivot according to the realities that arise which often could not have been predicted. We have seen that so much this year with the pandemic. So many businesses and individuals have had to pivot, to adjust, to flex. We can be frustrated. We can be angry. We can imagine that leaders might have done a better job predicting, planning, and preparing. But they didn’t. If we can ‘flex and float’, enjoy the ride, choose a new path, then life goes on with less stress and we find something else enjoyable that was unplanned.

I hope that the idea of Happy Accidents allows you to shift to lightweight plans and joy in flexing when even that lightweight plan doesn’t go as planned.

Sometimes the change is a nice surprise… a Happy Accident.

Published by Thene Sheehy

Living & Working in Northern Portugal