Delivery Leadership MSP

Racing for the Top: The Scrum of Crewing Hot Air Balloons

Chris Meyer-Quarberg CMQ

The interesting thing about hot air balloons is you never know what conditions you’ll have until you’re in the thick of them.

Kind of like an Agile team entering a dev project.

As someone who crews hot air balloons and serves as a senior scrum master at Daugherty, Chris Meyer-Quarberg (CMQ) can certainly point out similarities.

Chris started crewing hot air balloons about 10 years ago, as part of a community event each winter in Hudson, Wis., in which about 50 balloons take off. He first learned about it through the Hudson Vintage Neighborhood Alliance, when he and his husband, Jeff, invited homeowners over for a martini party.

A hot air balloon crew is like a scrum team.

The pilot is like a product owner: He owns the hot air balloon, and his ultimate goal is to get the balloon in the air. He also has deeply felt concerns because his license and reputation are on the line.

If conditions are right for flying, a team assembles to figure out how to achieve that. Everybody finds their niche — some hold the canopy of the balloon, others pull on the basket to keep it down, others operate the burner, and still others chase the balloon.

It’s self-organizing.

Everything is about communication and responding to change. The team has to take a 200,000-square-foot balloon and find a way to put it down in a residential neighborhood, collapse it and drag it back. There’s a small window to launch: Winds need to be between 5 and 7 mph, clouds need to be a certain height (above 6,500 feet), and sometimes there’s three feet of snow on the ground.

Chris usually coordinates the chase, determining landing options. It’s exciting, but also comes with heightened emotions. When you have a couple of people floating a couple of thousand feet in the air, losing track of a balloon can spell trouble. Safety becomes №1.

Each time the team crews a hot air balloon, they get a little better, a little faster — they increase their velocity.

Flight times have varied from 15 minutes to 45. About 25 percent of the time, the team actually flies. Another 25 percent of the time, flying is too dangerous, so they inflate the balloon for onlookers. The remaining 50 percent is a total wash.

Crewing hot air balloons has taught Chris to handle disappointments, respond quickly to change and communicate with strong personalities, all in a positive light, while showing excitement and laughing about the unknown.

With the pilot, he has to be direct, making sure concerns are addressed immediately and that the pilot has everything he needs. With the local crew, newer members might not be comfortable with a task at hand, so he has to use softer skills to determine who’s comfortable doing what. Flipping back and forth between these roles can take a lot of energy, especially within a 45-minute window.

Just like an Agile team, the hot air balloon crew doesn’t react, they respond. The team considers ideal flight conditions — just like an Agile team considering ideal market conditions — and plans according to specific conditions.

“If you accept that anything will change, you’ll be more than pleased with the outcome,” Chris said.

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