Delivery Leadership MSP

Santa Claus is Scrumming to Town: Bert Koehler on How Santa’s Helper is Like Agile Coaching

Bert Koehler

Bert Koehler may seem like an Agile coach and scrum master with Daugherty, but he’s actually one of Santa’s helpers.

Every year for the past 20 years, the day after Independence Day, he begins growing out an epic beard, then dyes it, so he can help Santa out during the busy season.

And by busy, this means for Bert attending events every single day for about two weeks out from Christmas, and as many as three events during a single Saturday.

In the beginning, Bert served as Santa at corporate Christmas parties and for friends. Then, 10 years ago, he learned of a Christmas party for disadvantaged children that was hosted by the Notre Dame Alumni Club of Minnesota and other local organizations. Now, he sits down at the Minneapolis Convention Center and sees over 1,200 children in four hours.

Being Santa’s helper actually isn’t too different from being a scrum master.

Bert’s favorite aspect about his role as a scrum master is iteration. Based on what the team learned today, they adapt for tomorrow, instead of trying to plan out the entire project in one fell swoop.

“That by far is one of the most valuable parts of the Agile mentality,” Bert said.

And it applies to helping Santa.

“You learn from one kid to the next what works and what doesn’t work,” Bert said. “Then you apply it to the next.”

Every child is different, so Bert has to be on his toes and inventive.

As a scrum master, Bert also appreciates working with a team — the partnership with the product owner to merge what stakeholders want with reality, the weigh-in from the developers to guide everybody toward a working solution, the protection from any upper levels of management that may have made unrealistic demands.

Likewise, being Santa is not a one-man show. A huge team is involved.

To function efficiently, Santa has to recognize everybody’s strengths and abilities, then cross-train. Some aspects are more specialized than others, but across registration of kids, venue rental, music, toy sign-ups and toy bagging, the team makes sure everybody is an expert in at least one area, is teaching somebody else their expertise, and is learning about another area as well. This way, there are no one-trick ponies who might win the lottery, move to Jamaica and leave the team hurting.

One person at the Minneapolis Convention Center is kind of like a product owner: He spells out what he’d like to see done, what’s going to change from the year past and what’s going to carry over, and then the team has to figure out how to realistically carry out those wishes.

Over the years, Bert has gotten a lot of support and help from friends. For example, he works with a woman who once owned a business making wedding dresses. Now she custom-makes all of his Santa clothes. She’s even joined him for larger events as Mrs. Claus. Other friends have helped deliver “Santa’s Throne,” and two of his daughters have dressed up as elves, taking photos and handing out candy canes.

Ultimately, both roles (scrum master and Santa) are fulfilling because of personal connection.

“Work becomes so much easier when you understand the people you work with,” Bert said, whether it’s things that drive them or things that drive them crazy.

As Santa’s helper, it can be the kindness of children who say they don’t need anything, but want a coat for their mom, or a child with a severe disability who is not able to speak but is perfectly aware of everything going on.

“I get more out of this than any one of the kids,” Bert said. “There’s never an event where you don’t learn something about someone. And that’s why you do it — it’s about the kids, about the connection, about the understanding, about the hope.”

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