J.D. Meier's Blog

Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness

June, 2011

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    Why Teams Fail

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    One of the questions I get asked is, “Why do teams fail?”

    While there are lots of reasons, here are some of the most common patterns I see:

    • Lack of clarity on the customer
    • Lack of priorities
    • Too much open work
    • Not enough doers (aka ... too many chiefs, not enough Indians)
    • Single points of failure
    • One-man bands vs. teams of capabilities (related to the previous point)
    • No mental models
    • No actionable feedback loops
    • Not flowing value (big bangs that are too little, too late)
    • Out of position
    • Lack of execution cadence or rhythm
    • Lack of pairing, sharing, and mentoring
    • Lack of clarity on the work
    • Lack of clarity on the roles
    • Spending too much time in weaknesses
    • Not spending enough time in strengths

    If those are the anti-patterns, what are the success patterns?  Here are some the main success patterns I’ve seen:

    • Teams of capabilities over one-man bands
    • Clarity of who’s doing what when
    • Clarity on the tests for success (what does good look like)
    • People sign up for work (versus assigned … their hearts are in it, and they are fully engaged)
    • People are living in their strengths and are in their element (They are giving their best where they have their best to give)

    On pairing up, I've seem magic happen with these combos:

    • Creatives and critics
    • Starters and finishers
    • Doers and describers
    • Maximizes and simplifiers
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    Email Therapy

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    One of the scenarios I get asked to coach teams on is, “Email Therapy.”

    Basically, this translates to, “Help our team deal with email overload” or “Help our team get un-swamped” or “Help our team process and manage email more effectively.”  In a lot of these scenarios, it’s where the team uses email as a heavy part of their workload.

    Why do they ask me?  Usually it’s word of mouth where somebody I’ve mentored shares the approach.  In other cases, it’s a team that wants to adopt Getting Results the Agile Way, but want to first get a handle on their email challenge.

    Why Keep an Empty Inbox
    I deal with hundreds of email each day, but I keep my inbox empty.  Having an empty inbox is not only a good feeling, but it streamlines things.  My inbox really is for incoming messages.   I keep my inbox clear because I have a place for actions and tasks, a place to stick the email I’ve read, a simple way to schedule time for things that take time, and a simple folder system for archiving useful reference information.   I avoid “death by a 1000 paper cuts” and “paper shuffling” using this approach.  Because my approach is designed to easily deal with large volumes of email, it’s easy for me to batch process.  I limit the amount of administration time I spend, so I can optimize the time I spend on higher value activities.

    5 Patterns for Keeping Your Email Inbox Empty
    To share my approach, I use patterns.  This way whether you use GMail, HotMail, Outlook, etc., you can still apply the same concepts.

    1. Pattern #1 - One Folder for All Read Mail
    2. Pattern #2 - One Rule to Filter Out Everything Not in Your Immediate World
    3. Pattern #3 - Tickler Lists of Action
    4. Pattern #4 - Schedule Items You Need Time For
    5. Pattern #5 - Reference Folders

    Here are the main ideas behind each pattern:

    Pattern #1 - One Folder for All Read Mail

    • Don’t use your inbox as a holding station.  Use your inbox as one place to look for incoming messages.
    • Do have a single folder where you can dump all the email after you’ve read it.  In Outlook, I create a folder either on the server or locally.  In GMail, this would be the “All Mail” folder.   In HotMail, you can simply make a folder for all your processed mail.

    Pattern #2 - Filter Out Everything Not in Your Immediate World

    • Do create a simple rule to filter out everything that’s not part of your immediate world.  For example, in Outlook, I create a single rule to filter and allow only email sent directly to me, CC me, or to my immediate team, and a few organizational aliases.

    Pattern #3 - Tickler Lists of Action

    • Do create a a place to dump your action items outside of mail.   For example, you can use a pad and pen, or keep notepad open, or a single email to dump all your actions.  The power of a separate list in text, means you can quickly prioritize and sort based on any rules you want.  The trick is to extract just the action item from the email.
    • Do use your action items list or “To Do” list as the place to drive your action, not your inbox.  This is your “One Place to Look” for action items throughout the day. 

    Pattern #4 - Schedule Items You Need Time For

    • Do create appointments for things that take more time.  For example, in Outlook, you can Drag+Drop the email item to your calendar and create an appointment or reminder.
    • Don’t create a bunch of separate appointments.  Instead, create a block of time to batch process your work.   For example, you might block off time each day, or consolidate to a couple of days, and use that as your “catch up” time.

    Pattern #5 - Reference Folders

    • Do create folders for storing copies of emails that you think you will reference key information.
    • Do keep the folders flat.  Avoid nesting.  For example, I simply have a set of folders, A-Z, that I use as a light-weight, email knowledge-base.
    • Do use your Reference Folders to keep copies of key emails.  Rather than keep searching for the information, if you have to keep looking for it, just make a folder for it, and stick it in there.  Key tip – if you find that when you look for the email, it’s not where you expected, then rename the folder to whatever you expected.   This will help you refine your naming strategy over time.

    The main anti-patterns that these patterns help you avoid are:

    • Filing email into a bunch of folders.
    • Sifting through email that’s not primarily for you (such as sifting through discussion lists, or other tangents outside of your immediate world or scope.)
    • Nesting folders and having deep-trees of email.

    My Related Posts

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    What is Agile Results?

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    As I’ve been teaching Getting Results the Agile Way to more people and teams, I’ve had to simplify the mental model.  Here is the simplest visual that I like to whiteboard to show the main idea:

    image

    It’s all about having a simple system for flowing value each day, and each week.  I’ve focused more on the story-driven approach, because I find that this helps people connect more deeply with what they do.  Instead of focusing on “doing tasks” or just “getting stuff done”, they focus on meaningful impact and meaning results.  It’s also about living your values.  Or, to put it another way, doing what makes you strong, all day long.

    A Story-Driven Approach to Great Results
    Using simple and sticky “one-liner stories” each day, and each week, helps you turn tasks into results:

    • If the task is, call a a customer back, then light that up – “Win a raving fan.”
    • If the task is, finish closing out the list of bugs in your queue, then – “Slam dunk your bug backlog in record time.”
    • If the task is, create a Vision/Scope for your team, then – “Paint a compelling vision that inspires the team to go for the epic win.”

    The more you turn your tasks into compelling outcomes, and the more you connect your outcomes to your values, the more you will ignite yourself and others on fire as you blaze your trail forward.  The key here is connecting to your values.  In the simple examples above, winning a raving fan is all about connecting with customers, slam dunking your bugs is about making it a game while testing your skills, and inspiring your team to go for the epic win is all about making it an adventure.  If customers, growth, and impact are high on your values, those results take on new meaning and jazz you vs. drain you.

    Anyway, I’ve created a simple one-page guide to answer the question, What is Agile Results.

    Enjoy.

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    Focus is the Key to Success at Microsoft

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    "You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus." -- Mark Twain

    Focus is the key to success at Microsoft for many people.  I put together proven practices for how to focus in a comprehensive set of “Focus Guidelines”. 

    One of my mentors, a seasoned manager at Microsoft, once told me that the difference that makes the difference – why some people succeed and others do not – is focus. Those that lack focus spread themselves too thin, or never finish what they start. They have a lot of dreams, ambition, and ideas but they never spend enough time working on any one thing to make it happen. On the flip side, those with focus, know what they want to accomplish, and they apply concentrated effort, and see it through to completion. They also focus on less, yet achieve more.

    I set out to nail a set of proven practices that could help anybody improve their ability to focus.   I gave myself a timebox of four hours to see what I could put together for a v1 release.  I sanity checked the results with a few folks that said it very much echoed what they thought were the keys to improving focus, so now I’m sharing with a broader audience.  (If you’re wondering why I gave myself a timebox of four hours for this it was to help me focus Winking smile   Focus is a complex topic and deserves attention, but I also have other priorities I’m working on.  I was willing to spend 2 hours Saturday and 2 hours Sunday to chip away at this stone, if it could help the greater good to have a robust set of practices that actually work for achieving the highest levels of focus.  I expect my four hour investment to help many others get exponential results and help them take their game to a new level, by expanding their mental toolbox.  Even if that’s not the case, spending four hours to work on such a key cross-cutting skill for life is still a good investment.)

    These practices are time-tested and Softie approved.  As you can imagine, with all the bright and shiny objects that go flying around, it takes skill and discipline to stay focused.  The beauty though is that if you know the key strategies and tactics for improving your focus, then it actually gets a lot easier to focus where it counts and enjoy the ride.

    Explore my “Focus Guidelines” and learn how to focus with skill.

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    Quick Tips on Work Breakdown Structures

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    I’m a fan of Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) for project success.  For me, they’ve been the closest thing to a “Silver Bullet” when it comes to project management.

    Early in the project, I like to co-create the Work Breakdown Structure for the overall project with the team, so everybody knows the landscape, has the balcony view, and can contribute their thinking to shape the path forward.

    In my experience, work breakdown structures are a lost art.  The basic guidance I think is:

    • Focus on outcomes over activities
    • Have multiple views – be able to view by function or focus
    • Have cuttable scope, and know the impact (dependencies)
    • If you haven’t been down the road before, sanity check your Work Breakdown Structure with someone who’s “been there, done that.”  There’s no point in going to SKull Island from scratch, if somebody can share their insight and stories from the trenches.

    The real point behind a great work breakdown structure is to have clarity of the work, share and show the scope, know the key risks, and estimate time.  When you can do this with skill, you can reduce your risks, see the 80/20 value, and have the right people working on the right things, at the right time, the right way.  How’s that for having know-how on your side?

    Personally, I like to use a WBS at the project level, but then use user stories at the product level.

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    How To–Design Your Week with Skill

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    I wrote a how to on How To Design Your Week.  It’s all about mastering time management.

    Let me first say that mastering your time is one of the most challenging things you can do in life.  It’s a topic that folks like Peter Drucker have filled books with.  Let me also say that, while it is tough, it’s also one of the best things you can do to lead a better life.  And the beauty is, the moment you start spending your time in more meaningful ways, you get immediate payback. 

    What if right now, you were working on your next best thing to do?  (It’s a simple question, but it cuts to the chase.)

    This How To is based on helping many folks inside and outside of Microsoft design a schedule that helps them simplify their work, free up more time, get more done in the same amount of time, spend more time where it counts, and use their best energy for their best results.  The trick in today’s world is that you don’t get more hours in a day – but you can amplify your results by improving your energy.

    I prioritized creating this how to because I need to scale.  Lately I’ve been helping a lot more fellow Microsoft colleagues design a schedule that brings out their best results and helping them get a handle on their work-life balance.  The bottom line is, they wanted to spend less time, but get better, faster, simpler results.  Most importantly, they wanted to stop thrashing and start thriving.

    Just about everybody I know is feeling the pain of an increasingly competitive, increasingly connected, “always on” world.  There’s always more to do, than you can possibly get done, but throwing more time at the problem isn’t the answer. 

    … So what is?

    Design your time with skill.

    If you let your week just happen, it’s very easy for your weekly schedule to erode to a point where it works against you in every possible way:  your best energy gets wasted on the least impactful things, it takes ten times longer to get things done, the faster you go, the more behind you get, you wear yourself down emotionally, mentally, physically.  Perhaps the worst thing though is, without carving out time for what’s important, you never have the time for the things that mean the most to you.

    If you can design a week, you can create repeatable patterns that serve you throughout the year.  The key is spending the right time, on the right things, with the right energy, the right way.  This is the magic formula for getting exponential results from time you already spend.  This is how you unleash your best, time and again, get more done in the same amount of time, feel strong all week long, and free up more time for the things you really want to spend your time on.

    If you’re ready to exponentially make the most of what you’ve got and unleash yourself, take How To – Design Your Week for a test drive.

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    How To–Achieve Peaceful Calm

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    I wrote a simple step-by-step How To on How To – Achieve a Peaceful Calm

    It’s a simple way to achieve a peaceful calm state of mind.  When your mind is relaxed, you can take in information with less distortion. You’re connected to your emotions, but rather than being overwhelmed or randomized, it’s more like using your emotions as input. When your mind is ready, you are responsive. You are able to easily see the situation and respond with skill instead of react out of fear or anxiety. When your mind is resourceful, you are able to easily think the thoughts that serve you. Your creative mind is ready to solve problems with you instead of work against you.

    If your mind has been buzzing, you haven’t felt centered in a long time, and it feels like you’ve been building up, as Scott Hanselman would say, “Psychic Weight”, then you are in for a treat.

    Take How To – Achieve Peaceful Calm for a test drive and let me know if it helps you get back in your zone.

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