Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness
Some people say, there is no such thing as work and life … there is just life. Others say, the line between work and life has blended and we spend more time than ever on the job, so we have to make it meaningful. And Confucius taught us, "Do something you love, and you will never work a day in your life."
One way to think about work is it’s the ultimate form of self-expression, and it’s an arena for your best results.
How you show up, the thoughts you think, where you put your focus, and how you lean into challenges, can either grow your greatness, or spiral you down. In Young Guns II, one of my favorite quotes is, “You’re either growing or dying … there’s no in between.”
One of the secrets to “The Good Life” is to spend more time in your values. Given how much time we spend at work, it’s only natural that if we can connect what we do to our values, we improve the quality of our life. Or, worst case, we get a whole lot of chances to practice every day
Once you start to use your values as a lens, you start to understand why you prefer some jobs over others, why you like to work with some people over others, and why you like some companies over others. Yeah, values are that powerful. People fight wars over values. The trick is to get the power of values on your side, so that every day, you can use your values as a way to move mountains … or at least hop over some mole hills that get in the way.
To use your values, you first need to find your values. Here is a list of values and approach for how to find your values. Once you find your short set of values, you can then integrate them into your day to day. Here is an article where I share how to live your values.
Values are the short-cut to living your best life and finding work-life balance. The reality is that work-life balance doesn’t come from balancing competing forces .. it really comes from blending with skill.
At Microsoft, we get a lot of chances to present numbers. Whether it’s making a project pitch, or writing our reviews and quantifying our impact, numbers are everywhere. And when we aren’t the one presenting, we are often reviewing the numbers that other people are presenting.
It’s one thing to know the numbers. It’s another to share the numbers in a meaningful way.
As a Program Manager for several years, I’ve had to manage, show, and report on budgets. I’ve had to quantify impact. I’ve had to report status on key metrics. I’ve had to figure out velocity and burn down. I’ve had to show schedules and variance. I’ve had to present estimates and calculate risk. It comes with the turf. Part of making impact, is knowing how to show it.
The problem is, we don’t always get the best mentors or the best examples. We don’t really learn how to present numbers in school, at least not with the same focus we get on learning how to read, write, and speak. The more I see complicated charts and confusing figures that obfuscate key points, the more I appreciate the value of simplicity and elegance in presenting numbers.
I found the perfect compliment to Edward Tufte’s, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. It’s Painting with Numbers, by Randall Bolten. It’s the best book I’ve seen on how to present numbers with skill. Randall was a CFO for twenty years in Silicon Valley, so he’s got the benefit of seeing all the various ways, shapes, and sizes that people throw numbers around. He’s exactly the right person to learn from when it comes to seeing through the numbers, knowing what they mean, and knowing how to present them more effectively to speak the truth, and to make better decisions … in work and in life.
I wrote a post to elaborate on the book and get specific on the problems it addresses. You can read more at Quantation: How to Present Numbers with Skill.
It’s a book I’m going to recommend to the people I mentor to help them advance their careers and take their game to the next level.
Information doesn’t have to suck, and it shouldn’t be a chore. Beautiful information is when one sentence makes you want to read the next. In the age of insight, the right information and “ah-has” is a powerful thing. If you think of information as a continuum, flowing from data to information to knowledge to insight to wisdom … that’s a mighty wide playing field to practice the art of making your point.
Here are ten ways I’ve learned to help you simplify information and make it more useful:
Bonus Lesson O.K., I just to throw one more in. Don’t worry, it’s free …
The big lesson of course is – simplify it. Say it in a simple way. Trade up for simplicity. Simple is sticky. Simple wins every time. Simple trumps complete or complex, and fun trumps simple. That’s why conversational writing can kick non-conversational’s ***, or why emails can be more illuminating or insightful than a formal whitepaper.
The meta point (the point behind the points) is that if you know what’s valued, you can be an information sharp shooter every time.
The key to shipping value is making sure your users, value what you ship. On the Microsoft patterns & practices team, we used a technique we called "Spend $100." This was a highly effective way to prioritize our backlog and bubble up the most valuable things to do.
It helped answer the question, "What's the next best thing to do?"
Implementation varied, but the main idea was this: Give a customer $100 of make believe money. Ask them to spend it on the things they value most in our backlog of opportunities. When we did this across customers, we could then easily see which themes and things customers value more than others.
A variation off of this, but the same idea, is to have a customer spend 100 story points. The way this works is you assign story points to specific user stories. Customers can then spend their story points on the user stories they value most. Here is an example that explains how this approach was used to help prioritize user stories for Microsoft Enterprise Library.
The beauty of this "Spend 100 dollars" approach is that it helps address several things:
While it sounds simple, and the idea is, there are things to think about. For example, how do you survey the right users? How do you make sure you don't just cater to the squeaky wheels? How do you organize your user stories in a useful way to make it easy to vote effectively?
It's worth working through these issues. If you can successfully drive customer value, your value as a Product Manager or Program Manager or Developer, etc. quickly goes up, as well as your personal brand and credibility. You will become a high value, shipping machine.
This is a proven practice that's served many people well. You just have to give it a shot.
It's easy to build what's possible. It's tough to build what's valued.
If there's one thing I've learned from shipping stuff, doing competitive assessments, working closely with customers, and doing a lot of in-depth feature analysis ... it's that value is the short-cut for building better products. If you know what's valued, then you can target that. And, the surprise is, less is often more. (A little gold, beats a lot of junk, every time.)
I've also learned that value is in the eye of the beholder.
What's valued can surprise you. For example, one customer might value integration, while another customer might value, and pay for, simplicity. One customer might value security, while another might value usability. Value is a slider scale and there are always key trade-offs that impact the design. That's the art part.
It's easy to assume you know what's valued. Here's the irony. It's also easy to check your assumptions. Customers are happy to tell you whether they prefer A over B.
Missing the boat on what's valued is one of the worst mistakes. It's easy to build the wrong thing. It's also to build something irrelevant. It's also easy to build “bloat”-ware, where the product is too many things to too many people, and master of none. Less is more, especially when you solve the problems that people actually care about, and when you enable users to have a great experience achieving their goals.
Here's the message: "Do overs" are expensive (if you even get a second chance.) You don't have to build things that people don't want. You don't have to build things that people don't value. You don't have to build things that people won't pay for.
You can test the value, early and often. And, that's what some successful shippers do that other shippers don't.
Life’s better with the right tools. The trick of course is, how do we fill our mental toolbox with the right ones.
Work and life can throw plenty of challenges at us. Whether it’s how to master your time, play well with others, lead more effectively manage your emotions. deal with stress, learn faster, or make things happen, there is never a shortage of things to work on, problems to solve, things to learn, or things to improve.
That’s why I started Sources of Insight. There are actually more than 800 articles at Sources of Insight with principles, patterns, practices, and hacks for leadership, personal development, time management, and more. Now you can easily brows the collection:
The Story of Sources of Insight A few years back, I carved out Sources of Insight to focus on personal effectiveness. The purpose of the site is to help you make the most of what you’ve got. I believe everybody deserves a chance at a better life. I find that skill is the difference that makes the difference.
It’s wisdom at your finger tips On Sources of Insight, I used the tag line “Stand on the Shoulders of Giants”, because the idea is to lift you with the world’s best wisdom. I thought wouldn’t it be great to have a place that put the world’s best wisdom of the ages and modern sages in the palm of your hand. Rather than randomly learn about some of the best quotes, or some of the best books, or some amazing people, why not consolidate these, and start to seed a garden of greatness … where the greatness is a metaphor for your potential and capability.
During my day job, as a Principal Program Manager, I drive patterns and practices for the cloud story in the Enterprise. As you can imagine, it involves a lot of thought and people leadership, as well as influence without authority. Aside from strategy and project management skills, it also requires a lot of skills in terms of emotional intelligence, goals, leadership, motivation, productivity, time management, and thinking. It’s a continuous learning lab of extreme personal development.
I mentor a lot of people, and periodically coach teams, and give talks on my book, Getting Results the Agile Way. The demand for this seems to keep going up as more people find themselves asked to do more with less, or struggling with how to flow value, or simply want to get an edge at work or in life.
To keep up with the pace, and to innovate where it counts, I have the bad habit of regularly spending $300 a month on books. I’ve learned how to read faster, and turn insight into action at a faster pace. The rubber meets the road when I apply what I learn at work or in life to get results. If you’re wondering how I build my best books lists, such as my Business Books list or my Personal Development Books, or my Leadership Books list … now you know.
It’s a tough job, but it needs to be done.
800+ Articles on Leadership, Personal Development, and Time Management I’ve finally found a solution to make it easier for you to find more than just the tip of the iceberg. On the Articles page, you will find a simple list of categories, along with some of the key articles within each category. You can quickly cherry pick the ones you want to read, or you can drill into the category and explore for more.
This may look easy, sound easy, and be perfectly obvious now, but it actually took me a lot of testing to find a simple pattern for showing a lot of articles in a simple way. I tested many combinations including auto-generated lists and showing all the articles, as well as building separate page per topic. I like the pattern I settled on because it puts the core articles at your finger tips, while making it easy to find the rest. I also like that now I can send somebody to a particular section and get them started with the right articles fast.
Here is a sampling of the article collection. When you browse the actual Articles page, you will be able to dive into the articles or the categories. It’s a lot of insight and action, right at your finger tips.
While reading the book, Enterprise Architecture as Strategy, by Jeanne W. Ross, Peter Weill, and David C. Robertson, I came across their section on outsourcing.
I wish I had their frame for looking at outsourcing models long ago. On the Microsoft patterns & practices team, we regularly partnered with vendors around the world to scale our business while focusing on our core competencies. While I did manage to think through a lot of the issues and risks, I didn’t always have a great way of framing the conversations or recommendations. When you have names for the three outsourcing models, key distinctions for each, and a map of the main outsourcing objectives, it gets a lot easier to both think through decisions, and frame conversations for more effective outsourcing decisions.
Three Outsourcing Models According to Ross, Weill, and Robertson, there are three mutually exclusive outsourcing models:
Outsourcing Objectives Ross, Weill, and Robertson, share examples of common outsourcing objectives:
The Three Outsourcing Models Explained Ross, Weill, and Robertson, provide insight into the distinctions and uniqueness features of each mode:l:
I’ve revamped my personal development How Tos page. How Tos are simply step-by-step recipes for results. They are powerful because they help you build a skill or learn a technique in a rapid way. Rather than a lot of conceptual information, they are focused on action steps. The beauty is they turn insight into action. Rather than learn about personal development, you can “do” personal development.”
To get a test, here are a few examples to take for a test drive:
Here is the current catalog of personal development How Tos:
Popular How Tos
Change, Influence, and Negotiation
Emotional Intelligence and Feeling Good
Time Management and Productivity
The single most important thing I do at the start of each week is create my list of "Weekly Outcomes." It's my approach for a simple weekly planner. It helps me focus on the most important outcomes, and take the balcony view for my week. It works through thick and thin. It's a practice I've used for years, leading distributed teams around the world.
To use it, it’s simple. Just follow three rules:
It’s a simple format. That’s why it works. In the worst case scenario, I’ve taken at least five minutes to map out the wins for the upcoming week. This helps me set a target for success. Writing it down is important. This frees my mind to focus on where my attention is needed most. Whenever I need a fast reminder of what my week is about, I can look back to my list.
It’s a great leadership tool as well, especially if you have a distributed team. It’s easy to send out the email that maps out what a great week looks like. In the thick of things, it might take me 15 minutes to do the exercise, but those 15 minutes can save me 15 hours of wasted work or off path. It helps create clarity and common goals across the team. It also gives the team a chance to plug in things that are on the radar so everybody gets a good look at what’s on our plates.
You can do it on a whiteboard, or on a piece of paper, or in any tool of your choice. I prefer anything that I can type in that lets me very quickly move things around and adjust the list without worrying about formatting. To split up the list, I simply use whitespace. I like whitespace and breathing room, especially when my lists are outrageous.
The key, as always, is to focus on outcomes, not tasks. By having a list of your outcomes, you make it easier to drive results versus getting lost in the weeds. It really is a simple weekly planner.
You can find more time management tips at http://GettingResults.com
This is a serious roundup of top blogs for insight and action:
Colleagues asked me where do I go to find the best of the Web for insight and action. This is that list. It’s a list of the top blogs and sites that I find really go the extra mile. It’s a mash up of top blogs on the following areas of focus: business skills, continuous learning, entrepreneurism, fun, leadership, personal development, productivity, strategy, technology, thinking skills, and trends.
Here is a sampling of top blogs from the list:
It’s a living list of top blogs. I’ll periodically update it.
Enjoy and explore the top blogs for insight and action.
I’ve updated my top blogs lists. They are roundups of top blogs that I find to be useful. I organize the lists by category to make it easy to dive in by topic. I have the following lists so far:
For each list, I included the Top Ten Blogs, and then a longer list, organized A-Z. This makes it easy for me to keep a short-list, and a more complete list for that particular domain.
I will continue to expand the list of top blogs to add other domains, such as top emotional intelligence blogs, top management blogs, etc. The common theme across everything will be insight and action with a focus on proven practices for personal effectiveness.
“Speak when you are angry - and you'll make the best speech you'll ever regret.” -- Dr. Laurence J. Peter
A crucial conversation is any conversation where the stakes are high, emotions run strong and opinions vary. If you can master crucial conversations, you can kick-start your career, strengthen your relationships, and improve your health. In the game of life, skill is often a better hand to play, than fear or luck. Don’t fear crucial conversations. Master them.
One of the best books on the topic, is Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.
Here's the process in a nutshell ...
The beauty of the approach is that the patterns are sticky. If you can remember things like "Master My Stories" or "Make it Safe,", then you can easily break out of limiting patterns. The patterns are cleverly named, and once you read the book, they make perfect sense in terms of how you use them to shape or reshape conversations. They break limiting patterns, and enable empowering ones.
Early on, we adopted and practiced these skills on the Microsoft patterns & practices team. It was extremely helpful for bringing issues to the table, creating an open and respectful environment, and ultimately trust. Not to mention, when you can talk about the tough stuff at work, it makes work life better.
I mentor a lot of people inside and outside of Microsoft. This is one of the tools I highly recommend everybody adds to their toolbox. Even if you are already good at crucial conversations, this helps you be succseeful by design rather than luck or stumble into success.
It's one thing to hear about a technique. It's another to hear the story. If you want to read the story of how one Softie, changed their life through crucial conversations, check out Lessons Learned from Crucial Conversations, by Eric Brun.
I put together a collection of several of my greatest “ah-has” that have served me in work and life:
It’s no ordinary collection of insight. I attempted to capture things you can use everyday, and apply for the rest of your life. For example, have you ever wondered if there’s a way to really defeat procrastination? Is will power something you are just born with or can you develop it? When you are motivating yourself, should you focus on what you’ve already done, or should you focus on what’s left to do?
This collection covers various topics including communication skills, personal development, mind skills, motivation skills, and more. I paid special attention to things that can trip us up on a daily basis. For example, one of traps of the mind is the “I knew it all along” phenomenon”, which is also known as “hindsight bias” (and I like to call it 20/20 hindsight.)
To make the collection easy to use, I tried to do two things: 1) Provide the name of the insight or technique, and 2) Share a sticky little way to remember it in your mind. For example, I paired “Black Swan Theory” with “expect the unexpected.” I kept the insights compact and to the point. If you scan the list, you’ll have a wealth of wisdom at your finger tips.
I also focused heavily on surfacing many of the banes and burdens of our existence. For example, one of the worst traps to fall into is “learned helplessness.” It’s when you basically feel like you can’t win, so you give up, or stop trying. That sucks. There is answer to this, and it all comes down to our self-talk. If we develop a healthy “explanatory style”, we help stay out of the trap. Maybe you don’t fall into the trap, but maybe someone you know does, or maybe you are helping your kids learn how to thrive in the world … they need to learn this early on.
I also paid special attention to areas that address personal development and self-awareness. If you can build a great “owner’s manual” and “driver’s guide”, then you can truly make the most of what you’ve got. For example, have you heard of “The Golden Circle”? It’s the secret of many great leaders, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Steve Jobs. It’s all about how you think, act, and communicate from the inside out. In fact, many Microsoft leaders have this tool in their tool-belt, and it helps them make meaning, in their day to day activities, and in the bigger picture, we call life.
The post not only reflects a lifetime of learnings, but the post itself was hand-crafted with care. This is actually the post that has taken me the most time to write … ever. It’s not the length. It was the challenge of finding a compact way to distill so many lessons, and create an effective “hub/spoke”model, where each “spoke” or insight can point to more. It was also the challenge of how to sequence the insights. I played with several variations and ran them by folks to try to find what works best. I finally settled on a pattern where it’s in alphabetical order by the name of the insights, and coupled that to an actionable insight to make each one memorable.
Here is a key tip on how to make the most of the list. As you read the 101 Insights and Actions for Work and Life, find three take aways that you can immediately apply.