Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness
I’ve had a unique privilege of leading high-performance distributed teams for more than ten years. In the early days of the Microsoft patterns & practices team, one of the key driving philosophies was “leverage the best talent in the world, from around the world.”
By opening up the opportunity to distributed teams early on, we got a lot of practice and experience in creating high-performance distributed teams.
While on-site teams have the advantage of face-time and high-bandwidth communication, distributed teams can have the advantage of focus and results, with fewer distractions and more discipline (if done well.) With an on-site team, it’s easy to get distracted. It’s easy to lose focus. When you create high-performance distributed teams, it forces you to be specific and explicit. It also forces you to find ways to create clarity around the basics: What are the key drivers? What are the goals? What are the deliverables? What are the priorities? What do we do next? What are the pressing issues?
Process is paramount when it comes to distributed teams. Why? Because routines help simplify and clarify the work, and create a system for results. This frees up people to spend more time doing their art part and spending more time in their strengths or making their contributions where it counts.
Here is an example of a simple routine that I’ve used on projects small and large for high-performing distributed teams:
The simple story is this: You can save a lot of administration overhead, confusion, rework, and frustration, by putting a few key processes in place. The main things to put in place are:
Before you start your week, what do you actually want out of it?
On Mondays, start the week off strong by identifying the three wins that you want for the week. This is the “synthesized” view. It’s the all up view of the three most important outcomes you want to achieve. One way to figure this out is to fast forward to Friday and imagine that you have to tell and sell the story of your impact for the last week … what would you say?
A focused meeting with the team with the goal of identifying the three wins, and the key work for the work, will go a long way. It’s your best chance to align the work, find synergies, get leverage, and reduce potential forking of focus.
One of the most important things you can do on Monday is to send out a simple email of “Weekly Outcomes” that lists the top three wins you want for the week, and then a simple A-Z list of other items on the radar. This helps you both carve out the high-value wins with clarity, as well as acknowledge what else is what’s hot or flying around or top of people’s minds. The A-Z list forces simple names. What it also does though is help create a quick bird’s-eye view of the work. Most importantly, you can ask for input across the team on what’s missing or what should be on the radar. It’s a fast way to create clarity. You will find yourself referring back to this throughout the week to help keep your sanity and perspective.
Building my list for the week takes anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, but saves many hours across the team by providing a simple topology map of the work. People can better align their work, avoid surprises, re-prioritize, and connect the dots between the tasks and activities they do, to the wins and outcomes that we want to achieve.
Here is a simple example to show what a “Weekly Outcomes” list in email might look like:
Weekly Outcome: 11/12/2012
A – Z List
One of the best ways to start to create a high-performance team is by asking each person to focus on three wins for the day. If they focus on three outcomes, not tasks, they will start to focus on value. Tasks will naturally follow, but now they are the right tasks, because you are starting with “value-first.” By defining an outcome, you rise above the noise and create clarity around what you will be attempting to achieve with your time and energy for the day. After all, if the outcome is not compelling, it will be hard to find your motivation. If the outcome is not clear, it will be hard to focus your efforts or know when you are done or know what good looks like.
By focusing on three wins, everybody starts to get into the habit of focusing on value. Once you know where the value is, you found the short-cut. You just cleared the air of all the distractions and noise that you can stop wasting time on. You can know accelerate your effort because you can actually see a target in your mind’s eye.
In your daily call, when you go around the team and identify the what they achieved the day before, what they’ll achieve today, and where they need help, the focus on wins will elevate the discussion from minutia and tasks, to outcomes and value. The team will shift from “doing a lot of work” to “making things happen” and “shipping value.”
The rhythm and momentum will start to help you over humps and people will find themselves getting over hurdles and walls that previously blocked their paths. Of course, the specific practice of asking people where they need help will play a key role in debottlenecking the team and making incremental progress. This daily incremental progress quickly adds up, and your practice of focusing on three wins at the team level and the individual level, will help you tell and sell the story of impact in ways you never could before.
This appreciation and acknowledgement of wins in an authentic and deeply meaningful way will help people flourish and bring out their best, because they can directly connect the time, energy, and effort they spend to impact that’s recognized and valued.
This simple habit really helps distributed teams flourish well beyond just getting things done or making impact in a big bang way … it builds a system that can learn and respond, and continuously flow value, while dealing with setbacks and hurdles in a more powerful, more unified way. The wins help unify the efforts and get synergy where focus and effort could otherwise fork.
This is your best chance to step back and take the balcony view. The simplest way is to just add a 20-minute appointment with yourself so you can dive deep around the following questions:
As a team leader, you should ask yourself those questions as a leader, and as a team. What can you improve about your execution or leadership, and what can you improve about the team in terms of the system or the people or the output.
In a distributed team scenario, I simply ask the team to add their own appointment to their calendar at a time in the AM, and make it a priority. I allow space for this, and create buffer. Early on I used to ship on Fridays, but that created problems, pain, and panic, and didn’t create great weekends. Who wants to end the week with that kind of stress and risk? So years ago, I moved to a practice of always shipping on Wednesdays. This allowed time to respond to problems and helped ensure that Fridays could be as stress-free as possible.
As one of my mentors puts it, “Brains work better when their rested and relaxed.”
The other practice I use to help flow the information is I ask each person on the team to share with me their insights into three things going well and three things to improve at the team level (people, process, product.) I then synthesize this across the team to figure out what our best actions might be to fold into the next week. This is the continuous learning loop that helps create a high performance team that is highly adaptive and responsive to change, and learns how to learn in an effective and systematic way, without suffering from “death by process.”
A key insight I learned from one my business strategy mentors is that process is what kills the necessary innovation and learning for growth and survival in a changing landscape. That’s why the key is always “just enough process” while keeping a focus on learning and on flowing value in a continuous way.
At the end of the day, if you use the following mantra, reminders, and rhythm for results, you will achieve great things:
It’s a powerful recipe for results that has served me well time and again, with creating high performance teams from scratch around the world.
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” -- Mahatma Gandhi
Getting Results the Agile Way is free today.
You can get your free Kindle version of Getting Results the Agile Way today (11/09/2012). It’s free today, so grab it while you can, and tell your friends and family to get their copies, too. Nobody should miss out on this one-day opportunity.
Getting Results the Agile Way is a book that can seriously and significantly help you master motivation, productivity, and time management. It’s also full of proven practices for work-life balance.
Getting Results the Agile Way introduces Agile Results, which is a simple system for meaningful results. It helps you shift from overloaded and overwhelmed to on top of your game and make the most of what you’ve got. By getting science and a system on your side, you can think better, feel better, and do better in any situation.
Getting Results the Agile Way is first and foremost a simple productivity system for helping you produce better, faster results, and achieve your dreams. Whether you want to get ahead in work, or get ahead in life, Getting Results the Agile Way provides you with tools and techniques to improve your personal effectiveness.
Getting Results the Agile Way is also a time management system with a difference. Rather than a focus on getting more things done, it’s a focus on value. Less is more. By doing a few things well, you build momentum. When you use Agile Results, you use three wins to drive your day, your week, your month, and your year. By using three wins, you add focus and clarity which helps you prioritize more effectively and take action. By focusing on compelling outcomes your get your motivation on your side which helps you produce outstanding results.
Most importantly, Getting Results the Agile Way is a system for getting back on your feet. Life throws curve balls. Bad things happen to good people. Getting Results the Agile Way helps you get back on your feet. It helps you create fresh starts. In fact, just by adopting the approach, you get a fresh start each day, each week, each month, each year.
Change is a constant. Agile Results helps you make the most of change. People around the world have used Agile Results to help them improve various aspects of their life. Individuals have used it to master their day job or find their next job. Teams and leaders have used it to create high-performance teams. Parents have used it to help their kids do better in school. Small businesses have used it to help them survive and thrive in a down economy. Large businesses have used it to improve their productivity and time management for their employees.
What really matters though, is you, and what you can do with Agile Results. Be the author of your life, and write your story forward.
Grab your copy of Getting Results the Agile Way and tell your friends and family to do the same to help as many people as possible really make the most of what they’ve got.
Thank you everyone. It was a great day for Getting Results the Agile Way. As folks shared the message around the world, Getting Results the Agile Way became a top download on Amazon in a few categories. At various points in the day, it was #1 in Business Time Management, #1 in Self Help, and I saw it as high as Amazon’s all up Best Sellers Rank: #43 Free in the Kindle Store.
But the best part is this …
Several of you emailed me, telling me your stories of how you’ve used Getting Results the Agile Way to really get ahead in work and life, or to get back on top of your game. Many of you also emailed me telling me that this was your first exposure to the book, and that as you started to read it, you started to realize what’s really inside. It’s more than a time management guide or a personal productivity toolkit. It’s a way to really take everything we’ve learned about operating at a higher level, and actually put that into practice in a simple and systematic way.
It’s more than a book. It’s a way to make the most of work and life.
Feel free to continue to send me your stories of success and what you specifically did, and how Getting Results the Agile Way helped. I won’t share your story, unless you ask me too, but I use the feedback to continue to refine the approach as I share it and scale it to others to help them get an edge in work and life.
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” ― Benjamin Franklin
I know a lot of people have had their lives turned upside down. Hurricane Sandy and the follow up Noreaster, really created some setbacks and a wake of devastation.
Disasters happen. While you can’t prevent them, what you can do is prepare for them and improve your ability to respond and recover.
I’m not the expert on disaster preparation, but I know somebody who is. I’ve asked Laurie Ecklund Long to write a guest post to help people prepare for the worst. Here it is:
Disaster Proof Your Life: How To Be Ready for Any Emergency
The goal of the post is to help jumpstart anybody who wants to start their path to planning and preparation for emergencies.
Laurie is an emergency specialist. She is a best-selling author, national speaker, and trainer that helps individuals, businesses, and the military survive natural disasters and family emergencies, based on her book, My Life in a Box…A Life Organizer. On a personal level, Laurie’s inspiration came from losing 12 people close to her, including her Dad, within the span of five years. She learned a lot during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and she’s on a mission to help more people be able to answer the following questions better:
Do you have a personal emergency tool box? Can you quickly locate your legal, financial and personal documents within minutes and be able to rebuild your life if something happens to your home?
Check out Laurie’s guest post Disaster Proof Your Life: How To Be Ready for Any Emergency, and start your path of planning and preparation for emergencies, and help others to do the same.
Another suitable title might be, 80/20 People vs. Perfectionists, but I really wanted to focus on the "perpetually incomplete" aspect that I see over and over again.
Here’s the deal. One of the most ironic productivity patterns I run into on a regular basis is this:
People who seek to be perfect or complete, are perpetually incomplete.
They optimize the local minima before the global maxima. In their pursuit of perfection or completeness, they leave a trail of "almost finished" or “not even started” or “half-done” everywhere. There are variations to the pattern. One pattern is that one room in the house is fantastic, while the rest of the house is falling apart. Another variation of the pattern is that every room has at least one weird mess or strange flaw, because the perfectionist ran out of time.
But the bottom line is, it’s the unfinished, not started, or half-baked parts that overshadow the good that was done. And that’s a shame.
80/20 people tend to be more complete, than their perfectionist counterparts. Why? Because they've made time to go back and revisit, or make another pass, or work the parts that are the most relevant and useful. They optimize the global maxima before the local minima.
80/20 people tend to work the high-risks or high-reward areas until they start getting diminishing returns. The power with this approach is accelerated time to value, but also it helps free up more time to work on areas that truly need it. And, more importantly, the 80/20 approach creates a more effective map because they know where to drill vs. scan, and what the key risks are (it's the bird's-eye view.)
It really is ironic because by their very nature, the 80/20 People should be leaving more half-finished work, but instead, they tend to leave less gaping voids than their Perpetually Incomplete counterparts.
The sad part is that in so many cases that I see, is how much damage the perfectionism creates, with its ripple effect. The perfectionist (or Maximizer or Perpetually Incomplete person) creates a significant problem by blowing something out of proportion, or making a mountain out of a molehill, or making a major production out of it.
You can usually trace the problem to three things
Basically, their work ends up way out of whack.
This is a perfect example, where if you "do the opposite" you instantly change your game. In this case:
There are a few one-liner reminders that can help you keep your trade-offs in perspective:
My interview with Tim Ferriss on The 4-Hour Chef is now live. Tim Ferriss it the best-selling author of The 4-Hour Work Week and The 4-Hour Body. The 4-Hour Chef is Tim’s newest book on how to make the most of life.
Before my interview, I asked some colleagues and friends what questions they would like me to ask. I included their questions as well as my own. Here are the key questions I asked during my interview with Tim Ferriss:
In the interview, you will learn a few things that you can instantly used, as well as get an inside look at why Tim Ferriss does what he does.
I focused on questions that I thought would help you in terms of personal effectiveness, productivity, and time management. I especially liked asking Tim Ferriss question #4, “How do you make time, when you absolutely don’t have time?” Lack of time is an issue that comes up a lot in all sorts of contexts to the point where it becomes an excuse for why so many things don’t happen. I thought it would be great to get Tim’s definitive answer on how to think about a lack of time and what to do about it.
If you shy away from the 4-Hour Chef, because you think cooking should be left up to Chef Boyardee, you’re in for a surprise. The 4-Hour Chef is all about changing your quality of life, and improving your ability to rapidly learn. The full title of The 4-Hour Chef is: The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life. If you are a lifelong learner or simply want to bring out the continuous learner in you, you will enjoy the deep focus on extreme learning throughout the book. It’s all about getting over fears, building momentum, breaking a new learning topic down to size, and learning from the best of the best, in record time.
Enjoy the interview
Tim Ferris on The 4-Hour Chef
Are you using Getting Results the Agile Way to get ahead? If you know the best ways to use your time and energy, you can get exponential results. Agile Results, the system inside of Getting Results the Agile Way, is a synthesis of proven practices for motivation, time management, and productivity.
It’s a simple system for meaningful results.
Agile Results is flexible, so you can adapt it to work for you, and you can adapt it to any situation. It’s flexible by design. Darwin taught us that nature favors the flexible, and Agile Results is all about making things happen while thriving on change. Change is a constant, so it’s a great launching pad for a time management system and personal productivity practices.
While the system itself is simple, the ideas powerful. You can use them to instantly change your approach and break through barriers or limits holding you back, or wearing you down. People that read Getting Results the Agile Way use it to get better reviews, revamp their business, do better in school, etc. To bottom line it – they use it to get better, faster, simpler results, and make the most of what they’ve got.
The beauty of the system is that you can use it to do anything better. Whether you use 30 Day Improvement Sprints, Timeboxing, The Rule of Three, or Monday Vision, Daily Outcomes, Friday Reflection, there is something for everyone to help you get ahead in our ever-changing world.
Here is my roundup of 10 big ideas from Getting Results the Agile Way:
It's easy to spend a lot of time and yet not have anything to show for it, either for yourself or others. You can change that quickly and easily simply by getting intentional about creating wins. One of the big ideas in Getting Results the Agile Way is the idea of focusing on Three Wins or outcomes each day, each week, each month, and each year, as a way to focus and prioritize your time, energy, and effort.
There's no shortage of things to do. The key is to identify your wins and go for it. You can use Three Wins to get clarity on meaningful results. Simply identify Three Wins for the day, the week, the month, and the year, that you want to focus on.
You can use Three Wins to highlight what you want to make happen in the future, and to highlight what you made happen in the past. For example, what were your three wins for last week? What were your three wins for last month? What were your three wins from yesterday?
More importantly, by carving out and identifying wins you want to achieve, you get intentional about creating compelling outcomes. When you have compelling wins that you are aiming for, they can help lift you up and “pull” you through your day because they are your personal victories.
Get a fresh start each day, each week, each month. To do this, you shift from "backlog burndown" to "value up." In other words, rather than worry about what you haven't finished, instead worry about what you want to achieve with the time and energy that you actually have.
It works by "turning the page" each day, each week, each month, each year. For example, instead of looking at today as a burden of yesterday's unfinished business, look at today as a new chance to create value. Your "To Do" lists and "unfinished business" are input, but should not be your burden.
If you take this forward-looking approach, over a backward-looking approach, you can approach each day with a beginner's mind. This Fresh Start mindset will free you up to seize new opportunities in each day, each week, each month, each year. It will also help you build momentum to make things happen.
One simple way to implement a Fresh Start is to write a new "To Do" list each day and each week that reflects the three wins you wan to achieve.
Don’t confuse activity with results. It’s easy to spend time on things, but not actually achieve anything. On the other hand, If you know what you want to accomplish, in the form of an outcome, then you can focus on that.
When you don’t know what the outcome or goal is, it’s easy to throw hours, activities, or meetings at something, and yet not actually produce any meaningful results. On the other hand, if you get clear on the outcome, you can find short-cuts.
Using outcome is a simple way to “slow down to speed up.”
Less is often more, if you know what the value is. And value is in the eye of the beholder. Enough said?
You don’t get more hours in a day. But you can change your energy. And, if you use your best energy, you can amplify your impact in powerful ways.
How do you change your energy? You can draw from your mind, body, or emotions. For example, if you connect what you do with your passion, you can find your drive from the inside out. If you link what you do to good feelings, you can create habits that your body will want to do. You can use your thoughts to change your feelings, and operate at a higher level.
Time is a great way to prioritize. For example, there is only so much you can do in a day. You can use different time horizons to plot out what you’d like to achieve within the time that you actually have.
Time is also a great foundation to build your time management upon. That’s why the backbone of Agile Results is the Monday Vision, Daily Outcomes, Friday Reflection pattern. The days of the week are durable. What you do with them is up to you. In this way, time is your foundation and platform for results.
The most important insight though, is that time changes what's important. That’s why “To Do” lists get stale, and you can quickly find yourself buried in a mound of irrelevant burden. The trick is to take a fresh look, each day, each week, each month, each year to see what matters now. You can also use this to look ahead and anticipate value. What will matter next month or next quarter or next year? You can use time to better understand value, and to help you make trade-offs among where to spend your time.
With Agile Results, you “write your story forward”, one day at a time, one moment at a time, one story at a time. You do this by choosing your wins to focus on, and by focusing on the change. The challenge is in the change, and change is where the value is. That’s also what stories are made of. Stories are about the change.
For example, you don’t just “call back a customer.” You “win a raving fan.” The one-liner story reflect a challenge, a change, and value for you and others.
You can use Agile Results to live your values and to drive from your life style. The big idea here is to connect what you do, with why you do it. When you start with your “Why”, you kindle your fire and you make things more meaningful.
Using stories to drive your day, week, month, and year, helps you connect your purpose and your passion, while flowing value along the way. In this way, not only are you the director of your life, but you are the author, writing your story forward.
In Getting Results the Agile Way, the Monday Vision, Daily Outcomes, Friday Reflection pattern is a way to structure your time management and productivity by anchoring it to the week. The days of the week won't change anytime soon, so you can use this simple pattern to structure and plan your time management and productivity. It’s also a great way to create a simple learning loop of continuous improvement.
On Mondays, identify three wins you want to achieve for the week. Each day, identify three wins you want for the day. On Fridays, identify three things going well, and three things to improve. Each week, you will carry forward the insights that help you tune and improve your results.
This weekly rhythm helps you establish a simple way to flow value. You can chunk things down into your little wins each day, and overall add up to your bigger wins for the week. This is also a simple way to create progress, while also enjoying the benefits of continuous learning. Because it's anchored to days of the week, it's also easier to remember the structure. For example, if you woke up today and it was Monday, you know to identify your three wins for the week as part of Monday Vision.
If you adopt Monday Vision, Daily Outcomes, Friday Reflection, you instantly have a way to plan your results on a daily and weekly basis.
One of the most powerful ways to unleash what you’re capable of is to use your Power Hours and Creative Hours more effectively. Throughout the week, you have periods of time where you are either more productive or more creative. You also have hours that really are your downtime. For example, for many people I know, 3:00 P.M. is time for their afternoon break, myself included. I know I wont be my most productive or my most creative so I work around that, instead of fight it.
If you pay attention during the week, you’ll start to notice that there are recurring patterns of when you are at your creative best, and when you are your most productive. The key is to identify these times and to better leverage them. For example, I use my Power Hours as my most productive times of the day. I can move mountains during these times. On the other hand, I use my Creative Hours for creative breakthroughs, to figure out what’s next, or to innovate in some way, shape or form. It’s some of my best “think time” while I play with ideas.
It takes time and experimentation to find your flow and get your groove on. Agile Results is a flexible system for meaningful results. It’s designed to be “stretch to fit” and easily tailored. Rather than a rigorous system of rules, it’s a system of principles, values, and a handful of practices. It’s also designed to be inclusive of other systems. Most importantly, it’s designed to be easily shaped based on personal preference and style. Whether you want to be a productive artist or a highly-productive achiever, or simply savor more of life and achieve work-life balance, Agile Results flexes for you and with you.
The key to any system is “just enough process” so that you can adapt it as situations and circumstances change. The other key is to be rooted in principles, so that the system overall is durable and evolvable. The principles provide the stable part, while letting you easily adapt to change.
Agile Results embraces Bruce Lee’s philosophy:
“Absorb what is useful, Discard what is not, Add what is uniquely your own.”
Agile Results is there for you. All you have to do is grab it and run with it. The book, Getting Results the Agile Way, is the best way to get started, and you can use Getting Started with Agile Results as a quick start guide.
A colleague sketched a visual of a recurring theme he runs into, where “nobody wants to invest” in the time, to take a step back, to leap frog forward. The visual looked like this:
I’ve seen this pattern, too. There are lots of reasons. Many of them come down to change is hard, and it’s easy for a culture to be risk-averse.
One of the best solutions I tend to see is to factor out the change into a “pilot.” It’s the “innovate, then integrate” play. It works well because it doesn’t jeopardize the mainstream process or product, and it creates enough space for the innovation play to be tested and get the kinks out, before adopting back into the main process.
Of course, you still need somebody to invest in the pilot, but at least you’ve taken the step to reduce some of the friction and risk. The next key is to show how your pilot will help the big picture in the long run. This is where you can use hypothesis and tests. They are your connection back to the bigger picture. If your pilot works well, then your hypotheses and tests will help demonstrate how you can impact the bigger picture if you go mainstream. Without relevant hypotheses and tests, then your pilot gets viewed as a play thing and a science project. Hypotheses are the key to mainstreaming your innovation.
That’s another way how innovation gets done.
If you’re afraid to look at your To-Do list, it’s not working. Your To-Do list should inspire you.
One of the things that happens a lot with To-Do lists is they can get overwhelming. It’s easy to pile on more things. Eventually, you’re afraid to even look at your To-Do list. What once started out as a great list of things to make happen, has now became a laundry list of things that hurts more than it helps.
Worse, it’s easy to spawn a lot of lists that are full of once great intentions, so the problem spreads.
There are multiple ways to hack the problem down to size, but here are the three I use the most:
Here is a simple visual that shows adding Three Wins to the top of your To-Do list:
Identify the 3 most important results you want to accomplish today and bubble them to the top of your To Do list. Prioritize your day against those 3 results you want to achieve, whether it’s incoming requests or you’re making your way through your backlog of things to do on your To-Do list.
You can use this approach to chop any To-Do list down to size and make it more consumable.
This tip on building better To-Do lists is from the book, Getting Results the Agile Way: A Personal Results System for Work and Life (Amazon).