Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness
A while back I was asked to do an interview on timeboxing for a Harvard Business Review book. They didn’t end up using it. It might be just as well since I think it works better as a blog post, especially if you have a passion for learning how to use timeboxing to help you master time management and get great results.
One of the interesting points is that when I originally responded to the questions, I gave myself a 20 minute timebox to answer as best I could within that timebox. So my answers were top of mind and pretty much raw and real. I simply wrote what came to mind, and then offered to follow up with a call if they needed any elaboration.
With that in mind, here’s the secrets of using timeboxing to master productivity and time management …
I use timeboxing as a way to invest my time and to set boundaries. It’s probably one of the most effective tools in my time management toolbox for making things happen, as well as enjoying the journey as I go.
Parkinson’s Law teaches us that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I find this to be true. I often use timeboxing to set boundaries because when something is unbounded, it’s easy to make it bigger than it needs to be. And when it’s too big, it’s easy to procrastinate. To overcome procrastination, I simply ask myself, “How much can I do in 20 minutes?” (20 minutes is an effective chunk of time I learned to optimize around in college.) Using 20 minute timeboxes helps make it a game, and it gives me a chance to improve my efficiency. I’ve learned to tackle many problems using 20 minute chunks. On the flip side, I also use timeboxing to defeat “perfectionism.” To do this, I focus on “What’s good enough for now, within the timebox I have?” versus chasing the moving target of perfection. To bake in continuous improvement, I then “version perfection.” So I might do a quick version within a timebox to be “good enough for now”, but in another timebox I’ll make another pass to take it to the next level. This way I am learning and improving, but never getting bogged down or overwhelmed.
Timeboxing is probably one of the best ways I know to find balance. When we’re out of balance, it’s usually because we’re either over-investing in an area or under-investing in another. For example, I like to think of spreading my time across a few key areas of investment: mind, body, emotions, career, money, relationships, and fun. If I’m underinvesting in an area, I’ll set a minimum. For example, let’s say I’m under-invested in body, then I’ll add a timebox to my week and set a minimum, such as 3 hours a week, or “run for 30 minutes each day.” Maybe I’m over-investing in an area, such as career, in which case, I might cut back 60 hours to be 50 hours or 50 hours to be 40 hours, etc. for the week.
Setting these minimums and maximums when I need them help me establish better boundaries, even if they seem arbitrary. They are way more effective than going until I run out of energy or burn out or get too tired, and they are way more effective than when I completely ignore or forget about an area to invest in. Even just asking the question how much time are you investing in one of the areas helps you start to pay more attention to what counts.
Timeboxing can help you stay focused, as well as set a better pace. For example, maybe I can sprint for a minute, but not for five. When you put a time limit in place, you effectively designate the time to be fully focused on the task at hand. If you use small timeboxes, then you can effectively treat your task more like a sprint versus a marathon, because you know it’s short-burst.
One thing that’s important to keep in mind is that it’s easy to fatigue the deliberate thinking part of our brain. If you’ve ever felt like your brain hurts or you need a break from concentrating on something, then you know what I mean. Rather than “march on”, in general, you are more effective by thinking in bursts and taking little breaks. Some people say take breaks, every ten minutes, others say take breaks every twenty minutes or forty minutes. I’ve learned that your mileage varies, and what’s important is that you have to test taking breaks at intervals that work for you, and you will likely find that it largely depends on the type of task and your level of engagement.
The beauty is that with timeboxing you can turn any task or goal into a game. Going back to my earlier example, where I see “How much can I do in 20 minutes?”, I can treat this like a game of improvement. I can try to do more each time. That’s the quantity game. I can also play the quality game. For example, I tend to use a timebox of 20 minutes to write my blog posts. If I’m playing the quantity game, then I might see how many little ideas I can come up with to say about the topic. If I’m playing the quality game, I might see how I can take one little idea and elaborate on it, and give myself enough time to wordsmith and tweak the fine points.
On a daily basis, I tend to use my “power hours” for getting results. My power hours are the times in the day in which I am “in the zone” and firing on all cylinders. I find that I tend to be my strongest at 8:00am, 10:00am, 2:00pm, and 4:00pm. I use these power hours, these one-hour timeboxes, to tackle my toughest challenges and to move the ball forward. Once I realized these are my most powerful hours, I started to guard them more closely and use them to produce my greatest results within the shortest amounts of time. Using my power hours to get results helps me exponentially improve my productivity. Rather than something dragging on, I can blast through it pretty fast. Simply by using the same time I already spend, but by reshuffling my work around, has been one of the greatest game changers in my personal productivity. I’ve also extended this to teams as well. I do so in two ways. First, I make sure that people on the team know their power hours and use them more effectively. Second, I use the natural rhythms and energy of the day to plan and execute work. For example, one of the practices I use I call “Ten at Ten.” At 10:00am, our team takes ten minutes to touch base on priorities, progress, and blockers. We go around the team and ask three simple questions: 1) What did you get done? 2) What are you working on?, and 3) Where do you need help? It sounds simple, but it’s highly effective for keeping the team moving forward, embracing the results, and using their power hours. I’ve experimented with longer meetings and different times of the day but I found this “Ten at Ten” strategy to be the most effective. Following this meeting, since I’m in my natural “Power Hour”, I can then throw my energy into debottlenecking the team or moving some of the tough rocks forward, or pairing with somebody on a key challenge they are facing.
I think when it comes to getting others to get done what we need, we hit on things more than timeboxing. For example, one key to getting something done from others is to have them “sign up” for the work, versus “assign the work” to them. If they are part of the process, and you have buy-in then they will naturally want to do the work versus resist the work. It’s also important to have the person that will do the work, estimate the work. This helps set expectations better as well as account for how long the work actually takes. Sometimes there are deadlines of course, but if it’s about having somebody sign up to do their best work, it’s important they have a say in how long it should take. This improves personal accountability if they internalize the schedule.
If we assume somebody wants to do the work, then the next thing to focus on is when will it be done? This is where timeboxing comes into play. If you’re working within a timebox, then you can work backwards from when it’s due. For example, aside from timeboxes within the day, I also think of timeboxes in terms of a day, a week, and a month. Beyond the month, I tend to think in terms of quarters. If I need somebody to do something for me, I now make it a habit to tell them when I need it by. I used to make the mistake of just asking for the work. This makes it easier for them because they see what timeframe I’m operating within. Here is the art part through. Sometimes people think they can’t do the work justice within the timebox, so what I do is I set reset expectations and help them see the minimum types of things they might do within the timeframe. For example, if I need quick feedback on something, I’ll let somebody know that I just need high-level or directional feedback at this stage, otherwise, they won’t think it’s reasonable to do a detailed, comprehensive review, which is not even what I want at that stage. That’s another reason why timeboxes can help. They force you to put expectations on the table and get clarity on what’s good enough for now versus what’s the end-in-mind, and how to chunk up value along the way.
I do think one of the most powerful tools for any longer-term project is milestones. Chunking up the timeline into meaningful milestones helps everybody see key dates to drive to. Effectively, this also chunks up the project into smaller timeboxes or windows of time. It then becomes easier to focus on identifying the value within a particular timebox to reach the milestone. The other advantage of this approach, when it comes to driving results from others, is that you can do milestone reviews. People like to look good in front of their peers, so it naturally encourages them to do the work, to be seen as reliable and effective.
That’s really timeboxing in a nutshell. It’s simply treating time as a limited resource, and setting limits (both minimums and maximums) to help you stay balanced, stay focused, and get great results.
How To Use Timeboxing for Getting Results
Timebox Your Day
Time-boxes, Rhythm, and Incremental Value
Crafting Your 3 Wins for the Day Using Agile Results
Agile Results On a Page
By using Agile Results, you give yourself an extreme advantage in terms of mastering motivation, productivity, and time management.
The simplest way to start using Agile Results is to adopt the practice of 3 Wins. Simple identify the 3 wins you want to achieve for the day.
Crafting your 3 wins for the day is part art and part science.
Here’s a quick tip on how to do the art part a little better …
One of the things I do is scan my calendar at the start of the day to internalize it. Rather than react to appointments, I want to design my day as much as possible for maximum impact and spend more time in my strengths. It also informs me of my non-negotiables or specific windows of opportunity.
For example, today I have a few key meetings with influential people. To make the most of the opportunity, I need to carve out some time to
So my short-list of "3 Wins", or "stories", for today are:
I’ve got a bunch of stuff that's below the line that supports the above, but the above short-list of wins helps me rise above the noise, and claim victory for my day. If I scoped my "wins" too big, I'll quickly know when I’m in the thick of things, and then I'll re-frame the "win" to better express more incremental progress.
One-liner stories work perfectly well. All you need is a quick prompt or reminder of what you're trying to achieve, before getting lost in your tasks. It's how you put a bow on your results, and it’s how you guide your focus, energy, and action throughout the day.
They are "stories" because they reflect a "challenge" and a "change." You are the hero in each one-liner story, where you do something to create the change. And, most importantly, the "value" is in the change (otherwise, it's just same-old, same-old, and you're stuck on the treadmill of life.) Tip – A good way to think about value is to first figure out who it’s for, and then think in terms of benefits they care about, and express it in terms of “better, faster, or cheaper.”
By practicing these one-liner stories, these "3 Wins" for the day, you get better at articulating your value and unique contribution, both to yourself, and to others.
It's not only the secret of getting results, but also the secret of getting better performance reviews.
Note Agile Results is fully explained in detail in Getting Results the Agile Way, a best-seller in Time Management on Amazon.
Think in Three Wins
The Guerilla Guide to Getting a Better Performance Review
One of the first things to help a business to gain agility is to connect the product development to the actual user community. A simple way to do this is to connect the backlog to user input. If you can show the users your backlog of scenarios, and they can help you prioritize and validate demand, you just gained a great competitive advantage.
A picture is worth 1,000 words, so here it goes ...
The development team manages the backlog. Using input from users to help prioritize and identify gaps, the backlog is then used to drive the monthly development sprints.
It looks simple and it is, but it's not the knowing, it's the doing that makes the difference.
Enterprise Library 5.0 Product Backlog Prioritization Survey
Portfolios Programs and Projects
Spend $100 to Prioritize Your Opportunities
Scrum Flow at a Glance
Structuring Your Personal Backlog to Make Things Happen
I’ve put together 50 life hacks to help you get ahead in work and life:
50 Life Hacks Your Future Self with Thank You For
This is a serious set of game changing strategies you can use to level up in life. These aren’t your ordinary life hacks. These are 50 of the best life hacks that go beyond and help you adopt proven practices for life for key topics, including:
I’ve included one of my favorite life hacks here to give you a taste …
Sometimes the best thing you can do is to “do the opposite” of what you’d normally do, to periodically surprise people and have them see you in a new way.
It’s easy in life to fall into routines that don’t serve us.
The fastest way to change our game is to rattle our own cage and shake things up.
If you’re always late, try being early.
If you’re always slow, try changing your pace.
If you’re always fast, then try slowing down.
If you’re the person that always says, “No” to things, try saying more “Yes.”
If you always find what’s wrong with things, try finding what’s right.
If you lack your confidence, try strutting more of your stuff.
Doing the opposite of what you normally do, might lead to your next best breakthrough.
Worst case, you’ll learn more about you, you’ll learn more about balance, and you’ll put more options under your belt for how you show up or how you respond in life.
For more life hacks, check out 50 Life Hacks Your Future Self with Thank You For.
10 Big Ideas from Getting Results the Agile Way
30 Day Improvement Sprints: The Key to Making Impact, Changing Habits, and Rapid Learning
How To Use Monday Vision, Daily Wins, Friday Reflection to Triple Your Productivity
Agile is hot.
Especially, the Agile Way.
I wrote up a new step-by-step How To use Monday Vision, Daily Wins, Friday Reflection:
How To – Use Monday Vision, Daily Wins, Friday Reflection to Triple Your Productivity
The goals is to help you master motivation, time management, and personal productivity with a simple approach that you can use instantly.
The Monday Vision, Daily Wins, Friday Reflection pattern is probably one of the most important concepts I introduced in Agile Results, and explained in my book, Getting Results the Agile Way. (Getting Results the Agile Way has been a best seller on Amazon in the categories of Time Management and Business Life.)
It’s a powerful productivity pattern that can easily triple your productivity. It does so by eliminating noise from your work, to help you ruthlessly focus, and relentlessly execute. It helps you create extreme clarity by focusing on a short-list of top priorities. By adding “the fun factor”, and turning results into “wins”, you improve your motivation and momentum for unstoppable results.
There’s another key to Monday Vision, Daily Wins, Friday Reflection that makes it work. It’s based on a week on the calendar. It’s a specific recipe for what to do on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. It’s easy to remember. It’s easy to do.
And, with Friday Reflection, you get better each week, so the whole system keeps improving.
The other reason Monday Vision, Daily Wins, Friday Reflection works so well is because it’s optimized for the productive artist. Rather than a rigid system, it’s flexible by design. You can choose how big or how small to make your wins. You can choose what to focus on when you identify the results you want to achieve. For example, you can focus on the impact, or you can focus on how you achieve your results.
Most importantly, it’s a healthy reminder to connect your results to your values, so you can take your productivity to new levels.
I’ll be adding more How Tos in the near future to the Agile Results How Tos page on Getting Results.com, so if you have any special requests for How Tos, be sure to send my way.
How I Use Agile Results
It’s Not Volume, It’s Value
Productivity on Fire: 30 Days of Getting Results
I was talking with a colleague recently about the following question:
“How do you accelerate business value?”
One of the key challenges in today’s world is accelerating business value. If you’re implementing solutions, the value doesn’t start to get realized until users actually start to use the solution.
THAT’s actually the key insight to help you accelerate business value.
When you are planning, if you want to accelerate business value, then you need to think in terms of pushing costs out, and pulling benefits in. How can you start throwing off benefits earlier, and build momentum?
With that in mind, you have three ways to accelerate business value:
Before you roll out a solution, you should know the set of user scenarios that would deliver the most business benefits.
Keep in mind benefits will be in the eyes of the stakeholders.
If the sequence is a long cycle, and the adoption curve is way out there, and benefits don’t start showing up until way downstream, that’s a tough sell. And, it puts you at risk. These days, people need to see benefits showing up within the quarter, or you have a lot of explaining to do.
So one of the ways to accelerate business value is to accelerate adoption. There are many change frameworks, change patterns, strategies and tactics for driving change. Remember though that it all comes down to behavior change and changing behaviors. If you want to succeed in driving change in today’s world, then work on your change leadership skills.
This approach is about doing the right things, faster.
Another way to accelerate business value is to re-sequence the scenarios. If your big bang is way at the end (way, way at the end), no good. Sprinkle some of your bangs up front. In fact, a great way to design for change is to build rolling thunder. Put some of the scenarios up front that will get people excited about the change and directly experiencing the benefits. Make it real.
The approach is about putting first things first.
The third way to accelerate business value is to identify higher-value scenarios. One of the things that happens along the way, is you start to uncover potential scenarios that you may not have seen before, and these scenarios represent orders of magnitude more value. This is the space of serendipity. As you learn more about users and what they value, and stakeholders and what they value, you start to connect more dots between the scenarios you can deliver and the value that can be realized (and therefore, accelerated.)
This approach is about trading up for higher value and more impact.
If you need to really show business impact, and you want to be the cool kid that has a way of showing and flowing value no matter what the circumstances, keep these strategies and tactics in mind.
The landscape will only get tougher, so the key for you is to get smarter and put proven practices on your side.
People that know how to accelerate business value will float to the top of the stack, time and again.
10 Ways to Make Agile Design More Effective
Agile Methodology in Microsoft patterns & practices
How We Adhered to the Agile Manifesto on the patterns & practices team
“We must become the change we want to see.” – Mahatma Gandhi
I’m a fan of continuous learning and skills development. The challenge, though, aside from figuring out which training is worth it, is to first and foremost build a foundation that makes all the rest of your training actually worth it.
The key is to first build a rapid learning foundation that helps you absorb all the other training in a more effective way.
I’ve wasted a lot of money over the years testing and trying out various programs that made great promises. But, during my trials, I’ve also found programs that really do produce outstanding results. Of course, like anything, you get what you put into it, but some personal development programs are clearly based on better principles, patterns, and practices.
That’s the gold, and we have to dig deep to find it among the sea of mediocre personal development programs.
Just last night, I was sharing with a friend, how to read 10,000 words a minute (I’m not there, yet.) I was explaining the process of training to read without subvocalizing (which slows us down, big time … after all, you don’t want the voice in your head to sound like a chip monk, but you don’t actually have to internally vocalize words for your mind to absorb the content.) Another key is developing high speed imaging skills, where you glance at information and absorb it. Again, this doesn’t come naturally to most people so you need to train for it.
I realized this personal development program alone has paid me back so many times in so many ways and saved me so much time over the years, whether it’s processing email or devouring books. I shared with my friend that I don’t have a lot of time to read books, but I’ll use a few hours to read 3-5 books a week, as well as often write up in-depth reviews. He was amazed, and commented that he’s got a large book pile that he’d like to chomp through.
That’s just one of my secrets that has helped me leap frog in terms of rapid learning and saving massive amounts of time on a daily basis, and being to use my brain for other things than getting mired in walls of text.
But there are more.
In fact, today I decided to share 3 personal development programs that give you an edge in work and life. I’ll bottom line it for you here, that the three personal development programs are 1) Personal Power, by Tony Robbins, 2) The Personal Mastery Program, by Srikumar S. Rao, and 3) Lead the Field, by Earl Nightingale.
In my write up, I shared quick stories on how each of them has helped me gain specific advantages in work and life. In fact, some almost seem like unfair advantages because of the results they produced.
If you are looking to find the difference that makes the difference, or get an extreme advantage in our ultra-competitive world, then these 3 personal development programs should really help you out.
BTW – here is a tip that I often share when it comes to competition. While you can draw inspiration from your “competition,” the best way to compete is to actually compete with yourself. Whether that means pursuit a path of relentless excellence, or simply pushing yourself to higher ground, that’s where your breakthroughs happen.
Here’s to you and your ability to be awesome at life.
One of the best books I’ve read lately is, What Keeps Leaders Up at Night, by Nicole Lipkin. I wrote my review at:
What Keeps Leaders Up at Night
The book is all about how to be at your best, when things are at their worst.
By learning a core set of leadership skills and psychology tools, you equip yourself to deal with the tough stuff, no matter what’s going on.
It covers a huge amount of space in terms of psychology theories, terms and related concepts. Here’s a sampling:
Confirmation Bias, Transactional Model of Stress, Social Exchange Theory, Norm of Reciprocity, Extrinsic Motivation, Intrinsic Motivation, Cognitive Dissonance, Group Conformity, Social Identity Theory (SIT), Social Loafing, Collective Effort Model (CEM), Polarization, Groupthink, Shadenfreude.
Lipkin also covers communication styles, stress coping skills, dealing with envy, how to build better group dynamics, how to resolve conflict, how to build better self-perception, how to build constructive core beliefs, and more.
Overall, the book is a great guide on how to keep our cool when things get hot, and Lipkin reminds us that others only see our behavior:
“To paraphrase an old adage, ‘We see ourselves as a combination of our thoughts, fears, and intentions, but others just see our behaviors.’”
Aside from learning how to be more influential, another bonus of the book is that it will help you recognize and label thinking errors and cognitive distortions, which often lead to bad behaviors.
7 Habits of Highly Effective Program Managers
10 Free Leadership Tools for Work and Life
Best Leadership Books
Inspire a Vision with Skill
Leadership Development in a Box
One of the most important skills of an effective Program Manager is to inspire a vision. If you can’t paint a story of a better future, then all bets are off.
Change is tough enough. People need a good reason. They need to see a better future in their mind’s-eye. They need to believe in the challenge and the change. The cause has to make sense. And, it needs to inspire.
Sure you can throw facts and figures at people. For some, this is cause enough or inspiring enough. For most people, it’s not. They need something that they can latch on to with their minds and their hearts. In fact, if you win the heart, the mind follows.
I’ve put together my thoughts on How To Inspire a Vision, based on what I’ve learned as a Program Manager at Microsoft. Metaphors, stories, and pictures are all powerful ways. That said, you really need to step into the future and walk various aspects to pressure test your vision, and make it real. Not just for yourself, but for your various stakeholders and for their various concerns, which will range from innovation to market position to financial impact to insider perception, etc.
If you have a proven practice for articulating your vision in a way that works, I’d love to hear about it.
Inspiring a Vision
The Operating Model as a Company Vision
Vision Scope Template
"If you see a bandwagon, it’s too late." -- James Goldsmith
I’m really focused on helping businesses large and small succeed. Times are tough. I’ve been reading a lot of books on business skills and techniques. The latest book I read is pretty hard-core.
And exactly what I wanted to find.
Here’s my review:
Business Techniques in Troubled Times: A Toolbox for Small Business Success
It puts more than 70+ business skills at your fingertips.
What’s especially interesting is that the author is a turnaround artist. He helps flailing and failing businesses get back on track. Imagine having that kinds of ability – to help business rise from the ashes phoenix style.
That’s cool stuff.
Actually, it’s very powerful stuff.
Business transformation is a great place to be in today’s world.
After all, businesses are re-inventing themselves at a pace never before possible.
Anyway, you’ll appreciate this book if you want to know …
How to analyze the marketplace and do true competitive analysis and find your differentiation
How to design a great product or service
How to price your product or service more effectively
How to create a roadmap for your product
How to prioritize your product ideas
How to create a more effective business plan
How to avoid the most common mistakes when making a business plan
How to analyze a business model
How to create a financial plan
I could go on, and on, because this book really packs a lot into it. It’s an “all-in-one” guide that really covers creating and growing a business. You’ll especially appreciate this book if you’ve struggled with the “money” part of business. It’s one thing to have a good idea. It’s another to fund that idea, and to make it economically viable. This book actually shows you how.
The thing I want to stress about this book though is that it’s written by somebody who helps owners save and grow their businesses for a living.
Within the first fifteen minutes of reading the book, I had at least three new business skills I could immediately apply.
If you want a deep dive into the book, including snippets and insight, check out my review:
6 Steps for Enterprise Architecture as Strategy
Architecture Linkage, Business Linkage, and Alignment Linkage
How To Build a Foundation for Execution
What Do Customers Teach Us About Business