Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness
I’m a fan of strategy, and being strategic. To put it another way, I’m a fan of being intentional about spending my time and energy on things that produce more effective results. I’m not a fan of randomly throwing time and energy at things in a flurry of activity.
Life’s short, then you die, so it would be great to get more impact out of the time and energy you spend on things.
That’s where strategy fits in.
One of my favorite books on strategy is Being Strategic, by Erika Andersen. She defines strategy like this:
“Consistently making those core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future.”
I like that.
I’m not a fan of strategy without execution. For me, strategy is what shapes the execution. Strategy is a way to guide your tactics, or to shape your actions for better results.
Strategy is a beautiful discipline with depth and breadth. In fact, so much so that it can be hard to shift to being more strategic, if you aren’t used to thinking that way.
I wrote a simple post to help you be more strategic based on the approach presented in Being Strategic:
What’s the Hope, What’s in the Way, What’s the Path
It’s very simple, but very powerful.
Interestingly, each of the parts is powerful on its own. For example, just clarifying “What’s in the Way”, can help you instantly reveal what’s been holding you back or help you see a limiting belief that’s keeping you stuck. It also helps you put into perspective some of the real challenges that stand in the way between where you are, and the “castle on the hill” (you're hoped-for future.)
If you haven’t been a fan of strategy, because it’s either been too complicated, or something that “other people do”, or you’ve been let down by people that do a bunch of strategic planning, but no execution, I invite you to give strategy another chance.
Start to practice this simple little mantra: “What’s the Hope”, “What’s in the Way,” and “What’s the Path”
Use it to get clear on what you want, reveal the obstacles in the way, and help you clarify a more strategic approach to guide your tactics to get there.
By using strategy, and being more strategic, you can do more with less, get more out of the things you spend your time and energy on, and build momentum around your activities to help you achieve your success, whatever that may be, more consistently.
I have a long history of keeping an empty email inbox. More than a decade. Not because I don't get lots of email. I do. And, I send lots, too. That's how I stay connected around the world, and it's part of my daily job.
By lots, I mean a few hundred directly to me each day (not CC, not part of distributions, etc., directly to me with actions required)
So clearing my mail is a daily chore, but it's not a daily win.
At one point it was.
Long ago, one of my early managers said that I need to stay on top of my email. I was getting hundreds per day and they all required some sort of action or response. It was insane. To me, it was a huge time sink.
My manager made it clear that I needed to process all my mail, but there's way more to the job than just that. I said, that if it doesn't count, then I don't want to do it. He said it was non-optional.
So, that day, I decided I would spend no longer than 30 minutes a day on email (what I considered administrative overhead.)
It was a bold goal. Sure, I was a fast typer, and a fast reader, but the daily onslaught of overwhelming amounts of mail was insane.
But, like with anything in life, there's always a solution. If you know where to look.
So I cast a wide net and basically found the people across the company who were the most amazing for dealing with information overload and for always being on top of their email. And, I found quiet heroes as well as very visible rock stars in the email management arena.
And, I studied them.
I modeled from their email practices and email management ways. That's how I formed the early version of my Zen of Zero Email.
Surprisingly, a lot of the strategies and tactics came down to doing exactly the opposite of what other people did. In fact, my most surprising lesson was the one I learned the hard way, when I reached the limit on Outlook's number of inbox rules. I forget what the number was at the time, but it was a lot. Since I couldn't add any more rules, I had to change my entire approach. That day, I went from a crazy set of rules, down to exactly one inbox rule.
Surprisingly, years later, it's still just the one inbox rule.
And, still, I hit zero email in my inboxes on a daily basis.
This way, I'm never paper shuffling. I don't lose actions or reminder among a sea of email.
Basically, I transformed my approach for email long ago, after a lot of pain, and a lot of trail and error, and by studying the best of the best in action, in the most extreme scenarios.
Here's why I tell you this ...
"Clear my email" is something I do daily, but it's “below the line.” For me, it's not a win anymore. It used to be. But now, it's well below the line … it’s just expected, and it’s just something I do.
It's below the line, and if it takes me more than 15-30 minutes daily, it's actually a flag for me that I'm spending too much time.
Rather than focus my day on how to react or deal with email, I can just always systematically clear my inbox and be done. I get back to everybody. Sometimes, it's as simple as acknowledging I got it, and a note that I'll respond more deeply later. But staying on top of my email means that I have a very simple stream of potential action and insights.
But the big deal is that it's a "below the line" activity.
It's not my high value activity.
So I spend as little time as possible in it, yet get the most benefit that I can.
That said, a decade ago, that very much would have been a win for me.
It probably would have been one of my Three Wins for the Day for a while.
But that's the point.
The goal isn't to focus on things to do forever. It's to transform them so that you can do them better, faster, cheaper -- or eliminate them entirely. And, spend more time where it counts.
It's how you move up the stack.
This is a long-winded way of saying, "Clear My Email" is no longer a win for me. It's a highly effective habit that helps me spend more time in my higher value activities.
And for that, I'm actually grateful.
I don't know that I made all the points that I wanted to, and I wandered a bit, but I thought the little story of transformation might be useful for you, and might help you think about how you pick off your Three Wins for the day (if you're doing Agile Results.)
It's also a reminder for me how easy it is to take for granted and actually forget how difficult things were at one point, and how a few proven practices can be transformational, and how they can pay back daily.
And, every now and then, instead of writing a 20 minute post, I like to write a 5 minute one.
10 Big Ideas from Getting Results the Agile Way
Agile Results on a Page
Clearing Your Inbox
The Zen of Zero Mail
I did an interview with Harvey Schachter on Agile Results and timeboxing (from my book on mastering productivity and time management, Getting Results the Agile Way.) Harvey is a freelance writer, who writes three columns a week for The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, on management and workplace issues. The Monday column is about management tips.
And that’s where I fit in.
Here’s the interview online:
How To Focus in 20 Minute Bursts
Here are some additional points about timeboxing to get the most from the interview …
The focus in the interview is to make more out of the thin time slices we have, and to cope with mental fatigue, even when chasing problems we love.
Basically, if we're doing significant thought work, we burn out our prefrontal cortex throughout the day. To put it another way, our brain works better in short-bursts, more like sprints, less like marathons. Books like Flow, The Power of Full Engagement, Flawless Execution elaborate on this quite well, and share stories and the science behind this.
Wandering around in work you enjoy, or even just staying engaged, is not the same as staying focused while producing tangible results. If you’ve ever gotten lost in your passion, but then had nothing to show for it, you know what I mean. We go through different stages of research, analysis, creative synthesis, and actual production of information assets or products. The shift from exploration to execution often takes deliberate focus, with a clear end-result in mind.
Directing our attention is a skill, and we can learn how to improve our precision. Edward de Bono has spent a lifetime teaching people how to direct their attention and how to leverage executive thinking skills by ordinary people. While focus may not a be a problem per se, there is always room for improvement, and we can improve both our ability to direct our attention, and our ability to focus for longer periods of time.
Additionally, while you can certainly use 20 minutes batches of extreme productivity or timeboxing to deal with drudgery and boring work, it’s better to eliminate the drudgery to begin with. Interestingly, drudgery happens more often when things are unbounded. Something can start off fun, but if there’s no end in sight and you don’t know how long you need to do it for, it can get old fast. And, the longer you continue unbounded, the more you’ll feel the tugs of competing priorities, especially if you don’t have a time and place for them.
Also, keep in mind that, single-tasking, or avoiding multiplexing is a way to boost productivity. Reduce open work to improve your productivity. Rather than have a bunch of open work, you close the loops, and finish what you start. A common pattern here is to stay focused on meaningful task, while having a background task to switch to, when you get stuck or blocked on the main task, or need a brain break.
Unfortunately, the value of single-tasking and avoiding multiplexing is often misunderstood, or undervalued.
While knowing is half the battle, doing is the harder half, but remember that if you want to flourish, it’s a journey, not a destination.
The key is to find your sustainable way, and that’s what Agile Results is all about.
Check out my interview with The Globe and Mail on How To Focus in 20 Minute Bursts, and be sure to stop by and say, “Hi.”
How I Use Agile Results
Personal Effectiveness at Microsoft
Have you ever felt like a phony? Like, if “they” found you out, they’d realize that you aren’t as awesome as they thought you were?
“Impostor syndrome” is a common issue.
Impostor syndrome is where you can’t internalize your success, and no amount of external validation or evidence helps convince you otherwise. So you work harder and harder to prove your success, but yet you still don’t quite measure up.
I’ve mentored a lot of people, and found that a lot of highly successful people actually have impostor syndrome, for one reason or another. For some, it’s because they feel they are in the fake stage of “fake it until you make it.” For others, it’s because their success doesn’t match their mental model of how it’s supposed to happen. For example, success came too quickly, or they feel they got a “lucky break.” For others, they don’t feel they match what a successful person is supposed to look like, or they don’t have the credentials they think they are supposed to have, or the specific experience they are supposed to have went under their belt.
So, it’s success on the outside, but no success on the inside.
And that leads to all sorts of issues, whether it’s a lack of confidence, or self-sabotage, or working harder and harder to validate their external success.
Luckily, there are proven practices for dealing with impostor syndrome.
I have the privilege of a guest post by Joyce Roche, author of The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success:
7 Ways to Conquer Impostor Syndrome – Lessons from Successful Business Leaders
It’s a simple set of coping strategies you can use to defeat impostor syndrome and find more fulfillment.
Anatomy of a High-Potential
The Guerilla Guide to Getting a Better Performance Review at Microsoft
The Book that Changes Lives
I wrote my first article for Projects at Work. It’s called Don’t Push Agile, Pull It, and it’s a simple recipe for introducing Agile into established organizations, in a more effective way. Here it is:
Don’t Push Agile, Pull It
If you’re ever rolled-up your sleeves and tried to champion new ways of doing things into an established organization, then you know how tough change can be. In fact, it’s not just tough. It’s often how, careers end. If you don’t have the right sponsorship and the right change leadership skills to lead people through the organizational change, you take the brunt of the blame, or become the scape-goat for pain.
That’s why change leadership skills are an important part of your arsenal for getting results.
Even when you have a coalition of the willing, it can be incredibly tough to change the habits of people, the processes or the way things are done, and the tools and infrastructure that reinforces the well-established ways.
As you can imagine, this is a serious and significant challenge in today’s ultra-competitive marketplace, where change is on warp speed, and businesses are forced to adapt or die.
In fact, that’s largely why more and more organizations have a strong appetite for Agile -- Agile embraces change as a first-class citizen.
But, how do you get an organization to change from its waterfall ways, or less-than-agile culture?
That’s what I’ve had to learn, time and again, as I’ve helped individuals, teams, and leaders make the shift. I’ve also had to make rapid shifts as I’ve moved around during my career.
Along the way, I’ve learned some very simple, but very powerful ways to help teams rapidly adopt Agile practices, and get results. And, this goes well beyond the halls or walls of software.
Here’s the first blurb that introduces to the article:
“Introducing Agile methods to a team in an organization deeply rooted in waterfall ways is tough, especially when the culture is risk-averse and well-established. But you can be a catalyst for change and help your team learn to be more agile by following three simple practices.”
Please enjoy Don’t Push Agile, Pull It and be sure to share it with friends and colleagues that you know need some help in adopting Agile practices to help their team or business survive and thrive in our ever-changing landscape.
Improve Your Execution Excellence with Roadmaps at a Glance
Team Execution Patterns
Dr. Jay Conger has a must see presentation on The Anatomy of a High-Potential:
The Anatomy of a High-Potential
I’m always on the hunt for insights and actions that help people get the edge in work and life. This is one of those gems. What I like about Dr. Jay Conger’s work is that he has a mental model that’s easy to follow, as well as very specific practices that separate high-potentials from the rest of the pack.
In a fast-paced world of extreme innovation, change, and transformation, it pays to be high-potential.
Anything you can do to learn how to perform like a high-potential, can help you leap frog or fast track your career path.
Here are some of my favorite highlights from Dr. Conger’s presentation …
High-potentials consistently out-perform their peer groups. Dr. Jay Conger writes:
“High potentials consistently outperform their peer groups in a variety of settings and circumstances. While achieving superior levels of performance, they exhibit behaviors reflecting their company's culture and values in an exemplary manner. They show strong capacity to grow and success throughout their careers -- more quickly and effectively than their peer groups do.”
According to Dr. Jay Conger, high-potentials distinguish themselves in the following ways:
High-potentials are game changers. Here is a snapshot of Dr. Jay Conger’s pyramid that illustrates how high-potentials move up the stack:
What I like the most about the model is that it resonates with what I’ve experienced, and that it frames out a pragmatic development path for amplifying your impact as a proven game changer.
Kanban: The Secret of High-Performance Teams at Microsoft
How To Lead High-Performance Distributed Teams
The Innovative Team
I think “to help people realize their full potential” and “to change the world” is why a lot of Softies come together.
It’s the life-blood that flows through our veins.
Softies come from all walks of life. But there seems to be a common bond when it comes to sharing the Microsoft vision, the mission, and the values, especially personal excellence, and continuous self-improvement.
In Steve Ballmer’s email, he set the stage for our “One Strategy, One Microsoft.” Here’s my favorite part:
“This company has always had a big vision — to help people realize their full potential. In the earliest days, it was by putting a PC on every desk and in every home. We’ve come farther than we could have imagined. The impact we have collectively made on the world is undeniable, and I am inspired when talented new hires say they chose Microsoft because they want to change the world — that’s what we do today, and that’s what we’ll do tomorrow.”
I like the whole services + devices story for individuals + businesses for work + life, and it’s all about empowering people around the world for the activities they value the most.
Value is the key word, and I’m a fan of empowerment.
I’m a fan of helping people realize their full potential (and then some.)
I also liked this part of Steve Ballmer’s email, especially on integration:
“We will reshape how we interact with our customers, developers and key innovation partners, delivering a more coherent message and family of product offerings. The evangelism and business development team will drive partners across our integrated strategy and its execution. Our marketing, advertising and all our customer interaction will be designed to reflect one company with integrated approaches to our consumer and business marketplaces.”
It smells like team spirit, with a shared goal, and it’s got a nice air of agility.
Speaking of agility, over the past year, I’ve been asked to do a lot more talks and coaching for individuals, teams, and leaders on how to go agile, whether it’s for improving execution, improving creating and flowing value, or developing more agile strategies to win in our ever-changing world.
It’s refreshing and I see the results. I see more customer-connected development, more Kanbans on walls, more pairing up on problems, more focus on scenarios, and, most importantly, the embracing of change.
I also see people and teams growing their capabilities, learning execution excellence, and flowing and accelerating business value.
It’s powerful stuff.
It’s Microsoft … the Agile Way.
The Microsoft Story
The Mission of Microsoft Enterprise Services
Microsoft Secret Stuff
Agile Results: It Works for Teams and Leaders Too
Everybody has too much to do, too little time. Yet, some people have a way of spending their time on things in a way that yields better results.
What’s the key to crushing an overwhelming list of things to do and getter better results?
3 simple steps:
I elaborate on this approach in 3 Steps to Crushing Your Overwhelming List of Things To Do.
Why does this work?
It dumps what’s on your mind. We tend to think better on paper. At least, it’s easier to be more objective when you are looking at your list of things to do on paper, right in front of you. Instead of swirling it around in your mind, you can look at each item and ask better questions, whether it’s worth it, and whether it’s the right thing to be working on now.
When you bubble up Three Wins, you’ve identified the three most valuable outcomes that you want to achieve. These instantly help you focus and prioritize all of your other efforts. If it feels off, then you carved out the wrong things. You have to get real and be honest with yourself about what you want to achieve (or can achieve) with the time and energy you’ve got for the rest of the day. Given the time you’ve got left for today, and the energy you’ve got left, what are the three most valuable things you could possibly achieve?
The beauty is you can do this at any time in the day, whenever you are overwhelmed. Simply stop, and remind yourself what your Three Wins will be for today, and refocus on those. It takes practice to get the level-right, and to not confuse outcomes, wins, or results with tasks, but you’ll get the hang of it, the more you do it.
With your wins at the top of the list, you can then prioritize the rest of your list, to support your wins. It’s perfectly acceptable to have a bunch of tasks and reminders, whatever you need to help you take better action, but do yourself the favor, and guide all your actions with Three Wins.
You’ll be amazed by how much better you can trim an overwhelming mound of things to do, down to size, and how easily you can focus and stay motivated, even when you are doing the heavy lifting. If you know you are going for a win, and not just doing a bunch of stuff, you will inspire yourself with skill, and bring out your best, time and again.
If You're Afraid of Your To-Do List, It’s Not Working
My Personal Approach for Daily Results
I’m on a hunt for the greatest thoughts of all time, expressed as quotes. I’m a big believer that our language shapes the quality of our lives and that we can shape the landscape of our minds with timeless wisdom and inspirational quotes.
I especially enjoy little pithy prose, those gems of insight, that remind us of how to live better and operate at a higher level. I’m a fan of the quotes that really bring out our inner-awesome in work and life.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes of all time, which reflect some of the greatest thoughts of all time:
If you have a favorite quote or thought of all time, feel free to share it with me. I’m working on my timeless wisdom collection in the background, and I want to make it easy to scan the greatest thoughts of all time.
It will be a collection of evergreen wisdom at your fingertips.
Inspirational Quotes for 2013
Quotes to Empower You for Work and Life
Personal Development Hub on Sources of Insight
One of the ways to be awesome at work is to create roadmaps that lay out the big “projects” or “initiatives” for your team. This helps you easily plan in a visual way, get your team on the same page, and communicate to other teams, both your impact and what’s going on.
Roadmaps smash the perception that your team is a “black box” or that your team is just a random bunch of activity.
Roadmaps are also a great way to help build high performance teams because you can rally the team around the initiatives, and keep everybody focused on the most important outcomes. Another beauty of a great roadmap is that you also instantly set yourself apart from all the teams that don’t have one. You instantly demonstrate strategic thinking and execution excellence (assuming you plan for a healthy cadence, deliver on your promises, and demonstrate great impact.)
I’ve talked about the power of Visualizing Roadmaps for Execution Excellence before, and I gave some good examples. Here I want to share another way to visualize your roadmap. Here’s one of my favorite samples of a team roadmap at a glance:
Here are the key design points:
If you have a roadmap in place already, good for you. Practice telling your story of impact, and see how simply everybody on your team can internalize it, and how well understood it is by your partner teams.
If you don’t have a roadmap in place already, now is a great time to put your plan on paper for how you will do great things for the year.
Visualizing Roadmaps for Execution Excellence
Portfolios, Programs, and Projects
Lessons Learned in Execution
How To Build a Foundation for Execution
I wrote a guest post for Dumb Little Man on Agile Results:
How You Can Instantly Improve Your Productivity and Focus with Agile Results for Extreme Productivity
You can read it in 5 minutes, but you might save yourself 5 hours this work, or even better, you might 10X your impact.
Agile Results is a simple system for meaningful results.
It’s the productivity and time management system I teach individuals, teams, and leaders to get more done in less time, and amplify their impact. It’s all about working smarter, not harder, by spending the right time, on the right things, with the right energy, the right way.
It’s effective, and it’s balanced. In fact, early on I referred to it as “The Zen of Results.”
For many people, it’s helped them find their work-life balance and get better performance reviews.
In my guest post on Dumb Little Man, I share how to get started, as well as a few of my favorite practices that really crank up your productivity, while enjoying the journey:
Worst Things First
Play to Your Strengths
Perhaps the most important tip I share is actually the bonus tip. It’s how to use 30 Day Improvement Sprints to get a fresh start each month, build better habits, find your breakthroughs, and experiment and explore new ways of doing things.
If you want a jumpstart for Agile Results so you can get better, faster, more efficient results, this post will do just that. Please note, my guest post is split into three parts:
Enjoy, and if you like the article, share it with your friends (and whoever else you want to have an extreme advantage in work and life.)
Crafting Your 3 Wins for the Day Using Agile Results
I was reading a nice little eBook on Opportunities and Challenges with Agile Portfolio Management.
I especially like this part on “Work About Work” and how Agile helps avoid it:
“Agile software development is all about eliminating overhead. Instead of establishing hierarchies and rules, Agile management zeros in on what the team can do right now, and team leaders, developers and testers roll up their sleeves to deliver working software by the end of the day. Put another way, Agile software development favors real work over what I call "work about work." Work-about-work is that dreaded situation where creating reports about the project is so time-consuming it prevents you from actually working on the project.”
Agile helps you make things happen, and focus on work, versus “work about work.”
Team Execution Patterns and How the Work Gets Done
Are You Used to Delivering Working Software on a Daily Basis
Here’s the part that caught my attention:
“In her report, Visitacion suggests organizations adopt Lean to drive their portfolios and Agile to drive their activities. ‘Lean supports the disciplines necessary to select high-value, high-need investments, while Agile provides the path to optimize how you work,’ she wrote.”
I’ll need to take a better look at this. In my experience, I’ve used a variety of approach for selecting high-value, high-need investments, and not particularly Lean. And, when it comes to execution and optimizing how work gets done, I like a combo of Lean + Agile + Scrum (what can I say, I’m a Bruce Lee fan, “absorb what is useful”, and I like to integrate and synthesize the best tools for the job.)
Choosing Where to Invest
Models for Competitive Advantage
Spend $100 to Prioritize Your Opportunities
The Four Gears of Competitive Advantage
I was reading a nice little eBook on Opportunities and Challenges with Agile Portfolio Management.
“Johanna Rothman, an Arlington, Mass., consultant and author of Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects, said understanding the value stream of an existing product or ongoing project is key. ‘If we stop talking about people as resources and start talking teams, we have a better way of managing the portfolio,’ she said. ‘If we flow work through teams, we’re much more likely to be successful; teams get things done in software.’”
Well put, and that it matches my experience.
Here’s what I’ve seen in my travels to different organizations …
I see a common mistake the team level when it comes to effective execution and productivity:
Teams of capabilities vs. teams of one.
Individuals work problems instead of the team works shared problems.
It’s the resource vs. team mentality.
In other words, the team gets split into individuals working individual problems instead of the team working on shared problems together.
In that case, it’s not really a team effort. It’s individuals doing mini-projects as a one-man band. Instead of a team of capabilities, you get teams of one, and capability varies. Worse, because it’s individuals driving projects as an individual, they wear many more hats, and spend less time in their strengths. So you end up with individuals performing sub-optimal, and you never experience the benefits of an actual high performance team.
When you work problems as teams, and have people spend more time in their strengths, you can better optimize for the strengths on the team. You can also balance better for the weaknesses. You can also put simple systems and processes in place that lift everyone’s performance to new levels. Ultimately, individuals on the team can spend more time on their unique value, and less time reinventing wheels and re-solving basic execution challenges.
5 Questions for Capability and Capacity for High Performing Teams
How To Lead High Performance Distributed Teams
Kanban: The Secret of High Performing Teams at Microsoft
If you’re into change leadership or persuasion, you might know David Straker from ChangingMinds.org, where he’s put together a massive knowledge base of concepts, techniques, principles, and theories on the art and science of change leadership.
David is also the master mind behind CreatingMinds.org, where he has put together an arsenal of content and tools on the art and science of creativity and innovation.
I’m very honored to have a guest post from David on 10 Tips for Better Design.
It’s a fast read, and insightful. David says a lot with so little. He’s a master of precision.
Aside from tip #9 – Start at Goats, my favorite is tip #1 – Start with a Brief, Not Requirements. It reminded me of how many years I suffered through bad requirements gathering exercises, until I learned some proven practices later in my career. I still can’t believe how many bad requirements documents I’ve seen over the years, and how so many had completely failed to capture any sense of the end in mind. The analogy I often used was that it’s not even obvious whether we were talking about Frankenstein’s head or his foot or his arm. In fact, it was so bad, that after a while, I flat out stopped accepting any requirements documents. Instead, I found other, more effective ways to capture and express the goals, requirements, and constraints.
I wish I had been exposed to the “Start with a Brief” concept long ago. It would have served me well. I actually think as more businesses go through their transformation and re-imagining, that this technique will prove even more useful. I’m seeing business-first design really reshape how IT gets done.
Your ability to capture, assert, and express design intent will serve you well for the years to come.
Enjoy David’s article and challenge yourself to walk away with at least one new tool you can use in your design toolbox, or one thing you can do differently from how you do your design thinking today.