Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness
What do you get when you combine the power of project management with proven practices for productivity and leadership?
You get an extremely productive leadership … the kind that takes your execution capability to new heights and makes your competition jealous (or at least take notice.)
I’ve put together a set of 10 Proven Practices for More Productive Leadership in a guest post on Michael Hyatt’s blog. It’s my take on how skills from project management, combine with productivity and leadership to create a deep ability to make things happen. Project management skills are a force multiplier because they teach you to really understand the work, really understand the risks associated with performing the work, really understand the constraints and impacts of budget, resources, and time, really understand how to manage multiple stakeholders and competing concerns, really understand what progress truly looks like, and really understand how to get the right people working on the right things to drive change and flow value.
These are some of the hallmarks that underpin execution excellence and set the stage for high-performing teams.
Productive leadership is more than just making things happen. It’s creating compelling vision with clarity and conviction that inspire everyone around you to bring out their best. It taps your talent in a way that amplifies and produces exponential results. It provides meaning and motivation for everyone involved to give their best where they have their best to give.
When you think of productive leaders, who makes your soul sing or makes the blood rush through your veins, excited by their visionary capabilities and their ability to mobilize the team to fire on all cylinders? Who inspires you to believe that you can and will change the world in meaningful ways? Who do you look up to, when the chips are down, so you can fight the good fight and keep on keeping on?
Hopefully, you have several of these productive leaders right around you. If not, why not step up to the plate and set the example? People all around you are always looking to be inspired and leadership is a game where everyone can play, and everyone wins. The price of admission is courage, conviction, and compassion. If you have those, that’s a great start. But there’s a little more …
The boldest, the brightest, and the best leaders have several patterns in common and success leaves clues. The most productive leaders share a set of practices that sets them apart from every Joe. Productive leaders have a set of proven practices that gives them the edge to make things happen in any scenario.
… But what are these proven practices for productive leadership?
You can find out what these proven practices for productive leadership are in my guest post for Michael Hyatt:
For those of you on high performing teams, you’ll nod your head in acknowledgement and the practices will resonate with you loud and clear. For others, you may have to break past some of your mental models and paradigms, and explore the ideas with a curious mind.
I want everyone to get the edge and to use these practices to build more high-performing teams that flourish. I believe that everybody deserves a chance to work in an arena that allows them to bring out their best, and give their best where they have their best to give. Work can be your ultimate form of self-expression and your ultimate dojo for personal growth.
Enjoy and be sure to stop by and say “Hi” at 10 Proven Practices for More Productive Leadership. Also, be sure to share your insights and actions that you’ve learned about productive leadership.
I’ll be following closely and I’ll be looking forward to learning any new patterns and practices for productive leadership that you share.
If you like quotes, I have an extensive quotes collection at Great Quotes. I continuously expand this collection. Each page of quotes is a labor of love. I take time and care to organize each page of quotes into a simple structure that makes it easy to browse many quotes at a glance.
Here are ten examples of pages of quotes from the Great Quotes collection that you can use for work and life:
If you only have time to explore one of the quotes collections, then explore the Life Quotes. They are powerful quotes that can help you see life in a new way, or remind you of what’s important in work and life.
As a preview, here are the top 10 life quotes from that page:
As one of my friends puts it, “life’s better with the right words,” and I think quotes help us make that come true.
P.S. – If there is a particular quote collection that you would like me to add, be sure to let me know. So far, I am working on a “Mental Toughness” quotes collection that a few colleagues have asked me for.
Stephen Covey has past away, but his legend lives on:
Covey will be missed, but not forgotten. I see him all around me every day in the halls of Microsoft …
Many of my mentors, mentees, and colleagues are avid Stephen Covey fans. I know a lot of Softies around Microsoft that echo the patterns and practices of Stephen Covey’s work. One of my early managers, was a raving fan of Stephen Covey and he made it real. He absolutely practiced what he preached and he was one of the most inspiring managers that I ever worked for.
One of the most important lessons I learned from that same manager was that I had to be OK with failure. I had to risk enough to be able to fail. I had to be open to the idea that I couldn’t make everything succeed all of the time. He said it was this vulnerability that would become my strength. He also said that if I could embrace the idea of letting others fail and learn from their mistakes that it would be more empowering in the long run. People flourish when we give them the room.
He also taught me that you get more power, the more you give away. When you trust people, and they know you have their back, they reciprocate. The trust grows in two ways. People go out on a limb, because they know it’s OK to be vulnerable. People tell you stuff that they would only tell you when there is trust. This creates a powerful loop of learning and growth.
Anyway, I think Stephen Covey’s impact was powerful and pervasive. He is with us everywhere. The next time you hear somebody say, “Let’s start with the end in mind,” or “Are we focusing on what’s important, or just reacting to what’s urgent?”, smile and nod in acknowledgement that Covey has forever shaped how we lead ourselves and others.
Please enjoy Stephen Covey Leaves a Legacy.
“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’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.
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.
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
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
"People are known by the company they keep; companies are known by the people they keep." -- Bill Gates
I’ve revamped and swept my business books collection. My business books collection is a rich set of the best business books that you can use to change your game. They are especially important now with the cloud.
I find the cloud is a great chance to get back to your business, and get back to the basics. To do this, you have to figure out the role you want to play in the cloud (be the cloud, use the cloud, move to the cloud.) You also need to really figure out your strategy.
My strategy section of my business books includes:
Blue Ocean is your best friend when it comes to the strategy game. The idea is to compete where there is no competition. For example, how would you compete against a circus? Would you find cheaper or better animals? No, you change the game and create a new market. That’s what Cirque du Soleil did. The question then becomes, how do you do this at the personal level to stay competitive in the marketplace?
Business Model Generation is an amazing synthesis of business tools all rolled together into a simple approach. It’s a great way to sketch your business. It helps you think on paper so you can analyze your model more effectively. If I could only have one business book, this might be the one business book to rule them all.
Good to Great is a business book classic. In fact, this is one the main books we used to shape the early days of the Microsoft patterns & practices team. We spent a lot of energy asking the question, what can we be the best in the world at, with the people we’ve got? We put a lot of focus on making sure that people were giving their best where they have their best to give, and leveraging the power of the system. I think it was this ruthless focus on blending passion, purpose, and strengths that accelerated Microsoft patterns & practices through the early days, with a clear differentiation. As one of my colleagues put it, the power was having “architects who could write.”
The Well Timed Strategy is one of those books that really makes you think. You start to see things in new ways. It’s the business book that got me seeing things in cycles. I stopped looking at things in such a static way. I started paying more attention to the ups and downs and the cycles of things. It helps me better understand the mountains and the valleys of the business cycles. I stopped pushing rocks uphill and learned to ride the waves.
I’ll continue to tune and prune my business books collection. Smart people are constantly recommending great business books to me to help me get ahead of the curve and sharpen my business skills. In today’s world, business skills + technical skills are the way forward.
I’m honored to have a guest post by Jason Selk, Ed.D., on patterns and practices for mental toughness. Jason is the best-selling author of 10-Minute Toughness and Executive Toughness. As a trainer of executives, world-class athletes, and business leaders, Jason shares proven practices for mental toughness.
Jason is a rock-star in the mental toughness arena in business and in sports. He is a regular contributor to ABC, CBS, ESPN, and NBC radio and television and he has been featured in USA Today, Men’s Health, Muscle and Fitness, Shape and Self Magazine.
Mental toughness is what gets you back on your feet again. Mental toughness is what helps you keep your cool when a bunch of hot air blows your way. Mental toughness is the stuff that unsung heroes are made of. Mental toughness is the breakfast of champions. The beauty is that you can learn and leverage the same proven practices that work for business and for life.
I think of the tools that Jason shares as the fundamentals. They may sound like common sense, and yet, they are the ways the work. The trick is not just knowing what to do, but doing what you know. I find it much easier to do something that I can believe in, and what I like about Jason’s patterns and practices for mental toughness is that they are tested in action, and they stand the test of time.
Check out Jason’s post on patterns and practices for mental toughness and get results.
A fellow Softie, and performance improvement architect extraordinaire, Walter Oelwein, wrote a fantastic article on Life Lessons from The Legend of Zelda and Zelda Theory.
It’s all about how to apply what we learn from The Legend of Zelda to real life. If you are a gamer, you will especially appreciate this insightful piece of prose. Even if you are not a gamer, you will appreciate Walter’s wit and wisdom, as well as his systems thinking. If you are a continuous leaner and you find yourself always on a path of exploration and execution, this article will directly speak to your heart.
Check out Life Lessons from the Legend of Zelda and get your game face on for life.
You can listen to the Expert Access Radio Interview on Getting Results the Agile Way. It’s available as a podcast and on iTunes.
I'm honored to be interviewed by Expert Access Radio on Getting Results the Agile Way.
Expert Access Radio is a weekly talk radio show that features live, in-depth interviews with business leaders and best-selling authors from around the world. Some of their featured guests include Guy Kawasaki, Robert Kiyosaki, and Steven Pressfield.
On the show, Jay McKeever and Steve Kayser have their guests share their ideas, information, insights and inspirational stories to help listeners in their life of business, or their business of life.
I'm honored to be interviewed by David Zinger on Getting Results the Agile Way.
David Zinger is author of Zengage: How to Get More Into Your Work to Get More Out of Your Work, founder of the Employee Engagement Network, and creator of the Employee Engagement for Results Model.
Here is the abstract of the interview:
“This practical webinar outlines how to get results and foster employee engagement with agility. JD Meier from Microsoft, and author of Getting Results the Agile Way, shares his proven methods to get results for us and others with David Zinger, the founder and host of the Employee Engagement Network.”
It’s raw. It’s real. David has a way of asking great questions, connecting the dots, and teasing out key insights.
"Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will." -- Mahatma Gandhi
When people ask me what my biggest game changer was in terms of producing more in less time, I have to say that it’s a combination. It’s a combination of 1) spending more time in my strengths, and 2) finding my power hours.
This was the biggest key to getting more done in less time, and keeping my energy strong. Imagine doing the work you do in 40 hours in four hours. That’s what it’s like.
Hands down, this accelerated my learning and growth the fastest way possible. Imagine taking something that you could already do all day, and honing that. Imagine sharpening this blade to cut through any problem that comes your way, in the most effective and efficient way. That’s what it’s like.
It’s now my edge. I’ve found ways to use this edge in any job I do. You can do so too.
Here is a blurb from my 30 Days of Getting Results on Day 10 – Feel Strong All Week Long:
Get on Your Strengths Path What if there was one thing you could focus on that would help you get exponential results in all areas of your life? Well there is. It’s getting on your strengths path. When you are spending more time in the activities that make you strong, you automatically do great work, you renew and rebuild your mind, body, emotions, and spirit, and you dramatically accelerate your learning and growth. Fighting to get on your strengths path is one of the highest ROI (Return on Investment) battles you will ever win. It pays you back daily.
If there are so many benefits to being on your strengths path, and spending more time in your strengths, then why doesn’t everybody just do it? Because it requires self-awareness and you have to own it. Nobody comes along and puts you on your strengths path. YOU have to own it. YOU have to continuously find ways to spend more time in your strengths. Only you know truly what makes you strong and what makes you weak. You have to decide you want to spend more time in your strengths and you have to be deliberate about spending less time in your strengths.
That really is the key message here. You have to own it. When you choose to give your best, where you have your best to give, you empower yourself up to operate at a higher level. Your edge is at your finger tips.
If you want to read faster, I'll share a way that will radically change how fast you can read books, and, more importantly, comprehend the information. You can read faster and absorb a lot more books with a rapid reading method -- the sticky note way. You can do extreme reading with sticky notes.
This approach is for printed books and magazines. I'm a fan of the Kindle. You can read my Kindle review. My main scenario for Kindle is instant access, reading fiction, and having books at my finger tips. That said, I can read and learn faster with physical books, using the "Sticky Note Method."
I read a lot of books each month. I usually spend in the neighborhood of $300 a month. Books are my fastest way to learn new ideas, new methods, new techniques that I can test at work to keep growing my capabilities. Books are the short-cuts for personal development and rapid learning.
Why the Sticky Note Method Here's a quick story that might help show how it works. The other day I was looking for a key concept. I knew which book it was in. I started rapidly flipping through pages. I couldn't find it. I started to put yellow stickies in the book as I flipped through. On each sticky, I wrote down one nugget of insight -- one key idea or action that was worth noting. As I wrote down each insight, I put it into easy to understand terms. I wrote it as a one-liner reminder. Within 20 minutes, I had parsed my 300+ page book. It was riddled with stickies, my one-liner reminders, and I now had a personal index, with key take aways.
It was the wrong book.
I took a break and realized I was intently looking the right way, but in the wrong book. I grabbed the right book, and found the idea I had been looking for within seconds. Meanwhile, what dawned on me was just how powerful this rapid reading method is.
The sticky note method is powerful because it forces you to internalize what you read, while turning insight into action. It's simple too. But don't let the simplicity fool you.
How To Use the Sticky Note Method for Rapid Reading The steps are simple:
That's it. I told you it was simple. It’s simple, but effective.
You will get faster with practice. When I asked one of my mentors what's the secret to running faster, he said run faster. I thought he was joking but he was serious. The same is true for reading faster. To read faster ... read faster. But now you have a method to make the most of what you read, as you go – The Sticky Note Method for Rapid Reading. It works because it forces you to focus, it forces you to internalize information rather than regurgitate information, it forces you to create a personalized, meaningful index into your book, and it forces you to distill information into easier to little insights and actions (one-liner reminders) that turn insight into action.
I've been using this approach for years. I've tried many ways to read faster, and they all add up, but if I could only share one approach with you, this is the one that will radically change your game and take your reading to the next level.
The Rapid Research Method is a way to speed up your product research. It’s also a way to speed up ramp up time when you are leaning a new domain. The Rapid Research Method is also a key for rapid innovation and rapid product design and development. Lastly, the Rapid Research Method is also a great way to map out a space and perform competitive assessments.
One of the challenges with product development is doing effective research for your product design to make sure you have the right map of the pains and needs, the top concerns, and the key desired outcomes. Another challenge is actually making this information actionable and simple to share.
I’ve had the benefit of driving several projects end-to-end, so I’ve been through the research and exploration stage multiple times. I’ve learned a lot of tricks for speeding up research and making it more effective. I’ve had to use these techniques to play catch up in various domains from application architecture to security and performance, to even the cloud. They work.
I’m going to share a few techniques in this post. Collectively, I”ll refer to using them as the Rapid Research Method. It’s the approach I’ve used for many, many projects over many years, and as a way to perform competitive assessments.
What’s important about the techniques is that they make it easy to rapidly organize and share vast amounts of information in an actionable way. Looking back, one of the big surprises for me is how just about any domain can be broken down into questions and tasks. If you know the questions that people ask and the tasks they need to perform, you’ve effectively mapped out the most important information within that domain. This helps you prioritize all the rest of the information, such as concepts, principles, patterns, and practices. Another way to look at it is that all the information is either going to be action or reference. For example, a checklist would be actionable, while a whitepaper on a key topic, tends to be conceptual.
Software, like an information product, tends to suffer from information management problems. It’s tough to share “castles in the mind.” Then there is the people factor. Not everybody can slice and dice information the same way, or with the same skill. The real issue though is sharing “state.” The problem with research is that it’s like climbing a mountain. How quickly can you get others to make it up the mountain, after you? What sort of trail or spikes can you leave along the way? That’s where these research tools that I’m about to share come into play. They help you not only get you and your teammates up the mountain faster, but they leave a trail that others can follow.
The approach is fairly easy. It involves creating simple lists. The power comes from how you create and share these lists. It’s actually the information architecture of the research that unleashes the power of your research. The single best thing you can do with your research is produce output that can easily be used by others, so that you can easily bring in more brains on the problem. When everybody can see the lay of the land, it’s easier for people to find a faster way forward, get resourceful and solve problems.
Here is the approach in a nutshell:
I’ve often said that any problem domain can quickly be broken down into questions and tasks and address 80% of what matters. That little rule of thumb has served me well, time and again. I never get stuck when I’m figuring out a new domain. I always go back to the basics. The real race is to find the fastest way to get the questions and tasks down on paper in a shared way that others can contribute, review, and prioritize.
You can browse the examples below to see what these question lists, task lists, hot spots/frame, and user stories look like.
“Hot Spots” are simply the key categories or areas of focus. They represent the categories that are key choice points. They are actionable. They are “Hot Spots” because they are 80% of where the action is. They are the 20% of the domain that accounts for 80% of the activity. I use “Hot Spots” as a way to slice a domain down to size and quickly get to what counts. Each “Hot Spots” represents an area that is either a key opportunity or a key pain point. The “Hot Spots” are a great way to organize actionable information such as principles, patterns, and practices.
The Frame is simply a lens for looking at a problem. It’s what’s in the picture and what’s out. How you frame a problem domain can either simplify the problem space, or make it more complex. When you frame the problem space well, it makes it easier to act on it. It makes it easier to identify opportunities for innovation. It makes it easier to research the problem space with better focus. Focus is your friend.
The problem is that you usually don’t know the key areas up front. Framing out the space is part of the challenge and it’s part of the by-product of your research. What I’ve found is that when you start to collect questions and tasks, that “Hot Spots” start to emerge. You will quickly start to see patterns and things will naturally start to cluster. This collection of “Hot Spots” becomes the backbone for your frame. Rather than be complete, it’s about being effective. You can use the 80/20 rule to your advantage here, which is how you both gain speed, but also amplify your impact by focusing on the highest priorities.
This is a simple example of a frame using security Hot Spots. By using this collection of Hot Spots, it was very easy to collect questions and tasks within the security domain. It was also easy to walk different technologies and evaluate their security profile. We also used the frame to quickly gather and organize threats, attacks, vulnerabilities, and countermeasures. Organizing the information using this frame made it more actionable, and it made it a lot easier to deal with information overload.
Security Frame with Hot Spots
How does your application handle and protect user sessions? A session refers to a series of related interactions between a user and your Web application.
A “Question List” is simply a list of the key questions that people ask. You can find the key questions through surveys, going through forums, looking through blogs, and through hands on experience. Hands on experience helps you build empathy for what really matters, which will be essential when you are trying to rank, rate, and sort your list. It also helps to organize your questions into “Hot Spot” areas or buckets.
Architectural Frame Questions List
Authentication and Authorization
Caching and State
Concurrency and Transactions
Coupling and Cohesion
Logging and Instrumentation
A “Task List” is simply a list of the tasks that users perform within a domain. I find it helpful to use the language “How To.” This forces people to think in terms of goals. Sometimes it’s helpful to know the goal. Sometimes it’s more helpful to know the specific tasks. When you need to up-level it, simply ask “What are you trying to accomplish?” When you need to drop down a notch, simply ask, “What are you trying to do?” You can collect tasks from users through interviews, surveys, etc. Again, I find that hands-on is one of the best ways to really build empathy for the pains and needs. The real power comes from transforming from the problem side (the pains and needs), to the solution side (the specific goal or task that would address the pain or need.)
Architectural Frame Tasks List
I’ve found it especially helpful to organize massive lists of tasks into simple two-column tables. This creates a nice view that makes it very easy to prioritize, cut, or elaborate, in a fast and simple way. You can color code your lists. You can bubble key things to the top. You can make whitespace where you need it. You can group your tasks under sub-items within a row. The choices are endless, but the two-column tables does make dealing with massive mounds of information a breeze. The way it compacts and frames information makes scanning very easy, which is important when you are trying to get the “bird’s-eye view.”
One of the most powerful techniques I use to rapidly gather user requirements is user stories. I find that capturing user stories with the language, “As a user, I need to” .. or “As a user, I want to …” really helps add context and clarity, while keeping it amazingly simple. I also find that organizing the user stories by Hot Spots helps go a long way, especially when you are dealing with a large amount of information. Below is an example where I was collecting user stories to rapidly figure out the top concerns of business leaders and Enterprise Architects when it comes to cloud computing.
The beauty is that when you capture the user stories well, it is very easy to deal with both timeless stories and timely ones. In this particular example, even though it’s a few years old, you can see that the top issues that it exposes are alive and well. One additional point on this example is that I used another information pattern. I call it the “View More” pattern. I use it to bubble up the short-list and then push the rest of the list below the “View More …” heading. It’s highly effective for organizing very large information sets, especially if you alphabetize the list.
User Stories for Cloud Enterprise Strategy
Cloud Enterprise Strategy Scenarios Map
Awareness / Education
Governance and Regulation
Service Levels / Quality of Service
I'm honored to have a guest post by Alan Shelton. It's Leadership is Who You Are. Alan is the author of Awakened Leadership, and his guest post is about how the key to effective leadership is to be more of who you already are.
It's a powerful idea. Instead of changing who you are to be a more effective leader, you leverage who you are, and you bring out more of it, in an authentic way.
One of the most useful leadership trainings I had years ago, focused on bringing more of who you are to the table. The idea was to use your unique experience and values as a strength.
In my example, one of my unique experiences was that I was a kickboxer. Sports and personal growth are important to me. What that means is that when I lead a project, I bring a personal growth perspective to it. I find ways for people to spend more time in their strengths and I find ways for them to grow, while we take on new challenges. I encourage people to push past their limits and expand their capabilities. I encourage them to think of stories in their day to day, that reflect their private victories. I use little wins as progress so that people flourish.
That's what it means to bring more of you to the table to play your best leadership game. It's connecting to your values, and using your unique experience to create an authentic arena for growth and greatness. It unleashes more of your power because you are going with your grain, instead of against it, and you are creating experiences that are congruent with your values. In other words, you get what you project, and you get more of what you focus on.
As one of my wise mentors always said, “If it’s free, it’s for me.” (Tom, are you out there?) Here is a quick list of free leadership tools you can use today, right now, to change your game. These tools are battle-tested and have stood the test of time. The beauty is you can take them wherever you go because they are leadership tools for your mind.
If you want the lion's share of impact, then you need tools for today's world. It's an ever-changing landscape, and things can rapidly change under your feet. It's the information age, so the right tools, accordingly are information tools. They are tools for your mind, to help you organize, prioritize, and gain clarity and control over your actions and your thoughts. They also help shape your feelings. A great deal of your action is shaped by how you feel. If you feel overwhelmed, that is not your power stance. You achieve way more, with less effort and more impact, when you feel unstoppable.
That is the purpose of these tools – to bring out your best.
These tools help you unleash your capability and funnel your action and energy into more meaningful impact. Through focus and clarity, you amplify your impact. By using a system with pluggable parts, it's easy to swap tools in and out, to find the ones that work best for you. Because it's a system, you can tune and prune it to get better results, and they keep getting better over time.
10 Free Leadership Tools for Making Things Happen Here are free tools that you can add to your leadership toolbox:
Special Bonus Although you can do anything I’ve explained here on paper, on a whiteboard, or electronically, I do have a set of template you can use that might help with some things. You can find the templates here:
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One of the most useful patterns I’ve found to stay on top of a project budget is to think in terms of a monthly burn rate. As a program manager, one of my responsibilities is managing a budget. In the early days, I hated managing the budget because it always seemed like a lot of moving parts and more complex than it needed to be. That’s because it was.
What I found is that thinking in terms of a monthly burn rate, helps simplify the budget and chunk it up into manageable parts. I’ve managed projects over a million dollars and I’ve managed much smaller ones. This approach scales up and down. The monthly burn helps avoid surprises at the end, and it helps you keep a pulse on the spend without getting mired in details, until you need to.
Knowing the monthly burn rate makes it easy to calculate the overall spend. It also makes it easy to play out what if scenarios, such as when there are budget cuts. It also makes it easy to do draft ballpark figures, or to calculate your ask in terms of dollars if you need to extend your project.
What I like about the monthly burn rate is that it’s a big enough chunk of time that you can see patterns. A monthly burn rate also works well for managing a portfolio of programs and projects. For example, if you’re business has an overall budget you need to manage too, then you should know at your fingertips, how many big and small projects you can run in parallel.
Once you start trying to figure out the monthly burn rate, a lot of things fall into place quickly. For example, you can ask questions like, what’s the smallest monthly burn of your successful projects? What’s the average monthly burn rate across your projects? What’s the largest monthly burn rate? This can lead to finding ways to do things better, faster, cheaper, and to cross-pollinate your project practices more effectively.
Your monthly burn can also help put things in perspective. For example, at the end of the month, are you flowing the right value or making the right impact for your money’s worth?
Once I switched to thinking in terms of the monthly burn, a lot of the previous budget management complexity went away. I think having a simpler mental model forced me to ask better questions. For example, when should the payment milestones be for any vendor resources? Could those be consolidated to the same day each month? When is the right time each month to review the work? Are there any anomalies in terms of vendor rates? Etc. Instead of manage a composite of complexity, I was able to focus on managing well to the month. If I took care of the days, the weeks too care of themselves, and if I took care of the weeks, the months took care of themselves, and so on.
In any case, thinking in terms of a monthly burn rate helps you quickly calculate potential project spend. Once you get a baseline, you can quickly play around with variables, such as, what would the ideal team of resources be and what would that cost each month? What would the minimum team of resources be and what would that cost each month?
This pattern has helped me make better choices around things like whether to start with a full team, or whether to add resources downstream, or whether to roll people off the project. Budget is a very real constraint, and it has significant impacts on how things get done. Using the monthly burn pattern is a powerful building block for building budgets. You can use it to help figure out affordable teams and project durations. Sometimes time is the main constraint. Sometimes budget is the main constraint. In any event, you can simplify your budget management by thinking in terms of a monthly burn rate.
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.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change” -- Charles Darwin
That's one of my all-time favorite quotes because it's surprising. It's not the smartest or the strongest, or even the fastest that survive ... it's the most flexible.
That says a lot about the value of agile and agility in today's world. I think of agility as the ability to effectively respond to change.
Intelligence is valuable too, but not just raw smarts. It's what you do with what you've got. There are multiple flavors of intelligence, and they can help you survive and thrive in today's world. Maybe you've heard of emotional intelligence, social intelligence, positive intelligence, or multiple intelligences?
I think how we look at our own intelligence can limit or enable us. For example, if you don't think you're intelligent, then you might not try to do intelligent things. For example, if you've defined intelligence in your own mind to mean something along the lines of "the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria", that singular view of intelligence might put a damper on how your view your own abilities (depending on how you scored on your IQ test.)
I wrote a post on What is Intelligence to elaborate and share what I've learned from Howard Gardner and his definition of intelligence.
I’d be curious on how your thoughts about intelligence have evolved and changed over the years, given how much of a premium people put on how smart you are.