Software Engineering, Project Management, and Effectiveness
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
What Do Customers Teach Us About Business
It’s time to share some hard-core skills for improving your focus and directing attention:
Proven Practices for Improving Focus
It’s a hard core set of more than 60 proven practices for improving focus.
It also includes 8 things that work against our focus, and 10 strategies that shape our ability to focus at the macro level.
When I originally created the focus guidelines, it was just a flat list. Recently, I revamped my Focus Checklist to organize it into themes. That helped a lot to make the information more consumable. It only made sense to go back and update my focus guidelines accordingly.
Here is a sampling of some of my favorite proven practices for improving focus:
To explore more ways that you can radically improve your focus, check out Proven Practices for Improving Your Focus.
Be sure to share your favorite practices that work for you.
40 Hour Work Week at Microsoft
Focus Checklist v2
Daniel Cook on 8 Laws of Productivity