Challenging Outliers

mountain-climbing-nature-hd-wallpaper-for-desktop-free-download.jpgShawn Achor wants to know why the fastest kid in class was able to learn to read so quickly. Not, how fast can an average kid learn to read under repeatable circumstances.

I’m interested in discovering what it will take for my team to do its best work and the company I work for to reach its full potential.

Research and experience may show that as a best practice most teams should be small and most managers shouldn’t have more than 5 to 7 direct reports; but history has shown us outliers who follow no such rules. People such as Bob Taylor at Xerox Parc, who managed everyone working there, around 50 researchers plus 20 – 30 support staff, with a flat structure. Google has success with many engineering managers having 30 direct reports. Do personal motivation and skill override normal limits?

One thing is clear. There is no template for everyone to follow. The best understand their strengths and play to them in order to maximize their effectiveness.

We shouldn’t change just to follow someone else, or the latest buzzword, we should change those things that will help us in our unique situations.

Sometimes the solution isn’t to make things easier but to instead allow people to tackle a real challenge. Something they can get excited about. Many seek out the thrill of accomplishing hard things. Which means there’s no reason to make everyone play down to an average level.

“We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.”

-Charles Kingsley

Bottm Up Approach for New Year Resolutions

Privateer ship Lynx in Morro Bay, CA privateer-ship-lynx-morro-bay

For the New Year, or any other time, it’s better to accomplish something that’s been on your mind than to make some grand new resolutions. Clean up your desk or a closet or a drawer. Get the tires rotated or the oil changed. Do something to get your house or life in order. Something you’ve already committed to, or something that’s been weighing on your mind. Then you’ll feel better and have more energy to create or follow a plan to accomplish some larger goal. It’s like starting the day off by making the bed so that you’ve already accomplished something for the day.

This past year I spent a fair amount of effort helping co-workers learn more about personal management. Mostly this was focused on David Allen’s ideas as covered in his book Getting Things Done. He’s convinced that a bottom up approach is better than top down. Top down would be understanding your core values and life purpose and then working down from there to put first things first. Bottom up assumes you probably know your core values and life purpose, but are drowning in unread email messages, homework assignments, or other uncompleted commitments. So get control of what’s going on already, then you can see and think more clearly to know if something needs to change from a higher point of view.

I like to compare this idea to a ship. The ship is constructed out of your character. Things like integrity, persistence, work ethic, and other scout oath and law type of stuff. You’ve set the ship on a course according to your reason for being on this earth. Both of these things can be true and correct, but the ship can still be in a mess because our modern way of living is so complex that the decks have become cluttered and the sails are tattered and worn. So first learn how to run a tight ship by implementing some type of personal management system, like GTD, and then once everything is cleaned up, re-evaluate the course and sea worthiness.

People Over Process

Looking Up at Empire State Building.JPG
Looking Up at Empire State Building” by BigMac – Own work From the English Wikipedia, see [[Image:Looking Up at Empire State Building.JPG]]. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Humans have never built a skyscraper faster than the historic Empire State Building was constructed. This was an amazing feat that offers insights relevant to modern development projects.

Certainly there were many factors involved, including John Jakob Raskob’s desire to out build Walter Chrysler, but the single key may have been that they recognized that since they were building the tallest structure ever, they needed custom tools and a fresh approach for everything. There was no following the status quo on this project, they did just about everything different from the tools used to the ways they stored and moved the building materials around to having the beams arrive in the optimal order.

Scrum has become the default agile development process for many software organizations. In a recent webinar Steve McConnell suggested that scrum will work just fine for most teams. His point was twofold: scrum is a very good software development process but, process alone can only provide minor productivity improvements. Whereas individual skills and team cohesiveness can contribute to as much as a 10x productivity increase. In other words, the triangle can be an effective offensive system in basketball, but running the triangle isn’t what made Michael Jordan the best player of all time or allowed his team to win so many championships. It was just an offense that worked for them. They could have been just as successful with other approaches. The players made the team, not the system.

What should be done if scrum, or some other canned process, just doesn’t fit your team or organization? Maybe you can’t staff every role. Maybe your developers over commit every sprint and always work overtime to meet their sprint goals. Maybe you need to deliver updates each day instead of every few weeks. Perhaps you just don’t have good tools for managing sprints or backlogs.

Scrum itself originally came about as a solution to serious challenges faced by one development organization. If you can identify the challenges that your teams need to overcome, then that’s the first step to finding solutions that are just as powerful but that also fit your needs more appropriately. Best practices and processes are only best if they’re right for you and your organization.

Some scrum teams break all the rules as they do great work. Sometimes the scrum master and product owner is the same person. Sometimes the scrum master is also a developer. Sometimes the team size grows beyond 9 people. Some teams call meeting free days and skip even the daily scrum so they can focus on coding.

Overall the best approach has always been to find great people and then discover ways to unleash their potential. Change processes to fit people instead of the other way around.

“The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.”

— Ferdinand Foch

The Success of Failure

It is obvious but it’s rarely pointed out: to succeed one must fail, a lot. How many times has Shaun White fallen on his way to best in the world?

I had the opportunity to hear Seth Godin speak in Salt Lake last month. Seth has one of the most interesting blogs and he publishes something great every single day. He said he does it by writing 10 to 20 posts for every one that is published.

Instead of this approach we’re taught to believe that failure is not an option. When in fact failure is the only option, if you want to succeed. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond your current capabilities and current way of doing things then you probably won’t fail and you also won’t reach your potential. It certainly takes failure to lead, learn, and innovate.

Real world examples are all over the place, Jordan being cut from his high school varsity team, Steve Jobs being ousted from Apple, almost all successful business owners didn’t make it on their first try.

I just saw this quote tonight: “The core skill of innovators is error recovery not failure avoidance.” —Randy Nelson, Pixar University

GTD – What’s working for me

“There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can…give all our attention to the opportunity before us” – Mark Van Doren

That pretty well sums up the goal of Getting Things Done (GTD:) allowing you to always be able to focus on the task at hand, whatever it may be. The idea is to put everything you need to do or remember into a trusted system. As long as you use it all the time you will trust it enough that your brain can let go of trying to remember everything; thus allowing you to focus on whatever you need or want to focus on. The best example of this (from David Allen’s follow up book “Making It All Work”) is a calendar. If you have a lot of appointments that you keep on a calendar you probably don’t stress about remembering all of them; you just look at the calendar. But how would you feel if your calendar got lost? A little panic probably. The point is that everything should be stored in a trusted system; not just future appointments.

To do this you need a way to capture and then review everything: to-do items, projects, notes, things to buy or read or investigate and so on. So here’s an explanation of what I’ve been using to do that.

Since I use FogBugz for software project management at work and I found this nice post on GTD with FogBugz and they are kind enough to offer a free version hosted online for up to two people, I thought I would start there. So far so good. The main reason why is that while FogBugz is designed to be a full fledged project management system, it is also designed to be fast and easy to use and to stay out of your way. So it’s flexible enough to deal with large projects, yet still very quick when dealing with even the tiniest day to day tasks.

Adding items into the system is flexible and easy. Typically I use the quick add method when using a computer. This little trick was designed to be quicker than adding lines to notepad.

If I’m not at a computer then I use my phone. On of the most clever parts of FogBugz is its ability to sort incoming email into something like 12 categories. So I setup my commonly used categories as areas in FogBugz: At Home, At Work, At Church, Errands, To Buy…Then I can just send an email from my phone with the category in the subject line and that’s it. The next time I check my lists in FogBugz the new item will be there in the proper area, well at least most of the time it’s sorted correctly. I like this method because I always have my phone with me. An alternative solution is to simply keep a notebook with you at all times and use it to capture everything. I just couldn’t figure out a good way to do that. So the phone method works great for me.

When it’s time to actually do things I make use of the filtering capabilities to look at only the items of current interest. You can filter on pretty much everything, and then search after that if needed. Filters can be saved too, so if I have a few minutes to make phone calls before my next meeting then I can just look at my To Call filter. The filters also allow me to view my FogBugz items from my phone. Since I have a Blackberry, which isn’t known for optimal web browsing, this was the part I was most concerned about when I started trying FogBugz. What I ended up doing was saving filters for all of my commonly used categories and then setting up a bookmark to each category page using Opera Mini’s speed dial. The FogBugz site works fine on the mobile browser, but it’s too clunky to navigate the filter menu with the Blackberry. So this little work around lets me view items from anywhere without much hassle.

One of the great new features in the latest FogBugz is subcases. Just select a case and then add subcases as needed using the same quick entry method as shown above. I’ve been surprised at how useful this is. It makes it easy to turn a reminder into actual steps that need to be done. Or to track a small projects like our recent remodel job.

Other handy features include tags to further categorize items (like agenda items for an upcoming work meeting), a full blown wiki to take notes or track larger project info, file attachments on any case or wiki entry, and due dates. I still use my calendar for appointments and anything that absolutely must be done at a certain time, but the due date option is still nice to have. I use it for remembering loose deadlines, things like when I promise to send somebody something by around the middle of next week. You can get a daily email with items due today and overdue items so that’s handy too.

If I hadn’t been so familiar with FogBugz (boy I wish they would change that name, especially after just typing it 59 times), before I started I probably would have just tried using the tasks features in Outlook or Gmail along with Google Docs. But so far it’s working great. If you haven’t read Getting Things Done yet I highly recommend it. And if you’re feeling adventurous sign up for a free FogBugz account and give it a go.

GTD Basics

GTD has become quite popular among software groups. I’ve been hearing about it for years, but only recently actually looked into it. It was worthwhile, I should’ve read the book years ago.

To get started with GTD I read the original book by David Allen of course, along with a book called “Zen To Done”. It helped me to read them both.

Here’s a mindmap I created to help me understand the key concepts:

There is an abundance of GTD tools out there but I wanted to use something simple, cloud based, and familiar to me. So for a calendar I’m sticking with AirSet, Outlook (with Taglocity) and Gmail for mail, I’m making much better use of my notebook, and for lists/projects FogBugz.  I’ve been experimenting with the free of version of FogBugz on Demand and it’s working out quite well.