What’s Your Audacious Idea?

I start new things all the time. I mostly finish them. Some, I decide to put aside until I am ready or not as busy, so I can manage the risks.

I often find that the things I put aside are the audacious ideas. The ideas that are highly risky, or will take some learning, or will take more time than I might like. I have two audacious ideas right now: online workshops and fiction writing.

I like delivering in-person workshops. I like being able to see what people do—and don’t do—with the material. I like seeing what they learn and don’t learn. I use that feedback in the moment to improve my delivery and their learning. It’s a tight feedback loop.

I like the online workshops. I’ve delivered several now, about product ownership, feedback, management, and writing. I’m trying to organize my calendar so I can offer these workshops more regularly. People have found tremendous value from them.

I have found that the feedback loops are longer with online workshops. People don’t always do the homework. It doesn’t matter if I provide them more time between classes. Sometimes, they don’t do the homework. (I thought of decreasing time between classes, but the client was not excited about that.) When people don’t do the homework, I don’t get the feedback about their learning. I can’t change, because I can’t see where they have trouble. I can change in my in-person workshops.

I’m still learning how to schedule and deliver online workshops. It’s still an audacious idea for me.

I’m also writing fiction now. That’s audacious for me because I’m not facile yet with how to create a fiction story or novel. I’m working on it, and it’s not built into my fingers/head yet.

For me, the audacious ideas have these parts:

  • At least part of the idea is a substantial change from what I do now.
  • I have to learn and get feedback faster than I might normally ask for feedback.
  • I perceive an element of risk.

For example, if I write romance, do I need a pen name? Maybe. If I write sci-fi, do I need a pen name? Maybe not. I am taking my advice to consultants: build the content first, worry about the logo/cover/pen name later. I’ve talked about how you are not your title or role in How Do You See Yourself?

If I deliver online workshops, how can I manage signups so it’s easy and restricts each workshop to the “right number” of people? I’ve tried several solutions, and I think I have one that works. How can I manage the risk that people won’t do the homework? What can I do about that? For the writing workshop, I’m working on developing a shared accountability document. I think that might work. At the very least, it’s an experiment.

I have audacious ideas all the time. I bet you do, too. Are you ready to work on your audacious idea? What would it take for you to manage the risks, to change and deliver that audacious idea? How can you change how you see yourself, so you can deliver your audacious idea?

That is the question of the week: What’s your audacious idea?

Are You Failing Fast or Learning Early?

In the agile community, we have a saying, “Fail fast.” It means we are supposed to feel safe to fail, and that we want to fail fast so we can use that learning to iterate on the requirements. We have opportunities to improve.

I like the idea that it’s safe to fail. No one berates us or fires us or some other bad consequence for failing. That part’s great.

And yet, I find “fail fast” to be a problem. I don’t want to fail at all! I often discover I am not “failing,” but that I have not yet discovered a reasonable solution. I prefer a different way to say this.

Back when I was a software developer, I worked on machine vision systems. I was supposed to develop the software that looks at the glue around the windshield before the robot stuck it in a car.

Have you ever looked at black glue on the black border of a windshield with 8 bits of grayscale? It was a challenge. (Our digital cameras then were nothing like they are now.) I experimented for several days, on both the camera placement and the algorithm to see what could work. I had pages of what didn’t work in my engineering notebook. I also had three possible solutions.

I tested those solutions and chose one. It worked on the factory floor, not just in the prototype lab. I learned what I needed to do in several days and produced a working prototype in a week. It took me several weeks to deliver a working product. The prototype was not good enough for production.

I learned early. I didn’t fail fast. I discovered many opportunities to improve my approach. I was able to eliminate several fast. I had to iterate to find one that worked in production.

For me, “learn early” as opposed to “fail fast” are different things.

“Learn early” means this to me:

  • We spend less time and money on learning. Too often, managers see failure as expensive. I want to make it easy (and cheap if possible) to learn.
  • We offer ourselves more opportunities to ask questions (you might need more questions):
    • Are we doing the right thing?
    • Are we still learning?
    • Are we trying experiments to learn faster?
  • I feel as if I am growing, trying new things. I can apply the growth mindset with each new experiment.

I don’t have the same feeling from “fail fast” as I do with “learn early.” For me, “fail fast” means:

  • I don’t succeed. I have failed at something.
  • I might or might not learn from my failures.
  • At least I didn’t spend more time failing than I should have. Maybe.

“Failing” is a loaded word. It’s loaded, not just for me but for other people in organizations. Especially managers.

When I was a manager, I experimented with many things. I told my staff I was experimenting. When I had one-on-ones with more senior people, I said, “We’ve been doing this a while. Do you want to run the one-on-one as an experiment?” Some of them said yes, and others said no. It was safe for either answer.

One guy said, “I’d like to run them for a couple of weeks, and then see what questions we both have.” He was smarter than I was. I had not counted on the questions still there after a couple of weeks. We tried it his way. Sure enough, we had not discussed some challenges we needed to. We both learned, and in just the space of a couple of weeks.

I have not found that “learning” is as loaded as “failing” is. That’s why I like “learn early” to “fail fast.”

I’m not the word police. I’m not going to tell you to change what you say. I will suggest that the words you use might be able to benefit you more in some contexts. You get to decide if your context likes “fail fast” or “learn early.”

That is the question of the week: Are you failing fast or learning early?

Who’s to Blame?

When bad things occur, we often want to blame others for the problem. Blame is comforting in the moment and not useful over time.

I had a conversation the other day with a manager whose team is trying to use agile. “They’re not using continuous integration. They’re not testing enough. I don’t know what to do with them.” He sounded distressed. He was frustrated and blamed the team for not delivering.

I asked him, “What do you measure?”

He responded with “earned value, velocity, story points done,” and a number of other surrogate measures.

I asked him if he used “running, tested features” or working product as measurements. No, he did not. Would he consider alternative measures? He would and did.

The team was still not able to deliver what he wanted them to deliver. However, now he could see why. (The manager had been asking them to work on multiple projects and to do “more” points per iteration. However, the team did not have the people it needed, and with surrogate measures, he did not realize he was the cause of many of their problems.)

When I asked him what he learned, he said, “When I want to blame the team, I should first look at myself. I did not ask them for what I wanted. I was frustrated when they gave me what I asked for, but not what I needed. I need to learn more about this agile management stuff.” (I had expected him to discuss more about measurements, not his reaction. I was thrilled!)

When I am ready to blame others, I also need to look at myself first.

You might find some of these questions better than “Who’s to blame?”:

  • What happened? (A data-gathering question.)
  • What changed? (More data-gathering.)
  • What haven’t you changed? (Yet more data.)
  • How does this issue/challenge/problem affect you? How does it affect me? (What is the meaning to each of us? You might be able to see system-level impediments with this question.)
  • How do you feel about this issue/challenge/problem? How do I feel about it? (What is the significance of this to each of us?)
  • How will we generate solutions for this problem? (Will we work together? Can we? Do we need to each develop a strawman of potential solutions? Can we use the Rule of Three or experiments? Do we have constraints? Guidelines?)

Blame might be the first place you go, emotionally. Okay. Ask yourself this meta-question: Do you want to blame or solve the problem?

If you want to blame others, okay. If you are like me, you won’t get what you want, but you can blame all you want.

If you want to solve the problem, consider the other questions. Add more questions that help you understand the entire problem and what might need to change.

That is the question this week: Who’s to blame?

How Confident Are You?

I’m teaching a writing workshop. Writers have all kinds of problems. A common problem is the feeling of Imposter Syndrome. “Who am I to write this? Will anyone believe me? Is it valuable?”

Imposter Syndrome arises when you think you’re not capable. Or, that your success arose from luck, not your hard work.

There’s a difference in “still having something to learn” about writing and being a “bad writer.” I don’t know too many bad writers. I know writers who need to learn how to simplify sentences, use examples, title their work, find endings, and more. How can I enumerate this list? Because I continue to work on all of these things myself.

Imposter Syndrome arises from a lack of self-confidence.

How do you gain more confidence? Practice.

The first time I proposed and delivered a workshop at a conference, I was scared. I asked myself, “Who am I to teach this? Why should people listen to me? What if I can’t provide value?” My self-esteem was not high.

Then, when people told me they had never thought of the content in that way, I realized I was the right person for these people at this time. I practiced more content development. I practiced delivering the content. Now, when I develop new workshops, I am confident I can do a good job. And, if I realize I’m not doing what these people need now, I can often fix it in the moment.

I practiced. With practice (and feedback), I gain confidence and expertise.

In my first management position, I certainly felt as if I was an imposter. I practiced. I screwed up sometimes, and my team members let me know when I did. I learned what worked, what didn’t work, and how to tell the difference. I found management practice more difficult than development or testing practice because the feedback loops are often longer.

I like writing because my feedback loops are often quite short. I can learn a lot, just by writing more. I gain more confidence in my writing.

It’s okay if we feel as if we are imposters. The question is what will we do about it? Will we learn or worry? Will we try practice with feedback or worry? Or, will we just worry and hope everything will work out?

I have not found hope to be a useful strategy. Hope does not build my confidence. Hope does not enhance my self-esteem.

I use experiments and adaptability to build my confidence. I ask for feedback and help. I use my support system to learn, improve, and build my self-esteem. I find all these build my self-confidence.

Dear adaptable problem solvers, that is the question of the week: How confident are you?

How Much Protection Do You Want?

Warning, I have a little politics in this post.

It’s politics season in the US. For me, the presidential race is the ultimate reality TV show. I can’t look away, even when I’m horrified.

Republicans (self-described as conservatives) discuss religious discrimination and walls as a way to keep us safe from terrorism.

Democrats (self-described as liberals) want to have income equality as a way to help the poor (or even people earning a middle income wage) participate better in our consumer-driven economy.

Let me go a little meta about the positions.

I suspect these positions arise from a principle of risk management. We do want to manage our risks. I live in a town where we have municipal water, trash pickup, firefighters and a police force to protect us from dirty/dangerous water, trash-born illnesses, fires burning our houses and neighborhoods, and from criminals. We take these protections as a society so we don’t have to manage the risks ourselves.

You and I manage risks in our personal lives all the time. We manage our money to manage the risk of not being able to pay our bills or save for retirement. We choose food and exercise to manage the risk of illness and longevity. I make other decisions, such as using a rollator outside of the house to prevent the risk of falling from my vertigo. We decide and act, often based on risk.

I have a suspicion about risk management and protection. We believe we need protection when:

  • We cannot manage the risks individually.
  • We don’t trust other people to manage the risks with us.
  • We want assurance from people with more power.

We see risks as a “bogeyman,” or a phrase I’ve been using: the big hairy monster. The big hairy monster exposes our vulnerabilities.

Some managers want assurances that agile will cure their ills, or that teams can “guarantee” schedules. The managers want protection from ambiguity. I find this surprising because we pay managers to manage the ambiguity that arises in organizations. If managers can’t manage the ambiguity, who can?

When I explore ambiguity, I discover subtleties, things that might not occur to me if I take the problem at face value. The subtleties are where serendipity and potential alternative solutions lie. I can create novel ideas when I manage the ambiguity. If I simplify the ambiguity, I might not see alternatives.

For me, that is the surprise of this election season. The politicians think we can’t manage ambiguity. I see little evidence they can, either. When people simplify the problems, they reduce ambiguity. Of course, they also reduce the implications of solutions. (Yes, I realize the media like sound bites, which does not add to reasonable discourse.)

I admit, I like some protections. I like the municipal protections I have now. I even like some of the federal protections. I bet you and I disagree on all the protections the federal government provides us. That’s why we have a democracy and we discuss and vote. It’s okay.

When is the risk of protection is worse than the risk of not protection?

I can’t protect my children from heartache. Neither can I protect them from loss. As they learn to react to losses of all varieties, they build their resilience. I can support them to build their resilience.

I can’t protect my clients from their mistaken beliefs. I can explain, show, interact with them in a way that helps them see alternatives, to build their resilience.

I don’t want my government to protect me from the bogeymen. I want a reasonable discourse about ways to manage risk. I prefer a system of resilience than a system of protection. That’s me and might not fit for you. I don’t think I’ll get that discussion this election season.

Dear adaptable leaders, that is the question this week: How much protection do you want?

Are You Using Recipes or Guidelines & Experiments?

I like to cook. I also like to eat. Hmm, maybe I should say that the other way around. I have noticed that some people like to eat but not cook.

I like to read recipes and imagine how they would taste. I try new recipes often.

Sometimes, the results are less than stellar. Mark’s question to me is, “What haven’t you changed?” Even when the results are delicious, Mark often asks me, “What did you change?”

Even with something as simple as recipes for food, I change things to experiment and see what would fit me—my taste, my preferences—better.

I know I like recipes for these reasons:

  • I have a level of comfort because I trust the recipe has worked for someone at some time.
  • Since I practice cooking and reading many recipes, I have an idea if the proportions will work.
  • The original recipe gives me ideas about what I might like even better.

Knowledge work is not the same as cooking. We can follow a recipe exactly. Knowledge work requires more adaptation. What is our context? What results do we want? Even more important, what are our constraints?

I am curious then when people ask me for recipes for project and program management. Or management. Or anything to do with knowledge work. I’m big on guidelines, not rules. I’m big on experiments. I want to understand what might work—and what might not work—in any given situation.

If you are thinking about using a “best practice,” ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there a principle behind this practice that I can use? For example, continuous integration is a terrific practice. The principles behind CI are: limiting work in progress, seeing finished work, and the ability to get feedback fast. I have yet to see a project where CI was not helpful. On the other hand, I know of many projects where the people don’t use CI. When I explain the principles behind CI, the teams often decide they will use the principles. Sometimes, they move to CI. Sometimes, they use a kanban board, code reviews, and interim feedback. I often think the “recipe” of CI would be better. And, they have something that works for them, now.
  • Am I trying to adopt something that works in a different situation? I see geographically distributed teams try to adopt Scrum wholesale, including the real-time rituals. I don’t see why team members more than four hours time zone apart would willingly volunteer for at minimum of 13 meetings in a two-week period where the meetings put stress and strain on the people. Do your constraints/proportions fit your environment?
  • Does anyone trust you enough to use principles, guidelines, and then experiment to achieve the goals? I often see organization say they want to use agile, but they don’t realize they need trust and transparency to make it work.

Only you can know if you need a recipe, or if you can use guidelines and experiments.

That is the question this week: Are you using recipes, or guidelines and experiments?

Are You Whining or Problem-Solving?

I have a love-hate relationship with my physical therapy. I love the exercises. I like my therapist. I can see my progress.

I hate the building. Hate, hate, hate it. There are three levels of parking. Only one level has a ramp. On that level, there are about eight handicapped spaces.

That number of handicapped spaces would be reasonable if this wasn’t a building devoted—yes, devoted—to rehab. There are a number of doctor’s offices, and the biggest offices are the rehab and physical therapy offices.

I can manage to park in a regular space. I like to walk. If the spaces are large enough, I can easily remove my rollator and roll on in. That’s not the problem. The snow and ice in the parking lot are the problems.

The landlord thinks this is an office building. They remove snow as if only able-bodied people walk into the building. That means the snow and ice gather between the spaces, behind the cars, and on the ramp into the building. The snow and ice are dangerous for me.

I started a conversation in March 2014 with the senior management for the physical therapy offices. I have continued to email them. (Yes, a year later.) The good news is I don’t have to see my therapist often. The bad news is that I keep sending pictures of ice and snow in the parking lot and on the ramp.

Nobody likes a whiner. I know this.

I have tried to help solve the problem. I have used the Rule of Three in my emails. I have suggested alternatives for the parking, for snow removal, for the entrance, for the handicapped spaces. I suspect they do not want to hear any of my alternatives anymore.

I have tried problem-solving with them. I don’t think they want to problem-solve with me. (Their loss.)

I am close to whining now. I am mystified and frustrated. I don’t know what to do anymore. I do not have influence at this level to change anything.

I bet that happens to you at work, too. You see a problem. You might be able to solve it if you had the influence. And, you don’t have the influence now. What can you do?

  • You could remain frustrated. Part of me is still frustrated about the snow and ice problem because it’s dangerous for me.
  • You could find some serenity. If I knew how to do that, I would tell you. (Don’t care so much is not a helpful answer for me.)
  • You could problem-solve at a different level. I now look at the parking lot and ask for help from the office staff if I don’t think I can walk into the office safely. This is also known as “Make your problem their problem.”
  • Leave the situation. For me, this means find another location for therapy. (You can translate this to finding another job.)
  • Gain some influence. If I was willing to invest the time, I would find other allies in the greater organization and ask them for help.

I bet you can see other alternatives for you, too.

If you have a head-bump problem, where you continue to encounter the same problem and it frustrates you, consider the level at which you solve the problem.

That, adaptable problem solvers is the question this week: Are you whining or problem-solving?

When Is It Time for You Adapt to Something New?

I saw the movie Nashville this past weekend. Somehow, I missed it when it came out back in 1975.

The movie’s premise is:

  • It’s difficult to live an authentic, congruent life.
  • Beware of people selling easy solutions. There are no easy solutions.
  • We may have to change to get what we really want.

I often wonder when it’s time to change what I do, how I do it. I bet you do, too.

Do you remember when you used a travel agent to book a flight? I haven’t used one for domestic flights in years. I sometimes use a travel agent for international travel when I have several stops along the way. Automation and consumer access to the same information disrupted travel agent work (and the entire travel industry) back in the 90s. Travel agents had to change what they did to provide value. Many of them had to find new work. They had to learn something new.

In this election (as in the last few), the Presidential candidates are bemoaning the loss of “good manufacturing” jobs overseas. I’ll do a little prediction here:

  • Jobs that do not require knowledge work will always be a commodity. Commodity jobs go to the cheapest labor force. That’s because those jobs need no adaptation.
  • At some point, we (the people in software) will automate commodity jobs.

You don’t need to have a commodity job for this to happen to you.

In my life, I have seen the systems I helped develop (embedded systems, image processing systems, operating systems) become obsolete. Someone came along and created better versions of those systems. Sometimes, with better hardware. Sometimes, we can abstract some of the platform or applications into “services” for lack of a better term.

Our tools become obsolete and change. I know that my knowledge increases over time. I bet yours does, also. Our knowledge is what’s most valuable about us. Sure, our tool knowledge is important. And, once you know how to use one kind of a tool, you can learn another.

Many years ago, I gave a talk about searching for a job. One of the people came up to me later. She said, “I’m a Cobol programmer.” I asked, “You mean programmer, right? You can learn another language anytime, right?”

She blinked. She sighed. “I’m a Cobol programmer. I don’t want to learn another language. I like Cobol.”

I asked, “How’s your job search going? Are you finding Cobol jobs?”

She sighed again. “No. Is my wishing going to help me?”

I smiled and reached for her hand. “No. Wishing isn’t going to make that happen. You can’t turn back time. You can only go forward. Can you say, ‘Cobol has been good to me. It’s time for something else,’ and learn a new language?”

She gripped my hand. “I haven’t had to learn something new in a long time. I’m not sure I know how.”

I know how she felt. I get that feeling in my stomach when I’m afraid of something, often something new. I want it to go away, to keep doing what I know I can do.

Life is about change. Sure, we might have thought we would have one career when we started in our 20s (or earlier). As far as I can see, life doesn’t work that way. It might have before the Information Revolution, but it sure doesn’t now.

We can try to hold onto the past. We can try to continue the way we have been, until now. If we don’t want to become obsolete, if we want to live an authentic vibrant life, we may have to adapt to something new.

Learning something new, adapting to the current situation, whatever you have to change, challenges us. That challenge requires courage. Adapting means we are vulnerable. We make choices—and they might not be the “right” choice at the start. It’s a problem.

That is the question of the week: When is it time for you adapt to something new?

What is Your Context?

I’d had it with the robo calls on our home line. You know you have a robo call when you pick up the phone, there’s a pause, and a disembodied voice starts to sell you something. Irritating!

I discovered a service that promises to learn and end the robo calls. I signed up and got stuck. I had to log into my phone provider’s account and change a setting. Mark manages our landline account. I sent him an email with the link to the new service, told him where I was stuck and to please continue. I thought it was clear.

He arrived at my office several minutes later. “What are you talking about?? I have no idea what you mean. Why are you telling me to do this? You gave me the wrong password for our landline account.”

Well. I had not provided enough context. I do this, sometimes. I have a little reminder on my checklist for articles and talks: “Set the context.” I did not remember to do that in my email. We spoke, we laughed, and he explained what I needed to do. I finished, and I have not had robo calls since then. Success!

Each of has a context for our situation.

When you say to me, “My situation is different,” you are correct. Your context is different.

Your life is different from mine. That’s why I hesitate to say anything like this, “You must eat this way,” or “You must exercise this way.” Low carbing and keto work for me. They might not work for you. My walking, stretching and weight training work for me. You might prefer something else. (One thing I do say is this: a good eating plan is one you will stick to, that provides you energy. A good exercise plan is one you will stick to and practice.)

At work, we have different people on our projects, different code bases, and different management. Even if we work in the same domain, we have different contexts. We tell stories because that’s a way to share our context.

I have a problem with software “best practices.” I find many practices to be useful. In software, some practices are:

  • Some form of multiple eyes on the code.
  • Whatever allows you to get to continuous integration.
  • Showing progress often.

You’ll notice I didn’t say code review or pairing—although those are two good ways to get multiple eyes on the code. I didn’t say work in small chunks of features, although that allows you to get to continuous integration. I didn’t say demos, although that allows you to show progress often. I don’t care so much about how you achieve these results. I care that a team achieves them. These practices will provide you a better project context, in my experience.

I can’t call them best practices because your team context is different from mine. I can’t tell what will work in your context.

Understand your context. Then, when people ask me, “What the heck did you mean???” I am pretty sure I have not set the context. That might be true for you, too.

That’s the question this week: What’s your context?

What Does Your Anger Reflect?

I had a great day yesterday. I had some meetings that went well. I heard from the guy I’d asked to write the foreword to Agile and Lean Program Management. He said yes, and wrote a terrific foreword.

Then, I received an email with the edits from an editor for an online magazine.

When I write, I check for passive voice and remove it. I work to make my writing easy to read. I like it when you agree with me. It’s okay with me if you don’t agree with me—as long as you understand what I wrote.

Well, you might be able to understand what I tried to say in the edited article, but since I had trouble—and I was the writer—I am pretty sure you would have trouble, too.

I could feel my face getting red. I could feel my blood pressure rise. I felt as if I could hear my heartbeat in my ear (Note 1). I was angry, angrier than I have been in ages. I can’t remember the last time I was that angry.

I decided to do something useful instead of responding or eating chocolate. It was raining, so I took an inside walk for 8 minutes. Then, I had more water and a low carb brownie. (Yes, the chocolate helped!) These things are the first step in emotional resilience.

I also asked for help. I asked other people to read the edited version to see if I was nuts. No, I wasn’t nuts. The problem solving was my second step in emotional resilience.

I also realized today that my anger was about my values, not this specific problem. It took me more than 12 hours to realize that. When I have a problem that violates my personal values, I have to separate the situation from my feelings about the situation. (In software, we call this “going meta.” That’s the third step in emotional resilience.

We have strong emotions for all kinds of reasons. I realize now that I become angry when the situation violates my values.

I have values for my writing starting with clarity. I have values for my driving, starting with safety. I have values for project management, starting with the fact each project is unique, so we should think.

For me, the more I feel as if my values are at risk, the stronger my emotion. I have encountered this editing problem four times before with this editor. We are not communicating well, are we? I will have to work on that.

What surprised me most is this: yes, I am angry about the editing. I am angrier with this other person not hearing my feedback the first four times. And, I bet the problem is mostly on my side. I did not remind him of my preferences when I sent him the article. I know how he works, and I thought he would remember my preferences. Kind of arrogant of me, isn’t it? I am angry with myself, too.

My strong emotions, such as anger, do not have a single cause. That surprised me a little, at first. On reflection, it makes sense. I might feel as if I’m angry at the other person. Then, I realize it’s much more about me. Oh, being human is so interesting…

Dear adaptable problem-solvers, that is the question of the week: What does your anger reflect?

Note 1: That’s a little deaf joke. One ear, get it? Okay, I thought it was funny when I calmed down.