How Are You Better or Worse?

I’ve been working on several things these weeks, slowly  moving them to done. I have workshops for Agile 2016, books in progress, monthly columns, and my non-fiction writing.

As I reviewed previous workshop designs, I realized I’m a lot better at designing workshops than I was, say, ten years ago. Since I’m in a huge room, I’m not sure how to use some of that knowledge for this conference, but I know what I would do in a smaller room. I might divide the room and run the workshop that way. We’ll see. I still have time to refine the design.

I write non-fiction much faster than I used to. Oh, if you’re one of those people who believe you need to struggle over the words to be a great writer, you should sign up for my next writing workshop. For me, and many other people, the faster you write, the better you write. My monthly columns show that to me, if to no one else.

Satir Change ModelMy fiction writing? Well, let’s just say I am a work in progress. I am following the Satir change model. Oh my goodness, yes.

I have been experimenting with how to write so I can draw people into my fiction. I’m pretty good with non-fiction because I’ve been practicing for almost 20 years. (I was just astonished when I wrote that! 20 years of at minimum monthly columns. Wow. High-five me.)

On the other hand, I took one creative writing class in school many many years ago. I didn’t like it. I felt as if I never quite got the feedback I wanted. I tried another online class about 10 years ago and hated it. It was a peer-review class where the other wanna-be writers criticized our work. I do mean criticize.

I have learned about writing from my editor, beta, and reader feedback. I welcome that feedback. I have yet to learn from critiques. For me, that’s because critiques are different from feedback.

When I receive feedback, people tell me how they were confused or what didn’t work for them. George Dinwiddie, in his early review of Agile and Lean Program Management, told me he was tired of me telling him, “You want to…” That was excellent feedback for me.

His feedback tossed me into chaos momentarily. I thought, “What do you really want to say, Johanna? Say that.” I realized I could say something like, “Consider,” rewrite a little, and created a much better reading experience for my readers. Aside from saying what I wanted to say.

I am firmly in Chaos with my fiction writing. I can see some of the stories in my head. I am not so good at getting them on paper. I have a sticky on my monitor, reminding me of some of the points that will help me write better. I practice.  I take steps forward and steps backward as I practice. My practice is uneven. Sometimes my output is better, sometime’s it’s worse. I have not yet seen improvement overall. I do realize that learning to write fiction won’t be fast, and I can live with that. As long as I practice, I should be able to get better and at some point, better faster.

We are all better or worse in some ways than the way were before. For me, the question is how? In what ways have I improved? In what ways have I regressed or not improved? What do I care about? I won’t bother trying to improve things I don’t care about. I do want to improve what I do care about.

That, dear adaptable problem solvers is the question this week: How are you better or worse?

Are You Missing Clues or Degrading Gracefully?

I just picked up my brand new glasses. I’ve had the old glasses for several years and it was time for new glasses. I missed the early clues that it was time. Let me rewind the circumstances a bit.

I’m nearsighted. Since I am of a certain age, I also have presbyopia, a typical condition where people have more trouble focusing on close objects. That means I have been wearing bifocals for about 15 years. (I wear the progressive kind of glasses, where there is a sweet spot for near, middle, and far distances. I  move my head to see through the correct part of my glasses. We almost all have presbyopia as we age. If you are young, just wait. If you are over 40, you’ll be here soon enough.)

About a year ago, I changed the font on my computer. The regular font was too small for me to see. I was leaning into my computer to see, not sitting properly at all.

About six months ago, I started to take off my glasses to see my phone. It didn’t matter where I put the phone—near, not-so-near, far—I could not see the screen with my glasses on.

About a month later, I started to take my glasses off to read with my iPad, Kindle, or a print book.

A few weeks ago, I started walking around the house with my glasses off. I was more comfortable with them off than I was with them on. Since I am quite near-sighted, this surprised me. What was I doing, walking around the house with no glasses??

Note the time elapsing here. It took me at least three months to realize I needed new glasses. I might call this “degrading gracefully.” You might call this “missing clues.” You would be correct!

The clue-missing happens to all of us at some point. That’s because we are wonderfully human beings.

I bet I’m not the only one to miss clues. I bet you do, too. The question is where? What prevents you from seeing clues that something is changing?

In our projects, if we don’t measure on a trend line, we miss clues. Single data points are interesting, but not sufficient for understanding what’s going on. Notice that I had single-point data points all along.

Trend line measurement means you need to measure the same thing over time to see if the line goes up or down. You need to know what to measure. It can be a challenge.

I did not measure my eyesight in quantitative ways. I did “measure” it in qualitative ways. When my eyesight got bad enough, I finally said, “Oh, time for new glasses!”

When we “degrade gracefully,” we miss the idea that something could be wrong in our system. It doesn’t matter if the system is us as humans, in our project, in our organizations. Whatever it is, when we accept graceful degradation, we miss clues.

Our mental models can prevent us from seeing clues. The more we know something “can’t be true” the longer we are likely to miss clues.

I’m happy now. I have my new glasses and I can see everything: my computer, my devices, my books. I am wearing my glasses again all the time, which I am sure is much safer than me wandering around the house without them.

Dear adaptable problem solvers, that is the question this week: Are you missing clues or degrading gracefully?

Who’s Working?


The gas company has been replacing gas mains in my neighborhood for the last few weeks. They’re not done.

At 7am this morning, the gas main replacement guys dumped a big pile of dirt in front of our house, right outside my office window. The walk you see on the left is the walk from our front door to the street.

I have to say, between the noise and my fascination with the dirt, I’ve barely been working. I was fine when they were farther away. But now, right in front of my office? No. I have barely been working.

The truck drivers, the gas main guys—they’re all working. Me? Not so much. In fact, I was having so much trouble writing this week’s post, I decided I would go meta and write about why I wasn’t writing.

Does this ever happen to you? You know you have work to do. You want to do the work. And, something in your environment is saying just as mine was, “Johanna, go look over there.” (Insert your name where mine is.)

It doesn’t happen to me very often. When it does, it’s a doozy.

Here’s what I did today:

  • Talked to the duck. The problem? I couldn’t hear myself. It was too loud.
  • Asked myself what other alternatives I could work on, aside from writing. I didn’t want to do any of them.
  • Took a walk. That allowed me to go meta on the problem and ask what was preventing me from working.

The last solution—taking a walk—was the most helpful. I might have realized that the loudness was preventing me from any work, not just the writing I wanted to finish. But, I didn’t. I didn’t realize until I took the walk that the outside noise disturbed me that much.

You might not have noise as an interruption. You might not have the gas people tearing up your neighborhood. (I have many more pix showing how they work incrementally.) I bet you have something else.

Here are some possibilities I’ve seen in organizations:

  • You have meetings that start on the hour and last an hour. You have back-to-back meetings all day. If you have 10 minutes somewhere, you might use it to rest or take a bio break. But, you can’t even think about tackling something from your not-meeting list.
  • You’re trying to multitask on several projects. You’re not making any progress.
  • You have a cold, or you didn’t sleep well or enough last night. You just can’t get going.

You can try what I did: go meta. What can you do to solve the problem of you not being able to work?

  • Can you stop going to all those meetings? Can you change the frequency of the meetings or the duration?
  • Can you make your tasks smaller and finish something before you try another project? Can you pair or swarm with other people to finish work?
  • Can you take a nap? Drink some tea, something to help you feel better? Maybe even go home to get better?

Until I had the transforming idea that it wasn’t just me, I could see the problem. That’s the first step in solving it—seeing your reality.

That is the question this week: Who’s working? (I’m happy to say that I am, now.)


What Holds Us Back?

I was at a conference last week. There was a panel about women in technology. Of course, I went.

I heard several concerning stories. One woman said something like this:

My previous husband was concerned when I went out for dinner with professional colleagues. He was concerned I was “seeing” other men.

Note that she said her previous husband. She got rid of him and has a different husband now.

Another woman said something like this:

“My company expects I will work 24/7, that I am available for email and phone calls all day and night. I am not willing to live like that.”

Both women recognized something in their situation did not make sense and decided to do something about it.

What about the rest of us? I learned the hard way about 25 years ago. I was lying in bed, waiting for Mark to finish brushing his teeth. I checked my voicemail on my work phone. (I dialed in and listened.)

Mark opened the door to the bedroom and asked, “What are you doing?”

I replied, “I’m checking voice mail. Why?”

He said, “What are you doing?”

“You heard me, right?” I was surprised he asked me again.

“It’s 11:30 at night, and you’re checking voicemail? What are you thinking? You’re tired. Will you make good decisions now?” He persisted.

Well, when he put it like that, it was clear the answer was NO. No way I could make good decisions. I decided then and there to stop playing the “who-left-voicemail-last” game.

By trying to “do it all,” I was holding myself back.

I’d thought I was a good manager, a good corporate citizen by making sure I got through my voicemail all the time. It was as hopeless then as getting through all your email is now.

I learned—from Mark calling my attention to it—that no company needs me 24/7. Oh, they might think they do, but what they pay for is a thinking human. If all I do is react, I’m not thinking. And, if I react all the time, I’m not so human. Well, not enough. I tend to be irritable when I haven’t slept enough. Yes, I become even more snarky than I already am.

We might decide to “blame” our companies for their requests. I certainly have explained to managers that even as a manager, I need sustainable pace. Some of my managers didn’t want to hear that. One of them accused me of not being a team player.

I responded this way, “If by team player you mean I only take your directly stated needs into account, I can be a yes-woman. I will say yes to anything you say and do what I like. But, if by team player you mean I am fully present to be a leader and decide or help other people decide what they need, then I can do that without saying yes to you. I will provide you reasonable responses in reasonable timeframes.”

When we swallow and accede to unreasonable requests, we placate other people. We don’t stand up for ourselves or our beliefs. That makes work untenable. We hold ourselves back from our potential.

We might think the company holds us back, and maybe that’s correct. And, when we allow our circumstances to take advantage of us, we also hold ourselves back.

You might decide that for now, you will accommodate your organization while you look for another job. You might decide to change things, for yourself or the organization. Those are just three choices. You might see more.

I need to think about what’s holding me back. Sometimes, I have created barriers where there might be none. I follow rules I didn’t create. I don’t see other choices. I have to take my marriage and family into account for my choices. My choices might not be clear and my context matters.

That is the question of the week: What holds us back?

What Are You Waiting For?

Given that I’ve published so much, I meet people who say, “I want to write. But, I need to wait for a good time to write.” Or, they say they need an outline or permission from someone—a boss or a spouse.

I can be pretty sure about one thing: these people will never write anything. The moons will not align, providing them time or inspiration or permission. 

I meet people who say, “I want to go agile. I want to help my company go agile. But I need to wait until the time is right.”

What would cause it to be the right time? I ask, and these people are often not sure.

I often meet managers who say that they want to provide an opportunity for some specific person to take responsibility. But, they say, they need to wait. They need to wait until that person proves him or herself, or for the exact right opportunity to arise. Or, until they can provide that person a raise to go along with the new responsibilities.

People can’t prove themselves without opportunity. Managers don’t often provide raises until you’ve proven you can do the work. How can people prove themselves or take the responsibility if the manager is waiting for something?

All of these people are waiting for the right time. Here’s the problem: the right time will never come. The right time doesn’t exist.

These people are waiting for something that cannot happen. 

If you want to do something, try something small as an experiment.

Don’t ask for permission. That’s another form of waiting.

What is the smallest change you can make? What is the smallest time investment you can make to see what will happen? If you wait for the right time, you’re waiting for a recipe.

Start small and manage the risks.

Consider these options:

  • Start writing with a small timebox of 10 or 15 minutes each day. See where you go.
  • Start with yourself, working in timeboxes and managing your work in progress.
  • Ask the person who wants more responsibility what they think they can do from all the work you have. Define the work, ask when to check in, and let them fly.

Measure your results and decide what to do next.

What are you waiting for?

What Do You Care What Other People Think?

Richard Feynman, a physicist, wrote a terrific book, What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. If you have not read it, I recommend it. Let me pull apart the title a little.

There are several questions here:

  • What do other people think, especially about you?
  • What implications do their thoughts have on you?
  • Why do you care?

I can’t know or change what other people think. I can choose my reaction to their reactions to me.

I have had some strange-to-me encounters in a variety of places. I use my rollator whenever I leave the house. At one restaurant, the hostess offered to store my rollator at the hostess desk. I said, “No, thank you.” She persisted. I said, “Would you store your legs at the hostess desk?” Her mouth dropped open. Her eyebrows met her hair. She was all set to say something and a different hostess said, “Let me take you to your table.” I thanked her and Mark and I went to the table. Mark laughed the entire way.

I wasn’t sweet. I was blunt and direct. (I know, what a surprise.) On the other hand, she might have a different perspective on people with assistive devices. I don’t care what she thinks about my bluntness. I do care that she considers the consequences of her offers. I am sure she thought she was being helpful. I suspect she was surprised by my answer.

Now, here’s the difficult part. I can’t mind-read. I have no idea what she thought. Even though I’ll try to answer these questions, I might not be correct. I’m okay with that.

What did she think about me?

At first, I suspect she thought she was asking me something reasonable. She wanted the rollator out of the way, so no one would trip on it. I understand that. I bet she thought she was asking for something reasonable.

When I was snarky, I bet she was first offended. After all, she asked me for something reasonable, from her perspective. I don’t know if she reflected more on our interaction.

What implications do their thoughts have on me?

I am thinking about how to clarify my need for my rollator without being snarky. Not that I have trouble being snarky. And, I prefer to offend people as little as possible. Why look for trouble?

Why do I care?

I ask people for favors more often than able-bodied people do. It’s the nature of being handicapped.

On the other hand, I am happy to help her see a different perspective on the world. (Yes, that was more snark.)

Our interaction provided me fodder for writing. I’m happy about that. Could I have been more gentle with her? Maybe. I doubt she would have seen my perspective as quickly and as concisely.

Overall, I don’t care what she thinks about me. I was happy to provide her a nudge (okay, it might have been more than a nudge) to a new and transforming idea about the world and how it works.

In retrospect, I am satisfied with our interaction. One key for me: her reaction to me did not change my self-esteem. When I think about the question about caring what other people think, I consider self-esteem to be a big piece of it.

I do not allow other people’s reactions to me to change my self-esteem. They might provide me data or feedback. Only I can change my self-esteem.

That is the question this week: What do you care what other people think?

How Much Support Do You Want or Need?

I’ve been thinking about support these last few weeks. I have found support networks quite helpful, both for my emotional and physical needs.

Some people don’t want support. If you try to help them, you inflict help.

Sometimes, I don’t want support either. When I lean on a door to open it, I use my weight as additional strength against the door. If someone helps me by reaching over me to open the door, I am more likely to fall over. Oops. That’s why I wrote How May I Help You?

On the other hand, I need help for all kinds of things you might take for granted. I need help to reach things high up because I have TDS (too damn short) syndrome. It’s not going away. Because I have vertigo, I either need my rollator or helping hands when the ground is not smooth. I can live with that. (Let me rephrase: I will live with that!)

When I taught the writing workshop the first time, I thought I offered enough support. I am wondering now about any additional support I can offer to help people build their writing habits. I’m thinking of accountability check-ins. I will offer it, and not make it mandatory.

Here’s the problem I see. Many of us need more support than we ask for. We want less than we might need.

Here’s when I can ask for support:

  • When asking does not diminish my sense of self.
  • When I am strong enough to realize I can’t do this myself.
  • When I am strong enough to be vulnerable to ask for help.

Here’s when I don’t ask for enough support:

  • When I think I “should” be able to “just” do it.
  • When I think I will appear weak and/or vulnerable.
  • When I think I will not learn enough from asking for help.

You’ll notice that my perfection rules get in the way of asking for support. When I expect to be imperfect—and strong—I can ask for help.

I have noticed that many of us need more support than we think we might. Me included. How can we be strong in our request for help? That’s a mindset thing and I’ll address that in a different question of the week.

Dear adaptable readers, this is the question of the week: How much support do you want or need?



Are You Pickled?

In Jerry Weinberg’s Secrets of Consulting, he talks about becoming “pickled.” When you’re a consultant, the value you bring is that you are outside the environment. You have an external perspective. If you stay with just one client long enough, it’s as if you are a cucumber in a barrel of pickles. You can’t help but become pickled.

I know of consultants like that. In the agile community, they might be Scrum advocates. Or, they are kanban advocates. It doesn’t matter what you say to them, they cannot change their minds. They are pickled in either Scrum or kanban. (I like both the iterations of Scrum for cadence and the ability to visualize work in progress for kanban. I’m an “and” person, not an “or” person.)

I met a number of romance writers at a local writer’s conference last week. Some of them were looking forward to meeting agents. Why use an agent? “To help negotiate a better contract.”

There are so many problems with that answer I could barely see straight. Agents aren’t lawyers. They take some percentage for the lifetime of the contract. And, from what I’ve heard, they don’t negotiate so well.

There are some publishing houses that only take agented submissions. Okay. What’s the value of going with those publishers? “They’ll do the marketing for me.”

No, they won’t. They’ll expect you to do your own marketing.

I bet consultants and writers aren’t the only people who get pickled. We become pickled when our mental models do not allow us to see alternatives.

Here are some questions that might help you think about your pickle-ness:

  • Am I doing this thing because I have always done it this way? (Am I managing a project, writing code, cleaning the house, whatever, because I have always done it this way?
  • Can I think of three other ways to get what I want? (It’s that Rule of Three again. Can I imagine three different alternatives to managing the project, to writing this code, to cleaning the house?)
  • Do I think something will “just” work because it works in one context? (I see this in “scaling” frameworks: if it works for one team, I can just scale it to many teams.” No. That’s when you get bloat.)

Here are some tips to know if you are in danger of being pickled:

  • It doesn’t occur to you to question how or why you take a specific action.
  • You haven’t been specific with yourself about what you want.
  • You hear yourself saying, “just.”

I bet there are more signs that we pickle ourselves.

I see these things—and do them myself—unless I catch myself. Pickling is more our default than not.

We can be more adaptable. We can decide what we want. We can choose from multiple possibilities. We don’t have to lull ourselves with words such as “just.”

For me, it’s about being specific with my wants, needs, and desires. What do I specifically want? What do I specifically need? What specifically do I want as an outcome?

Dear adaptable readers, that is the question this week: Are you pickled?

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?