Which Rules Should You Break?

I follow lots of rules. I stay inside my lane on the highway. I wear my socks inside in—or, if you will, outside out. I always take my medication and I always take it the way I am supposed to. I even floss at night, the way my dentist tells me to do so.

But sometimes, I break the rules. I don’t color inside the lines. I break some “standard” rules more often than not, because breaking them works better.

When agile was new to many people, I started suggesting that people change one of their three questions at their standup. Instead of “what did you work on today?” I suggested that they ask, “What did you finish today?” You can see that there is an emphasis on smaller chunks of work and finishing that way.

I adapted my advice to what my clients needed. They needed smaller stories. They needed a way to self-prompt to looking at the work in progress, and seeing how to complete work “faster.” My advice was helpful to them.

Some people thought I was nuts. Now, my advice seems normal. At the time, I was a rule-breaker.

Last week, when I was at a client, I was supposed to only take taxis wherever I went. No rental car. No car service. No airport “limo.” Just taxis. I checked this with my contacts, and explained that a car service to/from the airport was often cheaper than a taxi because it was fixed price. Nope. “Just taxis,” I was told.

After being stuck in traffic three times, and one memorable occasion where all my stuff was in the back of a locked taxi with the keys in the ignition, with the driver and me outside the locked taxi, I decided to break the rules. I ordered a car service to drive back to the airport. It was faster and cheaper than the taxi that left the airport, which wasn’t in rush hour.

We’ll see if my rule-breaking fits my client or not.

Johanna's Problem Solving Loop

Johanna’s Problem Solving Loop

Rule-breaking is about seeing the reality, generating other options, taking a step, measuring that step or getting feedback, and seeing the reality again. It’s a problem solving loop.

If you break the rules without generating options, you’re not considering the context enough. You might not understand the problem well enough. Maybe you don’t or can’t see your reality that well. If we’re in chaos, sometimes it’s difficult to see our reality well enough to generate options. Or, we don’t know the subject matter well enough.

Once you’ve generated options, can you take a small step and measure it and get feedback? Will that help you see another reality?

This is not so far off from Boyd’s OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Notice how he built feedback into his loop. His loop was specifically created for fighter pilots. I’m not a fighter pilot, so I’ve adapted his loop (broken the rules?) to something that fits me better.

That’s what the best of rule-breakers do. They adapt the rules to the new reality.

If you never color inside the lines, why? Does everything require adaptation? If you always color inside the lines, why? Does nothing require adaptation?

That is the question this week, my dear adaptable problem solving friends: Which rules should you break? You may not find this question easy to answer.


Instead of Or, Are You Considering And?

A client emailed me last week. She’s a senior manager in her organization. Has been for several years. She’s considering reducing her work hours and taking a different position because her children are teenagers and need more emotional and driving support.

I can understand. I have been there and done that. I wrote about that, just a little in What Does “Have it All” Mean?

I am not suggesting my client can have it all. No, she cannot have her current role and spend time with her family. (Oh, and just because she happens to be female does not mean men don’t have this problem. Some of my male coaching clients have precisely this problem.) No, the real issue is her current role and how she and the company have configured this role.

If you think only about “or,” as in “I can do this job or I can have a good family life,” you are not using the Rule of Three to consider your options. It’s quite possible she only wants one option: to change her role and spend more time with her children. I certainly have had days like that! I bet, if you have children and a demanding job, you have had them too. Especially once your children become teenagers. They have real conversations with you (when they talk to you, which they do in the car). Your children have become interesting humans. You wonder to yourself, “How did I get so lucky to have such great kids?”

On the other hand, it’s quite difficult to step across or back in a company you helped to grow from an idea to a powerhouse in the field, which is what my client did. She will have to help hire her replacement, which will take more time in the interim.

What if she thought, “and”? What if she thought, “How can I configure my current role so I can do it and spend more time with my family?” And, here’s an even more astonishing thought: “How can my family help me do the things at home, so I can spend less time on the laundry/cooking/cleaning/whatever, so I’m not exhausted and feel as if I’m doing two full-time jobs?”

We, as working parents, need to consider how we negotiate and renegotiate our roles at work and at home so we have maximum enjoyment from both.

When Mark and I bought our minivan and we decided I would do the driving to dance, gymnastics, and the variety of carpools, I explained I could no longer cook dinner. I had cooked dinner for us Monday-Friday, and most weekends up until then. But, I could not drive until 6 or 6:30 and have dinner on the table at 6:30. Nope, I did not see how to bend the space-time continuum and do that. Mark had been a whiz with the grill, but not so practiced with the oven until then. He learned. (Which was good practice, because although I can cook with my vertigo, if I’m tired at the end of the day, it’s not always a good idea.)

When one of us traveled, it was a challenge. Luckily, we do not have too many rules about what constituted dinner. Eggs make a perfectly fine dinner! Later, as the kids grew older, if one was home, we could ask that one to start dinner.

We thought of “and.” How do we make our situation work for both of us?

If you feel as if you have no other choices, you might be in “or” thinking. You might decide you have only one or two options. Try to generate more options, using “and”. I use words such as, “What would it look like if …”

  • What would it look like if I reconfigured my role at home?
  • What would it look like if I reconfigured my role at work?
  • What would it look like if I joined a carpool?
  • What would it look like if I left the carpool?
  • How long does this need to last? (When does my oldest learn to drive, and relieve some of my driving pressure? Is this a short-term or long-term problem?)
  • What would it look like if I reorganized my organization at work? Am I trying to solve too many of my team’s problems at work?
  • What would it look like if I worked partly from home? Am I working at the right level at work? (Sometimes you can work on strategic things at home, or think while you are driving, if you need alone time)

Once you start asking these questions, especially as a manager, you might have more options. You might not. But you never know until you ask the questions.

Adaptable problem solvers, your question this week is: Instead of or, are you considering And?


What’s Your Superpower?

A few weeks ago, I was at a writer’s workshop. One of the writers wore t-shirt that said, “I’m a romance writer. What’s your superpower?”

What's Your Superpower?That got me thinking. Each of us has a superpower. Do you know what your superpower is?

In that workshop, a number of writers had the romance writer superpower. Some of you, my readers, have the tester superpower. Some of you are chefs, and have the chef- or baker- superpower. Some of you are developers and have the the developer superpower. Some of you have that social grace and ease that I envy. That is your superpower.

Each of us has something that sets us apart from everyone else. Even if you share that talent or skill with other people, there is something about it that make your superpower uniquely your own.

It’s worth considering what your superpower is.

Here are some possibilities:

  • Do you have great ideas?
  • Do you build off of other people’s great ideas?
  • Do you facilitate other people’s building great ideas?
  • Do you build new and different things?
  • Do you see the world in new and different ways?
  • Do you apply the “old” or “traditional” ways in nontraditional settings?
  • Do you bring joy to people?
  • Do you make art of any kind?
  • Do provide people help?
  • Can you add to this list in some way?

I am sure this is not an exhaustive list. I am positive your superpower is not on this list. Please add to this list. Please list your superpower.

You have a superpower. You might not know what it is right now. That’s okay. It’s worth reflecting on and considering what your superpower is.

The question of the week, my dear adaptable problem solvers is: What is your superpower?


What Haven’t You Changed?

Rather than be predictable and ask you what you are thankful for this week, I thought I’d ask you a different question.

But first, let me tell you a story.

I’m a good amateur cook and baker. I like to cook dessert. I don’t need dessert. I like dessert.

Last week, we had dinner with friends. I wanted to make a low-carb version of a dessert we’d had in Israel. It was a chocolate log with nuts. It was delicious! I knew I could de-carb it, if I could find a recipe.

Sure enough, it’s called a chocolate salami. The parve (non-dairy) version is sort-of low carb. I found a recipe that suggested I could use twice the nuts if I wanted it gluten-free.

I happily substituted erythritol for the sugar, and chocolate sweetened with stevia for the regular chocolate. I then followed the directions. Well, the way I follow directions when I bake. Even the first time I make a dessert. If you read the recipe, note how it says to refrigerate the chocolate. Note that it doesn’t say when to take it out of the refrigerator.

When Mark went to cut it after dinner, it was still hard as a rock. It tasted great—not as sweet as what we’d had in Israel, but quite good. It wasn’t as sweet because the erythritol is not as sweet as sugar, and the chocolate I used was darker than semi-sweet chocolate.

On the way home, Mark asked me, “What haven‘t you changed?”

He knows me. He knows I am fearless when it comes to recipes and changing things. I knew we already had a dessert for dinner. This was a backup dessert. The risk was low.

We both cracked up. I laughed so hard, I had trouble breathing.

It’s a good question. What haven’t you changed?

If you are transitioning to agile, you should read Ron Jeffries’ We Tried Baseball and it Didn’t Work. That’s an example/allegory of a team that changed everything and claimed agile didn’t work for them.

When you change something, you want to consider changing one thing at a time, getting some feedback about that one thing, and then seeing what the results are. In the dessert I made, I was pretty sure what the results would be. I was willing to take the risks.

If you are changing your projects at work, do you really want to change things randomly, when you don’t have experience? I have 10 years of experience baking low carb.

If you are taking medicine, would you change things without talking to your doctor? I hope not.

I change my workouts, because I have many years of experience working out and the risk is low. I change recipes because I have many years of experience cooking and baking and the risk is low.

I don’t change things when the risk is high and I have little to no experience.

We left the chocolate salami out of the refrigerator overnight and served it to friends the following evening. Mark was able to cut it easily. I still need to work with the recipe. It needs fewer nuts, and a touch more sweetness. I’ll continue experimenting. But, maybe after the holidays. I do not need more dessert for a while. No, no, no dessert for me. (Yes, I know Thanksgiving is tomorrow and I just made two low-carb desserts. After Thanksgiving.)

When you think about changing things, consider your context. Consider what support you need for your change. Be fearless for your change. Be strong for your change. You can certainly be adventurous for your change. And, decide when your change or changes are too much, when they make your product not what you wanted. I still had a chocolate salami. It was a low carb chocolate salami. Anyone could identify it as such. When you change things, is your change  still identifiable?

My dear adaptable problem solvers, the question this week is: What haven’t you changed?

Have a great Thanksgiving. I hope all your desserts are delicious and identifiable. And, do think about what you are grateful and thankful for. I am thankful for you, my dear readers.


Who Have You Connected With Today?

In June of 1973, I had freshman orientation at the University of Vermont. I met P during that weekend. We hit it off, laughing together, enjoying the weekend. We had similar senses of humor. We thought some of the questions our fellow freshmen had were nuts.

P was from a small town in Vermont. I was from a larger, but small-town thinking city in Massachusetts. It didn’t matter. We were similar in ways that counted.

In the fall, we discovered that we were in the same dorm. Same bio and chem classes, too. We weren’t lab partners, but we discussed the merits of rat dissection, our chem lab write ups, and, of course, our boyfriends, and lack thereof. Or, if we had them (for two weeks), how goofy they were. We drank together at downtown bars in Burlington, because it was legal then for 18-year-olds to drink. We had a blast.

P did well in her coursework. She studied physical therapy. I was, ahem, pre-med. That lasted all of six weeks, when I got C’s on my first hourly exams in bio and chem. I clearly was not going to med school. Now what? P was one of the friends who listened to me try on a different major every week for the next year or so. (It took me a while to decide on Computer Science.)

We remained friends throughout our four years of undergraduate school. I was a bridesmaid at her wedding. We have been there for our children’s celebrations and our respective difficulties. When Mark and I went to Vermont for skiing, we would visit. Sometimes, I was the only visitor, if the skiing was too good because I stopped skiing years ago. Sometimes, we all got together, including the children and husbands.

We connected via chance. We stayed connected through common interests and a wacky sense of humor through school. We remained connected these almost-40 years since we graduated because we care about each other.

We all need connection. We connect and stay connected with people because they mean something to us.

Now, we “connect” with people for business. That is one kind of connection. If we are lucky, that business connection evolves into something deeper.

When we connect with people as humans, as real people, not because we need them for something, but because they mean something to us, we have that authentic connection that we each crave.

We each have our own way of connecting. You might do it differently now than you did at 18. You might do it in a similar way. In order to adapt, to grow, to lead, to solve problems in your context, you need to connect. Without connection, without reaching from your core to the core of another human being, we have no authenticity, and little value. We have no vulnerability.

That’s what makes real connection so difficult. Connecting, creating a real connection, is an act of vulnerability.

Go ahead and connect or reconnect with someone today. See what happens when you bring your full self to the connection.

Who are you offering the gift of your vulnerability, of your authenticity? Real connection is a gift. Offer it wisely.

Dear adaptable problem solvers, this is your question of the week: who have you connected with today?


Who Is Driving Your Bus?

I taught a Geographically Distributed Agile Teams workshop in Israel this week. During the simulation, the “tester”  led the “developer”: as in “Let’s do this,” “Here’s what done means,” “ We should do it this way.”

Someone commented that this was “Test(er)-Driven Development.” I laughed.

Then I realized. Aside from “back seat drivers,” this happens all over our organizations. The people at the “end” of the process might drive the front of the process. Here are two more examples.

  • Who decides where people sit in your organization? Do the managers, the teams, or the facilities people? Who decides the desks or the cube configurations? This is Facilities-Led Architectural Decisions. Why? because you will get Conway’s Law: The architecture/design of the product will follow where people sit.
  •  Who decides what to work on? Is it the product owner or the product manager? Or, do you have emergency projects/fixes because no one manages the project portfolio? Or, does everyone decide what to do on their own, because of the rampant multitasking? If no manager makes a decision which project is #1, and says, “Every project is #1, then every person decides him or herself. That means you decide. I decide. It doesn’t matter what our job titles are. We decide. We decide the strategy for the organization. This is Bottom-Up Strategic Decision Making.

We can decide we want to do this. Is Tester-Driven Development wrong? I was a tester like that, many years ago. I made the product better when I asked questions. I didn’t tell that developer what to do or how to do it. But the developer was stuck in his vision of the product. When I asked questions and said things such as, “It doesn’t pass the commercial acceptance tests. I cannot imagine our customers will be happy. Let’s decide on our release criteria as an organization,” I made the conversation involve more than just the developer and me. We ended up with a product that was much better than the one we started with.

My dear adaptable problem solvers, the question of the week this week is “Who is driving your bus?” It might not be the person you think it is.


Are You Solving Problems MacGyver-Style?

I saw this post and video last week: I’ve fallen. Now how do I get up? Scroll down to the video where the therapist discusses all the ways you can get up from the floor. I have to admit, I had no idea I should leave my head down when I got up from the floor. If you don’t know about MacGyver, because you missed that TV series, here’s the link to all things MacGyver.

What I really liked about this video was her approach to using everyday objects and not just stopping at the rule of three. The therapist had a total of 10 alternatives, plus a couple of sub-alternatives for getting up after a fall.

When we solve problems at work, do we think of 10 alternatives? Do we need to? We might not need 10 alternatives, but considering what we can do to solve problems that is:

  • Simple
  • Uses everyday objects
  • Allows us freedom of movement
  • Allows us independence from commercial frameworks
  • Allows us to rescue ourselves

regardless of the problem might be a valuable skill.

As a dizzy broad (vertigo sufferer), I have a tendency to land on the floor. I try to prevent falls with my gym workouts to build strength, and with gait training to stand and walk correctly. However, I have been known to land on the floor wondering, “How the heck did I get here?” I wait for the neurons to settle down, and then I get back up.  I now have many ways to get back up.

We can apply MacGyver-style problem solving to debugging, to project management, to testing, to anything that requires managing risk and solving problems.

If you want to apply it to debugging, you might want to pair first, rather than instrument your code. Or, talk to the duck. (If you have not read that entire post, you should. If you are like me, you will laugh out loud.) Once you’ve talked to the duck or paired, you can ask your question on one of the stack exchanges. But, I bet just by talking to the duck, you will have solved your problem. It’s the articulation of the problem that helps.

If you want to apply MacGyver-style problem solving to design, you can do what I did a long time ago with a team. We animated a potential design. We had people literally walk through the design. We estimated the timing of what we thought the design would be, and asked people to step forward in sequence and synchronization to see if the design would work. Yes, I was the one with the clipboard and the whistle. No surprise there. (This was way before agile.) We determined in about 15 minutes that the design would not work as originally planned, but because everyone was involved, we had about 15 more great ideas about what to do instead to improve the design.  And, we had fun.

Problem solving does not have to be formal. It does not have to be inside of a framework. It can be simple and fun. You can show your sense of humor. MacGyver got into scrapes, but he always got out, and he had fun doing it. Well, it seemed to me that he had fun doing it. I certainly had fun watching.

Dear adaptable problem solvers, this is your question of the week: Are you solving problems MacGyver-style?


Who Is Responsible for Your Career?

You are Responsible for Own CareerI’m in a workshop this week. There are signs all over, that say, “You are responsible for your own career.”

It’s true. Each of us is responsible for our own careers.

Do you act that way?

If you work for an organization, do you push for one-on-ones each week with your manager, and discuss your career, every week with your manager? If so, great. If not, why not? What’s stopping you?

If you work for yourself, how often do you reflect on your work?

For each of us:

  • How often do you take stock of what you do, so you don’t have the same year of experience every year?
  • How often do you say, “It’s time to stop doing this work. It’s time to work towards that kind of work.”
  • How often do you say, “I want to offer this thing by that time. How will I get there?”

You do it differently when you are an employee than when you are an entrepreneur. But you do it, regardless of your current role. And the closer you are to “retirement?” You really better start thinking about this.

Just because you stop working for a big company with benefits doesn’t mean you will stop working.  You might choose to stop working for money. (Then again, you might not!) But, you need to keep thinking. If you stop thinking, if you stop being intellectually challenged and you might die before your time. Your brain keeps growing and changing until the day you die. That’s what neuroplasticity is all about.

It’s very easy to let the day-to-day responsibility of the house, the spouse, the kids, and the job stop us from thinking about this greater responsibility, our careers.

Maybe you want to think about your life, instead.

What if I said, “You are responsible for your life?” Would that change how you think about this question?

You are. You are responsible for your career. You are responsible for your life. Ain’t it great? Does that fill your heart with dread or with possibility?

To me, it’s full of possibility. It means I can experiment. I can try something, get a little feedback, learn from it and continue. I might do the same thing, modify it, or do something else. I have the responsibility for my life to learn.

Dear adaptable problem solvers, this is your question of the week: Who is responsible for your career?


How Do You See Yourself?

Many people see themselves as their titles. “I’m a tester or developer or project manager or business analyst.”

You are not your role. You are not your title.

You are your values, your mission. You are most definitely not the number of people in your organization. You’ve heard managers say, “I have xx or xxx people in my organization,” right? That makes me nuts. What, these people don’t have value if they don’t have people in their organizations?

Maybe not. Here’s a thought: What kind of value do they have, if they have to describe themselves based on the number of people in their organizations? What happens if you become unemployed?

The first time I was laid off, I was confused. Could I still call myself a software developer if I wasn’t working? Of course I could. That was my profession, even if I didn’t have a job. This goes to show you how your self-esteem takes a hit when you lose a job, even if you are great and the company can’t afford to pay you.

Think about how you provide value.

I work hard to simplify ideas in my writing and speaking, so people can solve problems better in their projects, in their management. As the technical editor for agileconnection.com, I’ve been doing that as a writing coach for the past three-plus years.

You do something else.

I used to say I was a management consultant. I still say that, but I have to explain what I do as a consultant or coach. Just saying I consult or coach is not enough. What I say on twitter is that I help managers and leaders do reasonable things at work.

Just saying you test or manage or develop or whatever is not enough. Once you start talking about your values, you change the game. You make the conversation engaging, not just to the other person, but to yourself.

If you are hiring, you set the stage for cultural fit. If you are looking for a job, wow. How do you think you look to a potential employer? You look like someone who really knows what they have to offer.

If you have not considered this question yet, take some time and consider it. You get no points for a fast answer. You do get points for thinking and considering what your values are.

So, my dear adaptable problem-solvers, this week’s question of the week is: How do you see yourself?


What Questions Do You Use to Solve Problems?

When you solve problems, do you find that you start with one question a lot? I often ask “Why” or a question like that. Not in the sense of “How did things get this way,” but “Why do things work like this?” For me, it’s a sense of curiosity. Here’s an example.

For years, when we drove places, I did not understand the orange balls on the wires. I would ask Mark, “Why are there orange balls on the wires?” The problem is that once we arrived, I never looked up the orange balls.

Finally, Mark discovered the truth, and told me. I almost wish he had concocted a whopper like the Family Secret Revealed. But the whopper is something more that I would do. If you need an answer to a question, I have one, whether or not it is correct. I always have an answer.

Mark tends to ask “What,” to understand the data. When we were trying to understand the orange ball mystery, he asked me many questions: where had I seen them, under what conditions had I seen them.

Some people like to ask to ask “When,” especially to understand if you need something by a certain time or to know if there is urgency.

Some people like to ask “Who,” to understand the people involved.

If you are solving a problem or doing an assessment, you need all of these questions. How else can you see the problem in its entirety?

What’s interesting to me is this: Where do you start with your questions? If you leave any of them out, you miss part of the problem.

If you know the 5 W’s of Journalism, the questions are: Why, How (did it happen), What, Where, When, and Who. (Yes, there are 6 questions, not 5.)

You can start with any question. Just don’t stop there. You need to fill in the rest of the picture, the rest of the story.

Let’s discuss these questions. If you looked at the wikipedia article, you noticed that I changed the order of the questions. That’s because some of the questions are open questions and some are closed.

The Why, How, and What questions are open questions. You can’t answer them with a one-word answer. You need to explain your answer. The Where, When, and Who questions are closed questions. They are fact-based, and allow you to find the data, but the data is “just the facts, ma’am.” No explanation needed.

It’s not that open questions are good and closed questions are bad. They are different. If you only asked one type of questions, you would not collect all the data. That would be unfortunate—either way.

If you only ask open questions, you don’t acquire the basic fact data. If you want police shows on TV, you notice that the cops ask the closed questions all the time. It’s a good thing. It’s those details that allow them to solve the cases. If you only ask closed questions, you don’t understand the motivations, the meaning behind why people do what they do. That’s bad, because people are such interesting, complex beings.

This week, dear adaptable problem-solvers, your question of the week is: What questions do you use to solve problems?