What Do You Do When You’re Stuck?

Yesterday, I was stuck. I had a number of writing projects to complete and everything I wrote stunk. I have had bad writing days before, but this one was a doozy. Everything I wrote stank. (I was bored reading it!) What could I do?

I tried different approaches. I’m writing a blog post on why managers like estimates. I rewrote that blog post 3 times, all 700-800 words of it. But I did try different approaches.

I tried writing different things. I worked on that blog post, some workshops, and an article for techwell.com. I managed to finish the article for techwell.com. But, in order to write that article, I had to stop the article I started.  I wrote a different article. I was able to send that one off to the editor.

I almost asked for help from some of my colleagues, but I was tired. I took a nap. That was the most useful thing I did all day.

If I had been around other people, I would have asked for pairing help.

When I’m stuck, I do these things:

  1. Notice I’m stuck. I have a 15-minute rule. If I’m stuck for 15 minutes, stop doing what I’m doing and find another way. Why should I waste time?
  2. Take a different slant on the topic. Maybe I’m writing (or coding or testing or managing) from the wrong perspective. Another perspective often changes the situation and allows me to unstick myself.
  3. Work on something else. I have a number of projects in progress. I don’t have a lot of work in progress, but I do have projects in progress. I can work on one of them, clear my head, and return to my original work.
  4. Talk over the problem with a colleague.
  5. Talk to the duck.
  6. Pair with people and develop something together.
  7. Take a nap.

I realized today what the problem was. I am getting over a bad head cold and I was exhausted. After my nap, I was better. I was able to think more clearly and see what to do. I might not have the blog post written yet, but I know where I’m going. I’m still making progress.

Yes, it took an entire day for me to realize what was wrong with me. On the other hand, it didn’t take more than a day.

Do you notice when you’re stuck? You might be having a bad developer day, a bad tester day, a bad manager day. In my case, I had a bad writing day. Oh well. The first thing to do is notice, so you don’t create more bad work. You’ll have to undo it at some point.

Dear adaptable problem-solvers: What do you do when you’re stuck? If you have other advice, I would love to hear it.


Can You Make Your Own Luck?

I feel lucky much of the time. I’m not like Mark, who can find the best parking spot anywhere, anytime. I’m convinced he has the parking gods on his side, and they wait for him to drive somewhere and park. I don’t have the parking gods on my side. I have a handicapped placard :-)

On the other hand, I do believe I can make my own luck. That’s because I believe in serendipity. Serendipity occurs when you are prepared for risks, have practiced your job, and “good things happen.” Can you help good things happen to you?

Last week, I was at the Booster Conference in Norway. I had prepared all my workshops in advance. I was still working on the keynote. I had already restarted the keynote 3 times. I was up to revision 5 with this third file.  That keynote was going nowhere. It’s a good thing I was the closing keynote–I still had time.

I went to the first keynote, thinking, “Maybe I’ll get some ideas about how to start my keynote.” I was still stuck on how to start.

I did get ideas. I had the transforming idea about how to relate to the people at the conference and which stories to tell. They keynote wrote itself then.

Was I lucky? Sure. Was I ready for the serendipity of the moment? Yes.

We have many opportunities for serendipity. Sometimes we recognize them. When we recognize them, we think we are “lucky.” We are. And, we are lucky because we are ready.

What do you do to be ready for serendipity?

Be prepared. Serendipity comes when we are open to it. I can’t be open if I’m frantic that I haven’t prepared enough. This is why I teach experientially. I’ve done all the work I need to do to prepare for the workshop. I can’t tell what will occur in the workshop, but I am prepared. The good news is that great things almost always happen, things I could never predict.

Be ready to iterate. If I’m serious about staying in the moment, I have to be ready to readjust my thinking. That occurred with the keynote last week. It happens when I teach. I see this as a fun opportunity. I’m not worried about having to replan in the middle of a workshop or consulting. That’s because I’m prepared. I like iterating on my preparation or in the moment.

Be ready for possibilities. I might have a result in mind. And, that doesn’t mean that the result I consider is the One Right Outcome. If I’m ready for other possibilities, I might discover an even better result if I am open to serendipity.

So, are you lucky? You might have a great case of being open to serendipity. Are you ready for it?

Dear adaptable problem-solvers, this is the question of the week: Can you make your own luck?


Are You Looking for Success or Perfection?

True confession: I am a perfectionist. I want to be the best at everything I attempt. And, I know I can’t be perfect at everything, all the time. Certainly not when I’m trying it for the first time. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to be perfect.

I have transformed this need to be perfect in several ways.

  1. I tell myself (and others) that I am a work in progress.
  2. I have permission to not be perfect when I am trying something, especially early in my practice of that new thing.
  3. I realize that sometimes, it’s better to release, to ship, to try, rather than be perfect at this thing. I still have a difficult time releasing books before they are much closer to done, but I am getting there.

That third point, the idea about showing your work, is about success, not perfection.

I know that I need feedback to get to perfection. If I keep my work to myself, I can’t achieve perfection. I certainly can’t achieve success.

Sometimes, success is all you need. You don’t even need perfection.

Here’s the problem. When you show your work, you need to have enough self-esteem to manage the feedback. That can be tricky.

I’m (still) working on the program management book feedback from my alpha reviewers. I had some client work that prevented me from finishing it earlier. When I do finish incorporating that feedback, I will be able to release the book. The book will be beta quality. I can release it because success is releasing it. It won’t be perfect—it may never be perfect. But it can’t be perfect if it only sits in preview mode, not release mode.

The same thing happens with you and your work.

If you hang onto your work (code, tests, plans, whatever) and never show them to people, you can’t get the feedback. Without feedback, you can’t improve to be great. You’ll be wherever you are. And, other people won’t have the benefit of your thoughts (code, tests, plans, whatever).

Showing your work is not about perfection. It’s about success. Letting your work go into the world is a form of success. The more often you practice it, the better you can be.

I manage the risks of showing my work. I have a developmental editor for my books, reviewers, and a copyeditor. I spend significant effort to make sure I have the best product I can have, wherever it is in its development. But I show my work.

You can, too. What do you need to do to show your work more often? How can you adapt to the feedback? The more you practice taking feedback, the more you can learn how to take it.

Dear adaptable problem solvers, that is the question this week: Are You Looking for Success or Perfection? Maybe success is its own perfection.


Are You Choosing What Makes You Happy?

Are you happy in your life and work? You don’t need to be ecstatic all the time. But, if something about your life or work doesn’t make you happy, maybe it’s time to change.

For me, this is a question about:

  • Seeing my current reality in my job and my life
  • Developing options for where I want to go
  • Making decisions about what will make me happiest

Sometimes, that happy is about going to more movies. Sometimes, that happy is about the right shoes. Sometimes, that happy is about the work I do.

Are you optimizing your life to give you the most happiness?

If you have not considered this question yet, ask yourself, “Am I choosing what makes me happy?” For me, it’s contextual.

For work, I need to learn and have control over my daily work. I like having the flexibility to learn and provide value to my clients. That’s part of my personal mission: to learn and do reasonable things that work. Sure, sometimes I have what I might consider grunt work. But not often.

If you take a look at what you do, at home and work, are you doing things that make you happy, or at least, have the potential to make you happy? If not, what can you do about it?

In the past, when I’ve looked at what I did, I followed this approach:

  • Gather all the work (or tasks) I do. Write all of it down.
  • Look at how I feel about it. Label things as positive if I like them, negative if I don’t like them, and zero if I don’t care one way or the other.
  • Look at the things that I don’t like. Should I be doing that work? Should I delegate it or outsource it? What should I do with it.
  • Is there something on that list that gives me great joy, that I look forward to doing? If so, can I spend more time on it? Or, do more like it?
  • How much is zero? I tend to either like or not like what I do. I don’t tend to be neutral about anything. If I am neutral, can I transform this work so I will like it more, or delegate it or outsource it?

If you’ve read Manage Your Project Portfolio, you will recognize this approach. You are looking at your project portfolio—whether that portfolio is what you do at home or work.

Back when I was the primary carpool driver, I knew I didn’t like it. I also knew the driving wasn’t forever. That made it easier to do.

When my daughter was a senior in high school, we bought her an old and cheap car.  I had been the carpool driver for 15 years, and I was ready to stop. We had paid for someone to drive her to and from gymnastics for the previous couple of years. But, that wasn’t enough. I needed to get out of the driving business.

We knew she was a safe driver and able to drive herself everywhere. One chore—one I disliked—evaporated from my life. We traded a little money for more of my happiness.

Sometimes, you trade money for the chance for happiness. Sometimes, you decide what work makes more sense to you. Sometimes, you reassess if the people you spend time with make you happy.

Dear adaptable problem solvers, that is the question this week: Are you choosing what makes you happy?


Create an Adaptable Life Vol 4 #1: Seeing Your Reality

I write a quarterly newsletter for this site. I sent this last week. Want to subscribe? Please go to Create an Adaptable Life and sign up on any page.

Seeing Your Reality

Did you ever have an “Oh No” moment? That’s where you realize that what you thought was true is not.

When I was a software developer and tester, I had plenty of “Oh No!” moments. Those moments were often about my lack of understanding the requirements or what the code did. Yes, even if I wrote the code.

As a project manager, program manager, and manager, I had plenty of those moments also. They were more often about the people and the situations I saw and heard.

When you have an “Oh No” moment, you see the reality of the situation. Sometimes, that reality stings.

If you are trying to change something whether about yourself or at work, you have plenty of opportunities to see your reality.

Until you see your current reality, you can’t adapt or change to make progress. You might try these questions to see your reality:

  1. What data is available to me?
  2. What does the data say?
  3. What have I seen or heard that can show me the reality?
  4. Do I have other people I can ask to see if what I think is true really is?
  5. Can I take a small step to get more feedback and understand what’s really going on?

Daniel, a program manager, was confused by the lack of momentum on his program. When he visited each team, everyone said they were agile or lean. But weeks would go by before anyone integrated anything. What could he do?

Daniel asked each team privately to track their feature throughput for two weeks. He said, “I’m confused by our apparent lack of progress. Let’s focus on feature throughput, okay? Let’s measure throughput for now. Then we can decide what to do.”

When he did that, he asked about data. He asked the teams to see their reality and checked that everyone saw the same thing. He asked the feature teams to provide the data to verify what he saw. He asked the teams to focus on what they needed to release, features, in a two-week timebox so everyone could take a small step.

After the two-week experiment, the teams released a number of features. The program seemed to be on track. But, Daniel wasn’t so sure that their recent success would stick.

He visited each team, asking about what they were doing now to maintain momentum. The teams each said things like this:

  • We’re focused on features.
  • We reduced our work in progress, WIP so that we could finish features.
  • We talked to other teams to make sure we understood what other teams needed when. We had to manage our interdependencies.
  • Each team took a different approach. The teams maintained their momentum for the next two-week experiment.

Helping the teams see their reality helped Daniel’s program get back on track. When Daniel searched for data, everyone benefited.

If you want to make a change, big or small, it helps to know your reality. Try looking for all kinds of data first. Then you can choose how to adapt to your new reality.

See and Change Your Agile Reality

If you liked this article about seeing your reality, you want to know about The Influential Agile Leader. Gil Broza and I create an environment where you will find it safe to learn. We teach experientially, so you have a chance to practice and reflect on your reality and how you might change it.

Please sign up now at The Influential Agile Leader.

Read More of Create an Adaptable Life

If you only read the newsletter, you may want to read the blog, where I write more. Do join me on Create an Adaptable Life.

And, if you only read this newsletter or blog, you might want to read my other blogs, Managing Product Development and Hiring Technical People.

Johanna

© 2015 Johanna Rothman


Who Do You Think Saves You?

We get into trouble. Sometimes, it’s as simple as turning the wrong way, not following the driving directions. I have funny stories about when I took my daughters college-shopping. I always made at least one wrong turn. My wrong turns occurred before phones had GPS and automated directions. We had paper.

I bet most of us have seen projects that get into trouble. Maybe you’ve experienced when a couple of people or a person have a breakthrough idea that “saved” the entire project. Their efforts helped the project or the team realize what to do and progress.

What about you? All of us have difficulty at times. Who do you think saves you?

In the case of driving, I had backups: local maps, a front-seat navigator, and the courage or stubbornness to try another way.

In the case of projects, someone or multiple someones have an insight. They have data for the rest of the people.

You need backup to help you, in the form of data, ideas, a support network, or all of the above.

But, I don’t think anyone saves me. I save myself. So do you.

In order to save yourself, you need to see your reality, the data for what’s going on. You need to know how to ask for help. And, you need a network of support. You can generate ideas that you use to help save you.

In the case of not following the directions, it was clear fast that we were going the wrong way. “Mom, you should have turned back there.” Oops.

We need the emotional resilience to say, “Oh, okay. Things are not going the way I wanted. What do I need to do now?”

Not following the directions while driving is something you can fix. Maybe not fast, but you can. Many of us have backups now: multiple map applications on our phones, paper directions, and maybe even a paper map. You might not arrive on time, but you will arrive. Saving our drives is not too difficult.

There are many possibilities for solving problems in a project. Sometimes, all you need is to loosen constraints so that the project team can succeed. The team can save itself.

Saving ourselves when we have a personal problem is more difficult. We don’t often have maps to follow. For example, my vertigo doesn’t follow a “normal” path, so how do I solve this problem and save my daily life? I experiment. I have to have data, a support system, and the growth mindset.

That’s the problem with personal problems, such as health or relationships. There is no one to save your or me. We have to save ourselves.

You can rarely save yourself without a support system. I have an extensive support system: family, friends, colleagues, and, of course, my health professionals. I use them for feedback and information. I can then decide what to do next.

We save ourselves. We need support, feedback, and enough emotional resilience to do so.

Take credit for saving yourself, and give credit to your support system. In the end, we save ourselves.

The question this week is: Who do you think saves you?


Do You Need Annoyance to Change?

As we proceed in this long winter, it’s clear that Boston has significant infrastructure technical debt. The subway/bus system, known as the “T” has to shut down to clear the tracks. That’s due to several problems:

  • The system is a combination above-ground and underground system
  • The system is not resilient. Many of the cars are old and still run on DC current.
  • The system has been underfunded for many years. The state has not funded basic preventive maintenance.

Right now, we have about 80 inches of snow on the ground. Normally, in the Boston area, we have thaws, so the snow doesn’t stick around. Not this year. We have been in a deep freeze. None of the snow has gone anywhere.

The streets are narrow. So are the sidewalks. People want to take the T, and can’t.  The lines for buses are crazy-long. The subway cars are full. And, the T shuts down to deal with the snow. It’s nuts.

People are calling for change. We will see if the T gets the funds it needs. Politics abound. Who knows?

I bet you see problems at work just like the T. Maybe you have products with significant technical debt. Maybe you aren’t organized in any way that makes sense for the work you need to do. Maybe your managers are spread too thin to be effective. Those are some of the problems I see. You may have others.

How much annoyance do you have? Is it enough to change?

In politics, we often see the need for high annoyance to provoke change. Maybe this winter is the turning point for the T.

Ir organizations, there is often some precipitating circumstance that helps people see that change is necessary. If you use the Satir change model, that circumstance is a foreign element. Sometimes, people need to see something that jerks them out of their comfortable existence to start to change.

If you need some sort of annoyance to change, you are not alone.

The question behind the need-annoyance question is this: How is this working for you?

If you are happy with this situation, no problem. But, sometimes you might want to choose how you change.

If you don’t want to wait for an emergency, or a huge problem, you may have to learn to recognize annoyances when they are small.

I have a client who thought they were “doing agile.” They never quite got to done on their stories. They did not have releasable software at the end of each iteration. They had a growing backlog of test automation they needed to do “in the future.”

I suggested that they use their retrospectives to discover why they never quite finished stories. I suspected they had a number of interrelated causes. They postponed that internal assessment.

One day, a Big Manager came to the project manager and the product owner and said, “We need to ship next week.” The PM and the PO said, “We’re not ready. We have too many defects. We can’t ship next week.”

Big Manager said, “You have a week to release. I don’t want to hear any complaints.” Big Manager was a very large annoyance to the team, in addition to their product problems.

The project team had been working around those annoyances of not quite finishing. Now, those annoyances were gigantic obstacles. What could they do?

They did have a retrospective. They discovered several root causes. They started to swarm over each feature (no more tasks), and they made tremendous progress in one week. They also learned they could change much faster than they expected.

Little annoyances are the first sign you might have a change coming, or that you need to change. You don’t want those annoyances to grow into obstacles.

The question this week is: Do you need annoyance to change? (That provokes me to ask: Is that a risk you can live with?)


How Do You Manage Risks?

I live in the Boston area. We’ve had several storms in the last couple of weeks. We have more than 70 inches of snow on the ground at my house–and throughout the Boston area. We have more snow than we know what to do with.

We’ve had travel bans and snow emergencies. And still, the plows can’t keep up with the snow. There’s no place to put it.

Our snowbanks are crazy-high–maybe 12-14 feet tall. The streets are narrow. My street used to be wide enough for two cars. Now, it’s down to one lane. Maybe if the plows come by again, it will be one and a half lanes wide.

We have snow-removal-debt. The snow fell so fast, the plows could not keep up. Because they didn’t clear the street all the way between the curbs, the streets get narrower. The more snow we have, the narrower the streets become because the plows can’t clear all the way to the snowbanks. Our town is having trouble maintaining garbage pickup days. And, when we have garbage pickup, we have to be careful where we put the bins and trash. It needs to be off the street, but where??

We have many risks now:

  • Roofs collapsing because of the weight of the snow
  • Slow traffic because the streets are clogged
  • Because the sidewalks are quite narrow, people walk on the streets. This is high accident potential. Even if you see the pedestrian, you might not be able to stop in time.

We are living in a risky situation.

As adaptable problem solvers, we need to manage risks all the time. I like asking “What’s the Worst Thing That Can Happen?” That’s a nice start.

After you ask, you need to act.

Mark got a snow rake. Aside from the driveway and front walk, he’s been raking snow off the roof. Today, we had people with large snowblowers move snow away from the house, so we don’t get leakage when the snow finally melts.

We don’t let the refrigerator get quite as empty as we normally do. We’re not over-buying; we are buying enough food that we could eat comfortably for a few days if the grocery stores stop having deliveries.

That’s this month, certainly a month that isn’t normal.

What do you do to manage risks all the time?

  • You can always ask the Worst Thing question.
  • You assess your current reality. When you see what’s happening, you can plan better.
  • You can plan to replan, so you use the data you have now to make better decisions.

Imagining risks is just the start. If you don’t act based on what you imagine, you lose possibilities. You may not be able to solve problems.

Dear adaptable problem solvers, this is your question of the week: How do you manage risks?

I’m looking forward to spring.


What Motivates You?

I like to learn. I like to read. I like to write. I like teaching people new things. I like the discussion that comes when people consider alternatives. When you combine all those things together, you can see I have just about a perfect career as a consultant who speaks, teaches, writes, and coaches. I don’t have to worry about dragging myself into work. It’s all I can do to stop working.

Motivation is internal. If you haven’t seen Dan Pink’s video or read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, you should. Here’s what motivates us:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

Do you have that in your work? If not, what would it take to get it?

When people say, “I’m not motivated,” they might be afraid to be successful. And, they might not have enough autonomy, mastery, or purpose in their work or life.

Sometimes, you do things that feel like drudge work. For me, posting already-published articles on my site can feel like drudgery. I do it because I want people to have easy access to my writing. That’s my “higher” purpose: to allow people to consider alternatives. Knowing “why” is important for me.

Maybe you are more motivated by “who am I working with?” In that case, you might make decisions based on belonging to a group. Who do you work with so you can identify with them? That might be your motivation.

Maybe you are more motivated by “what are we doing?” In that case, you might be motivated by belonging. What do you have to do to keep this group together and have it thrive?

Maybe you are motivated by “when do you need it?” If you know when you need to finish something, you might be motivated to do it.

We are all different. What motivates me might not matter to you. And, when I see people asking how to motivate others, I worry.

We need to explore our autonomy, our mastery, and our purpose to find meaning in our lives. We might each have different primary questions about where our motivation arises. And, discovering our motivation means we can do a great job.

If you are not motivated now by your job, what would it take for you to become motivated? Maybe all you need is a project charter. Charters discuss the purpose of the project, who will work on the project, who the team will be, a target completion date, or the interim milestones to get to done. Once you explain that, the people know enough to discover their autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

If you find yourself lacking motivation, examine why. Look inside yourself, to know if you are afraid you can’t do a good job. If you’re not afraid, maybe you need to answer some questions about the work.

If you examine common problems with motivation, you see:

  • Micromanagement, which does not allow autonomy
  • A feeling of “just do it already,” which does not allow people to feel mastery
  • No understanding of why we are doing this, which does not explain the purpose

People meet your expectations, including you. If you don’t expect them to succeed, they won’t. If you don’t expect to succeed, you won’t either. If you do expect them to succeed, they will find a way. Your motivation and the motivation of others depends on autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

That is the question for today, adaptable problem solvers: What motivates you?


What Do You Pay Attention To?

Have you ever asked, “Honey, where’s the milk?” You know where it’s supposed to be in the fridge. But, you can’t see it.

Honey replies, “It’s right where it always is. In the door, next to the OJ.”

You finally see it. “Oh, thanks so much.”

You have (fe)male eye disease. In our house, we have noticed that it’s an equal opportunity problem. I don’t ask about the milk; I ask about the mail.

We do this for any number of reasons. Often, I’m thinking about something else and not paying attention.

Attention is what we need. Sometimes, we don’t spend enough time paying attention. That can change what you see.

Our mental models can change what we see, also.

We have to be present, in the here-and-now, to see what’s going on around us.

I realized this the other day, talking to a client, a manager. He wanted to know why their agile transition wasn’t working. He had all the necessary data. He didn’t see it.

I suggested he review his actions over the past week.

  • What had he asked the team to do, in addition to their committed-to work?
  • Who had he moved on or off the team?
  • What obstacles had he created?
  • What obstacles had he removed?
  • Who had he spoken with, one-on-one, to build relationships?
  • What work had he done, that looked agile?

He told me I asked him difficult questions. As his coach, that’s part of my job. Otherwise, he can’t see his reality.

When he asks the team to do additional work that’s not on their backlog, he’s working out of previous mental models. Intellectually, he realizes he’s asking the team to multitask. But even knowing that, he’s not making decisions that enhance the organization’s or team’s agility.

He’s not paying attention to the data. The data is right there, staring him in the face.

The team’s velocity is decreasing. Their cycle time is increasing. When they have retrospectives, their manager is one of their obstacles. But, he is still stuck on what he thought worked in the past.

Our mental models of how the world works are the lenses through which we see the world. We can change these models with data, assuming we see the data. We can change them with metaphor, assuming we can develop a good metaphor. We can change them with experience, assuming we have experiences we can learn from.

Sometimes, we change our mental models in an instant. Sometimes, it takes longer. Sometimes, in order to change, we need to pay attention to data or different data.

That, my dear adaptable problem solvers is the question this week: What do you pay attention to?