How Do You Matter?

In previous questions of the week, I’ve been focused outward, on the system. In this question, I invite you to focus inward.

How do you matter, to yourself, and to others?

We don’t ask ourselves this question enough. Too often, we suffer from Imposter Syndrome, where we think we are not good enough. Sure, we might not be good enough. But, I bet you are.

There are always people who are smarter, thinner, faster, more of whatever than you are. Always. That is irrelevant.

You have your abilities. You can write your story, in your way. You can teach your workshop, in your way. You can give your talk, in your way. You can develop, test, whatever it is you do, in your way. You can coach, manage, parent, everything you do, in your way. As long as you do it to the best of your abilities, and as long as you keep learning, you are not an imposter.

You matter. The question is: do you know it?

I am fortunate. I write an email newsletter, the Pragmatic Manager, and sometimes people tell me that my newsletter matters. I receive external validation. Gotta tell you, I love it. The newsletter I write for this blog is new, so people haven’t told me yet. I’m ready to wait. I also haven’t designed this site so that the newsletter has its own page. I’m working on it.

In Manage Your Job Search, I have a section about managing Impostor Syndrome when you look for a job. Because maintaining your self esteem when you look for a job is critical.

As an adaptable problem solver, you need the resilience and self-esteem to know that you matter. You need to know how you matter.

When you acknowledge that you do matter, you build your self-esteem and your resilience. You use your growth mindset. You build your support network. Good things come back to you.

Here’s a little homework over the next week, if you are willing to take it. Every day, ask yourself, “What did I do today that mattered?” Don’t think it has to be big. Here are things I did in the past week, large and small:

  • Made the bed on the days I was the last one out of the bed. This matters to us, because we like a made bed.
  • I went to the gym twice in the past week and I did my home exercise program each day. I will be happy to report my progress to my physical therapists.
  • Provided brief email coaching to past clients. (I was happy about the coaching and the brevity.)
  • I chose the pillows for our family room couch. Mark bought them.
  • Wrote several thousand words for my program management book.
  • Wrote and published my email newsletter.
  • Received several comments about the email newsletter, and said, “Thank you.” I have had a difficult time in the past accepting compliments.
  • Provided email coaching for writers on their articles-in-progress for The people told me they appreciated the comments. (Let me know if you would like to write for us.)
  • Made dinner a couple of nights. Okay, it was eggs. Still, I cooked. Mark didn’t have to. Cooking in the evening, as opposed to during the day is more difficult for me. I was happy that I could, that we didn’t go out for dinner, and that Mark didn’t make my dinner.

Do you see that it’s not the magnitude of the work? It’s about the effect of what you do.

Dear adaptable problem solvers, your question this week is: How do you matter? Don’t wait for other people to tell you. Do your homework and discover for yourself. If you are willing, please share in the comments. I know, this takes courage and vulnerability.

How Do I Start Something When I Don’t Know How?

I often discover that I want to start things that I have no idea how to do. Does that ever happen to you?

When I wanted to learn needlepoint back in high school, it was easy. I learned that from a book. I made several needlepoints. I practiced until I got good. I mastered it. I got bored. I moved on to other things :-)

Now, the things I want to do are a little different. They tend to be more intellectually challenging for me to master. They tend to be things such as becoming my own publisher for my books. I’m slowly but surely getting a handle on that. I have a developmental editor, a copy editor, a layout person, and an indexer. I’m not sure if I have made the best choices on covers. I’m still working on that. I have a cover designer, and I’m working on a “look” for my covers.

I have these audio files from my Manage Your Job Search celebration. I have no idea how to host them “in the cloud.” (At least I know that I want to!) Where do I put the audio files? How do I link to them? At least I have the questions. (The original recordings are horrible. I needed to re-record them.)

But, sometimes you don’t even have the questions. How do you start then?

We all have problems like these that we want to solve. The question is this: how do we start?

stepsTake a step. Experiment. Get a little feedback. Incorporate that feedback. Take another step.

You might have to do some research to take that first step. However, if you stay in research mode, you never take that first step. You’re stuck. You need to step. Even if that step is small.

You can manage the risks for that small step. You can say, “This is a beta,” or something like that. When you manage the risks, you manage your vulnerability and emotional resilience.

If you don’t take that first step, you will never know what you are capable of. And that would be a shame, wouldn’t it?

You can start things where you don’t know if you can do them. You can. This is part of living with and adapting to change. It’s part of being an adaptable problem solver.

Take that first step. Until you do, you have no idea what you are capable of.

Dear adaptable problem solvers, this week’s question of the week is: How do I start something when I don’t know how? I hope I have provided you some ideas.

Where Did the Pencils Go?

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Where Did the Pencils Go?

At the gym this week, I searched for a pencil. I use a pencil to track my workouts. Am I increasing my weights? Am I maintaining the number of sets (3)? Am I settling for the same old, same old?

I need the data.

But, where are the pencils?

If you, like me, are a “gym rat,” you know the problem. People take a pencil from the container near the door. They use the pencil. However, unlike me, they don’t always remember to return it when they finish their workout.

Why? A gazillion reasons. Maybe they take a shower, and the pencil goes into their bag. Maybe they stop to talk, and the pencil goes into their car. Maybe it’s another reason.

I rush home to take my shower. I don’t talk to people on my way out the door. I’m a woman on a mission. Why?

Because while I need the gym data to make sure I don’t slack off at the gym, I also need the trend data of my workouts and weight over time. I don’t weigh myself until after my shower, which is after the gym.

Daily data helps us know that what we did was useful that day. But, trend data is where the gems are.

Trend data tells us if we get stronger or weaker over time. Trend data tells us if we make progress. We have good days and bad days. Either day might fool us into thinking we’re great or terrible. But the trends don’t lie. We can see the reality with trends.

I might not like the reality. But, I’ll take reality over fooling myself any day.

The lack of pencils indicates that people are tracking their data. However, the lack of pencils also means that they are a scarce resource. My gym could do a better job of keeping pencils available. You might see this where you work, too.

When I mentioned this to the gym management, their first reaction was, “It’s too expensive. We’re always out of pencils!” I suggested that keeping pencils scarce was one reason they were always out of pencils. If they had an overabundance of pencils, people wouldn’t hoard them.

For about two weeks, we did have a ton of pencils. Then, the pencil cup fell over and the pencils fell behind the filing cabinet with all the workout plans. All of a sudden, we had a pencil shortage. People returned to hoarding pencils.

I realized what was happening. Why? Because I’ve seen people stop and chat. They don’t look to see if they put the pencil in the pencil cup. They don’t look to see if they knock the pencil cup over when they take a new workout form out of the pile. They don’t look for the available pencils on the floor. They only look up, not down.

I don’t just look up. I look down too because I’m short. I looked behind the filing cabinet where the pencils tend to congregate. Think “pencil-party.” No one else had looked there.

When I asked for help moving the filing cabinet, we discovered about 30 pencils. Aha! Pencil crisis averted.

You might not have a pencil shortage at work. More likely, you have a shortage of some sort of people. But, you still have a scarcity problem. If so, you might be able to optimize around it. Here are some ways to consider reframing the problem:

  • Who has the problem with the scarcity?
  • Is it “too expensive” to fix the problem? Too expensive compared to what?
  • If you thought of another way to fix the problem, would that be okay? For example, what if developers tested, as opposed to just testers testing? Is that even possible where you work?
  • What data do you need to gather, on a daily basis and for trends, to expose the problem? Can you measure data such as your technical debt, for example, as a consequence of your scarcity problem?

Data exposes your reality. You might not like your reality. I’m not so sure I like it when I get on the scale, and it doesn’t tell me I’m the same weight I was last week. On the other hand, as long as my weight doesn’t trend up, I might be fine.

Once you have the data, you can decide how you want to solve your problem. That’s what adaptable problem solvers do.

Where Johanna is Speaking

If you liked this article about adaptable problem solving, you might want to know about my November workshops in Israel. I will be teaching several workshops, including one about agile program management and one about organizational change. See A Week with Johanna. Please do join me.

Aug 26, Webinar, Hiring Developers Without Fear

Sept 2, Webinar, Agile Program Management: Networks, Not Hierarchies

Oct 23, Webinar, Agile Hiring: It’s a Team Sport

Read More of Create an Adaptable Life

f 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.


© 2014 Johanna Rothman

Are You Taking Time to Think?

think big, dream big I was speaking with a coaching client the other week. We were talking about all of her responsibilities. She talked, I wrote. I’d written a half-page of responsibilities, some of them tactical, some of them strategic. I asked, “What else are you doing?” She paused, and said, “I think there’s more, but I have to think for a minute. Sometimes I get surprised by everything I have to do. It’s not a good thing, is it?”

No, it’s not.

I asked her, “Do you ever stop to think?”

She laughed at me. “No. That’s not a good thing either, is it?”

No, it’s not.

We all have a ton of work to do. We often have a mix of strategic and tactical work. However, if you don’t have a list of the work you do, or if you can’t write everything down,  maybe you have to much work to do. Just a thought.

What can you do about this?

You don’t stop doing it and drop it on the floor. That’s not being a good corporate citizen. Or being good to yourself. Or to your family. But, you can ask yourself, “Who needs this work done and by when? Who finds it valuable? Am I the right person to do this work?”

You need to understand your personal project portfolio. You make your decisions about whether you should do this work, ever, now, or later. If you should never do this work, who should do this? If you manage people, or if you are a member of a team or a family, maybe someone else should do this work.

Maybe you are the kind of person who takes responsibility when it should not be yours. Are you the kind of person who has your hand up a lot? Do you have “I’ll do it” syndrome? Or, does your boss realize you are capable, and she says, “You get stuff done. I’ll give it you.”

We have to make conscious decisions about our work. We make choices all the time. Why not make them conscious choices?

The first question we should ask is, “Do we need to do this at all?” Sometimes, we do work because we’ve always done it. Or, because we’ve always done it this way. Not because we’ve thought about whether we need to do the work.

Once we know we need to do the work, ask, “Am I the right person to do this work?” Is this work only I can do, or is this work I should ask a peer to do because it belongs to him or her, or is this work I should delegate, because it doesn’t belong to me?

I see managers taking work that is not at their level. That means they’re not doing the management work that they need to do. That’s a big problem.

If you aren’t sure if someone can take the work, you can ask, “I (or my team) can’t do this work. I’d like you to do it. Do you have the ability, time, and knowledge to take this work? If not, how can I support you?”

You have to know what you’re doing, make conscious decisions about it and eliminate the work that doesn’t add value. If you’re not thinking, how can you do this?

Now, add the think time. Some people, like me, believe you should add think-time first, then add the tactical work second. The think time will always get scrunched by the tactical time. Never worry—you will always have a to do list a mile long.

Dear fellow adaptable problem solvers, the question this week is: Are you taking time to think?

Are You Sure You Don’t Have Enough?

I often hear people say, “I don’t have enough time.” Or, “We don’t have enough testers.” Or, “I don’t have enough authority or influence to do what I want to do.”

That’s scarcity thinking.

You’re right. You don’t have enough to do things the way you always have done them or would like to do themWhat else can you do?

I meet people who tell me, “I don’t have enough time to write as much as you do.” I ask them how they write. They tell me they need hours to sit in from of their computers or a notebook. I tell them I write in 10-minute chunks. I like writing in longer chunks, but I often don’t have those longer time blocks available. Only when we’re on vacation :-) They look or sound astonished. I have had to adapt how I write to the time I have available.

If you don’t have enough testers, what else can you do? Can you change the way you organize the projects or the teams? Can you sit down with the team and say, “Look, I’m the only tester and I’m worried about the testing. If we do the testing the way we always have, we’ll have a bottleneck.” Maybe you create a kanban board to show the flow of work and let people see the backup of work. You could say, “Is there another way we could work? Could we do reviews or pair or swarm or change something else about the way we develop our product? I’m open to suggestions. I’m quite worried.”

I meet leaders, projects managers, and managers who tell me they want to change things. Then they say, “I don’t have the influence or authority to change things.”

I’m a do-first, ask-permission later person. That has its own problems. But what you can do is the same thing when you don’t have enough people. You can gather some of the people affected by the problem, and say, “We have this problem. Here’s the manifestation of it. I’d like your help fixing it. Can you help me think of ways to fix it that are acceptable here?” Now, you’ve involved people so that they will help you build influence with you.

You don’t have to think of “The Solution” by yourself. That’s scarcity thinking, too.

There is never enough time for everything you want to do. You never have enough people for all the work you want to accomplish. You never have enough influence to do what you want to do.

You need to squiggle your way around the solution you originally considered.

What will you do?

Scarcity thinking prevents us from living full lives. This week, dear adaptable problem solvers, our question is: Are you sure you don’t have enough?

Who Makes the Choices in Your Life?

I spoke with a fellow consultant a couple of weeks ago. She asked for some coaching about rates. A potential client asked about a keynote. Then it turned into a workshop. Then it turned into a potential series of many workshops. Maybe even an entire agile journey for this organization. How awesome is that?

She was thinking of a modest keynote fee. I suggested she raise her fee. “I don’t know. That’s not what I normally charge.”

“I know. What do you normally consider?”

“Well, I normally keynote in driving distance of my home. Oooh. I won’t be, will I?”

“No. You won’t be. You’ll ‘lose’ the entire day.” We spoke more about the economics and the potential upside, downside, and what the client would expect. I’m not sure what she’ll do. Yes, I have made my colleague anonymous to protect her identity. This situation happens to men and women equally.

We make choices based on what we were, where we were, not where we are now. It’s as if we are allowing our four-year-old, twelve year old, twenty year old, 40 year old or whatever year old selves to make choices for us, instead of our current selves.

Don’t worry, we all do it.

You don’t have to be a consultant to do this. You can be a manager, a parent, any human who makes choices.

I do this with jeans and pants. It takes a lot for me to buy a new kind of jeans and pants. Why? Because sizes are not normalized across manufacturers. If I find a size and style that fits, I buy it, regardless of whether it still fits the situation, my age, or the context. Ouch. Yes, I just realized that. Oopsie. Might be time for a change, eh?

Sometimes, it’s difficult to say, “I am in the here and now. My context has changed. I need to change how I make my choices. I’m not in the there-and-then. The old rules don’t apply now.”

The old rules have been useful for so long, we forget we have them. My colleague has rules about keynotes. But those rules don’t apply when she has to fly to a keynote, and when the keynote is part of a package consulting deal, do they? Well, they might. But they might not. She developed those rules about ten years ago. The rules might have outlived their usefulness, at least for this client.

I talked about turning rules into guides in Do Your Rules Prevent You From Solving Problems?

I talked about being in the present in Are You In the “Here-and-Now” or in the “There-and-Then”?

This post is recognizing who you are. Sometimes, I want to retreat, to go back to the person I was. It’s easier. It’s more comfortable. That’s because I’m in a little chaos. No surprise there.

Satir Change ModelLook at the change model. Chaos is a time of uncertainty for many people. Certainly for me. I suspect for my colleague, too.

When I’m in chaos, I find it difficult to make great decisions. Or, I try to make a good decision and I’m not sure if it’s a good decision. I try something, I may or may not succeed. When I write proposals for clients with tough problems, I’m often in chaos until I get the transforming idea. Then, the proposal almost writes itself. (As I drafted this post, that happened last night :-)

It’s easier to retreat, to go back to something I already know and am good at. There’s a problem with that—I don’t grow. I don’t provide my clients my best possible work. Sure, it’s risky. But I know how to manage risk. This is the growth mindset at work: I may not know what to do right now, but I can learn it.

This is why you need to know who makes the choices in your life: you in the present, or you in the past.

Dear adaptable problem solvers, that is the question of the week. Who makes the choices in your life?

Can You Ask for Help?

I had a different post scheduled this week. But in memory and in honor of Robin Williams, and for everyone who suffers from depression, today’s question of the week is “Can you Ask for Help?”

Everyone struggles with feeling down at different points in our lives. I blogged earlier about some of my ups and downs in How to Have a Pity Party and Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster of Change. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs in my journey so far. Each of us have.

One thing we need to remember:

You are not alone.

If you feel alone, call someone. Reach out, and ask for help. That is the most adaptable, the most problem-solving thing you can do. You are asking from a position of strength, not weakness.

It takes strength to say, “Please, I need help. I can’t do it alone.” Whatever your “it” is.

That is your first step towards building your emotional resilience, towards solving whatever problem you have. Asking for help.

Please call someone. Please.

In the US, this is the phone number for the National Suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Each of us needs a support system. You can find your support system. People can help you.

That’s this week’s question of the week. You don’t need to be desperate. You don’t need to be alone, whether it’s depression or any other problem. If you are overwhelmed, can you call a friend? Can you ask for help? I hope so.

What Makes Your Heart Sing?

I was at Agile 2014, the big conference in my field last week. I had a blast. For my readers who are not software people, agile is a way to integrate change into a software project and make the project successful. I’m a Big Name, although a short person :-) BTW, there are many Big Names. I’m not buying into my own press.

Doc List, @athought, made me laugh the zeroth day, before things had gotten started. I was rolling by. He said, “Johanna! I have to say hi.” He walked over. Then he said, “I was just telling my friends I had to run over and say hi, but then I said, I could walk over. You wouldn’t move fast enough to get away from me.” I cracked up, laughing. The two of us were standing there, hysterical.

You need friends to laugh with you.

The conference got even better.

I happened to sit with Lyssa Adkins, @lyssaadkins, for Sam Guckenheimer’s, @SamGuckenheimer, keynote. I have known Sam since at least the late 90’s. I later discovered that Sam had only 3 days to prepare for his Monday keynote. Yes, 3 days. Well, at one point, I tweeted that Lyssa and I were ROTFLOL. For those of you who are too young to know, that means Rolling on the Floor, Laughing Out Loud.

During the week, I had breakfast with Woody Zuill, @woodyzuill, Clare Moss, @aclairefication, Linda Cook, @lindamcook1, and Benny Bagott, @bennybaggot some of the days. Don’t ask me which days. They have all run together. What do I remember? Explaining how #Noestimates work, learning some of Linda’s program management work, and laughing with Benny. Now, why was I explaining how NoEstimates work when Woody was right there? I do this to make sure I understand things. If the guy who started the hashtag is right there, he can explain to me when I’m wrong. BTW, the idea behind NoEstimates is that you break the work down small enough that the team can swarm around it and finish it so you don’t need estimates. I met other lovely people for breakfast. I was not awake enough to ask for their twitter handles.

I met Pawel Brodzinski, @pawelbrodzinski, in person. We had dinner with a bunch of people one night. We laughed about a number of things together, too.

I remember cracking up with Linda Cook, @lindamcook1, at some point in the Agile Alliance lounge. I no longer remember the topic or when that was.

I had lunch with many new people. I try to sit with people I don’t know at lunches. I’m awake then and won’t make a fool of myself.

Lori Priller, @indyagilista, and I coached each other. I suggested some writing tips for her. I asked her for help on titling the management myths book. That night, I woke up at midnight, and wrote down what might be right title. Thanks, Lori! Oh, yes, we laughed together, too.

I did not have lunch this year with David Bulkin, @Davidbulkin. For the last several years, I have plunked myself down next to him, not even trying to find him. This year, we made jokes about this in email, and I missed him. Boo. But, he teased me about it! Yay! David, it is your animal magnetism that got us into the same session. It must be.

I had a lovely coffee with Shane Hastie, @Shanehastie, one of my pairing colleagues.

I had dinner with Don Gray, @donaldegray, and George Dinwiddie, @gdinwiddie. Well, Don and I ate. George joined us after we ate. At one point, I remember laughing at something one or the other said.

I had a great conversation with Mark Levison, @mlevison. We laughed, too. Yes, Mark, I still owe you pictures. On the way.

I recorded a podcast with Gil Broza, @gilbroza, another pairing partner for Dave Prior, @mrsungo. We had to do this twice! The first time, we had technical difficulties. Oh well. I laughed.

I gave a talk on the Bootcamp track about project, programs, and the project portfolio. I was a little worried. People kept leaving. I’m an experienced-enough speaker to not let things like that bother me normally, but I was a little worried. Later on that day, a woman stopped me in the hall, and said, “I loved your talk. We’ve been doing agile for a while, but I thought I would hear you to see if we missed any of the basics. Sure enough, we had. I’m so glad you gave that talk.” I did my little happy dance inside. Then she said, “My phone kept buzzing, so I had to leave. I stayed as long as I could.” Oooh. Maybe that’s why people left. Maybe it wasn’t all about me :-)

Later on, several other people stopped me and told me the same thing—that they loved my talk. I realized something. I was talking to project, program and portfolio managers. Light dawns over marble head (mine). I bet the reason these people left was because they had work to do back at their offices. Face-palm.

I caught up with Linda Rising, @rising_linda. While we talked, another pairing partner, Rebecca Wirfs-Brock, @rebeccawb, stopped by. The three of us hung out for a while. What do you think happened? We laughed. I had a chance to go to Rebecca’s  awesome session on thinking fast and slow.

Jutta Eckstein and I paired on a workshop this year, which turned out great. (Happy dance!) I loved the way we worked together. I am very happy about our leanpub book, Diving for Hidden Treasures: Finding the Real Value in Your Project Portfolio. I had a chance to meet Bob Woods, @mindoverprocess, the reviewer who helped us think about a title for our session and the book.

I had dinner the last  night with Troy Magennis, @t_magennis, and Israel Gat, @agile_exec. We talked. We laughed. We ate. We laughed more.

On the last day of the conference, I talked to Woody Zuill again. His wife, Andrea Zuill, @badbirdsart, does all of his drawings. He offered me one. I chose this one:

LittleRabbitPicksFight.300 Don’t ask me if I’m the little rabbit or the big bear. You know the answer!

My heart sang all week. Why? I had the opportunity to do some great work, reconnect with colleagues, meet new ones, and laugh.

When you are with your good friends and wonderful colleagues, and especially when you laugh, your heart sings.

This is the question of the week: What makes your heart sing? Are you doing work, creating an environment, putting yourself in a place that makes your heart sing? If not, what do you need to do to make your heart sing?

Are You Trying or Experimenting?

I experiment a lot. I attempt something, measure my results, use those measurements to see what’s going on, reassess and change my attempt for the next time. I do this with my weight training at the gym, my writing, my book writing and production, and my work. When I experiment, I can inspect and adapt. I can refine. I can improve.

I did this when I was a developer. I noticed the kinds defects I wrote. I kept a log. What kinds of infinite loops did I write? I used a log to keep a list. That is a kind of measurement. As a writer, I notice what my copyeditors notice. I keep a list. As a speaker, what kinds of feedback do I receive? I keep a list. These are measurements. I can experiment with my work, get the feedback, and try something else.

As a writer, I experiment “internally”, too. I’ve experimented with writing fast and writing slow. I discovered that writing fast, getting the words out without editing is faster and better for me. I do a better job at getting my ideas across to my readers when I write in Markdown, just getting the words out. When I write in a text editor, I am slower, and I tend to edit as I go. My results are worse.

At the gym, I often think, “I can’t.” That’s my default position. (I keep saying I’m a work in progress :-) But I have learned that I probably can. I have learned to think of the first set as an experiment. “If I experiment with this first set and see what happens, I can use these results to inform my second and third sets.” That’s also the growth mindset.

But notice, I said experiment, not try. I said I measured, and used the results of those measurements to reassess and change, based on the results of my measurements. That’s how I know I’m experimenting.

If I was “trying,” instead of “experimenting,” I wouldn’t be measuring. I wouldn’t be adapting based on my measurements.

When we solve problems, sometimes we try—an effort-based approach. Sometimes we experiment—a measurement-based approach. I find it useful to discriminate between the two.

Trying is an attempt without measurement behind it. Experimenting adds the idea of measurement. We will inspect, measure, assess what we have completed. We might even adapt what we do, before we abandon it.

If you’re eating, trying is fine. You don’t have to experiment when you eat. But to learn, to change, to grow? You need to experiment. How else do you know what works, as opposed to what you think works?

This week, I’m at Agile 2014, the big conference about agile. Some people are confused about whether they are trying or experimenting. They call what they do experimenting, but they aren’t measuring anything. They aren’t using measurements to assess and change, based on their results. They try something, declare it a success or failure, and continue. But they have no data.

The problem is, you can’t inspect and adapt without knowing your data. Well, you can. That’s called randomness. You can do anything you want. But if you want to experiment, based on reality, you need data.

Trying new things is great. Experimenting is great. Let’s not get the two of them confused. When you try, you make an attempt. You don’t necessarily have any data to back you up. With experiments, you have a hypothesis, you collect data will explain your hypothesis. Let me rephrase Yoda, “There is no try; there is only experiment.” Okay, my geekiness is showing. Experimenting is a form of doing.

I met someone briefly yesterday who said, “Our developers always lowball their story estimates for an iteration. They can’t break their tasks down enough. How can we help them to not do that?” (For my non-software readers, stories are the requirements, and the iteration is a one- or two-week timebox.)

I asked, “Did they talk about this in the retrospective? Because this is not an estimation problem. Well, it might be. But it’s almost always a story-is-too-big problem. I would start by looking at the stories, and not by breaking down the tasks. What experiments have you tried?”

She looked at me with that Oooohhhh look. You know that look, the one where someone says something to you that you know you should have thought of yourself, but you didn’t. One of the big transition problems in agile is that teams have trouble making small stories. We know this. Teams need to experiment with their right way to break the stories down.

Try is one way. Without data, you cannot win. Experiment is better. Measure and improve. Inspect and adapt.

So, gentle readers, the question of the week is: Are you trying or experimenting? If you know the difference, your adaptable problem solving could improve.

Are Your Default Choices Costing You More Than You Think?

I just read this article about drivers on the Tobin bridge. There are still 28% of the drivers who do not have the E-ZPass, to pay the automated tolls.

I got my pass at least ten years ago, back when it cost me $20 to buy a transponder. It was worth it. My time, to avoid the toll lines, was worth the money. I chose to automate. In case you are wondering, you can use the E-ZPass all over the toll roads in New England, and—I believe—wherever there is a toll road in the US. Don’t quote me on this, because I haven’t done the research. But in New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, New York,  these states have reciprocal agreements with the E-ZPass. In this case, it’s worth automating. Your time is literally worth the money.

Not all automation is worth it. For example, I bake my own baked goods. Partly because I low carb, and what I can buy that I am willing to eat is too processed, too expensive, and frankly, what I cook tastes better. The time I invest is worth it. Yes, even with my vertigo. I choose to not automate my baking.

But, I want to consider the value of my time against the value of the end product. Will I receive the value that is worth my time investment?

We think about this a lot when we think about test automation, certainly at the system test level. You have to think hard about when is the right time to automate a test, and where. I say, automate everything underneath the GUI. I know, not all of you will agree with me. So be it.

But what about at a personal level? What is the cost of automating your gutter cleaner? How about your electronic toll paying? How about having your house cleaned for you? That is a form of automation.

I’ve automated part of my backup strategy. I have an automated backup that backs up to a site on the internet whenever I’m connected to the net (Backblaze). I don’t have to think about my backups.

Once you do the hard work of automation, it works for you repeatedly. It’s the decision and setup that’s difficult.

Not making the decision is a decision. And, that is the problem. If you have a default mode of not making a decision, you might never automate.

I wonder about those people who drive the Tobin Bridge, day after day, who don’t have an E-ZPass. Oh, sure, some of them might be from out of town. Maybe some of them are car rentals, where the rental agencies want an arm and two legs, and maybe somebody else’s first born child as a deposit just so you can pay the toll. It might be easier to see if you can skip on not paying the toll. Or see if you can pay cash.

But, I bet a bunch of those people just haven’t made the decision. “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” “Maybe someday.” “I’m kinda busy.”

It’s a default choice to do nothing.

So, I spent $20 a decade ago, to not have to wait in line at the tolls. I have more than made that return by not having to think about cash for the tolls, by not having to think about the problem. I have prevented this problem from occurring.

I have prevented the backup problem from occurring. I have risk insurance if my hard drive dies. I hope I never need it. But if I do? I have it.

When we solve problems, we don’t always solve a problem that occurs right now. Sometimes we solve problems that have not occurred yet. We manage risks that might happen.

When we don’t think ahead—just a little—and make the same default choices, they can cost more than we think. We don’t automate. We don’t manage risks. We don’t give ourselves choices. We just take the same old ways, the same defaults that we always have been.

Gentle readers, this week’s question of the week is: What are your default choices? Have they cost you more than you think?