What Do You Take for Granted?

I flew from Boston to Seattle last week. When I was growing up, I don’t think this particular cross-country flight existed. If it did, it probably took longer, was much more expensive, and was more comfortable. (I’m not slamming the airline. It’s a fact that seats are narrower, closer and there are fewer amenities on domestic flights these days.)

I take reasonable flights for granted.

I was thinking back to when I first had an email address that was mine, not affiliated with a company. I had one starting in the late 80s and finally moved to my own domain sometime in the 90s. During my hotel stay, it didn’t occur to me to even doubt that my email would just work. (It wasn’t that way in the 90s or the early 2000s. Remember when computers had modems?)

I take everywhere-email access for granted.

I have a head cold (possibly from my flying). I saw my doctor yesterday, and I can treat my cold with over-the-counter medications. When I was growing up, pharmacies had many fewer non-prescription choices. I like the guidance I receive from my doctor, and I’m thrilled I don’t have to wait for a prescription.

I take over-the-counter medicines for granted.

These are just three possibilities of things I have taken for granted in the past week. It’s only in retrospect that I can see the changes we have made in how we live. (I could have used many other examples, such as online shopping.)

Many changes occur slowly. As they occur, I don’t notice them. No one change is large. I think the changes in the airline industry started just before deregulation, and they continue today. Wifi vs. modem started in the late 90s/early 2000s. The changes to the pharmaceutical industry started back in the 90s (I think) and they continue.

I can see changes in retrospect. Since many changes are small and grow over time, I find it difficult to see many changes as they occur. I take the new state for granted. I don’t think I’m alone.

Every so often, I find it valuable to consider what I take for granted, to see how things have changed for me and for the world around me.

Dear adaptable readers, that is the question this week: What do you take for granted?

What Do You Optimize For?

My friends and colleagues tell me that audio books are a Big Deal. I believe them, although I still read in ebook and paper. So, I had audio books made for Predicting the Unpredictable and Agile and Lean Program Management.

Predicting doesn’t have too many images. Agile and Lean Program Management has a ton of images. I have a guideline that’s almost a rule: Show people what they can do, so they don’t have to interpret too much. This guideline/rule means I tell stories in my books and create images so you can see possibilities.

I optimize my books for visuals. That makes sense for ebook or print. For audio? Not so much.

I do have reader resources for the books on my site and on the audio page. That’s not terrific, but it’s adequate. It’s the best I know how to do, given the subject matter.

In these books, I optimized for reading, not listening. I made that choice.

We optimize for different aspects in our lives and projects. I optimize for ease of living in my life. I have assistive devices: rollators, canes, plastic things to open jars with, and more. If I need an assistive device, I get it. (Okay, there’s probably a monetary limit here, but so far, I’ve been able to afford everything.) You might make different choices because you might not need assistive devices. (I hope not!)

We trade off aspects of our projects. I’m big on the project pyramid for projects, trading off: people and their capabilities, project cost, project environment, feature set, low defects, and release date. One of those drives the project. The rest you trade off.

Our optimizations drive  our actions.

If we optimize for project cost, we can create a project environment that allows us to deliver finished features, if we also manage how we discover and fix defects. I prefer an agile or an incremental approach, because when you finish features, you can release when you finish a feature.

If we optimize for project environment, such as when we start an agile approach, we will act to create a collaborative environment. It’s not that features, cost, release date, etc are not important. They are. And, the learning in creating a project environment is more valuable for now, than the rest of the project aspects.

I help people learn with my non-fiction books. I optimize for learning, and so far, with the words on a page. The words on the page have the most value, so far. I am still not sure how to optimize for both audio and print. As I write my memoir, I can optimize for the experience—which will translate to both page and audio. That is a different kind of book. (My fiction is all about the story, so I don’t have to choose there, either.)

That is the question this week: What do you optimize for?

What Should You Do First?

One of my coachees has a common problem. He has a ton of work he doesn’t want to do (the shoulds). He has some work that gives him joy that he wants to do. He has too much work overall. He’s stuck. He can’t quite get anything done because the work he wants to do is a lower priority than the work he should do. And, the work he should do is boring. To quote him, “A necessary evil, but boring.”

What should he do first?

I have the too-much work problem, also. My pile of not-interesting work is quite small. (The only thing on it is cleaning my office.) I have a ton of research work, which is interesting, but not fulfilling. I have a ton of client and writing work, which is interesting and compelling.

My problem is that the research work will allow me to do more interesting client work next year. It’s prep work to grow my capabilities. (I’m researching online video course platforms. If you take or teach online classes with video and you like a particular platform, please let me know.)

My coachee and I have similar problems. Although, his pile of not-so-interesting work is gigantic. Mine is not.

The principle is the same. What work should you do first?

When we spoke more, I asked him if his “shoulds” were really his work. When I hear myself saying, “I should do this,” that work might not be mine to do. I might be able to delegate it, especially if I’m a manager in the organization. I have noticed that if I’m bored by something because I’ve done it before, someone else might find that work challenging, not boring at all.

We reviewed his “should” list of boring work. We discussed his concerns re what someone else might be able to do with that work. Of his 12 tasks, he realized he could delegate 3. Of the remaining 9, he realized 2 were not his concern and he should ask someone else to do them. 7 remained, and he decided a couple of them weren’t so bad, and he might even like them.

The “shoulds” can kill your joy in your work. Consider these options:

  • Ask yourself if you need to do them? Are they work you can delegate or reassign? (If it’s a honey-do list for your spouse, maybe not. But at work? Maybe.)
  • Ask yourself who needs this? Maybe you can renegotiate what it is.
  • Ask yourself how long that someone has waited? Is the time for the deliverable past, and that thing remains on your list? Maybe you can delete it.
  • Consider doing something fun and sandwiching the fun stuff between the not-so-fun stuff.

Should is a fascinating word. For me, it’s the obligation of the word that makes me a little suspicious. How many obligations do I need to take? It’s not an easy answer for most of us.

I have not yet “graduated” to eating dessert first, not in food and not in my work. Maybe you have. I still want to eat in as healthy a way as possible and choose when to have a treat.

Work feeds our souls, and for me that’s a little different than feeding our bodies. I try to choose work that feeds my curiosity, helps me learn, and satisfies me.

My dear adaptable problem-solvers, that is the question this week: What should you do first?

How Do You Persist?

I’ve been in a couple of Fitbit challenges to see who can walk “most” in a work-week. I’ve enjoyed them and have pushed myself a little each week, to see if I can do just a little bit more every day.

One of the problems I have is that by Friday, I’m tired. I’ve been about 1000 steps over my daily goal for each day. I wouldn’t have thought that would be such a big deal—but it is. Given my vertigo, going over my daily goal stretches my capabilities. I’m happy about it, and it prompted me to think about persistence.

My ability to persist, even when things get a little crazy, is what keeps me going. I do these things to persist:

  • Walk in small chunks of time. I almost never walk for  more than 15 minutes at a time. I increased a couple of my walks to 16 minutes this past week, and that’s enough.
  • Focus on this small goal. I don’t try to do anything else when I walk. I walk. (I suspect I might walk  more if I could listen to podcasts, etc while I walk, but I want to be able to hear the traffic.)
  • Monitor my progress during the day. I check my Fitbit before I take my pre-lunch walk, before my before-dinner walk, and just before my after-dinner walk.
  • Create opportunities for walking. I always have something to drink in my office. It’s green tea in the morning, seltzer in the afternoon. That means I have the opportunity (need!) to get up several times a day, which can help me create an opportunity to walk.

I walk differently now than I used to work out. I used to do my workout in the morning, all at once. I could spend 60-90 minutes and be done for the day. I can’t tell if I am healthier, but this new way of walking works better for my vertigo, so I can continue to walk.

When I reflected on this list, I realized I do the same thing with my writing, my consulting, my coaching, all my work. I might have a large goal (write a specific book), and I break that into small goals I can accomplish during a given day. When I create workshops, I create drafts of the simulation(s) separately from the handout. I can then iterate on both.

My approach to my fitness and my work helps me finish things. I rarely start something I don’t finish that I think is important. I can almost always make 15 minutes at a time to walk or write or design or whatever.

I suspect that one of your concerns might be, “How do I find 15 minutes in my schedule to persist doing the thing I want to do?” You don’t need to make 15 minutes the timebox. Maybe you want to start with 5 minutes. Or 10. Or 8. Choose a number greater than 4, so you can see your progress.

I don’t work in a company that shares my calendar for me. That means I can decide what to do. You can, also, by blocking time in your calendar. You don’t have to call it “writing” or “walking.” You can call it something like “Strategic thinking,” or something else you think will protect that calendar time.

If you want to persist at a new habit or something you think is valuable to you, carve out time to persist at it.

That, dear adaptable readers, is the question this week: How do you persist? Please leave your suggestions of what works for you.

When Do You Stop Working for the Day?

I made a big mistake the other night. I was doing maintenance on my mailing lists. I was quite excited about deleting people who were no longer valid subscribers. I deleted too many people and screwed up the Create Adaptable Life mailing list. I fixed it, and that got me thinking about several things:

  • I am behind on my mails to this list. Not the weekly posts, the quarterly emails.
  • I am behind on getting all the newsletters up on the newsletter page.
  • Why was I doing this important work at 9pm???

Bad Johanna. (For all three.)

I know myself. I can read at night. I can sometimes write drafts of articles, as long as I review them another day. I am not good at thinking well that late at night. I wake up at 6am. By 9pm, I should be long done. What was I thinking?

I’m not the only one working long hours, even though we know  better. Some of my clients explain that they regularly work 14-16 hours a day. I ask, “When do you stop working for the day?” and they say, “When I go to bed.”

That’s nuts. The longer we work in a given day, the more tired we are. The more tired we are, the more likely we are to make mistakes. Our companies don’t hire us to make mistakes. They hire us to deliver valuable work.

I understand where this comes from. I was trying to get just a little bit more done that day. I succeeded in making more work for myself. (Not too bright, eh?) I did that because I’m behind.

Here’s the problem:

You can’t make up time. 

You can’t. It doesn’t matter if you what work you’re doing, you can never make up time. Time marches on, regardless of what you do. You can choose what not to do. You can choose how long to spend on something. But, there is no way to make up time.

I teach this in all my workshops. And, it’s so insidious, that every so often, I fall prey to the same problem. “If I just spend another 10 minutes, I can get caught up.” Nope, that will never happen.

So, I work until 6:30 pm. Sometimes, if I have homework for a writing class I’m taking, I write after dinner. But, that’s a rare event.

Dear adaptable problem solvers, that is the question this week: When do you stop working for the day?

P.S. If you subscribe to this site’s newsletter, I expect to release one this coming weekend.

When Are You Serious?

A colleague sent me an email this morning. She had read Agile and Lean Program Management, and especially liked the section called “Potentially Useful Practices.” She told me she thought of them as “pup”s and was going to use that idea for a talk she was developing. She talked about cute puppies—which one was a beagle, which was a bulldog or a German shepherd. Oh, I laughed out loud. I can’t wait to see her presentation.

That got me thinking about when we are serious and when we let our sense of humor out to play.

I’m serious about outcomes. I’m serious when I practice a new skill. I’m not as serious when I deliver training or presentations. That’s because I did the hard work in advance. I’m serious about my preparation, including thinking about funny stories so people identify with the idea. People need and appreciate some humor to go with their learning.

Back in my developer days, I was much more serious about how I worked. I hadn’t found my rhythm or a way to deliver on a regular basis. That led to cycles of delivery/black-hole-ness/delivery/black-hole-ness, etc. If I couldn’t depend on my delivery, how could anyone else? Work was quite serious for me, then.

As I learned how to work in smaller chunks, I was able to see my progress and become a little less serious. I still cared “too much.

When I became a project manager, I learned an important lesson: as a leader, people took their cues from me. If I was serious about the outcome, they would be, too. If I was serious about the work, they would be, too. And, if I used my sense of humor in my work, they would, also.

I took a different approach than many other project managers (or managers). I asked for rumors. I asked for bad news. I would say, “Okay everyone, we’re going to sigh. Ready? 1, 2, 3, Big Sigh.” I waited for everyone to sigh with me. We often laughed after we sighed. Then, I could ask, “Okay, now what can we do about this problem?”

I treated the problem seriously, but not how we dealt with the problem.

When I see risks I don’t understand, I tend to be more serious. When I am pretty sure I can see the risks, I can let my (wacko) sense of humor fly.

I also learned that if I asked for risks, I would learn about more of them than I might be able to handle. And, if I didn’t ask about them, something would bite the project, at the worst possible time. That’s Murphy’s Law.

Yes, the world is a serious place.  And, how we have choices about how we treat the problems and risks in our lives. We can see “pups” instead of “Potentially Useful Practices.” Our sense of humor is part of our emotional resilience. (See also the Book Review of Surviving Survival.)

Dear adaptable problem solvers, that is the question of the week: When are you serious?

Are You Doing Your Part?

I want to improve at many things: my exercise, my writing, my teaching, just to name three. When I reflect back on my progress—or lack thereof—I ask myself if I’m doing my part.

Wanting is not enough. I have to do my part. Sometimes, my part is to show up and do the work. (See Elizabeth Gilbert’s Elusive Creative Genius Ted Talk.) More often, my part is deciding what to practice, and then practicing it.

My lack of progress often stems from these causes:

  • I didn’t select what to improve or change.
  • I didn’t schedule time for improvement.
  • I didn’t practice.

(Note: Your list may well be different from mine. That’s because you and I are not the same, something we can all be happy about…)

 What made me think I was going to improve? Thinking about it?

Actually, that’s what I see in many organizations. I talk to managers and team members who want to “go agile.” Here are some parts they could do:

  • Learn about the difference between iteration-based agile and flow -based agile.
  • Experiment with taking small steps and getting feedback.
  • Retrospect on what they did to see what they can improve.

These are three examples. You and your team might want something else.

Here’s how it works for me. I’ll give you an example of when I started to learn to write. I started writing for my work in 1997. In 1999, I started writing the first hiring book. In 2003, I started my blogs. 

Initially, writing was hard. It was hard to find the time. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. I was sure that the way I said it was horrible. (Some of it was!)

Then, I got serious with my writing. I had monthly columns and plans for more books. I took a writing workshop and decided to start measuring. I measured so I could decide what to improve first.

I measured my writing time and realized I was like every other writer out there. I complained about writing, and I didn’t do it. So, I stopped complaining and started to measure my time writing. (I still write in timeboxes, because that works for me.)

Then, I decided some of my writing was too complex. We didn’t have apps then, so I needed to measure in Word. I did. Next, I measured the time I wrote plus the readability.

I’m pretty good with readability now, so now I measure time spent writing, readability, and number of words written. I’m finding this very helpful for my fiction attempts. My fiction does not flow the way my non-fiction does. I spend too much time thinking and not enough time writing.

Showing up is the first part for almost any endeavor. And, showing up is not sufficient. Wanting is not sufficient.

I have to do my part, and measure, practice, reflect, adjust, and practice more.

When I do my part, great things happen.

That is the question of the week: Are you doing your part?

How Are You Better or Worse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You Missing Clues or Degrading Gracefully?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s Working?


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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I did today:

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

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

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

Here are some possibilities I’ve seen in organizations:

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

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

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

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

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