Are You Solving Problems MacGyver-Style?

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

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

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

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

regardless of the problem might be a valuable skill.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Who Is Responsible for Your Career?

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

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

Do you act that way?

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

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

For each of us:

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

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

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

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

Maybe you want to think about your life, instead.

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

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

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

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


How Do You See Yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

Think about how you provide value.

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

You do something else.

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

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

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

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

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


What Questions Do You Use to Solve Problems?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Does This Enhance My Life?

When we were purging the house, I asked the question, “Does this thing enhance my life?” It was a good question to see if I wanted to keep or eliminate whatever I was holding.

It’s not quite the same question as “Is Anyone Using This?” That’s a question from the outside. “Does This Enhance My Life?” s a question from inside you. For me, this can be more difficult to answer.

backscratcherBack when I was 16, I tore the ligaments in my right ankle, and required surgery to repair them. I don’t know how they do it now, but back then, I was in a cast for months. Someone gave me a backscratcher to scratch the skin inside my cast. I still have that darn thing.

I have not had a cast in years. This backscratcher no longer enhances my life.

Now, it’s time for deeper introspection.

As a human, you own your life. Does the work you do enhance your life or detract from it? If your work does not enhance your life, is it time to change your work?

If you write, does your writing enhance your life? If not, is it time to change how or what you write?

Does the music you listen to enhance your life? I listen to music as I write. Is it working for you or not? Is it it time to change it? For years, I listened to a particular playlist. Suddenly, I lost interest in that playlist. I changed the playlist and I became happier. I also became faster with my writing.

If you work with a team at work, and something is off, you might ask, “Do we have a team unjeller?” If you have a team unjeller, you know it. Conversation stops when that person enters the room. You have choices when you have a team unjeller. I wrote a management myth about it, I Can Save Everyone. But you have choices about your actions. You always do, whether your management chooses to act or not.

Change is messy. Change comes with a cost. But, what’s the alternative?

A life that other people select for you. Or, a life you select by default. That doesn’t fit for me. I want to be consciously in charge of my life. For me, it’s the fill my gas tank metaphor.

So, I will keep asking, “Does this enhance my life?” When I ask that, I am in charge. I am the one making the decisions. I, not other people, am responsible for my life. And, that’s the way I want it.

I’m throwing out the backscratcher.

My fellow adaptable problem solvers, that is the question of the week. You can choose again. Look inside, and ask yourself, “Does this enhance my life?”


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 agileconnection.com. 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.

Johanna

© 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?