What’s Your Context?

I’m in a writer’s workshop this week, having a blast. We write a lot: openings and short stories. Since it’s a fiction workshop, I feel quite vulnerable as a writer.

I’m learning how to write fiction. I can’t tell if it’s any good. I can’t tell if my author voice is working. I’ve been receiving some feedback, and all of it is actionable. And, I can tell that some people like my stories. So, I’ve been learning and adapting based on the feedback.

One thing I’ve noticed is how we all start in different places, even from the same writing prompt. I start with a puzzle-mystery, usually about some technology or technical issue. (I know, what a surprise!) Other people start with a dead body. (Think crime writers.) Still others start with a scary, horrible problem. (Think horror writers.)

We all start from our own contexts.

We are a sum of our experiences. In writing, we are a sum of what we have written, what we like to read, and where we feel comfortable.

It’s the same in our projects and our lives.

If you have been waterfalling your entire professional life, you will need practice with feedback to move to some form of agile as your new context. It won’t be fast. You will need to try and learn in small chunks, so you can integrate this new way of working into your context.

If you have been working out (or not!) in a certain way for 10-20 years, and you want different results, you will have to change something and learn from it, preferably with feedback to change your context.

We each have our own context, our own default. Our context has appeared to work for us for a while, so changing can be quite difficult. Well, changing my context in my writing is difficult for me. That’s why I feel so vulnerable in this workshop.

And, sometimes, changing context is necessary. I have a ton of experience with changing my physical context, what I can and cannot do on a normal day.

I also changed my work context to be agile and lean many years ago. I continue to refine that context, as I learn what works for me and how to achieve the results I want.

When people say, “That won’t work,” they are often talking about their context. If I want to help people change, I need to ask them for more details about their context.

In this writing workshop, I might try for a dead body in a story. I don’t normally read murder mysteries, so this is a challenge for me as a change of context. I might try something else, just to see if I can do it.

That, dear readers, is the question of the week: What is your context?

When Do You Refactor or Restart?

I’m teaching my writing workshop this month. I made a point of explaining the difference between cycling between parts of the document and rewriting.

I often cycle. I realize I forgot to say something key at the beginning. Or, I started the piece with one idea in mind and it morphed into something else. I need to redo the title.

I rarely now edit the piece in ways I used to edit. I used to edit everything I wrote to death. I removed all the passion. I removed many of athe interesting bits, to make the grammar checker happy. I don’t do that any longer.

When I write, I often check spelling after I write down. (There are several pieces to writing: organizing/research/preparing; writing down where you spill words on the page and do not edit; editing; and publication.) I stay  in flow when I write the words down. I still edit, but I have less editing to do because the pieces are all there.

Cycling is when I’m still in flow. I don’t edit as in check spelling or grammar. I move things and add things. Every so often, I remove things. I think of cycling as refactoring as I proceed, making sure my intent is still there.

Maybe you think writing English is different from writing code. I used to think so, and now I think it’s more similar than I realized.

My cycling is similar to refactoring. I make small changes, retaining the intent of the work. I don’t often move large chunks of things as I write. When I rearchitect a book or an article, I think of that as redesign, redoing my work.

We have choices in our work. We can cycle in flow/refactor as we write code. We can choose to restart: redo/rewrite/redesign.

When do you choose each?

I purposefully choose to stay in flow as I write. I used to do that as a developer and tester. I found it much more difficult to stay in flow as a manager, project manager, or program manager. That’s because the technical leadership positions tend to be interrupt-driven. Writing, as a non-fiction writer, developer, or tester cannot be interrupt-driven, because you lose flow.

If you interrupt yourself, by mixing writing-down and editing, or by redesign instead of refactoring, you make a decision to redo, instead of finishing your initial thoughts. You might not realize that’s a decision.

I hope you decide to make that decision consciously. I see the effects of these decisions in how I write, in how other people develop/test product, even how I do laundry. When I interrupt myself to start over, I make the entire process take longer.

When I interrupt myself to start over, I make the entire process take longer. I lose my place. In writing, I often lose some of what I wanted to say. (A couple of weeks ago, the dirty laundry sat in the washer for an hour because neither Mark nor I had turned it on. All because we restarted :-)

Refactoring, my writing cycling is one thing. Restarting is another. There is a difference.

That is the question this week: When do you refactor or restart?


What Do You Do When You Just Don’t Want To?

I have a head cold. I’ve had this for almost two weeks. My cough interrupts my sleep (and Mark’s) almost every night. I’m seeing the doctor again today, to make sure I don’t have something other than a head cold. (I didn’t last week.)

The problem is not the head cold. The problem is this: I don’t want to work. I don’t want to write. I don’t want to read. I want to sleep. I want to stop coughing. But, that’s not what I’m supposed to do today (and all the other days this week). What do I do?

I know why I don’t want to work. I’m exhausted. But, that might not be your reason for not wanting to do your work. I’ve had other times when I didn’t want to work. If I think about them, they fell into these categories:

  • Boring, non-interesting work.
  • Work I thought I should have automated/outsourced. I wanted the results, but not the practice of doing the work.
  • Work I thought I shouldn’t have to do. It was someone else’s job.
  • Work that no one should have to do.

You might have other categories.

When I see work like this, I use approaches like this:

  • Decide if I should still do it. Often, the answer is yes.
  • If so, what’s the shortest timebox I can use to start and maybe finish the work? I didn’t want to write this post this morning (because I am so tired) so I decided I would give myself a short timebox to start and maybe end it.
  • Do I know what “done” means for this work? Is there some small amount of work I can do to finish this and get it off my list?

If you don’t want to do your work because your job is boring—the entire job—maybe you need a new job. If this work is part of your job and you don’t want to do this part, maybe a short timebox is enough.

Maybe it’s time to go meta, to step back and say, “What would I have to do to make this interesting enough to finish?” For me, that’s often a script/some kind of automation to finish the work and not have to continue to deal with it.

If you know what done means for your work, maybe you can do the minimum, do some more interesting work and then return and decide if you need to do more. I am not suggesting you shortchange your work. I am suggesting that maybe enough is enough.

That’s what I did with this blog post. I decided to go meta and discuss why I am having trouble focusing on my work to do it. I’m off to see the doctor again, and hopefully, I will sleep tonight.

That is the question of the week this week: What do you do when you just don’t want to?


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?