#52books The Art of Living

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Format: Kindle

It’s been awhile since I have studied Ancient Greek philosophy.  When I was studying it, as part of my graduate studies in History, we didn’t spend much time on the Stoics.  Much of my time was spent with Asclepius, Hippocrates, Galen, and the other characters in Ancient Greek medicine.

The Art of Living is an interpretation of a translation of transcribed discourses from Epictetus.

The book is easy to read and easy to pick up and put down. Strict translations from the original Ancient Greek text tend towards painful reading.

You can see the gist of some key ideas that have carried over into modern day thinking.

  • Control what you can, accept what you can’t. (Serenity prayer, anyone?)
  • You are responsible for your thoughts.
  • Don’t adopt other people’s views as your own.
  • Clearly define the person you want to be.
  • You can choose how you respond.
  • Harmonize your actions with the way life is. Don’t try to make your own rules.
  • Appreciate what you have.
  • Happiness is within.
  • Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

From this interpretation, I can see why Stoicism and Epictetus are going through a resurgence in popularity among the entrepreneurial set.  Many of the messages have been passed down through the business/sales arm of the self-help community for generations.

The academic in me is “this close” to grabbing and reading a more literal translation of Epictetus’ discourses.  The inner academic would like to see how muddied the message is in today’s translations of Stoic philosophy.  Then there is the (larger) part of me that knows it has much better things to do than slog through literal English translations of Ancient Greek.

This translation/interpretation of Epictetus strikes me as a decent start.  If nothing else, I’d put this in the category of “distraction book” – something you can pick up and put down easily in short stints, close the cover, and feel just a bit better for having spent time with it.

Types of Work

The authors of The Phoenix Project identified four types of work that appear in IT departments:

  • Business projects – the temporary activities that create something new with an eye towards creating a return on investment for the business.
  • Internal projects – the temporary activities that help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of internal business operations
  • Changes – work that needs to happen to accommodate a desired adjustment to an operational system (either a technology configuration or a business process). Often a result of projects.
  • Unplanned work – activities we didn’t see coming, but we have to do anyway. Often a result of projects, changes, and life.

I would argue that these types of work appear in all departments, not just IT.

These 4 types of work essentially define the whirlwind.

Too many projects.

Too much work in progress.

Maintaining broken systems and the unplanned work that results.

Saying “yes” to activities that, on the surface, don’t look like much.   “It will be quick.”

A death by a thousand cuts.


I think we are guilty of planning projects and activities in isolation.

Never accommodating ALL of the pieces of the whirlwind.

Never looking at what work is in progress right now, or lying around unfinished, or waiting for someone to have some bandwidth to finish the work.

I think we are also guilty of never pausing and asking whether the good idea is a good idea for US.

Never analyzing whether that good idea will move us towards our greater vision – or if it is just a distraction from the path.

Why are we not OK with letting that great idea go to someone else with the resources and bandwidth to execute?

Why the fear that good ideas will never appear again?

Or that we are “missing something” if we don’t do something with the idea.

We have so much inspiration, influences, and opportunity!

Where has chasing all of the things led you?

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#52books The Phoenix Project

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#52books – The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win

Format: Kindle

It’s a luxury to sit and consume a book in one sitting.  Having the time to do that is half of it.  Finding a book you can’t put down is the other.

Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford use storytelling to share a way to think about DevOps and IT as a key business driver.

They have obviously spent time in the trenches.  The stories ring true, the characters seem to be modeled after people they have encountered, and I get the sense that some of the situations are thin disguises for real-life episodes.  Admittedly, they also try to cram those characters into typical IT and corporate stereotypes (the guru/mentor, the politician, the “CEO,” the savior engineer, etc). They also follow the hero’s journey as the framework, so you pretty much knew how things were going to end.

Thankfully, I was not reading this as a novel or expecting much of a plot.

I could have easily read the back of the book and get what I needed out of it.

Reading the whole book, however, helped to provide context to the ideas in the back of the book.

I also found myself going on the learning journey with Bill, the main character, as he tried to parse what Erik, the guru/mentor, told him.

It’s impressive when a book gets my attention enough to make me engage like that.

 

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The Step Before the SMART Goal

Yeah, if you could create smart goals, that would be great.

I’ve noticed that people sometimes resist creating SMART goals.

That resistance strengthens the less certain they are about whether that goal (or even getting things headed in the right direction) is achievable.

I’m thinking there could be an in-between step.


Over ten years ago, I found myself carrying about 25 pounds more than I usually do.  The weight snuck up on me, of course.  A few incidents set off some alarms that maybe I ought to do something about it.

  1. I was wearing my mother’s hand-me-downs.  She had just lost a bunch of weight.  Her hand-me-downs were larger than anything I had worn – ever.  And some of them were too tight.
  2. A professional colleague made the harmless comment that I looked “old.”  I work in IT, so tact isn’t a strong suit for most people in the field.
  3. Clothes I’ve worn for years didn’t fit. Too tight.
  4. I was feeling tired, bloated, slow and fat.

Yes, I knew I needed to set SMART goals, but I’ve never needed to diet or lose weight before.

Furthermore, I wasn’t entirely sure what caused the weight gain to begin with.  I didn’t think I was doing anything differently.

I figured that a good approach, for me, was to see if I could change the momentum.

I didn’t set a target to fail at, then go through the whole shame-spiral thing when I missed.

It was more of an “if I do this, will the trend move in the right direction?”

In my case, I decided to start exercising. I tracked how often I did it and what I did.

After a month, I had enough data to start setting SMART goals.

What was that data?

  • Yes, in my case – exercise helps me lose weight
  • I also found that exercise dampened my appetite and I naturally made better food choices
  • I could exercise 2-3 days per week without feeling the “shoulds”
  • During my exploratory measurements, I lost 5 pounds and started to fit into my old clothes again.

Awesome!  NOW I can make a SMART goal because I have a good chance of achieving it and I have the data available to make it realistic.


If you find yourself resisting making a SMART goal, do some exploration.

  1. Where are you at now?
  2. Is there something you can try to change the trend?
  3. What happened?
    • Did your experiment have the desired result?
    • If yes, at what pace?
    • If not, is there something else you can try?  Or is there another variable at play?

With that data, you can then start setting specific, measurable, ACHIEVABLE, relevant and time-bound goals.

And you won’t get as stuck with the “achievable” part.


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The Whirlwind

In The 4 Disciplines of Execution, the authors talk about the whirlwind – or “your day job.”

As I read the book, I had a nagging thought…

I think they are letting executives off the hook.

Why aren’t they asking what the executives are willing to give up to go after the wildly important goal?


Conversations around projects are about getting the project done.

I don’t see many questions about what life is going to look like AFTER it’s done.

Get the project done. Celebrate (maybe). Move on to the next thing.

Then they wonder why they aren’t seeing the expected business benefits.

Furthermore, projects are often conceived and expected on top of everything people are already doing.

The cult of “more.”

Do more. Have more. More productivity. More “lines of business.” More customers. More services. More more more!

Oh yeah, and with the exact same resources.

Then they wonder why their best employees leave and the rest have crummy attitudes on a good day.

They wonder why they can’t reach their goal.

No focus.

You keep adding.

You don’t provide any wiggle room to allow your people to adjust.

How adaptable are YOU when you are stressed out and tired?

And if you answer “very adaptable” – time to get an outside opinion. You likely won’t like what you hear.


The authors imply that by focusing on implementing the 4 disciplines and a wildly important goal with appropriate measures, focus takes care of itself.

And it might.

I think we can do more.

If we are leading a team, the least we can do is help that team gain some bandwidth to adjust to change.

Their resistance is valid.

Are you just adding on?

We need to do the hard, uncomfortable work of setting new boundaries, determining what activities need to stop, and saying “no.”


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#52books The 4 Disciplines of Execution

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#52 Books  – The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals

Format: Kindle

There will always be more good ideas than the capacity to implement.

I’m tempted to stick this quote on the back of my business card.

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Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, Jim Huling and Jim Stuart at FranklinCovey spent years developing and implementing this model of execution.

Their 4 disciplines are straightforward:

  1. Focus on the wildly important
  2. Act on the lead measures
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard
  4. Create a cadence of accountability

Straightforward, but not easy.

And, as with any sound change practice, the disciplines require steady, consistent effort to implement successfully.

They recognize the enemy of successful execution is the “Whirlwind”, i.e. your day job and the urgencies that appear necessary to sustain your business.  If you can’t focus on the wildly important, the other three disciplines won’t help you.

As they put it numerous times in the book:

The most important contribution a senior leader can make is to remain focused on the wildly important goal and resist the allure of your next great idea. (emphasis mine)

They recognized that the people who tend to rise to leadership positions are also the type of people who are creative and ambitious.  The type of people who are hard-wired to take on too much and, because they are in a leadership position, have their staff take on too much.

They also recognized that leaders like to hedge their bets and position themselves, and their team, such that people can’t question the level of effort.  Busy looks good.

Nothing is more counter-intuitive for a leader than saying no to a good idea, and nothing is a bigger destroyer of focus than always saying yes.

How many of these 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) implementations failed because their clients couldn’t find the discipline of focus?

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They kept avoiding the “whirlwind.”  Throughout the book, I hoped they would ask, “Is what you are doing in the whirlwind truly necessary?”

They stated that a focus on wildly important goals might help narrow the size and complexity of the whirlwind.  It was obvious, however, that they were keeping day-to-day operations out of scope.

They never asked about what was happening in the whirlwind.

Why did they keep skirting around the thing that was likely to derail their model?

I’m going to talk more about this book in the next couple of posts and try to unpack that.




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#52books Good Business

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Format: Softcover

After his seminal 1990 work, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote many books describing how flow works in various contexts.  Good Business is the first of two forays into Flow and business.

Csikszentmihalyi interviewed 39 business leaders who, he felt, combined high achievement with “moral commitment.”  He defined “moral commitment” as “long-term dedication to goals that advance the interests of the community, the people living in it, and humanity in general.”

Leveraging his previous research, he found that “few jobs nowadays have clear goals,” many jobs don’t leverage a worker’s skills, and there is little to no control over the goals of the process, how the worker performs the process or even the time it takes to do the process.

Csikszentmihalyi calls for a clear set of goals and values, along with consistent communication and reinforcement of those values.  “Every well run organization has not only a good business plan, but a set of core values that are expressed in the behavior of the leadership(emphasis mine) and are continuously reinforced through written statements and verbal communication.”

What saddens me is that 15 years after the initial publication of this book in 2003, goals are even less clear within many organizations.  A focus on “agility”, and the frequent abdication of the responsibility to decide on a direction and stick with it long enough to see results in many organizations, have not helped this issue.

I don’t know about you, but I am still seeing way too many people burned out, frustrated, and exhausted.  Maybe even more so now than in 1993.

Csikszentmihalyi also stresses the importance of an alignment between an organization’s values and an employee’s values.  Of course, this alignment is next to impossible if the organization isn’t entirely sure what it’s values are, or they have a laundry list of values that were decided by a committee.

There is an assumption, likely a result of his selected research methodology, that having a strong leader with clear values that are consistently demonstrated and communicated provides a partial solution to the misalignment problem.  At least employees can see the values and behaviors modeled.

I think that it is also a matter of the employee being more discerning about where to put his or her efforts. The employee needs to come in with his or her own clear and integrated set of values and determining whether there is a match with the organization and with the group; not trying to contort themselves to fit in.

In our current knowledge economy, our education, experience, and energy are the “means of production.”  How are we being asked to use our personal resources?  What values are we supporting?

Csikszentmihalyi warns, “The organization you work for will shape your entire identity. It will either enable you to grow or stunt you; it will either energize you or drain you; it will strengthen your values or make you cynical.”

I’m grateful that I am hearing more frequent discussions around how to make the workplace more responsive, responsible, humane, and sustainable.  I’m grateful for the small pockets of progress I’ve seen in the intervening 15 years.

I’m also sad that this book might be more important now than it was in 2003.


Amazon links
Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience 




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Variable Capacity and Story Points

Wendy and Brian discussing agile prioritization

Brian Dusablon and I working at the Advocates for Human Rights.

Please donate.


Brian is serving as the developer/technical lead for this project.

In this picture, Brian and I are picking through the priorities Advocates set and discussing the level of effort needed.

This discussion is important because as with Advocates, his time on the project is limited and somewhat unpredictable.

Now, in the ideal Agile world, all members of the project are solely on that one project.

The closest I’ve seen to that ideal in real life was in the Data Whisperer’s implementation of Agile – and that took 3 years, a new VP, and probably 5 years off his life to achieve.

In the Advocate’s Agile-style implementation, the most important thing we had to accommodate was the wild variance of team availability.

Brian is a pro-bono volunteer.  As am I.

The Advocates staff needs to prioritize their time towards fulfilling their mission.

The tools that helped us here are the Scrum concepts of projected work capacity and story points.


For each 2-week sprint – Advocates will predict their projected work capacity by the number of hours available for the effort for those 2 weeks.  We anticipate that for some sprints, the number of hours may be zero.  That’s ok – though I am hoping that is NEVER the case, for fear that they will lose focus and drop the project.  That’s on them.

In the meantime, Brian predicts his projected work capacity for the project for the sprint, also by the number of hours he will have available for the effort.

Each card has an estimated number of hours (the story points) it will take to complete.  If the item requires feedback or a decision from outside the project team, I asked them to double the number of hours.  I suspect that they are better about talking to each other than most organizations, but it’s been my experience that it takes a lot longer to get an external decision than one predicts.

The estimation of the number of hours/story points occurs when Advocates moves the card from the backlog to Prioritized.

That estimation also occurs when Advocates moves the card from the sprint to “Ready for Development” – Brian needs to identify the amount of time he has available and when he will have something for testing.


Something Advocates made very clear on this effort is that there is no set deadline. They just need to show regular progress to the Board.  Since the velocity will be wildly variable from sprint to sprint, this is good news.  They are not setting an unrealistic deadline for themselves.  As long as they set regular bi-weekly milestones and keep an eye on their goal, I think they will be ok.

My hope is that they are able to maintain momentum after our visit.  As I mentioned before, Advocates staff will be leading the project from here.  A prime example of a business unit taking ownership.  I’ll keep you posted.

 

Case Study: Advocates for Human Rights

Advocates and Wendy prioritizing user stories

Agile looks like people hunched over index cards.

Thank you Michele, Rosalyn, Sarah, Jinath, and the rest of the Advocates staff for your hospitality.


Last month, I had an opportunity to do some pro-bono work with the Advocates for Human Rights.

They KNEW there was a better way to run their internal operations and become more effective at executing their mission.

A few things impressed me about Advocates when I met them:

  • They were already effective with the resources they had.  They thought they could do better.
  • Their mission was VERY clear to everyone around the table.  And everyone around the table was passionate about that mission.
  • Their diagnosis as to what their issue was and what was most important to address was also very clear.  In multiple conversations, in multiple environments and across time, everyone said the same thing. I found that impressive.

Where they have been getting stuck is where most organizations get stuck – lots of ideas, uncertain about how to proceed, and limited time to execute on those ideas.


The Advocates staff are used to agility.  Their operating environment is incredibly dynamic, especially in today’s global climate.

They also had limited and unpredictable time availability for improving their internal operations.  Priority has to go to fulfilling the mission.  However, they also understood that they would be able to show greater value to their contributors if they tightened up their processes.

After getting to know them, I thought that an agile-style approach would work best for their volunteer database project.

An agile-like approach will accommodate their dynamic environment, created a system to deal with changing priorities, provided a way to track progress, and encouraged them to prioritize and focus their ideas for later execution.  It gives them a fighting chance at getting things done.

The team will be doing their own project management.  They clearly defined the roles each member of the team will play (Project Champion, Product Owner (plus subs), Subject Matter Experts). I was thrilled to see the level of ownership they are taking over this process.

Here’s what they are doing:

  • Sprints are in two -week cycles.  They let me know that they could more accurately predict time availability for two weeks and that is was a short enough time frame for accountability.  They also have staff meetings in 2-week cycles, so they already have time blocked out for internal operations that they can leverage for this effort.

 

  • We broke the user stories down into small enough chunks where they could define “done.”  As in – “is it done – yes/no.”  If they couldn’t get to a yes/no definition of done, I asked them to break the task down further.
    • Their user stories are classic -As a [user type] I want [activity] so I can [goal].
      • Example: Staff can see all volunteers who have completed training so I can assign them to volunteer opportunities.
      • Many of the stories they created are closer to –  [user type] can [activity].
        • This works too.  The business unit (Advocates) is running this project. As a result, they didn’t really need to specify the “goal.” They pretty much know why they want the functionality listed in the story.
    • Advocates will continue to work with the developer if they need help defining certain user stories and breaking them down into manageable pieces.

 

  • I put together a Kanban-style board for them using Trello.  Categories are:
    • Backlog – all new ideas go here
    • Prioritized – for an upcoming sprint.  This is where they determine the level of effort required for the item.
    • Next sprint – activities for the next sprint. They will re-evaluate the “next sprint” items before they move them to the current sprint to see if they have the time and bandwidth to execute on that sprint.
    • Current sprint – what they need to focus on this week
    • Ready for development – items that are ready to go to the volunteer developing their database
    • Ready for test – the volunteer moves the deliverable over to this column when it is ready
      • If the deliverable passes the acceptance criteria – it goes to Done
      • If the deliverable needs work – it goes back into the Backlog.  Advocates understood that any activity in the project would need some of their bandwidth.  The developer is going to guide them through the prioritization of any fixes and whether it can be dealt with immediately or should be re-prioritized.
    • Done – I told them to celebrate when things go to “done”.  Plus – it allows them to better see when they are making progress.
  • Advocates agreed to make their staff meeting day (also held every two weeks) their sprint planning day.  This way, they knew everyone would be in the office and if staffers outside the project team needed to make a decision, they were available.   Their sprint day agenda:
    • Work on deliverables for the current sprint to hand off to the developer (if they were not able to complete them prior to the meeting)
    • Confirm the status of items and update the board
    • Determine project team availability and capacity for the next 2-week cycle
    • Move the appropriate items to the current sprint
    • Make a high-level decision on “next sprint” – to be re-evaluated at the next sprint meeting. This includes backlog review.

At the end of the time we had together – they were excited to see a path forward.

Incredibly satisfying.


Please donate to the Advocates for Human Rights.

The mission of The Advocates for Human Rights is to implement international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. By involving volunteers in research, education, and advocacy, we build broad constituencies in the United States and select global communities.

#52books The PMI Agile Practice Guide

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Agile Practice Guide

Format: Softcover

The recent update to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, fondly known as the PMBOK, added the Agile Practice Guide as a supplement to version 6.

What excites me about this add-on, beyond being repeatedly asked if I “do Agile,” is the recognition that there is a spectrum of agility and the call to use the appropriate tools for the job at hand.

The Project Management Institute (PMI), in its recent communications, is calling for a “toolbox” approach to projects and asking many questions.

  • Can you deliver value in small chunks?
  • Can you iterate?
  • What is the cultural tolerance for drafts of deliverables?
  • How clear are the requirements?

The supplement has a good troubleshooting appendix that maps well with my experience in various organizational environments.

I have a feeling I will be referencing this supplement many times over the next couple of years.