Category Archives: lessons-learned

Know when Working Harder isn’t going to Work

A dedicated employee who will work harder, with a greater sense of urgency (and maybe some extra hours when needed) is great.  But what’s much more valuable than someone with that work ethic, is someone who can see when working harder isn’t going to work, and they need to change their approach.

Think about someone using a dull saw to cut a huge pile of wood to build a house — they’ll look at the schedule and say “I don’t have time to sharpen my saw”, which is ridiculous to think about.  But we do it all the time when we try to shift into a higher gear and work harder to “dig out” of a busy season/project instead of thinking about what should we change.

It is so valuable as a leader to determine when a situation can be surged over, and when you need different resources/capacity/people/tools to overcome the situation.  Years ago, I was helping a Project Manager whose team was continually well below the needed velocity to get to the project’s finish line on time.  He kept trying to work nights and weekends to get back on the track, but simple math made it very clear that he could not single-handedly get the project back on track.  So we had to investing in both a technology and some additional people to help his team finish — it was easy to easy for those investments on his project; but it was much better to ask for them early in the project’s life as opposed at the end when he would be doomed to fail.

Think about if you need better processes/checklists, or a tool (e.g. software application) to help you be more efficient), or more people on your team, or something else.  Take the time to step back and think about how to change the game you’re playing so you can actually win.

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Don’t Point at Problems, Attack Them!

There should be a word for people who have the annoying tendency to point at problems and talk about them, instead of trying to actually improve the situation (or maybe there is, and I just don’t know it).  I don’t know if you’ve been in a meeting with one of these people, but it’s so frustrating to listen to someone pontificate on and on about some problem and how it’s SO horrible, without trying to come up with any ideas, or asking someone to help them solve the problem, or just stop talking about it so someone else can try to solve the problem.

I’m not saying you should wait to bring a problem to your boss until you have a solution — for some teams/problems that’s a good idea, and for others that’s a horrible idea, and you need to get help for problems.  But what I am saying is that you should focus your attention and energy on fixing the problem, or removing the problem, or getting around the problem, or changing the situation so it’s not a problem anymore, or something else productive.

Don’t Sleep in your Contacts… and the Importance of Communicating Risk Well

I went to the eye doctor recently, after my eye was bothering me.  I had slept in my contact lenses for several nights (which I’m prone to do), and my eye started bothering me.  In the past, when this happens, I take my contact lenses out, throw them out, and take a few days off of contacts.  This time however, my eye was bothering me much more than usual, so I went in to see the eye doctor.  I’m glad I did — I had a corneal ulcer, where bacteria had been stuck inside my contact lens. The eye doctor got me a prescription for some antibiotic eye drops and explained how lucky I was, since the ulcer wasn’t on the pupil itself (which can cause people to lose partial sight the rest of their lives!!!)!

The doctor asked me “Do you know you’re not supposed to wear your contacts overnight?” and I explained that I certainly did, but I had no idea what the real risks were — I assumed eye doctors said that, but that my approach to taking a break when my eyes bothered me was fine.

This is a great reminder of how important it is to communicate risks in a tangible, clear way.  It’s easy to say “That’s risky” or “This is not a best practice” or “It’s better not to do that”; but if we don’t take the time to truly articulate the possible impacts, explaining both the likelihood of something happening and the impact (severity) if it does happen, very bad things can happen.

Edward Tufte’s book Visual Explanations provides a powerful case study of this concept:  Engineers recommended the Space Shuttle Challenger not be launched based on specific weather conditions, but the launch was approved due to a lack of clearly communicating risk.

Interview with Tom Cagley re: Scaling Agile

I recently chatted with Tom Cagley on the Software Process and Measurement Podcast (SPaMCAST) about some of my experience helping scale operations at Halfaker using best practices from various business books (e.g. Good to Great), frameworks (e.g. CMMI), techniques (e.g. Agile Scrum), and tools (e.g. JIRA).  I really enjoyed our discussion on why I was excited to JIRA, a tool that is not very opinionated, so we could configure it in some specific ways for individual Halfaker departments and projects.

The SPaMCAST is a great resource for learning more from great thought leaders in the Agile, Process Improvement, and Software Engineering world. Check out the interview at:

And if you’re looking for a Podcast app recommendation, check out Castro for iPhone/iPad.  It has this great “Inbox” concept (works like an Agile backlog, where you can accept things into the backlog and then prioritize/re-prioritize them.

Are you Running in the Right Direction?

Early in my career, I was a leadership development conference (through Lockheed’s great Engineering Leadership Development Program), where we played a game called Gold of the Desert Kings  — it was a group game, in a big event space ballroom packed with engineers from all over the country.  I don’t remember the rules of the game, but I do remember that it was a powerful reminder of how important it is to plan before you start working.

It’s easy to say we should plan before we start doing work — people say things like that all the time:

  • Look before you leap
  • Measure twice, cut once
  • Cal Newport made this point on Ramit Sethi’s blog a while back
  • Agile Scrum “forces” people, every few weeks, to stop and assess where they’ve been (sprint demo), where they’re going (sprint planning), and how they could improve (sprint retrospective)

But while we talk about this often, most people often regress back to a tendency of “jumping in” under pressure, instead of taking a breath and investing the energy of actually building a plan.

At the individual level, people are very quick to start working, trying to “make progress” and “feel productive” without investing the time to validate that they’re working on the most valuable thing. When groups of people (teams) are involved, we’re even worse at this — not only does the team want to jump in to avoid the plan of group planning and not feeling productive, everyone wants everyone else on the team to be productive (busy) so they feel they’re not the only one working hard.  This creates this nasty culture where the team is trying to keep everyone busy (Instead, Goldratt’s The Goal teaches that we need to optimize the entire system, not at the individual person or machine level).

Yes the plan will change, but it’s not the first version of the plan is not the valuable part — it’s the exercise of pulling together all the different pieces of a project and thinking about them together that is valuable.

While making progress on some new task feels more rewarding and productive than building a plan, whether it’s an Agile backlog; a resource-leveled Microsoft Project file; and/or a few quick PowerPoint slides summarizing major activities, schedule, resources, and budget; INVEST the time to make a plan — make sure before you start sprinting in some direction that you’ve actually checked to see if that’s where you should be running.

Wait Time, or How Time Doesn’t Always Fly

A few years ago, we did a team building exercise at work which involved the group whiteboard_examplecollaborating on a vague project with no defined roles for any of us.  I think exercise was intended to show how different personality types could better collaborate, though I learned a very different lesson.

The group of about 15 people was given a vague task, and no leadership roles were assigned.  After what felt like roughly eternity happened, I jumped up to the whiteboard to start facilitating a discussion on how to tackle the challenge.  At the end of the exercise, the person leading the exercise asked me how long I felt like I waited before getting up.  I estimated something like 30 seconds.  I was quickly corrected that it was more like 3 seconds.  In the awkward (at least to me) silence of no one leading or coordinating, I jumped in to coordinate.  I regret not being more self-aware — I wish I could have let people who weren’t in leadership roles get to practice leading and facilitating.

My father, a career 6th grade school-teacher, always talked about the concept of Wait Time when I was growing up:

It can be extremely awkward when a teacher asks the class a question, and it’s met with nothing but crickets. Research has shown that in most classrooms, students are typically given less than one second to respond to a question, regardless of grade level. At the end of that second, some teachers break the silence by either expanding the question or providing the answer. Other teachers choose to cold call on a student for an answer, which typically results in a brief recall response or an embarrassed shrug.

This time period between the teacher’s question and the student response is called wait time…

The teaching concept of Wait Time talks about the need to allow enough time for people to think about a question and formulate an answer.  The concept of wait time should be applied both to letting someone answer and also ensuring that you don’t respond immediately, without thinking about what they said.  brian-regan

Brian Regan (a hilarious comedian) captured it well in his Me Monster bit, where people are trying to one-up each other, waiting for the other person’s lips to stop moving, so they can tell their story to impress everyone else.

Nobody likes the Me Monster, and nobody likes the person who can’t wait for a few seconds to hear what other people in the group think.