From the Princess Bride

Leadership is a critical requirement to attain any significant goal.  The transmission mechanism from leadership to action (and back again) can be distilled into a finite set of actions.  These actions represent a cycle.  Good leaders hit every step in this cycle.  Good leaders: (more…)

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Reflection is a central tenant of all Agile frameworks. Do a bit of planning, execute against that plan, then step back and reflect on what was done and how it can be done better. Reflection acts as both a capstone for a period of work and as an input into the next cycle. For example, in Scrum each sprint culminates with the team performing a retrospective so they can learn and improve. Retrospectives have the same power whether they are team based or done at a personal level. In personal Scrumban, performing a daily retrospective is useful to generating focus and then tuning that focus based on the day-to-day pressures and changes in direction.

Daily retrospectives are a quick reflection on the days activities and how they were performed. The goal of the daily retrospectives is continuous improvement at a very intimate level, focused on the day YOU just completed. The process can be a simple extension of classic listing retrospective techniques (answering the questions “what worked well” and “what did not work,” and then deciding on what can be done better). A second process for daily retrospectives that I often recommend (and the one I use) is to:

  1. Position yourself in front of your Scrumban board. Personal Scrumban boards come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from white boards marked with columns for backlog, doing and done with a few yellow sticky-notes to fairly sophisticated tools like Trello or LeanKit Kanban.
  2. Adjust any cards (or tasks) to ensure that the current state of progress is reflected. This step will ensure you have re-grounded yourself based on what was accomplished during the day and made sure the board is ready for the daily planning/stand-up session the next day (kill as many birds with one stone as possible).
  3. Reflect on what you accomplished during the day. Celebrate the successes, then ask yourself whether you learned anything from what you accomplished that could be generalized and leveraged in future tasks. Alternately, ask yourself what was one new thing you learned today. Make a list and watch it grow. These techniques support process improvement, but are also motivational.
  4. Reflect on what you committed to accomplish during the day and did not complete (if anything). The goal is not to re-plan at this point, but to determine what got in the way and what can be learned from the experience. Pick one of issues you identified that you will commit to working on fixing (and are within your ability to address) and add it to your backlog. Consider for performing more of a formal root cause analysis (Five Whys for example) for the items that continually find their way on list.
  5. Close your notebook or turn off you laptop and call it a day!

The process for daily retrospectives is fairly simple. I try to spend 15 minutes at the end of work every day performing a retrospective. More than once I have tempted to spend more than 15 minutes on the process, however when I do, I find that what I’m really doing is planning for the next day. If I have found a shortcoming to the daily retrospective it is that I try to perform the process as the last event of the day (hence step 5), which makes it easy to forget if I am tired or the day has extended into the wee hours of the morning. Frankly, those are exactly the days that a daily retrospective is needed the most.

Daily retrospectives provide a tool to make changes when they can have the most effect. By their nature, daily retrospectives are more focused than weekly- or team- or sprint-level retrospectives, but that focus makes them very valuable for affecting the day-to-day process of how your work is done. Adding daily retrospective to your personal Scrumban adds the power of an empirical process to your daily grind.

It takes a good attitude to be a good leader.

It takes a good attitude to be a good leader.

As a leader of people is easy to become weary to your bones after trying to convince a reticent organization, team or person to become a butterfly, when all they want to do is to stay in their nice safe cocoon. The forces lined up against you can be daunting. Don’t work against yourself by making your attitude part of the problem. Your attitude is one of your primary tools to lend credibility to your message and convince people to engage and befriend you. There are three attributes you need to consider managing immediately: negativism, sarcasm and partisanship.

Negativism is a habitual attitude of skepticism or resistance to the suggestions, order or instructions of others. This includes change and the belief that change is warranted or even possible. Leading change requires that you believe that you can succeed to motivate yourselves and those you are trying to influence. Without a belief that you can succeed, it will be difficult to get up in the morning and impossible to motivate others. I must at admit that I sometimes find that it is easy to confuse being highly rational with negativism. In the wee hours of the night make sure you evaluate which side of the line you are on and make corrections if you have strayed.

Behavior such as sarcasm might be acceptable amongst friends, but the impact of sarcasm is even less predictable when people do not know you or might have a different cultural filter are involved in the conversation. How many time have you heard “hey can’t they take a joke?” The answer is maybe not if it is apparently funny to their point of view. Frankly, just dropping sarcasm from your portfolio of communication techniques might be the best idea.

Another critical mistake that can be traced back to attitude is a need to have an enemy to strike against. Creating a “we/they” environment creates barriers between groups will make finding common ground more difficult. There are rarely benefits when one side is forced to capitulate to another (it difficult to compromise with someone you view as the enemy). You must recognize that as a leader and a negotiator your goal is to find the best solution for your organization.

Negativism, sarcasm and partisanship will minimize your effectiveness as a leader in the long run, and will add to the burden you need to shoulder in order to make change happen. Leading change is not an easy job. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be. Your attitude can either a simple powerful tool or concrete block to tow behind you.

Getting work done is directly related to focus.

Getting work done is directly related to focus.

The discussion of hyper-connectivity and the techniques to combat the downside of hyper-connectivity has convinced me that in many cases we are dancing around the bigger workplace issue of how can you stay focused on delivering real business value in an environment that seems to be designed to promote making incremental progress on lots of projects rather than getting any one of them done. For those that are not steeped in the theory of lean, that translates to making progress on lots of tasks without finishing the bigger project to which the tasks belong. This focus on activity might be an artifact of workplace cultures that have been downsized and are attempting to get more done with less or the management by objective type behaviors that foster generating silo behaviors. Regardless of workplace I have observed this type of behavior different national cultures. For example, in conversations with Brazilian and Indian friends they have told me the same story of having to juggle multiple priorities and finding it difficult to stay focusing. The causes of the problem include: the after effects of downsizing, a belief in multitasking, lack of prioritization or plain poor management. These are important to understand for a long-term solution, however in the short-term, tactics are needed to generate focus in order to get into the flow! A few of the techniques I use or have been shared to help generate focus include:

  • Organize your workspace to avoid distractions – Clutter is not your friend. My desk is a hodgepodge of pictures, magazines waiting to read, piles of paid bills, several monitors, hard drives, microphones and an audio mixer. All sorts of cool and interesting stuff that screams for attention. I don’t do work that requires focus in my office anymore. The dining room table that no one uses provides an austere environment that promotes focus. I go back to my office to play.
  • Prepare to focus – A friend that writes for a living suggested that you have what you need close at hand before you start on a task. In other words, get that cup of coffee, tea or water before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Preparation includes making sure you laptop is plugged in or has a charge and literally visiting the bathroom upfront.
  • Have a routine – Frameworks like Scrum or Kanban have a very specific, built-in routine. Each project, release, sprint and day begin with a planning exercise. Time management technique like Getting Things Done (GTD) include planning specific next steps as soon as the previous step is completed. In recent Slate Working Podcast titled The “How Does a Cartoonist Work?” Edition, David Plotz interviewed Washington Post cartoonist, Tom Toles. Mr Toles said that he learned early on that routine was required to continually generate creative content. Routine liberated him from have to think deeply about mundane decisions that needed to be made on a day basis, allowing more time to be work on what really delivered value.
  • Plan – A corollary to having a routine. Plan and re-plan as needed. If nothing else, spend the first few minutes of every day planning the day ahead, and then re-plan as “stuff” happens.
  • Share your “rules” – If you work in a team and you are going to try techniques like the 20 minute sprint or the two email rule, let your friends, co-workers and boss know what you are doing. Also consider asking for their support in enforcing the techniques (thanks to Mauricio Aguiar for the addendum).
  • Airplane mode – While listening to an introduction to a speaker at the Brazilian Metricas 2014 conference, the conference chair suggest to the audience that turning their phones on airplane mode was a better choice than setting their phones to silent.  Airplane mode would ensure they were not interrupted so that they could pay proper attention.  Point well made.

In a response to Hyper-connectivity and The Illusion of Progress, Gene Hughson stated “The illusion of importance also applies in that the need for constant connection can be a conceit – “I’m too important to be out of touch, even for a minute”.” That conceit can lead to a reduction in productivity and effectiveness that hurts everyone. Re-focusing on focus requires sacrificing some of the distractions that make us feel that we are at the center of the importance universe (at least for 20 minutes at a time).

Goals are the carrots that keep teams motivated.

Goals are the carrots that keep teams motivated.

Teams are a critical tool to deliver work in IT organizations. There are several common attributes of effective teams. A simple search of the internet or the books on your shelves will yield myriad lists that identify attributes of effective teams. Nearly every list is topped by shared team goals. In order to be effective, goals must be aspirational, lead activity and agreed upon.

Goals by definition need to be aspirational. Goals guide teams to improve how they perform.  In order for a goal to be aspirational, a goal must be set beyond what typical performance levels would deliver BUT be both attainable and be perceived as important to helping the broader organization meet it mission.  Goals that are not attainable or not perceived to be important will not inspire or motivate teams. Team members elevate their performance because they can make a difference.

Goals provide teams with an objective. In order to meet their objectives teams use the goals as a tool in the planning process. For example, in Agile projects each sprint will reflect both goals of the release plan (high-level goals) and stories selected by the product owner that are required to generate the tasks needed to deliver value. Without goals to focus on planning teams will be apt to wander.

Goals work best when teams participate in setting their goals rather than having goals imposed. Earlier in my career I was a marketing statistician for a women’s garment manufacturer. It was one of the most top-down organizations I have ever worked for in my career (and it no longer exists). At the beginning of every sales period I would lead the sales department in setting quotas for the sales force based on historical data and market intelligence. These quotas were then assigned to the sales force. I spent time in meetings (and bars) with the sales people, and to a person I learned that the quotas motivated no one (each sales person was driven, but not by quotas). Had we involved them in setting the quotas required to meet the company goals, it is very possible that the sales people would have been motivated by the process.

Goals that are out or reach or inflicted on a team will sap them of critical motivation and can cause poor behavior. Teams that do not believe in the goals they are asked to pursue can and do reject those goals, and then under-perform or end up not delivering what the business needs. Goals are important tools to provide teams with a vision of what they need to accomplish and then provide reinforcing motivation.

Engagement and feedback are interrelated like the bricks in the aqueduct.

Engagement and feedback are interrelated like the bricks in the aqueduct.

In Senior Management and the Success of Agile Implementation, I described the results of a survey of experienced process improvement personnel, testers or developers felt contribute to a successful Agile implementation. Tied for second place in the survey were team engagement and generating early feedback. These two concepts are curiously inter-related.

Team engagement is a reflection of motivated and capable individuals working together.  Agile provides teams with the tools to instill unity of purpose. Working with the business on a continuous basis provides the team a clear understanding of the project’s purpose. Short iterations provide the team with a sense of progress. Self-management and retrospectives provide teams with a degree of control over how they tackle impediments.  Finally, the end-of-sprint demonstrations provide early feedback. Feedback helps reinforce the team’s sense of purpose, which reinforces motivation.

Early feedback was noted in the survey as often as team engagement. In classic software development projects, the project would progress from requirements through analysis, design, coding and testing before customers would see functional code.  Progress in these methods is conveyed through process documents (e.g. requirements documents) and status reports. On the other hand, one of the most important principles of Agile states:

Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.

Delivering functional software provides all of the project’s stakeholders with explicit proof of progress, and provides stakeholders with a chance to provide feedback based on code they can execute. Early feedback increases stakeholder engagement and satisfaction, which also helps to motivate the team. As importantly, since stakeholders see incremental progress, any required course corrections are also incremental.  Incremental course corrections help to ensure that when the project is complete that most value possible has been delivered.

Team engagement and early feedback are both important to successful Agile implementations. Interestingly, both concepts are inter-twined. Feedback helps to generate engagement and motivation. As one of the respondents to the survey stated, “Agile succeeds when it instills ‘unity of purpose’ and builds a ‘community of trust’ within an organization.” Team engagement and early feedback provides a platform for Agile success.

Expectations, when positive, can be an important motivation tool.  The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines expectation as “a belief that something will happen or is likely to happen” [1]   They provide the motivation to begin a new project or to plan for the future. The belief that something good will happen can provide a significant amount of energy to propel toward our goals.

Goals, in the long run, must be based on our expectations. When we discover that our expectations are impossible they stop being motivators. I realized many years ago that the possibility of winning the lottery

Chances are that unless you ask you will not get what you want.

Chances are that unless you ask you will not get what you want.

is not a motivator to me, I understand statistics and therefore I don’t play. For me, saying that I expect to win the lottery has no motivational power because I have no expectation of winning unless someone hands me a ticket.  If I were to set a goal of winning the lottery with no real expectation of achieving that goal I would be setting myself up for disappointment. Another example of the impact of the mismatch between goals and expectations can be seen in poorly set project estimates.  Occasionally (I am being kind), I see PMOs or managers set an estimate for a project team without input or participation.  Usually the estimate is wrong, and wrong low.  One could suggest that there are many physiological reasons for setting a low estimate, ranging from creating an anchor bias to providing the team a stretch goal. In most cases no one on the team is fooled (at least more than once) therefore no one is motivated.

Second criteria for maximizing to potential for meeting expectations is to voice the expectations.  My wife occasionally berates me about letting unvoiced expectations get in the way of a good time. These expectations usually have to do with the dining while out and about. Expectations that are unvoiced and therefore potentially unmet can cause anger and resentment. We can’t simply assume that the picture we have in our head about the future will just happen.  A number of times over my career as a manager, employees have come to me to let me know that they had wanted to be assigned to a specific project after someone else had volunteered.   In most cases these employees had formed an expectation about their role and the project but had never voiced that expectation.  Because the expectation was unvoiced it had far less chance of being met.

As we contemplate the New Year we need to make sure our expectations of the future are possible.  Expectations that are goals are important motivators but only if they our our expectations therefore those we believe they will happen. Voicing our expectations is also an important step towards realizing those expectations.  Like the raise you want but have not taken the opportunity to ask for.  An unvoiced expectation is less apt to evoke feedback, for example, if you asked for a raise that did not match your performance  as a child you may well have been told no.  But, unless you ask and make your case, you may never get that raise.  Setting our expectations for the New Year is no different.  Set your goals and expectations, share them and listen to the feedback.  Avoiding impossible and unvoiced expectations will  educe the potential for disappointment and resentment in the New Year.


[1] “Expectation.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2013. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/expectation&gt;