Monday, November 14, 2016

Review: Grit for Kids: 16 top steps for developing Grit, Passion, Willpower, and Perseverance in kids for self-confidence and a successful life

Because I had written reviews of Grit and other some education related books Lee David Daniels sent me a review copy of his short book Grit for Kids. While the title would have caught my eye, I’m not sure that I would have stumbled upon it otherwise, and I’m glad that the author brought it to my attention. While the book, by nature of its length, leaves out quite a bit about the concept and its application of Grit to parenting, it does provide a useful, actionable, introduction to concept.

Grit for Kids is a short, application focused short book that can provide some needed guidance to parents who are struggling with how to help their kids follow through in the face of challenges, or just boredom. It says a minimal amount about the theory of “grit” and dives into scenarios and techniques you can use to encourage the right combination of endurance and passion with children in your care. The examples are realistic and address children of a variety of ages from later elementary to high school.

The author captures the essential parts of grit, including the subtlety that gets lost in many interpretations which focus on "persistence" over all else. As Angela Duckworth describes the concept of “grit,” it also means understanding your limits. I would recommend reading Grit, but that is a larger time commitment, and this book might just fill a gap. It will give you ideas to get started, as it is easily readable during a couple of short blocks of idle time, like a subway or bus commute.

The book would be better if the author pointed to resources to go more deeply, and it is a bit simplistic. But if you are looking for a way to understand how to help your kids get on the road to being grittier, then this is worth a look if the price is right. But do follow up with the original book, or at least the TED talk.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review: 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings: How to Get By Without Even Trying

Sarah Cooper’s book 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings, is very much a fun, and funny book, which, is also surprisingly useful and relevant. Part satire, part social commentary, it reminds us of people and situations we’ve been in and gives us the opportunity to laugh at others and ourselves. If you’ve been in any medium to large size organization (or had to interact with one), you’ve seen most of these “tricks” in action, and you’re likely to want to share select items with others, laugh out loud, or perhaps wistfully imagine life where these things didn’t happen. But the book offers more than just the opportunity to mock your corporate colleagues. After having a good laugh, you have the opportunity to think about why some of these tricks, — especially the ones that sound so reasonable — make you cringe when you see them in action. And that thought process can lead to better collaboration.

Let’s start by taking a step back (see tip # 3). All of the items Cooper mentions are things that really happen, and they don’t always make you cringe. The answer is (Imagine this on a slide by itself — tip # 53): “Context.” While you’ve probably seen all of these techniques be presented as part of a collection of meeting tactics and mechanisms. When you are doing these things for the right reasons, with the interests of the group in mind, most of these tricks in the book can be useful. It’s when you do them to win an argument, suppress ideas, or just because “it’s what you do” that the techniques become cringe worthy. If reading this book makes you more self aware of how you appear in meetings, you’ll get extra value. Though the humor value is more than enough to justify getting the book.

After you read Cooper's book (and I do suggest that you follow her advice and get a copy for yourself as well as a copy or two for a colleague), think about the meetings you've been in and the ones you are about to be in. Consider if they are useful, and have only the right people. Some are. Many aren't. I suggest getting a physical copy of the book, because having one in the office (and perhaps on the table during certain meetings) will help people keep their jobs in perspective.

Sara Cooper captures the essence of useless meetings with humor and uncanny accuracy.
100 Tricks is a fun, entertaining read in the spirit of Dilbert, which will amuse you, help you get through a demoralizing day at work, and surprisingly, help you think about how to do better.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Mindfulness, Resilience and Positive Intelligence (Book Review)

I got a copy of Positive Intelligence at the recommendation of a leadership coach. After having done the “Saboteur” quiz on the Positive Intelligence site, I wanted to learn more about the his approach. While the book gets at some of the concepts I've seen in other places, the approach is worth exploring.

The positive intelligence framework is that we have within us Saboteurs, which hold us back, and a Sage, which helps us explore possibilities. While the anthropomorphism initially made me feel a bit awkward, there is some power in ascribing non-productive reactions to a part of your thought process, and giving it a name. The book explains techniques to both be more attentive to, and thus able to suppress, your saboteurs, and also how to “strengthen” your Sage, so you can treat setbacks as opportunities more readily.

Some of the basic themes of Positive Intelligence may sound familiar if you’ve spent any time learning about team leadership, but Chamine’s way of modeling them adds an interesting and compelling twist. Saboteurs are reminiscent of the concept of “survival rules” that I first learned about while reading one of Jerry Weinberg’s Becoming a Technical Leader. Like survival rules, saboteurs are useful in certain circumstances, but have negative effects when you misapply them. Chamine describes how each Saboteur manifests themselves in terms of how you feel, act, and how others may perceive you. He then describes techniques to become more aware of them so that you can take a step back and act appropriately.

In short, this is a book about mindfulness and resilience, both very useful concepts that are very difficult to apply. Even if you feel like you have a basic appreciation of the how to be be more mindful and resilient, reading about them again, and considering a slightly different approach to achieving them can’t hurt.

While it has a business focus, you can apply what you learn to both personal and work situations. The author also explains how to apply the model and techniques in individual and team contexts. And while not about Agile, the book also left me with some ideas for activities to use in Sprint Retrospectives, which are after all, a practice teams use to be more mindful and resilient.

Positive Intelligence is a rather quick read (but you will want to take notes and mark pages), which mixes discussions, stories, and practices, so you can apply what you’ve learned. The book also makes frequent references to resource on the companion website. If you feel that negative reactions are holding you back, even subtly, this book is worth a read.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tribe: A Multi Level Discussion of Community

Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is a book about the seemingly unlikely combination of community and war. It covered a lot of ground, and as such left me with a bit unsure of what Junger wanted his readers to take from it. But perhaps that’s his point: community and interdependence is a complex issue that works on many levels. You may not agree with all of Junger’s conclusions, or simply have a lot of questions, but since he has a number of references in the back, you have to tools to explore his sources more deeply.

Because of diversity of the topics in the book, Tribe got me thinking about quite a few things in ways that I hadn’t expected. The book opens with a discussion the realization that modern society seems to be at odds with the intrinsic values that “self-determination theory” describes, and how the values of tribal societies support mental (and physical) health in both direct in direct ways. With a mix of history, quotes, stories from his experience, and analysis, Junger makes a compelling argument for why we need to think about why we lost some of these values from early societies and how to get them back.

This book could simply be a discussion of how our society lacks the values and social interactions of traditional tribal societies, and how we reintegrate that sense of community into our modern lives. But the book goes into the interesting direction of describing how we often do create these kinds of “tribes” when faced with adversity. He draws examples from times of disaster and war, and the bulk of the book discusses how how the disconnect between the majority of society behaves and how groups work together in combat situations can get in the way of veterans reintegrating into society.

The book alternates between the macro problem of how to help veterans (and others who do difficult, traumatic work on our behalf) feel part of our society, and the micro problem of how we, as individuals, can maintain connections and responsibility. While a bit disorienting at first, the combination makes sense in the end, as developing a community is something that works at all levels of scale.

A recurring, underlying, question, throughout the book is “why is it that we work together best, when things are at their worst, but abandon good principles and practices when things get better?” Junger explores this in great detail in the context of war and disaster. On a seemingly more trivial level it also happens in the context of projects; I’ve often seen the best collaboration happen when a team is faced with a project in crisis. The irony is that, if they’d had the same kind of collaboration — at a less intense level — earlier in the process there would be no crisis. We’d all benefit from thinking about why we don’t realize the values of community, collaboration, and interdependence until we are at a crisis.

Tribe is a book about many things that will likely get you thinking about society, how you fit into it, and how you’d like to fit into it, and is worth the short investment of reading time, though be forewarned that it may lead to a greater investment in thought.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Ted Talks (Book Review)

TED talks often get me intrigued and inspired about topics that I sometimes hadn’t thought about before. As someone who speaks to various audiences at work and at professional events, I’m always looking for ideas about how to be a better speaker, and TED Talks, The official TED Guide to Public Speaking sounded like a promising resource, and I wasn’t disappointed. The book provides some good guidance about everything from developing an idea to actually speaking on stage. Even if you never expect to speak on the TED Stage or any other, the book still has value. Anderson points out early and repeatedly that “presentation literacy” is an important skill for everyone. Even if you never present to a formal audience, learning how to organize and distill what you want to say is a valuable skill, and many of the concepts are relevant to writing as well. Keeping “presentation presence” in mind can be useful even if you are sharing an idea with a colleague. If you want to be a better presenter (in any context) this is a worthwhile book to read.

A key premise of the advice here is that an effective talk isn’t meant to convince or lobby, but to share your passion for an idea, and perhaps spread it to others. While this may sound like this book is not useful to those who are interested in selling ideas or convincing others, it may actually be. My first post-college job involved doing a bit of pre-sales technical support and the sales manager I worked with told me that “people told like to be sold to, they like to buy.” This resonates with my experience. If you can share well an idea that you are passionate about, you’ll find the people who are interested, and you avoid the discomfort that people often feel when they are receiving a sales pitch.

While reading I was both excited and saddened as Anderson explained why some conventions that you may have learned about presenting are a best not valuable, and at worst a distraction. I was excited because books such as Presentation Zen and Back of the Napkin helped me to understand that slides and other visuals are there to support your ideas, not be the medium for presenting them. But even with the popularity of TED and other approaches that get us away from the text heavy, read your bullet point slides approach Powerpoint presentations with dense bullet points seem to be an organizational standard that is hard to change. Even in elementary school, where powerpoint is a presentation option I cringe when I see the patterns that my son follows when doing a presentation for an elementary school class.

Anderson includes examples from a variety of good (and not so good) TED talks, which makes some of the abstract ideas more concrete. In some cases, he over does it, which makes the book longer than it could have been, but that is not a fatal flaw. When combined with the pointers to TED talks in the back, the examples make this book a bit of a “best of TED,” and a great way to learn more about the scope of TED topics if you have only seen a few.

Overall, this is a useful book that can inspire and guide you being a better presenter of ideas. Even if you don’t intend to present the first section will help you organize your ideas better. And the need to present may happen when you don’t expect it. The book ends with a survey of techniques to try and venues to practice. Even if you don’t expect to be a future TED presenter, this book can help you be a better presenter in any venue.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Starting and Closing Agile Retrospectives with People in Mind

One of the more powerful aspects of agile software development methods such as Scrum is that they acknowledge the importance of individuals and their interactions in delivering quality software. As much as it is important to review and adapt the product backlog by having sprint review meetings at the end of each sprint, it is also important to have retrospectives to inspect and adapt how the Scrum process works on a team. The Sprint Review is about the tasks and scope (the “What” of the sprint). The Sprint Retrospective is about the Scrum process (the ‘How”). Sadly, many teams miss out on some value by glossing over the parts of a retrospective that acknowledge the human elements of the scrum process. By using some simple techniques teams can improve their retrospectives by putting more emphasis on people.
Allocating time for a retrospective every 2 weeks (if you use 2 week sprints) can be a challenge. The 5 step structure that Ester Derby and Diana Larson describe in their book Agile Retrospectives is an excellent framework for making good use of retrospective time. The steps are:
  • Set the Stage, where you introduce the plan for the retrospective, and help people move towards a mindset that will help identify problems
  • Gather Data, where you collect information about what went on during a sprint. Some of the data collection can happen before the actual meeting, but people will likely think of information to add.
  • Generate Insights, where you identify patterns and connections between events, and start to consider why things may have happened.
  • Decide what to do, where you collect ideas for things to do going forward, and then focus on a handful to explore in detail.
  • Close, where you review action items, appreciate the work people did, and perhaps discuss the retrospective.
These steps create an environment where people can feel safe, and help the team to explore the really impediments to improvement. Often teams skip steps, merge steps, or don’t consider whether the exercises they use at each stage move the process forward. Using structured exercises like those in Derby and Larsen’s book help keep the retrospective focused. Another common tendency is to problem solve too early, combining the Gather Data, Generate Insights, and Decide What to do steps. These mistake is often self correcting, as teams discover that they come out of retrospectives with actions that address superficial problems.
A bigger problem is when teams skip the steps that address the humans on the agile team. For example, particular, some facilitators skip over Setting the Stage, or Closing, in an effort to allow time for the “significant” parts of the meeting. While only a small part of the meeting time, the Setting the Stage and Closing steps, are quite valuable in terms of impact.
Setting the Stage for the retrospective can take just a few minutes, and can improve the effectiveness of the entire meeting by creating an environment where people feel comfortable collaborating. There are many reasons people may not contribute, including simple shyness or lack of attention, or even concern about getting blamed for something. Setting the Stage correctly can help engage the team more fully in the process by bootstrapping participation and emphasizing that the retrospective is about improvement not blame.
I often start a retrospective with an exercise that involves going around the room and giving people a chance to say a word or two about something, for example “one word about how they feel the sprint went”, or “how they feel about the retrospective ”, or even “one thing about yourself that you’d like you share with the team.” This often helps people step out of a spectator role. Note: Always give people the option to say “Pass,” since forcing people to reveal something about themselves is counter to the values of a retrospective; even saying “Pass” gets people engaged in the process.
To reenforce the constructive goals of the meeting, teams I work with sometimes start retrospectives by having someone read The Retrospective Prime Directive, and ask everyone if the agree. While some people initially feel like this process is a bit silly, may teams find it valuable, and make an effort to rotate who reads the Prime Directive.
The other part of the retrospective that can help maintain connection is the Close. I encourage teams that I work with to incorporate appreciations into their closings. Appreciations are a structured way of acknowledging the work someone did during the sprint. A quick appreciation can really help people feel engaged and valued, and the process helps the team consider the value each brings to the group.
By setting the stage and closing your retrospectives well you can help your team get more value out of retrospectives, and help form a stronger, more effective team. Inspect and Adapt isn’t just about the tasks, it’s about the how the team works too.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Grit with the Nuances (Book Review)

The headline version of what Grit is and how it is important to success doesn’t do the concept justice. That hard work and persistence are as much, if not more, important to talent for success is both appealing on the surface and simplistic. Many subtle details get lost in the elevator pitch, and reading Grit answered many of my questions, and gave me some guidance on how to be more successful in reaching my goals, and how to give my child tools to do the same.

Duckworth draws on the work of people like Cyzmenthaly (Flow), Seligman (Learned Optimism), Carol Dweck (Mindset), Adam Grant (Originals, Give and Take ) . I’ve followed the work of all of these people in my quest to better understand how to help teams be more effective, and also how to be a better parent. These concepts are more widely applicable than you might initially think. Flow first came to my attention via Kent Beck, and Learned Optimism via a reference in a book by Jurgen Appelo (Management 3.0) Team and family dynamics have a lot in common.; Gerald Weinberg often refers to the work of Virginia Satir in his writings on quality management.

Through a combination of summaries of her research, stories, and discussions of things to do Duckworth both helps you understand the nuances of grit, and give you ideas for ways to understand and improve the level of grittiness for yourself and those in your charge. Parents, managers, and leaders will find this book an inspiring read. Well written and easy to get through quickly, and you will find yourself wanting to refer to your notes and bookmarks often.

My favorite line from the book is “before hard work comes play” which summarizes the concept that to be gritty you really need a goal that engages you, and it may take some time to discover that. While some of the headlines on grit left me wondering about were how much torturous hard work was involved in being gritty as opposed to just having fun, Duckworth’s use of the phrase “play before passion” was both comforting and intuitive to me. It takes a while to understand what gets you interested, and only once you find those things can you apply yourself in a way that doesn’t totally wear you down.

If you’ve read Mindset, Originals, or Give and Take, there will be some familiar moments. Flow, Learned Optimism, Growth Mindset, and Grit compliment each other; one can lead to another. That I’ve read many of those books over the years in my quest to better understand motivation and engagement (and thus try to be a better manager and parent) may speak to my “Grittiness”

Duckworth also speaks to the issue of practicality. Some passions aren’t practical pursuits, but she gives examples of people who incorporated seemingly impractical passions into their more pedestrian careers to be both successful and helpful. Likewise she relates stories of people who do seemingly mundane things (managing a subway system, managing a janitorial company) and find it extremely rewarding. Since you can only have so many goals that you can focus on, finding commonality between goals is also helpful. For example, many of the things I learn about being a better parent are applicable in people management, and vis versa.

Along with a non-academic description of the theory of Grit, Duckworth discusses how you can better understand and develop your Grittiness and help your children develop it. This book goes into more detail about what Grit is, resolving many of my questions about what Grit really meant and how to improve it (possible) and measure it (not simply). This is a very clear discussion of what Grit is, and is not, and also a pragmatic guide to finding your passion, and develop your skills. If you are a parent, a manager, of just someone trying to master a skill, Grit will inspire you and give you much to ponder.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Recent Reads: Leadership, Use Cases

Here are a few articles I’ve read recently that I though were worth sharing. The first two are by Kate Mastudaira, who’s ACM articles on people management are always well written and often seem to be consistent with things I’ve learned from reading and speaking with Jerry Weinberg. The third is from the person many most associate with Use Cases, Ivar Jacobson, about an update to Use Cases that seems to align more closely with agile methods.

Delegation as Art by Kate Matsudaira

A good discussion about what it means to be a “senior engineer.” in particular, “senior” implies leadership, which implies teaching. This quote hits the highlights, but the article is still worth a read:

Being a senior engineer means having strong technical skills, the ability to communicate well and navigate ambiguous situations, and most important of all, the ability to grow and lead other people.

Nine Things I Didn't Know I Would Learn Being an Engineer Manager by Kate Matsudaira

This article explains why being a good engineering manager is not all about technical skill, but also (more so?) about communicating, coordinating, and listening. Kate Mats also shares links to resources about techniques to use to improve your non-technical skills. Whether you agree or not with what she says, her points can get you thinking.

Use Case 2.0 by Ivar Jacobson

This article goes into an updated view of use cases, adopting a few ideas from agile planning. Since Use Cases are the canonical way people like to talk about requirements on traditional projects, knowing about this might be a good way to bridge the gap between “waterfall” and “agile” projects.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Giving, Taking, and Being Successful

Giving, Taking, and Being Successful

I’ve been making good use of my commute time recently, catching up on reading, and in particular, the stack of physical books on non-fiction topics that are somewhat relevant to my work. I was making good progress, only to have new, interesting stuff cross my path. One Sunday morning in December I caught part of an interview with Adam Grant on On Being. I wasn’t familiar with Adam Grant before this, but I’m extremely glad that I caught the show. I soon got a copy of Give and Take by Adam Grant, and I read his next book Originals shortly after it came out. In the spirt of giving, and of the serendipity that led me to learn about Adam Grant, I’ll also mention some of the other books Give and Take brought to mind.

I read Give and Take by Adam Grant as last year ended. This is was a great book to end one year and start another with, as it got me thinking about the value of generosity, not just to others, but also to your self.

Grant explains how givers (as opposed to takers and matchers) get ahead in the long run and also help their teams succeed. Teams which have people who have a positive attitude towards helping others in small ways often do better in the end, and in the long run the helpers are more successful too. This goes contrary to the idea that the way that you make progress is to focus on what you need to do. The reality is that for most complex knowledge work, you can’t do it all yourself. As Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist says, the best creativity is inspired by the work of others. Helping others both enables the larger unit to make forward progress, as well as making it easier for you to get help with your work when you need it.

The idea of people who make the team better, even when their short term contributions don’t seem as significant brings to mind "Catalysts" as mentioned by Tom Demarco in Peopleware.( Slack, another book by Demarco, also came to mind because of it’s discussion of the willingness of volunteers to contribute to efforts). This book also brought to mind another recent book, Invisibles, which discusses the “invisible” people who make things happen, and who are happy to be out of the spotlight. I don’t know if I can say that all invisibles are givers but I would not be surprised if that were true.

Giving can have limits. Many people struggle with how to balance the idea that being helpful and generous is good, while not overcommitting themselves. Grant explains how to be a giver and not overextend yourself. Likewise, givers often have a hard time taking care of themselves by leveraging their tendencies to advocate for others. Both approaches involve an an “otherish-strategy,” which is one of the more interesting (of many interesting) concepts in the book.

To those familiar with Jerry Weinberg, this will seem related to the Airplane Mask metaphor in Secrets of Consulting. Grant gives a more detailed model of how to think it through. Weinberg’s metaphor is still good to keep in in front of mind though.

This book resonated with me on many levels. There are lessons here that will help me in my roles an agile software developer, manager, member or my town community, and member of my UU church community. The information here resonates with, and explains, many things I've learned from Gerald Weinberg, about technical leadership (as in the book Becoming a Technical Leader, and Gil Broza about the agile mindset, and many other useful things I've read about how to be an effective team member.

This book will help you to understand why that's true, how you can be a more effective giver, and how to encourage others to give, so that you can be part of a more effective team or community. As Adam Grant says, we need more givers.

update March 28, 2016: Fixed reference to the correct Tom DeMarco book. I mentioned Slack. I meant Peopleware.

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Sunday, February 7, 2016

How Mindsets can Help or Hinder Learning (Book Review)

It was inevitable that I would read Mindset. Having recently read two books Give and Take by Adam Grant, and How Children Succeed by Paul Tough) which referenced this book, and having heard mention of it in other contexts as well. As promised on the cover, Mindset provides advice that you can apply whether you are a manager, worker, parent, teacher, or some combination. Carol Dweck does a great job of explaining an idea with a lot of research behind it in a popular book, without glossing over too many points. There were a few places where I thought the book dragged a bit, but those sections were brief and far between, and on net it was a quick enjoyable read.

The point of Mindset is that people have one or two mindsets: fixed mindset which is premised on the idea that you abilities and qualities are carved in stone, and the growth mindset which is based on the belief that your basic qualities are cultivated through effort. The 2 mindsets in Dweck’s model provide a powerful framework for understanding how people approach challenges. Those who approach situations with a fixed mindset are likely to see failure as a reflection of their value. Those with a growth mindset are more likely to see a set back as an opportunity to learn and improve.

People can have different mindsets in different aspects of their lives (work, relationships, artistic, technical). Dweck also explains that mindsets are “just beliefs” so you can change them if you want. Mindsets are not just a way people are. From the names you can guess that the growth mindset is the one that can lead you to better things. The most interesting parts of the book for me were the discussions about you can develop (in your self) and nurture (in others) a growth mindset.

While the fixed mindset v growth mindset concept seems simplistic at first glance, it is seems extremely powerful. While reading I found myself thinking “so maybe that is why I do that…” or “maybe I should consider the mindset model when dealing with a colleague.” Since the book wraps up with a focus on education, it led me to consider my approach to encouraging an motivating my (as I write this) third grader .

Since mindsets are not innate, one might ask why anyone would stay in a fixed mindset. The discusson of why that happens lie the most interesting lessons for self-improvement. Your mindset can be re-enforced early in life, and like all things that connect back to childhood experiences, the messages you get early in life are hard to get past, even if they are slowing you down. Dweck shares both data and anecdotes of how various mentors tried to help students ended up moving from a fixed to a growth mindset, with various degrees of success. That all of the stories are not “fairy tale” success stories grounds the concepts in reality. All change is hard, and not everyone can success absolutely. But you can benefit from trying.

Dweck discusses the application of mindsets in many realms, including business, relationships, and education. The book ends with an explanation of a program for elementary schools to help develop growth mindsets, which is appropriate given the focus of Dweck’s research and the value of improving mindset early on. The area that is most interesting to me professionally is how the mindset model relates to leadership approaches.

We often think of leaders in terms of raw ‘talent’ … and that “effort” is for those who don’t have talent. In reality it takes both effort and talent to be continually successful. Dweck explains that more often than not great leaders are the people who were constantly trying to improve, and who don’t have all the right answers starting out. What leads to success is willingness to make a effort to improve. Raw talent helps, to be sure, but it can’t sustain success.

One thing that the book didn’t address for me, though perhaps the answer is obvious, is the question of sustainability. If a growth mindset is good, and is all about meeting challenges, would a growth mindset lead to you overextend your self? Is what we might call “knowing your limits” a manifestation of a fixed mindset? I suspect that the answer is no. There’s a difference between having a perspective that obstacles can be overcome, and having the energy or bandwidth to meet all challenges head on.

There are number of lessons I felt that I could apply immediately to understanding my personal life, helping my (as I write this) third grader, and understanding how to work with teams and people at work. Mindset can inspire you to meet challenges with more confidence, and help you to better understand your interactions with others.

Books mentioned in this article:

Monday, February 1, 2016

Team of Teams: An Unexpected Source of Agile Inspiration

One can find insight in unexpected places. Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal et al is a book about dealing with organizational complexity, written by a general, which uses the war against Al Queda as a common thread. I was somewhat skeptical that I could find information here about software teams that I'd find immediately useful, regardless of how interesting it was. I was wrong. In addition to the advice I was expecting to read about team dynamics, I gained some insights that I thought would be immediately applicable to scaling Scrum Teams.

Fairly early into Team of Teams the authors explain that this is not a war story. While it's true that the common thread in the book is how General McChrystal worked to get the army more able to adapt to a decentralized, agile enemy, there are are also stories from commercial aviation, NASA, and corporate America. While there is a fair amount of military history in this book, there is also a discussion of the history of manufacturing process improvement, office space, and even personal stories about gardening.

The message in this book is that command and control structures don't work in complicated, information rich environments that deal with complex problems. He defines complicated as "having many parts" and complex as having many interactions. To get things done in this kind of environment you many need to cast aside what you are used to thinking of an efficient approach.

McChrystal draws a contrast between being resilient and being robust: The more you optimize a complexy system for a specific goal, the less resilient it becomes. Likewise efficiency isn't always better than adaptabilty: you can build a system that is good at doing things right, but is too inflexible to do the right thing. Redundancy and overlap can enable adaptability; an efficient system that does the wrong thing doesn't add value.

Had McChrystal been delivering this message in the context of a corporate enviroment, you might dismiss this as another instance of someone who is in an environment suitable for agile singing the praises of agility. That he's talking about battle command situations, the canonical top-down environment, gets your attention. As with Turn the Ship Around this provides evidence that an "agile" approach can work in more circumstances than you might guess.

At the core of the book is the philosophy that too much control of information and decision making slows down a group's ability to react to situations. The situations described in the book were ones where the risks of acting too slowly are higher than the risks of competent peope making judgment calls. Automomous decisions are usually good as long as they are visible and shared. While most business decisions don't have the same life or death implications of those made in a war zone, slow decision making can have a business cost, and potentially a morale cost if people feel undervalued and micromanaged.

McChrystal advises us that it's not enough to "empower" people in name only. Automony and delegation only work with a clear understanding of a common purpose. Communication channels and shared information are important to both sharing the common purpose and giving people the tools to act in a manner consistent with that purpose. One technique he used was to provide for open office spaces. McChrystal acknowledges that open office space only improves team productivity when everyone is working on related problems, and that open office space as a way to be "space efficient" is productivity inefficient. Video conferencing for his troops was also important, as his teams needed to communicate with others in remote places. As someone who works in a company with people in multiple locations, the stories of the challenges of setting up video conferencing sounded all too familiar. That they were successful in a low bandwidth war zone situation was encouraging.

The book also had some insights about scaling teams that had an implication for scaling Scrum. While it's appealing to think of projects at scale as hierarchical, each level of hierarchy hides information. That can be fine when everyone knows what other teams need to know and not know. But that kind of knowledge is rare. McChrystal's approach to scaling is that everyone needs to know someone on every team so that information will flow organically.

I found both inspiration for seeking ways to improve, and practical advice about how to structure teams and be an effective manager in this book. While not about agile per-se, I think that there are lessons here that apply to those trying encourage agile adoption in a non-agile situation, and also for those looking to scale agile.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

How Children Succeed: Rethinking What's Important (Book Review)

When listening to news coverage of education reform, and talking with parents and teachers, one hears a variety of views about what “The Best” approach to education is. While I’ve spent a lot of team learning about teams (of adults), and I have some opinions about what seemed to work best for me when I went to school, I realized that I didn’t really know much about research into education. To that end, I started reading How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, and in the process started to reconsider many of my preconceptions about what’s best for kids, and along the way I learned a few things that I can use to help the people I work with succeed.

A lot of the discussion around elementary (and earlier) education is around what children learn and when. How Children Succeed reminded me that learning isn’t all about academics, and that not all learning happens in school.

Some of the concepts and principles that the books discusses, like Flow, Grit, and the ideas of Seligman in Learned Optimism, are ones that I’ve come across while reading about how adults work, so I felt that many of the concepts, if not the details, are excellent ones to have in mind while working with my teams.

Paul Tough starts out the book with a description of a pre-kindergarten class using the Tools of the Mind curriculum. This approach, which my son’s kindergarten class followed, is about teaching executive function, a set of skills that helps someone interact with other and learn. As the book progresses, Tough describes the other traits that are more related to “character” than “academics.” The argument is that these “non-cognitive” or “character skills” – things like grit, resilience, and resourcefulness, are often a better predictor of eventually success than mastery of academic disciplines. The data Tough presents are compelling, and the related anecdotes are quite motivating, and the challenges to putting these lessons into practice are somewhat daunting,

There are challenges to teaching children these kinds of skills. Using the word “character” can lead to political issues. If you get past those questions. Evaluating character and non-cognitive skills is hard, and teaching these skills is more work than simply correcting an incorrect fact or algorithm. A more concrete issue is how to get past a culture where academic testing is the norm. A recent NPR story on changes to the SAT mentioned that some states are considering using college entrance exams as an assessment mechanism at the same moment as colleges are making them optional.

Character traits are not all there is to success. Academics are important too. The character skills that the book describes are not enough to master a discipline; mastery takes practice too. The character skills do enable you to learn academic (and other) skills though. Academics and character are both important but it may make sense to change our priorities from focusing primarily on academics.

If I think back over the concepts I’ve learned in school, the most useful were the ones that gave me the tools to learn new things. To be successful in my day to day work I need to be able to work to learn new things all the time. It was nice to be reminded of this in the context of my child’s education.

While there are essential skills that children need to succeed (reading, writing, and math at some level), I wonder if I should focus less on whether or not my child is mastering specific subject, than whether he is getting an exposure to a range of topics so that he can find something that he is passionate about. Perhaps he can then use that passion as a way to practice overcoming roadblocks and frustration when things don’t come easily. Those persistence skills are then applicable to the tasks that are simply “necessary” even when they are not compelling.

How Children Succeed is easy to read, with many pointers to places to learn more about specific concepts, and it’s broken into sections that are easy to read during small bits of idle time, such as during a subway commute. This is a great book for parents to read, in particular if you are inclined to get into discussions about education policy with your peers. I won’t assert that this book will make you a expert, but it should lead to some interesting dialogs (internal and external) which will help you reconsider any idea you had that what worked for you in school was that right thing for your children. And in as much as adults and children are different in the details, I think that anyone who leads or works with teams can gain some insights that will help you become a better leader. If you are a parent who has such as role, all the better!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Turn the Ship Around: Agile Lessons from a Submarine Captain

I was not expecting a book about working on a Navy submarine to provide insights I could use to help a team be more agile. Having heard recommendations for Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by David Marquet from both a colleague at work and people in the agile community who I respect, I decided to give the book a look anyway. I’m glad that I did.

I thought that this was be a quick, enjoyable read with many lessons I could quickly employ at work. The chapters are all short and focused, and the author repeats the key themes often enough that they stick. Each chapter is centered around a story, so it’s easy to see that the lessons in the book are based on experience and not just theory. My focus is on working with agile teams, so I found that the lessons applied to that context. Even if you are not doing "Agile, this book highlights the value of an agile, adpative, self-organizing approach can have in any organization, regardless of the overall process.

The book is easy to read, with one key point per chapter, and with chapters being short enough that one could almost always find time to read a complete chapter (and thus gather a coherent lesson). This wasn’t a perfect book. Certain aspects about the writing style I found a bit jarring. While some repetition of key points is helpful, there is a bit too much of it at times. And I found the author’s use of ALL CAPS as a mechanism for emphasis to be a bit jarring. Over these stylistics decisions don’t take away from the value of the book; they just made the reading experience less than ideal. But it’s not hard to get past that, and the engaging stories that the book uses to set the stage for its lessons keep you reading.

The ideas in the book should be familiar to anyone who has spent time studying agile teams. That the author talks about how bottom up, distributed decision making (an aspect of what the author calls a leader-leader approach) can lead to a more effective operation than the traditional (to the Navy) , top-down leader-follower approach that many military and other organizations follow. Processes and checklists have as place to simplify decision making, but only in the context of rational though about your goals. Command and Control has a place, in particular in a military organization, but a more limited one than you might think. Even in critical situations a leader-leader model, where people are applying their training to do what works, rather than working by the book, or blindly following authority, can solve the problem better.

What I particularly found compelling was that this book is full of stories of how a more botton-up, empowering model of leadership can be a better way to work. That this can be true even on a submarine – an environment that is both literally and figuratively high-pressure – , should be an excellent counter to those who argue that we can’t do (agile, self-organizing teams, etc) in my organization. An agile approach is not the best solution for all problems, but agile techiques are more widely applicable than many think.

This work does not exist in a vacuum. The author frequently cites Stephen Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and the writer of the forward to the book, and also provides some pointers to other resources. Whether you are a manager, scrum master, or just someone involved on a team (agile or not) that doesn’t seem to be working well, reading this book will be a quick and enjoyable path towards finding help in identifying things that might be getting in the way to effectiveness, and also give you a sense of optimism that things can get better with the right approach.

Branching and Integration Time

Discussions about branching often focus on the wrong thing. Unintegrated code sitting around slows teams down, whether the code is in a bran...