How to be Resourceful

August 31, 2010

What springs to mind when you hear the word resourceful? Is it MacGyver from the television show, who was able to work miracles with his Swiss Army knife, duct tape and other common objects that were always – and conveniently – lying around? (Or am I dating myself?) How about these words?
  • Imaginative
  • Inventive
  • Capable
If you are faced with a difficult issue, one that appears to have no easy answer, resourcefulness is something that is invaluable – and something that we should seek to develop in ourselves and well as others. How do you develop resourcefulness?

Resourcefulness is developed by:
  1. Taking in new information.
  2. Experience gained through action.
  3. Reflecting on results.
Throughout the process, being persistent and involved – and not dumping the issue onto someone else's shoulders – is vital.

Taking in new information. The software world is knowledge work, and if you expect to withdraw knowledge, you need to be routinely placing knowledge into your individual knowledge bank. If you don’t, you’re either expecting to either get by with your current level of knowledge or you’re expecting others to carry you. Given the constant rate of change, “maintaining” your knowledge is effectively creating a knowledge deficit because what you know today won’t be as important – or even relevant – a few years down the road.

People who are considered resourceful tend to take in information in a variety of ways:
  1. They read a great deal, including blogs, trade journals, and books. 
  2. They participate in user/discussion groups (in person and on the Internet) and attend professional conferences. 
  3. They seek out and take formal training classes.
  4. They engage in dialogs with their peers on various topics.
Taking in new information is all about casting a wide net, gaining both explicit knowledge and the perspectives of others. Programmers discover how other programmers approach problems from a design and code perspective, and managers learn about how other managers operate, such as how they conduct one-on-ones or interact with agile teams.

You don’t have to memorize everything, either. Instant recall is nice, but if you know where to quickly find the specifics when the need arises, that will work ninety-nine times out of one hundred.

Experience gained through action. Knowledge work is about putting knowledge into action. Learning from a book is the first step, but being able to apply it will likely require some thought and adaptation to your specific circumstances. This is where knowledge about perspectives and approaches that others take is important. Understanding how other people approach situations can help you consider new and different ways to deal with situations. You’ll have that knowledge and insight to “withdraw” from your knowledge bank.

True learning means actively applying what you’ve studied. It’s like riding a bike; reading about riding a bike won't help you actually ride a bike. Until you take action and actually pedal a bike for yourself, you won’t really “know” how to ride a bike. This is why passing a problem off to someone else – and removing yourself from active participation – shortchanges the process of becoming resourceful. If you want to become a resourceful individual, don’t deny yourself the valuable opportunity to learn by taking yourself out of the loop.

For new managers that might be reading, this translates to focusing attention on management functions and not the work that you used to perform as an individual contributor. Some work is no longer your job, there are other areas that now need your attention. Learn more about those duties and work at making yourself better in those areas.

Don’t let the fear of failure overtake your thoughts! Fear of failure can prevent you from obtaining valuable experience that makes you more resourceful. As a manager, I’d rather work with those who are striving to improve, pushing the boundaries and striving to stretch themselves as opposed to continually prodding and pushing those who want to operate strictly within their current knowledge and comfort zones. Take on assignments that will stretch you. Take care, of course, to not reach too far beyond your present capabilities that represent a longer-term goal. This is where a good partnering dialog with your manager is very helpful.

Other ways that people gain experience is through tinkering on small, side projects. Perhaps there is new technology that you would like to explore, but there isn’t a good reason to utilize the technology in any of your current work. Build a small application to tinker with it. The experience and knowledge gained about the practical trade-offs will likely prove valuable later, when that technology is being considered – making you resourceful. (As a software manager, I tinker with small projects as one way to keep current and conversant on technology.)

Reflecting on results. Everyone’s personal experiences in life are different. We all have our strengths, preferences, and perspectives that have been developed over the course of our individual and unique experiences. Take time to consider what went well and what didn’t work out quite as you expected, given these factors and the specific scenario involved. This can point the way towards new knowledge and experience to seek out.

Over time, you will become resourceful, an important distinction from simply being knowledgeable. As Tony Karrer put it, you will become knowledge-able.

Critical Thinking: One Secret to Success

August 27, 2010

In my post, What Companies Really Want From Employees, I noted that one trait that we want from employees is resourcefulness. We want people who are able to deal with those difficult problems that confront us.

As a manager, do you have “go-to” people that you can count on to take on difficult tasks or issues? If so, the odds are these individuals have the traits and skills associated with critical thinking, one skill that is not necessarily ignored in the workplace, but rarely shows up as an explicit expectation.

Instead, critical thinking remains the secret weapon that differentiates the best from the rest. When it comes to developers, I’ve seen those who I regard as highly capable exhibit the traits and skill of someone who understands critical thinking, even if they don’t realize that they are applying critical thinking skills.

What is critical thinking?

Don’t let the word critical mislead you! People who are critical tend to be viewed as negative; don’t associate critical thinking with a negative process that simply tears down ideas in a cold, dispassionate way and offering nothing in return. When it comes to a defining critical thinking as a high-level, I like how Edward Glaser's identification of the key elements:
  1. An attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one's experiences.
  2. Knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning.
  3. Some skill in applying those methods.
Like a lot of things, attitude – the desire and commitment – to approach problems and subjects in an intellectually disciplined way plays an important role. Good critical thinkers are also inquisitive by nature. They seek to be well-informed about their profession and they take pains to “get it right” (whatever “it” is at the moment), making sure that they fully understand the problem or issue at hand and that their decisions can be justified to the greatest extent possible. This translates into a combination of independent research and discussions where others’ views and reasons are explored.

Good critical thinkers take the full situation into account. They understand the long-term, strategic goals and objectives and balance those against the needs of the situation. If something will take a little longer yet move us further down our strategic path, these critical thinkers will recommend that route. Conversely, the demands of some situations require more of a, “Here’s what we can do now to get the customer over the hurdle right now, but we really should follow up with…” solution that good, aware critical thinkers will endorse.

The Delphi Report on critical thinking identified a core set of skills and sub-skills that are central to the concept of critical thinking. The experts who developed this list were articulating an ideal, so you don’t have to be proficient in all of the skills and sub-skills to be a good critical thinker.

Critical Thinking Cognitive Skills and Sub-Skills

Interpretation To comprehend and express the meaning or significance of a wide
variety of experiences, situations, data, events, judgments, conventions, beliefs, rules,
procedures or criteria.
Decoding Significance
Clarifying Meaning
Analysis To identify the intended and actual inferential relationships among
statements, questions, concepts, descriptions or other forms of representation intended to
express beliefs, judgments, experiences, reasons, information, or opinions.
Examining Ideas
Identifying Arguments
Analyzing Arguments
Evaluation To assess the credibility of statements or other representations which are
accounts or descriptions of a person's perception, experience, situation, judgment, belief,
or opinion; and to assess the logical strength of the actual or intend inferential relationships
among statements, descriptions, questions or other forms of representation.
Assessing Claims
Assessing Arguments
Inference To identify and secure elements needed to draw reasonable conclusions;
to form conjectures and hypotheses; to consider relevant information and to educe the
consequences flowing from data, statements, principles, evidence, judgments, beliefs,
opinions, concepts, descriptions, questions, or other forms of representation.
Querying Evidence
Conjecturing Alternatives
Drawing Conclusions
Explanation To state the results of one's reasoning; to justify that reasoning in terms
of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological and contextual considerations
upon which one's results were based; and to present one's reasoning in the form of cogent arguments.
Stating Results
Justifying Procedures
Presenting Arguments
Self-Regulation Self-consciously to monitor one's cognitive activities, the elements
used in those activities, and the results educed, particularly by applying skills in analysis and
evaluation to one's own inferential judgments with a view toward questioning, confirming,
validating, or correcting either one's reasoning or one's results.
Source: The Delphi Report, 1990 (c) 1990 Peter A. Facione and The California Academic Press [1998 printing]  

Critical thinking is an important skill, because it allows you to evaluate, explain, and re-examine your thinking. If you are worried about critical thinking being akin to “analysis paralysis,” don’t be. It is simply a disciplined approach that will reduce the risk of your acting on what could be a false premise. Critical thinking will take more time than jumping to a conclusion, but the investment is more than worth it.

Creating Employee Engagement: Context

August 24, 2010

As I noted in my prior post, for me, building engagement is the result of an equation that is the sum of content and context:

Direction (content) + Execution (context) = Engagement

Direction. This is the purpose and mission of your organization. The is the what you are doing and why. It is the content, and includes things like vision and mission statements that inspire and provide a framework for everything that your organization does and does not do, getting down to specific goals and strategic objectives that must be achieved.

Execution. This is the implementation and guidance that addresses how the organization will operate, taking the understanding from the direction and making it real for everyone. It is about getting everyone on the same page about content.

Let’s assume that you’ve worked hard on establishing your corporate direction, now it is time to implement it. This is where the rubber should hit the road, but all too often, it doesn’t. Professor Robert Kaplan of the Harvard Business School and David Norton at the Balanced Scorecard Collaborative have determined that 90% of all corporate strategies are not executed successfully. Ouch!

What goes wrong? In a nutshell, everyone isn’t on – or can’t get on – the same page about the content.

In the first place, no one is going to craft a direction that articulates the need to “maintain the status quo.” A vision for the organization is going to involve some future state, with some strategic goals and objectives as targets to meet to help the organization reach that future state. The direction will involve change. And this is where Problem #1 can surface.

What happens if everyone at the C-level (CEO, COO, CFO, CIO…) begins initiating a series of changes related to their respective areas of focus? A large pile of activity will reign down and overwhelm the troops.

It can get worse, which leads to Problem #2. What if all of this new activity – targeting new opportunities of the future state – is being performed without taking any existing activities off of the table? Rob Savage, COO to Taco Bell once stated, “You can’t execute new strategy if you don’t remove some of the past.”

It’s all about creating the environment for engagement.

Prioritize activities and take the time to consider what must fall by the wayside in order to make room for the new. This means going the extra mile and critically evaluating the downstream impacts of the direction, including having candid dialogs with your staff about the nature and need for change, and how it will impact them.

By doing so, you will involve people in the change and make them a part of it. This is a critical component to creating engagement. By taking the time to explain things and listen to feedback, you are demonstrating that you value people. You’re also building credibility by talking about the key drivers of the business along with your willingness to acknowledge that “something has to give.”

You must also be candid about why change is required, and what outcomes (good or bad) can result. Engagement requires buy-in, and people must fully understand the truth of the situation and the goals. Catchy slogans won’t build engagement.

Another great way to build engagement is to give people control over their work. Self-direction, otherwise known as autonomy, is a great motivator. So is the desire to improve, to master something, so set the conditions that allow people to grow and improve their skills. (From a software development standpoint, agile development fulfills many of the autonomy and mastery components nicely.)

In the final analysis, people have to engage for themselves. You can’t “motivate a horse to drink” and you can’t engage someone by pulling a lever. They have to believe in your business and want to contribute to that purpose. You can, however, engage their thinking.

Continual dialogs allow people to develop conclusions about how they can participate and shape the future and grow with it. It is about creating the opportunity for them to feel connected so that they can engage in making a difference in collectively achieving that higher purpose. It is about having conversations to help people understand how they can continue to learn and grow, and aligning career aspirations with opportunities. You can't do everything, but as a manager, you can help make things happen.

Dan Pink discusses the subject of motivation and engagement along with autonomy, mastery, and purpose in his book Drive as well as his TED talk (embedded below). Dan is an engaging speaker and an excellent author, and I urge you to at least watch the video below.

Creating Employee Engagement: Content

August 20, 2010

For me, building engagement is the result of an equation that is the sum of content and context:

Direction (content) + Execution (context) = Engagement

Direction. This is the purpose and mission of your organization. The is the what you are doing and why. It is the content, and includes things like vision and mission statements that inspire and provide a framework for everything that your organization does and does not do, getting down to specific goals and strategic objectives that must be achieved.

Execution. This is the implementation and guidance that addresses how the organization will operate, taking the understanding from the direction and making it real for everyone. It is about getting everyone on the same page about content.

Distilling the content component into a simple, clear, effective message for your organization and the world at large is much more difficult than what the end result appears to be. The content needs to convey a unified purpose for your organization along with excitement and motivation.

This requires a deep understanding of the business and plenty of discussion and thinking along the way. A variety of questions should be explored, examining the purpose and unique value proposition of your business, the delivery and economics of that value, measurements, and the type of organization that you will be, including:
  • What is unique about your business? 
  • What are the competitive, technological, and regulatory forces that you must contend with?
  • What are the opportunities available?
  • What is your target market and what does that market (customers) value?
  • How will you deliver your goods or services?
  • What levels of quality will you provide?
  • How will you measure yourself?
Relating content to engagement, people in your organization need to understand what the organization stands for, what its objectives are, and the time frames are for achieving those objectives. A long-term, visionary future state needs to be distilled into actionable, strategic goals and objectives to help the organization find its way to the vision. Goals need to be concrete and the direction should resonate with everyone. A perfect, classic example that captures everything discussed above is none other than the goal of landing a man on the moon.

Prior to establishing this goal, our collective American egos were rattled by the beeping of the Russian Sputnik satellite. We felt threatened and intimidated, and as a nation we desired to prove to ourselves and the world that we could do anything.

NASA head James Webb and President Kennedy differed on the wording of the goal. Webb had a goal of establishing preeminence in space, arguing that “there is a wide public sentiment coming along in this country for preeminence in space.”

Kennedy, however, wanted a very clear goal, and his response to Webb was, “If you’re trying to prove preeminence, [landing a man on the moon] is the way to prove preeminence…”

As we all know, Kennedy’s goal won out:

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." – John F. Kennedy

The difference between the two is dramatic. Kennedy’s goal was clear, inspirational, and specific – including a time frame for achieving the goal – and it effectively guided other decisions that a vague goal like “establishing preeminence” would not. A goal like “establishing preeminence” would require further debate and scrutiny about projects because it lacked a concrete objective. “Landing a man on the moon” was specific enough that anything not related to that objective was clearly a lower priority.

Kennedy’s goal not only established a clear mission, it created aligned engagement. Everyone was crystal clear about the direction – the content.

How aligned is your organization? Here are some content-related questions to ask, taken from The Power of Strategic Commitment.

To what degree do employees:
  1. Have a shared understanding and belief in the direction and objectives of the organization?
  2. Have a shared understanding and belief in the role of their function in meeting the objectives of the organization?
  3. Understand and believe in their personal role in helping to meet the objectives of the organization?
  4. Have a shared understanding and belief in how organizational success is measured?

10 Ways to Kill Employee Engagement

August 17, 2010

Engaged employees place a premium on their own performance and have a strong connection to the business. They are the ones who go the extra mile for you. They’re involved, recommending new ways of doing things, challenging the status quo and in general making your organization a better organization.

In contrast, disengaged employees put in their time and go through the motions – costing you all the while they are still employed. And the cost is high. A 2007-2008 Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study indicates that disengaged employees translates to an estimated $300 billion loss in productivity in the United States alone.

Unfortunately, as a leader it’s all too easy to kill engagement. Here’s my tongue-in-cheek list of ways to kill engagement:
    1.     Don’t involve people in shaping change. Organizations today are in a constant state of change, adapting to global economic and competitive pressures. You need to move fast, and you’re the leader and you know better – so shape the change yourself and mandate it to your employees. Then expect them to “own it.”
    2.       Be vague. You’re a busy leader who needs to have the “vision.” You don’t have time for details, that’s why you’re on top. Keep the direction of the organization very general, allowing others to interpret and infer what you meant as that vision relates to their work. To really challenge your organization, set apparently contradictory objectives but provide zero guidance on how to resolve the contradiction. People love a challenge.
    3.       Don’t engage in any time-wasting conversations. Once you’ve called the shot, there’s no need to provide your staff with any context. Why should you have to beg your staff to get on board?  After all, you’re paying them.  You “get it” – and they should too.  Let them connect the dots between your objectives and their work; after all, they’re professionals, right?
    4.       Pile on additional activities. Change your organization by initiating a bunch of new activities without stopping any current activities.  Overwhelm people with change and see who rises to the top.
    5.       Indict the past. Let people know that what was acceptable in the past is clearly the wrong way to operate and an indicator of poor performance.
    6.       Deliver change in pieces. Keep people focused and productive by delivering change in small chunks. Don’t confuse them by letting them see the big picture. People love puzzles, and they’ll stay attentive to your business by spending their time trying to work out the grand plan that only you or a select few understand.
    7.       Focus on the numbers. Concentrate your full attention on financial results and always talk about the numbers while keeping as distant as possible from your staff. This will keep everyone feeling insecure at all times so that they have that special edge that drives performance. To reinforce the non-caring, financially-oriented feeling, refer to people as “assets” or “resources” – or even better, “FTEs” – but never as "people."
    8.       Don’t waste valuable time and money on training. Today’s economic climate has created the perfect condition for saving corporate dollars: people are paranoid about keeping their jobs. There’s no need to allocate time and corporate funding for training; after all, there are plenty of options available to employees to keep up on their own time and dime. You simply need to keep them focused and working on corporate projects that will drive revenue and make you look good.
    9.       Keep things formal and hierarchal. Make sure that there is a formal chain of command and that there are definitive boundaries related to job titles and job classifications. A good, hierarchal, formal structure will filter out a great deal of “noise.” You won’t have to deal with listening to and responding to all of those so-called “good ideas,” let alone contending with those pesky complaints.
    10.   Throw your title around. You’re a leader, someone in a position of authority. Make sure that people know it. You don’t have to expend unnecessary energy demonstrating an interest in other people; as a leader they will suck up to you. Better yet – if you are really good at this – you don’t even need to be competent. People will be too intimidated and frustrated by your arrogant, uncaring attitude to even want to talk to you, let alone challenge you.
That's my list. Can you think of other ways to kill employee engagement?

What Companies Really Want From Employees

August 13, 2010

Assessing employee performance is more than just, “Did Jane meet her goals for this year?” How Jane went about her work is equally important. This means that other wording works its way into the process, like:

Shows a passion for…

Takes ownership for…

And so on.

Wording like this underscores the desire to assess and understand the level of an individual’s involvement. If people are excited about their work, there is energy and passion that – provided the proper direction and support are in place – results in individuals reaching their full potential.

Words like commitment, ownership, motivation, passion, and engagement are fine, but as managers we must take care to understand and effectively communicate the context of these words.

For example, consider the following opinion offered in a ScienceDaily article, Engaged Employees Are Good, But Don’t Count On Commitment: “There is a difference between an engaged worker, meaning one who invests himself or herself in superior job performance, and organizational commitment, a worker’s psychological attachment to his or her organization or employer.”

The concept of ownership as it relates to employees doesn't translate to reality as simply as some would like, either. Let's face it, acting “like an owner” is actually very difficult when you don't have real ownership in the company. And because (meaningful) corporate gains aren’t typically being shared with the employees, is it reasonable to expect them to act like an owner?

I worked for a company that had a slogan, "Pride of an Owner." They wanted each and every employee to be thinking and acting like an owner; the problem was, they weren't rewarding employees like owners. Every year, the company surveyed its employees, and every year, I provided the same feedback: If you want employees to truly reflect the "Pride of an Owner," give them some ownership and let the employees share in the rewards of ownership. Since the company had gone public, this seemed like an easy enough task.

After four or five years, they listened. Everyone came in one day and found that they were the recipients of 100 shares of stock, with a catch. There was a five-year vesting period. Nice try, but I'll say that the gesture turned out to be less than meaningful to a majority of the employees.

For the average employee in most companies, my opinion is that the context of ownership is really confined to a narrower definition, one of assuming complete responsibility for day-do-day tasks and operating in the best interests of the company, even if that means stepping outside of the normal "procedure."

Engagement is the operative word, describing the level and combination of commitment, motivation and passion that an employee possess. A fully engaged employee is someone who takes full "ownership" (responsibility) for his or her work and is someone who places a premium on his or her performance. An engaged employee isn't focused as much on procedure as he or she is on achieving results. As a manager, I find this to be a distinctive, easily recognizable difference.

Under the covers, we also tend to seek something else that is often stated in other ways. We want resourcefulness. We want creativity, ingenuity, curiosity. We want individuals who have their wits about them. We want people who are able to deal with the difficult problems.

This is because routine tasks are increasingly being performed elsewhere; the day-to-day work is being moved where it can be performed less expensively. In today's tough, global, competitive economy, this has to occur. The difficult, complex problems remain. This means that we need capable, engaged, resourceful individuals to overcome those challenges.

Engaged and resourceful – that’s what we want. But it isn't what we get all of the time, is it? And there are plenty of ways that management and the organization at large can positively or negatively influence both. More in future posts...

Book Review: Succeeding with Agile

August 10, 2010

Succeeding with Agile: Software Development Using ScrumSucceeding with Agile: Software Development Using Scrum by Mike Cohn

This book provides an excellent, detailed, pragmatic view of adopting Scrum by someone who has years of experience in guiding organizations in their Scrum implementations. The book is organized into five parts:

Part I – Getting Started

Part II – Individuals

Part III –Teams

Part IV –The Organization

Part V – Next Steps

The book begins by talking about patterns for adopting Scrum, progressing into discussing how Scrum will impact individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole. In general, Succeeding with Agile serves as an excellent guide to understanding and managing change that Scrum development will present.

Do you want to introduce Agile development gradually, or do you want to use an all-in approach? Do you want a public display of agility or do you desire a “stealth” approach? Mike Cohn fully explores these questions, complete with the benefits and trade-offs to consider as you make your decision.

When it comes to managing change, Mike notes that, “Successful change is not entirely top-down or bottom-up. A process like Scrum must include elements of top-down and bottom-up change.” In addition, Mike points out that, “Scrum has long tentacles and will reach into many areas of the organization. Adopting Scrum is pervasive, and it will have implications to the organization that reach far outside the software development department.”

My company is in the midst of dealing with Scrum's tentacles. The development organization is adopting Scrum across the board, but the rest of the organization needs to become a part of the change – we’re beginning to see signs of mismatched expectations and issues with our development organization interacting with the rest of the company.

Mike’s coverage of the nature and issues with change is invaluable. He includes a good discussion on roles of those on a Scrum team and how Scrum teams should go about working together. This includes the mechanics for Scrum, but other well-grounded insights and observations that will help make your Scrum adoption more successful.

For example, his assessment of the need for technical practices echoes the observation of the industry, which is gradually moving towards a Scrum/XP hybrid to achieve complete success. Mike states, “I’ve observed teams who in sprints, conduct good sprint planning and review meetings, never miss a daily Scrum, and do a retrospective at the end of each sprint. They see solid improvements and may be as much as twice as productive as they were before Scrum. But they could do much better.

“What these teams are missing – and what stops them from achieving even more dramatic improvements – are changes to their technical practices. Scrum doesn’t prescribe specific engineering practices, but it does require teams to deliver high-quality, potentially shippable code at the end of each sprint. If teams can do this without changing their technical practices, so be it. Most teams, however, discover and adopt new technical practices because it makes meeting their goals much easier.”

Truer words couldn't be spoken! Scrum doesn’t prescribe technical practices, and we’ve been working towards introducing more technical practices to our Scrum development in response to the need to produce “better software, faster.” We’ve seen how Scrum improves the development process, but technical practices can really put a team over the top in terms of improving productivity. One of our teams recently refactored code that was surrounded by automated unit tests, allowing the refactoring exercise to be performed with much higher confidence and speed than would have been possible by relying on manual testing alone.

Leading and influencing self-organized, self-directed teams is another area that is discussed in the book. Mike quotes Philip Anderson from the Biology of Business: “Self-organization does not mean that workers instead of management engineer an organization design. It does not mean letting people do whatever they want to do. It means that management commits to guiding the evolution of behaviors that emerge from the interaction of independent agents instead of specifying in advance what effective behavior is.”

As a manager, “guiding the evolution of behaviors” can be tricky territory, particularly if you are used to defining and specifying everything yourself and are now attempting to make a change by feeling your way through the process. Mike Cohn comes to the rescue with sound advice, including a discussion on Containers, Differences, and Exchanges, where:

A container is some boundary within which self-organization occurs. (e.g., physical, amount of autonomy)

A difference exists between individuals.

Transforming exchanges influence how a team organizes in response to a challenge.

If you are experiencing problems, Mike points out that leaders can influence how a team or teams self-organize by adjusting containers, amplifying or dampening differences, or altering exchanges.

The ultimate goal of Agile development (in my opinion) is to create an adaptive and responsive organization, one that is self-organized and self-adapting. The trick is that you can’t completely design it up front, and Mike again quotes Philip Anderson, who says, “Self-organization proceeds from the premise that effective organization is evolved, not designed. It aims to create an environment in which successful divisions of labor and routines not only emerge but also self-adjust in response to environmental changes. This happens because management sets up an environment and encourages rapid evolution towards higher fitness, not because management has mastered the art of planning and monitoring work flows.”

As organizations move to self-organized teams, there will be changes that everyone must understand and work through. Management will do less planning and oversight of the work; and contrary to some thinking, there will be work for management to perform. Mike devotes a couple of chapters to the issues of teamwork and leading and influencing self-organizing teams that are well worth reading in their own right.

Evolving organizations also need to be learning organizations, and not rushing itself to the point of making stupid mistakes. Mike Cohn makes an assertion that I’m in complete agreement with: “An organization that favors long-terms success will be more likely to invest in training, support working at a sustainable pace, be willing to allow employees time to explore novel ideas, and will not exchange meeting a near-term deadline for unmaintainable code.”

The latter half of the book discusses topics such as scaling Scrum, distributed teams, and the role and impacts that Scrum places on entities such as Human Resources, Facilities, and the Project Management Office. Again, worth a read as you progress down the agile road.

Overall, I found this book to be an excellent resource. If you are starting out with Scrum, this book will provide a wealth of information to refer to on your Agile journey for years to come. We’ve been at Scrum for three and a half years now, and I found plenty of useful information in this book. I’m expecting that I’ll need to refer to portions of this book in the future myself, as we haven’t gone down all of the paths outlined in this book, including scaling Scrum and working with distributed teams. But if we do, this book provides a solid, single point of reference.

It’s also a good book to review from time to time, and I plan to as we continually strive to tweak and improve what we’re doing. As Mike Cohn pointed out, “There can be no end state in a process that calls for continuous improvement.”

Book Review: The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working

August 6, 2010

The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance by Tony Schwartz, Copyright © 2010 by Tony Schwartz.

How are you dealing with the pressure for faster decision-making, greater innovation, and the demands of instant communication in an era where we’re always “doing more with less?” In the book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, Tony Schwartz observes:

“The defining ethic in the modern workplace is more, bigger, faster. The technologies that make instant communication possible anywhere, at any time, speed up decision making, create efficiencies, and fuel a truly global marketplace. But too much of a good thing eventually becomes a bad thing. Left unmanaged and unregulated, these same technologies have the potential to overwhelm us. The relentless urgency that characterizes most corporate cultures undermines creativity, quality, engagement, thoughtful deliberation, and, ultimately, performance.”

The book points out that the combination of instantaneous communication and the expectations of immediate responsiveness create a situation of continuous partial attention, where everyone operates in a reactive mode. This negates the goals of realizing higher productivity and innovation, because more absorbed focus is required to achieve these things. In short, we get busier and more active, to the detriment of ourselves and the organization.

The book makes a strong case that renewal is one way to improve productivity, and this starts with the age-old vacation. Consider this tidbit from the book:

“On average, Americans now fail to use 439 million paid vacation days a year. In 2008, one-third of Americans said they intended to take no vacation at all. Another 33 percent planned a vacation of seven days or less. Only 14 percent scheduled a vacation of at least 2 weeks during 2008.

“Performance is closely related with vacation time. A 2006 study of employees at Ernst & Young, the accounting firm, found that for each ten hours of vacation employees took each month, their performance reviews were 8 percent higher the following year.”

Another way to improve productivity is taking breaks during the day. Tony Schwartz observes that top performers intuitively understand that 90 minute cycles work best in terms of productivity. That is, we can concentrate for 90 minutes, either learning new things or working on complex tasks, and then we need to “renew” (recharge).

And while Tony Schwartz makes the case tuning our day to improve overall performance through regular renewal, he acknowledges one reality: “From an early age, many of us are programmed to believe that rest is for slackers. Building intermittent breaks into the workday is not only counterintuitive; it’s also countercultural in a vast majority of organizations.”

The book also makes a great case that taking care of yourself is important to your long-term productivity as well as your health and well-being. Eating right, getting enough sleep and regular exercise factor into the equation, Entire chapters are dedicated to these subjects.

One example that tied some of this together was the experience of Steve Wanner, a young partner at Ernst & Young who was accustomed to working 12-14 hour days. He felt perpetually exhausted, slept poorly, and made no time for exercise. Steve began a new regimen of going to sleep earlier and waking up to take an early-morning run before his family rose for the day. He found that running made him feel better physically and it made him feel better about himself. At work, Steve felt more positive and alert, and when he arrived home he felt less tired and more able to engage with his family.

For us managers, the book delivers this message:

“As a manager, creating a new way of working begins with recognizing that renewal serves performance. Stop evaluating performance by the number of hours employees put in and instead measure it by the value they produce. The second shift in a leader mind-set is from a singular focus on the competency of employees – the skills they need to get their jobs done – to an equal emphasis on capacity – the quantity and quality of fuel in their tanks.”

How often do managers feel grateful and inspired when employees are logging those extra hours and making personal sacrifices by staying late into the evening working on a project? Once in a while is fine, but if this is happening on a regular basis, we aren’t doing our employees or our organizations any favors. Like many things, there is a delicate balancing act. The book points out:

“Building a culture that deeply values people doesn’t preclude holding them to high standards. Leaders inspire the highest performance by pushing those they lead beyond their comfort zones. Stress is the means by which we expand capacity, as long as it’s balanced by intermittent renewal. That means leaders and organizations must intentionally spend time encouraging, recognizing, appreciating, rewarding, and celebrating people’s accomplishments. Pushing people too relentlessly, even with the most positive intent, eventually runs them down.”

The book cites how Sony changed the way it evaluates its leaders in Europe. “In the past we accommodated leaders who were technically skilled and hit the numbers,” explains Roy White. “Now they also have to be able to harness the energy of their people. We want people to be led positively, because we know that translates into productivity. We’ve redone our compensation structure for leaders to take into account the satisfaction levels of people working for them.”

Setting the stage for greater creativity and innovation is even more challenging for the typical, very busy organization. The book makes a solid point that creativity and innovation requires a right-hemisphere focus. And this requires slowing down – and quieting down. The book asks, “Where are you when you get your best ideas? In the shower? Working out? Driving? Walking? It’s not at your desk, in front of your computer.”

John Kounios sums up the issue of dealing with creativity and innovation and the need for quiet time: “Solving a problem with insight,” he says, “is fundamentally different from solving a problem analytically.”

Consider the following Stages of Creativity outlined by the book and the need for slowing down and quiet, think-time:

First Insight: The point at which creative challenge is defined.

Saturation: Gathering of the facts.

Incubation: Mulling over of information, often unconsciously.

Illumination: Some new combination of the data leads to a break-through or an “Ah-ha!”

Verification: The creative insight is rigorously tested for accuracy.

Overall, I found that The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working made an excellent case for regular renewal and taking care of yourself to improve productivity and stimulate creativity and innovation. I agree that many of the concepts run counter to many organizational cultures and implicit expectations – particularly American corporations, but it’s worth examining the thoughts and examples put forth in this book if we want to continue moving up the productivity and innovation curve.

Community Service: Rewards for You and Your Community

August 3, 2010

Corporations are continuing to lay off employees in record numbers, and all the while demanding more from those who remain. The pressure to work longer hours can conflict with the desire to volunteer your time and energy to your community. While I acknowledge that demands on our time are high, I firmly believe that giving something back to your community is beneficial to the community and yourself.

I personally contribute in three ways.

Booster Club Support
Both of my children are out of high school, but I have been an avid booster club supporter of the local Portland High School football and cheerleading programs for almost a decade. I’ve flipped burgers in concession stands, sorted smelly, messy bottles and cans on hot summer days, helped with car washes, and even engaged in a skirmish involving Title IX (that was the claim, it wasn't accurate) that would have resulted in the football and cheering programs from being ridiculously separated – something that no one involved with the programs wanted to see happen.

I remain supportive of both the football and cheerleading programs in part because my wife Lauri-Ann is the cheerleading coach at Portland High School. I'm spending less time than I used to, but I will participate when and where I am needed. Overall, being involved with high-school kids who are finding their way in the world can be both rewarding and fun. A good role model can really make a difference in a kid’s life at that age.

I write a monthly column for a small, Portland Neighbors newspaper that is distributed to approximately 13,000 residents in the North Deering area of Portland, Maine. I don’t get paid for this, but I write personal interest stories on people in the area, talking about them and their hobbies, businesses, or personal history.

The appeal to me is two-fold. I enjoy writing, and this is an excellent opportunity to exercise my writing muscle in ways that I don’t get to during my regular work. This also gets me out into my own community, meeting people that I would NEVER meet, except through my writing. And they receive the benefit of having their 15 minutes of glory with an article about them in a local paper. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have many of my articles published as the front-page lead, a gratifying experience for a writer and great for the people that I write about.

Industry Support
I am the representative from our company with a TechMaine organization, which is a resource and advocate for Maine technology sectors. I attend meetings with the organization, including a quarterly meeting attended by a cross-section of technology leaders throughout the state to share information and experiences to help each other succeed. I'm proud to say that our company won the “Company of the Year” award in 2004. My time spent with this organization is not something that I am paid for, but I contribute and remain supportive of efforts to keep technology alive and well in Maine.

Making Time Isn’t Always Easy
Do the pressures of my day job challenge my community involvement? You bet it does. However, I feel that everyone needs different experiences and perspectives, and supporting your community can provide you with those experiences. It also opens up the door to making new friends. There is a difference between living somewhere and being a part of the community, and it can be a rewarding, satisfying experience.