Thursday, 21 November 2013

What’s common about my tennis skills, developing software and building organisations

A friend of mine sent me a message last week. It was a polite message asking if we can play tennis some time, but what I found interesting was that he added an explanation of his skill level which he probably found to be a reasonable thing to do since we’ve never played before. That short description of his skills got me thinking about how would I describe my skill level in tennis. How about how I achieved it? Or how would I go about improving it?

I started playing tennis when I was in high school because I liked it. I never took any lessons from an experienced player or coach. I read a little bit about how it’s played in a book and then  I just played and learned by my mistakes. This got me to a skill level that I think is good enough to play with my friends of a similar skill level and enjoy the game. At the same time however when I look at the 10 or 11 year olds play at the tennis training ground where I take my daughter every Saturday I am convinced that most of them will get bored playing with me within just a few minutes.

If I want to improve my tennis skills I am faced with a significant constraint - I only have 1-2 hours per week available to play and I fear that if I continue learning by mistakes it will eventually take me many years and I might just lose interest.  There’s an easy and affordable solution to my tennis problem – coaching is available and is proven to get results. But the point of this post of course is not so much about my tennis skills.

I think that some organisations I’ve worked with have taken my approach to learning tennis and applied it to building software and the entire organisation. From my day to day experience with these companies they appeared to have read a book and then they learned by their mistakes. This is not to say that we should not be learning by mistakes but rather to recognise when a major shift in our approach might be required. So it does not surprise me that as a result such organisations managed to develop fairly average (and in some cases awful) software that in most cases costs a lot to develop and run. I judge by the number of defects I’ve seen reported by customers and the time these companies required to take a product to market. When you build software of similar quality then the costs of supporting and enhancing it grow exponentially and it is soon being declared too expensive to maintain or make money. And while as a tennis player I get more than one chance to fail and learn, it also appeared to me that these organisations had been set-up to limit the learning opportunities, punish failure severely and therefore not surprisingly to me many of these companies no longer exist . Using my tennis learning approach is not something I would recommend in all cases however it seems to me that it is widely and explicitly used coupled with complete disapproval of failure and limited ability to learn.

Ok, How do I know all this?

Check the the saddest statistic in the world (in an article by Steve Denning).

What’s the percentage of people who truly love what they are currently doing at work? It's a  6% meaning that 94% of the people are miserable at work.

This is how I know.

Organisations can and should be built better.

And when they are stuck they need to get appropriate coaching (which is what I am doing to improve my tennis skills Winking smile )

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Intention to change: "I will make something happen"

I have not spent much time designing this, at least not on purpose. It sort of emerged during a busy week when I was asked to facilitate a team's retrospective and I had little or no time to prepare.

What I wanted to get through to people was that it might be more beneficial if they rephrased their findings and statements to show intention to change and ownership of that intention. To begin with I asked the team to generate ideas and thoughts while always beginning their sentences with one of the following:
1. I will make some change because ...
2. something makes me frustrated
3. something makes me confused

And I suggested that everyone takes 5-10 minutes to make some notes in those lines. Once people looked like they've almost finished I asked them to tell everyone about the ideas falling under number 3 and I asked for explanation and suggested that we all attempt to turn these sentences into 'intention to change' statements. If the team felt that an idea must be auctioned we kept the card on the board.

Once we exhausted the number 3 type of items we moved to number 2 and tried the same approach: talking about each idea and trying to turn it into an intention to change statement. They looked like this:
"I will make the CI build take less time".

If the team agreed that an item must be resolved then we kept the item on the board and whoever suggested the idea (or another volunteer ) signed up to action it.

And finally we reviewed the type 1 items most of which already followed the 'intention to change' format. Those that weren't we also rephrased accordingly.
Finally some items which most people didn't agree with or nobody cared enough to action were removed from the board.

The result of about an hour long meet up was over 10 actionable ideas with their owners and all I the intentional change format. It is only 2 days after the retrospective and almost half of the items have already been auctioned. And yes the feedback from the team was positive.

I hope someone makes use if this :)

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The skill of using our brain

There are two groups of skills that we learn. There's the skills that we pick up from our environment - eg to use knife and fork or to speak a language and then there's the skills that we may have to additionally train to do - eg speaking a second language or sailing a boat.

And the skills in these groups change over time and can be different between cultures. For example most of us nowadays train to drive a car but before there were cars no one even knew the skill existed or most of us use computers nowadays but there are societies in the world that have no access to computers and for them this is not a required or interesting skill to have .

Nothing you don't know so far. What our world does not seem to have grasped yet is that one of the most important skills we need to learn and everyone must learn is how to use out brain. As we grow up we kind of figure it out but 9 out of 10 cases or even less what we figure out is wrong. Science knows a lot more about the brain than the common knowledge is. Information and skills that can help each one of us to make better decisions, avoid catastrophic consequences and generally be a better person and help make this world a better place.

Are we not ready yet ? Will we ever be ready?

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Take a deep breath, Count to 10

Or simply calm down. The advice and techniques aimed to help someone calm down are usually a good idea, well intentioned and only partially useful. Not because they are wrong or improper but simply because most of us don't know how to do it - we don't know how to make the breathing or the counting work.

The goal if achieved is to get to a state which many authors and even religions talk about. Some ways that describe it are : clear mind, getting in touch with your inner self, being at peace, activating your thinking brain and so on. I think all of them describe the same condition which is generally useful not only when you need to calm down.

What is it and why is it so useful? I prefer to use a brain analogy to answer these questions. So a little background first. A part of your brain known as the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is responsible for your executive functions - eg without it you would not be able to plan how to go to the shop or what to do next Saturday. Now the key about it is that it has very limited temporary storage - 4 or 5 bits of information and it takes a lot of energy to keep these bits there for long.

Overworking the PFC is a bad idea. Your brain becomes slow an you're likely to make bad decisions. In key or emotional moments the PFC will struggle to function properly. By quieting your mind you help the PFC mainly by making space for useful ideas to be brought to its attention. These ideas will usually be good enough to get you out of almost any situation.

All of the suggestions I mentioned at the start when executed properly are ways to make space in your PFC. For example with breathing what you need to do is focus exclusively on the breathing trying to get rid of any other thoughts. Breath in slowly then breath out trying to relax those parts of your body where you feel tension and all of the time focusing on your breathing and trying to avoid any other thoughts. ( see mindful breathing for more information)

So next time you need to calm down why not try taking a deep breath but using the technique described here and see if it makes a difference?

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Do you often compromise? Stop and read this.

There's this little boy and a little girl you are looking after and as they are playing with their toys they suddenly begin an argument that threatens to become a fight. You recognise the danger and decide it is the right time to get involved (before it's too late).

As you get closer you see that the kids have discovered the box of chocolates you bought for later and are presently arguing who should have it. You get the picture straight away and decide to split the box and the chocolates into equal parts and give each half. It does not get more fair than that, does it?

You've told yourself a story that looked realistic and you were pretty fast at it. So fast you didn't have time to ask why. Well, consider this: how about if you asked why and the boy told you he wanted to eat the chocolates (well most of them if possible) and the girl told you she wanted the box so she can store her collection of stones in it. Now your solution doesn't sound very good, does it?

So if you're telling yourself stories fast and if you're making compromises then stop and ask and think. And that might make quite a lot of difference in your life and work.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Are you stressed? Do you want to be?

If you think you're stressed then why not ask yourself the question "Do I want to be stressed". You see, a little stress is considered useful and if you're ok with your stress level then perhaps you shouldn't worry too much.

If you answer is "No" then the good news is that everything is in your control. You don't have to be stressed if you don't want to be. You have a choice and before responding to events you can choose a response or behaviour that make everything less stressful.

I am not looking to tell you how. My experience is that there's many sources of information that will tell you what to do and how to do it as long as you wish to find out. For me the most difficult bit was to realise that it is possible and it is up to me, not to the others, not to circumstances, not to uncontrollable events, not to genes, not to education or background but just up to me.

Just a simple question requiring a positive answer - Do I want to be stressed?

Wednesday, 27 March 2013


We wake up and we're rushing to get ready and get out of the door. We are then rushing to get to work (or to school and then to work) where we are rushing to get through our emails and morning tasks. We may even rush through breakfast, have it at our desks and perhaps not even notice it. Then we rush for coffee ( or tea if you're special), have a couple of quick chats but don't really have time for deeper conversations and we are back at our desks rushing through more emails, meetings and reports.

We are then rushing to get a sandwich and have it at our desk while reading the news or more emails. Our afternoon is very similar with mor emails, meetings and reports an perhaps another coffee (or tea if you're special). Before we know it it is time to rush back home.

And there we are rushing to prepare diner and clean and wash and rush through bath time and the however many good nights we have to say. It finally feels like we can stop rushing so we sit and rush through a glass of wine (or perhaps water) while having a rather chaotic exchange of thoughts and quick plans with the wife or husband and then it is all over. We feel it's been a busy day and we did a lot. We may also feel that time flies and we find it difficult to understand why.

If this resonates with you then stop. Stop eating your sandwich or whatever else you might be doing right now. Stop and take a deep breath. Do it slowly and repeatedly. Focus on the quiet. Focus on the nothing. Focus on your breath. Try not to think about anything but your breathing in and breathing out.

How did that feel?

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The skill of mindfulness

I will not be explaining what mindfulness is in these lines as it has been already superbly explained by many. I would just note that the word has sometimes been misused but it is easy to find the true meaning.

What I am going to talk about is why the skill if mindfulness is not more common? Why are we not educating everyone to practice mindfulness? Why our world has not yet realised the potential of mindfulness and made use of it?
Just imagine a world with a lot less violence, a world with a lot less crime, a world with a lot less cheating, a world with a lot less fraud, a world with much more love and compassion. Can you?

If you can or if you can't but think it would be good then that's great. Then you can help make it happen by discovering and practicing mindfulness and by helping others discover it. Why aren't more people helping?

If you can't or think this is how the world is and you love it then you have some way to go. You need to look at yourself and consider your life. You need to look around you and recognise the violence in the world. Understand that it must stop.

Perhaps only then, only after a critical mass of people are capable of making the step towards compassion we could start building the better world. The one with less crime, less violence, less fraud, less cheating and much more love.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The path to success

Whatever you do do it responsibly. And make it count. Just good is not good enough. People will no longer spend money or even time on your "thing" unless it is exceptional or you're way too lucky. ( If you're too lucky you don't need to read this for now). And most things that are exceptional and last do so because they are made in the most responsible way possible.

Some tell us it is all about the value things provide. However in today's world you get very little time to attract attention. More often than not this time is not enough for people to discover the value of your product therefore your chance of capturing attention is by being remarkable.

Once you get people's attention then it is about value. And your "thing" must be good. Very few can get it right with just good effort. Which is why the second ingredient is to do things in the most responsible way known. And yes it is your responsibility to discover what that means in your present time.

If you care enough - make change happen

Things are what they are. Accept this as a fact. I don't suggest you should give up. But making others aware of how unhappy you are about things as they are is unlikely to make any difference. And more often than not you are welcome to make that difference.

The only thing is - you would need to learn how to approach it so that it works. And that I am not suggesting is easy yet it is possible. If you just complain this is unlikely to have positive impact. There are tried and successful strategies for making change work - find one and use it. And as part of it find support - it is a step in most of the change strategies anyway.

So stop moaning and make things happen Things are what they are. Accept this as a fact. If you care enough then be the one who makes the difference or else shut up and don't moan (it gets annoying).

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Why Agile Management Is the Best Way for a Company to Grow (Guest Post)

Agile management is a management style that has slowly evolved to replace traditional management in many of the most successful companies. Rather than simply focusing on the end result of a particular project, this style of management encompasses programs that are designed to be implemented for all projects. These include the following:

Leaders at Every Level

Decisions affecting the company are going to be made at every level. It follows that all levels of management, from senior executives and project managers to supervisors and line managers, need to have access to the tools they need for decision making, the framework for leadership and the business knowledge they need. This is true even if these different levels of management do not necessarily get the same information.

Small Teams = High Performance

By keeping the size of a team small, decisions are able to be made quickly, and accountability is almost instantaneous. With such a small team, hands on learning is facilitated, the team members learn to communicate with each other effectively and they also learn to work together. The large teams that are popular in traditional management systems tend to bog down the entire decision making process.

Cultivate a Learning Culture

Agile management encourages mistakes, as well as learning from those mistakes. By taking the time to learn, the results are examined, discussed and reviewed. Cultivating this open exchange of ideas that worked or did not work enables a team to formulate solutions as an ongoing process.

Focus on Feedback and Accountability

By allowing team members to control a problem and giving them the ability to take action, they are more likely to come up with solutions. With this type of feedback, innovative thinking and decision making are encouraged and expanded on. Accountability allows all team members that work on the project together to become invested in the project. They also know they have coaching and feedback from their peers and management team, if they need it.

Celebrate Diversity

In today's business world, diversity encompasses a range of different attributes such as age, nationality, gender, nature, background and race. Within this rich group of differences, ideas, thoughts and processes can only benefit. These different experiences allow team members to bring their differences to the table. This allows them to learn and exposes them to different ideas and cultures. Innovations are often the results of such mergers.

Allow Transparent Access to Information

Enabling management to access all information such as customer feedback, internal talents and financial results allows them to determine what areas are strong and which ones need work. Managers can find the talent they need from within the company to complete a project when they are able to see the strengths of other employees.

Nimble, innovative and diverse, agility management is a proven way of handling the inner workings of a company. All companies, no matter their size, can benefit from the framework in which agility management operates.


Katie Goddard has 15 years experience writing about business and educational technology, with a special interest in the inner workings of the business world, as well as a passion for management. When she's not contributing to college resource site, Katie is spending time with her husband Mark, and her two lovely daughters.