Friday, 17 February 2017

Timebox Rules For Better Time Management

For many years I studied techniques and practices of time management. Partially for my own sanity, and partially in an effort to help my team or the organisation I was consulting or coaching become quicker and nimbler (aka "agile"). I picked up lots of cool one-liners like "survival of the fittest" is incorrect in modern management philosophy - these days it is about "survival of the ones who learn only the right things the fastest".

So on my journey I realised I also had to study prioritisation theory and practices. Surprising to me at the time, time management and prioritisation are 2 sides of the same coin effectively - especially in light of what it takes to survive (let alone thrive)!

Although there is a good Timeboxing writeup on wikipedia, I found it was too theoretical and not usable for people who had not tried many different options, nor did they want to read all the references to understand how to implement!

The below rules I came up with for my experiential training modules are really simple. I have yet to see any better that really help a group or team of people to focus on the most important thing(s) for the most amount of time available.

I think I was inspired by deep reflections on how the agile Scrum framework and how we learn from our errors to come up with these rules that have helped me and many others who have followed them over the years.

Sometimes vary the ordering by placing #3 nearer the end but for this writeup it seems clearer where it is now:
1. Set the end time
2. Everyone watches the remaining time
3. Break large timeboxes into smaller timeboxes
4. Breadth or overview 1st
5. Depth or detail 2nd
6. Stop when time's run out
7. Don't worry - trust the process and stay with it

By following this guideline, the most important thing(s) have been covered, and you can always iterate or run another timebox again if you need to. (ie, use common sense, always!)

The main thing this framework helps with, is moving individuals and people forward. The brain is a muscle, so the more you and your team practice my timebox rules, the more you will get out of this, and achieve.

For example, a 30 minute meeting to make 2 decisions starting at 10am
1. Welcome everyone and set the visible timer on the table/wall so that everyone knows that the end time is the end time. This is meeting is serious. (30 seconds)
2. Ask everyone to focus on the remaining time and to remain "in the meeting/room" and help everyone stay on focus of the timebox. (30 seconds)

There are now 29 minutes remaining.
3. Start a 3 minute overview timebox to ensure everyone's initial thoughts are heard before going into details. Agree the order of importance of the 2 decisions ("there can be only 1 priority 1")

There are now 26 minutes remaining.
4. Start a 5 minute timebox on the first decision that needs to be made
(assume the group is unable to decide)

There are now 21 minutes remaining.
5. Start a 2nd 5 minute timebox on the second decision that needs to be made
(assume the group is unable to decide)

There are now 16 minutes remaining.
6. Ask everyone to silently reflect on what they have learned or know about decision 1 for 1 minute
7. Ask everyone to silently reflect on what they have learned or know about decision 2 for 1 minute

There are now 14 minutes remaining.
8. Start a 5 minute timebox on decision 1 again
(assume still no decision)

There are now 9 minutes remaining.
9. Start a 2 minute timebox on decision 1
(assume a decision)

There are now 7 minutes remaining
10. Start a 5 minute timebox on decision 2
(sometimes magic happens, and you don't need the whole timebox!)
(assume people all unanimously agree within 2 minutes)

There are now 5 minutes remaining
11. Thank all and end the meeting early. DO NOT DRIFT INTO "any other business" or "miscellaneous agenda items". End the meeting. If people want to social then social, but it's no longer a meeting and make that clear!

Friday, 10 February 2017

Agile Principles 101

So I spent the first few times teaching the Agile Principles in the way that I was ?taught? on a very expensive public certification (?seriously - who can do ballet after just 1 or 2 days?) and I saw everyone else doing it. Peer pressure - even as an agile coach or teacher - is a tough thing to deal with! 

As is that excruciating inner desire of wanting to teach all of the things...but you only get a few minutes, hours or days in which to make an impact!

So 1 MS PowerPoint slide would go up, and the class would read the slide and the words silently. (How did I even know they were reading? Or were they just pretending to read so they could go home earlier?)

I would timebox this reading exercise to 6 minutes, as there are 12 of them. And everyone can read and understand complex phrases within 30 seconds, right?!!? 

And of course then another timebox for 4 minutes for Questions - "Are there any questions about this?" - kind of "emperor has no clothes" style - 99% of the time no one would ask anything. Probably because the principles are so simple to understand - people looking around would see their colleagues, managers, unknown strangers nodding knowingly! Perhaps even smirking with that secret deep understanding!

And, no one ever wants to feel uncomfortable - especially not by asking an obvious (to everyone else) question to clarify their own understanding, their own perception, their own experience!
Here's what that slide typically looked like (it hurts me just to revisit the old old decks!)

Notice how neatly all 12, and the title, fit really neatly onto 1 slide! :)

I particularly like the tiny font size, and the bullets! Wow! Those bullets - they really draw attention to what's so very important to make sure the 12 principles of agile successfully transfer off the presentation and into people's consciousness, and cause the readers (?) to change their way of being, their behaviours and their way of working!

In a nutshell, the pro's of this approach are:

1. The trainer gets at least a 6 minute break
2. The trainer can "tick the box" on the "we covered the basics" section / poorly defined learning outcomes
3. Only 1 slide!
4. Only 1 page to print for the pack for the attendees
5. Lots of nods - the words do seem sensible!
6. Very few questions (in 4 minutes) if any, and, no time to get into any detail/trainer's experience/learners' experience, so superficial answers or "park that one" to move along!

The con's of this approach are:

1. Zero positive effect on the learners
2. Sometimes negative impact on the learners as they begin to logically unpack and envision applying in their own organisation and discover stumbling blocks with all or nearly all of the principles!
3. Learners feel rushed
4. Learners realise the trainer might not be a good one or the training content might not be good

Post mortem: 

Did you notice who gets more benefit from teaching the agile principles like this? Who's paying the money? Who's earning?

No one can apply anything that is read from a dense packed and boring slide like this! The agile principles are too concise and need expansion/discussion to help people interpret them correctly individually and collectively and within the context the learners are themselves.

Don't teach or try to learn the agile principles this way, please. It's simply a waste of time and energy.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

What Is Agile For You What Is Agile For Us

So…what do you want to know?

I guess there are 3 readers this agile principles blog post is targeted at:
  1. Total newcomer to the whole agile movement/thing
  2. Someone who has had some brief training, or read a few books, or someone working next to a team “going agile”
  3. Someone who just wants to understand when to reject agile and when to accept agile

Firstly, welcome to this post (actually several that are linked!) about “agile”. I’ve said to myself for a number years, “do not go gentle into that good night” as many many have tried and most have only partially succeeded…the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and many brave good people who tried to communicate their "Eureka!"

So, I’m not trying to introduce or explain my interpretation of "agile" with this post. 

Instead I am going to connect various ways I have taught the 12 agile principles that are behind the agile manifesto to people who have attended my courses or people I have coached or led in organisations. I’ve read (and continue to read) (all) the books, speak to (all) the people and make my own mind up based on my experience.

I reckon if you and your team and/or peers follow the logic of the linked “HowTo Learn/HowTo Teach the agile principles” - and apply my guidance, you and your learners will discover for yourselves what these elusive, ambiguous, uncertain, etc principles mean for you and for your unique situation. And this deeper learning/realisation will set you up for great success in whatever you are going to attempt for the rest of your career.

A pushy declaration, I know. But I’ve been watching the people who really “got it” on my training and how their careers (thanks to linkedin!) have proceeded since 2010…and I am very pleased for them! And even more pleased that a simple manifesto and a few simple principles that were initially thought about in the software development and delivery space that I initially embarked my adult work life in ... have become to be understood as entirely applicable in all walks/works of life.

In the purest nutshell, by the dictionary, agile means "quick and nimble". These days it also has some ambiguous meanings appropriately and inappropriately added to the term, including "10,000 practices you can try to make your organisation quicker and nimbler" - also known as more competitive.

I’m iterating this post, but over time the dedicated walk-throughs for learners, trainers, teachers, managers and the insatiably curious will expand here:

My recommended “understand, embrace and agile right” books currently are:

Learning AgileLearning Agile: Understanding Scrum, XP, Lean, and Kanban (US)

Monday, 20 June 2016

Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment Materials Now Online

A while back I blogged about Professor Philip Zimbardo and his research and great work around post traumatic stress disorder. In his work in this area, Zimbardo has come up with a new theory of time - the Time Paradox (UK) (or US) - as well as a Personal Time Perspective Inventory which has been quite helpful to my coachees to get a better sense of "what may be".

Zimbardo speaking in Warsaw 2009

Just recently I discovered that Prof Zimbardo has made materials from the infamous "Stanford Prison Experiment" available online. Despite having first learned about the "prisoners and wardens" experiment during a university psychology module years ago, and learned about many other psychological experiments since then, the write-up and photos are still quite a shocking account of what happened during those 6 days (out of the planned 2 weeks) before the experiment was terminated early due to how quickly things got out of hand.

It's well worth the read-through, as well as watching the movie clips. It really is amazing what a system can do, and does do, to ordinary people. And as for uniforms and other physical associations. Wow.

And just when it might become grim and depressing, Zimbardo offers us all hope and salvation from the very human condition of life - his Ted Talk on Psychology of Evil. We need to celebrate heroism - the rise of the ordinary normal person who takes heroic action in the space where others are frozen.

"But I just did what any other person would have done under those circumstances"

Maybe, maybe not.

Anyway, Zimbardo for me, is a truly an amazing mind and life story with amazing benefits for humanity! For a little self-help/coaching for yourself and more detail, see my earlier Zimbardo time perspective assessment post!

Thursday, 5 May 2016

My favourite coaching tools: No Time To Improve Agile Retrospective Cartoon

This is a short and sweet one that always brings a little smile to my lips (and some or many team members) when I bring it up in front of the "we're too busy with important stuff" teams during agile retrospectives, or preceding an agile retrospective due to too much resistance because "we are too busy"!

No Time To Improve Retrospective Cartoon
It seems no one is currently sure where the original is, or who created it. For more modern updates there have been plenty, just search Google!

Once we all get past the uncomfortable "Gulp" moment after this cartoon is presented, the team discusses what things are keeping the team members too busy to think about or to reflect or to introduce improvements to the way(s) they are working.

I might even throw in the original Albert Einstein quote: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
And/or I might put this one in front of the team to reflect upon: "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." - Abraham Lincoln

If there are still some people needing deeper understanding of the situation they are in, I would introduce them to, and request them to, complete the Covey Time Management Usage Matrix (also known as self-study lightweight time and motion study). After this step is complete, especially including the lunch breaks, random web surfing, tea breaks, urgent phone calls and all the other really important things everyone does with intention or with serendipity at work as normal Business-as-Usual, then people are open to the message, and a humble inquiry!

Always respect the people you are introducing this too, and respect it is THEIR context and THEIR experience that matters, not yours, as external coach / observer / non-invested in the focussed business outcome! And remember why you are introducing this to them - something they are doing must be wasting energy in YOUR ?humble? opinion. Be careful and go gently!

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

My favourite coaching tools: The CIA Of Any Situation

This was taught to me a few years back by one of the team leaders I was coaching in agile mindset and approach to team and delivery. I am not sure where it originated as a consequence and searches on Google have been non-satisfactory.

Essentially, as the C-I-A was explained to me, every situation that one finds oneself in (as I explain to coachees), one asks upto 3 questions:

Question 1: Can I Control this situation?

If yes, then Control it (by using your management position or leadership)!
If no, then ask the next question,

Question 2: Can I Influence this situation?

If yes, then Influence it (by working with your network, expanding your network, orchestrating and asking your network for assistance in changing the situation)
If no, then ask the next question,

Question 3: Can I Accept this situation?

If yes, then Accept it (by opening your heart and open your mind and embracing it, so that your new personal reality becomes your new personality)
If no, then you have only 1 healthy choice - to leave the situation.

Failure to Accept the situation, and not leave this situation will cause you stress and all the negative consequences that stress brings. It will lead to negative behaviours and cynical comments leaking out, causing you to be mis-labelled further deepening the pygmalion effect and negative vicious reinforcement cycles. (see my post on labels being applied to people and more importantly how you can help the team "fix" the problem)

So you can use the CIA for personal coaching, and you can use it for team coaching quite effectively as well. I typically use it for helping teams understand if the potentially SMART-ifiable productivity improvement and/or happiness improvement actions they have proposed within the team's periodic Retrospectives are actually Achievable.

I did see several parallels in Stephen R Covey's excellent The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People where he discussed the 3 spheres that we live and work within as concentric circles. The Control Sphere is the smallest space, followed by the Influence Sphere, followed by the Accept Sphere. Basically we need to realise how little in life we do control, versus how much we think we control. An example he uses is the common illusion of control when driving in our carefully selected vehicle...and getting stuck in a traffic jam. We think because we can control our music selection, volume, air temperature and fan speed, we have control, but actually we have to accept that the dynamic system of the traffic on the roads is in control, we have very very little in reality.

I am planning on adding another 2 posts to extend the conversation and observations I've had about this CIA over the past 5+ years, so keep an eye out for the followups!

Monday, 18 April 2016

My favourite coaching tools: Zimbardo's Free Personal Time Perspective Assessment

A reminder that all my favourite coaching tools - free, online, or other - need to be applied with the sensible cautionary advice from statistician George EP Box: "all models are wrong but some are useful". Remember also that this is about "them" and their perception - not you! I make sure to tell individual coachees, teams and team leaders these things before giving them homework or some brief presentation on Zimbardo's Time Perspective theory.

I was fortunate in 2014 to attend a Professor Philip Zimbardo talk where he introduced (me) to several topics including the The Time Paradox: Using the New Psychology of Time to Your Advantage (UK) (or US). With the Time Paradox, Zimbardo's research and theory focuses on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) sufferers and how the new theory of time helps them "catch up" with their new current reality. Another great book about PTSD and help for sufferers is from Peter LevineWaking the Tiger: Healing Trauma - The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences (UK) (or US) - which explains somatic experiencing and was my first introduction to the 3 instincts humans face when stressed - the familiar "fight", "flight" AND the 3rd one "freeze". The research in this space is amazing and continuously evolving to help us understand us and to help those who suffer.

I recommend both books to anyone in any situation - not least because sooner or later you will experience 1 or more of the top 10 stressful events in life and having any knowledge to help you deal with them is invaluable. And also because modern life is so full these days of multiple minor stressors and we've learned that all the minors add up substantially even without a top 10 stressor.

And upon receiving some feedback on this tool, I believe both books are mandatory reading for any coach deploying this free test.

Prof Zimbardo is a wonderful speaker - if you get the opportunity to watch/listen/learn - take it! Stories from his (in)famous 1971 Stanford Prison Study (anyone who studies psychology or those who want to try understand how war atrocities are committed by normal people reads about the Stanford Prison Experiment) and his own early childhood facing near certain death in a hospital ward surrounded by other dying children (amongst other very memorable anecdotes) are incredible.

Here's a much condensed Ted version of his new theory of time talk.

I believe the theory can be applied to anyone no matter what their current psychological disposition is. I mean - who wants to live a half-step behind, or a half-step ahead of current reality? Who wants to be sure they are actually "living in the moment"? I reckon everyone, upon reflection, sees the benefit of being present, preferably present in the moment.

In my coaching practice - I meet a lot of people who want to know. They have deep questions about some past event or current lifestyle "choices" they seem to fall into habitually. They want to know if they are practicing enough mindfulness meditation. They want to know if they are truly self-aware. How does anyone but the Buddha know? Anyway, my clients - like most people - want to know if they're okay! (yes they are, and not because I suggested that they completed an online test!)

Step 1:
Go to - print the graph manually and keep for later. Or better still, you can save it on computer, my Macbook has a great and good-enough editing tool in the form of Preview!)

Step 2:
Do both free online tests!
Step 3:
Manually plot the assessments on the survey graph paper or pdf

Step 4:
Discuss the gap between the "Ideal Time Perspective" and the coachee's results.
This is critical to get right - it is the coachee's understanding and interpretation of the gap that matters, and it is the coach's role to suggest options to improve ONLY if required.

With more self-awareness of their time perspective, the coachee opens up possibilities to understand more about their historical events that affect their perspective on their workplace as well as how their vision of the future pulls them to a good place or not based on their behaviours. From there it is possible to figure out the steps to take to change as required.

For the coachee, this view can be used as input to their coaching plan, to set some goals to acquire new skills and new behaviours (eg too much Present Hedonism might be an indicator of too much "good time, live for the moment" attitude and not enough time invested in the future thinking or planning and from there creating).

Step 5:
Several people find watching The River of Time video - inspired by the time theory - calming, reassuring and helps them to slow down enough to catchup with current reality.

I recommend also to complete Johnson's free online personality test as well as the free online Belbin test.

Additional Resources:
  • Philip Zimbardo - The Secret Powers of Time is a 44 minute youtube video that has about half of the content I originally learned during the talk I attended.
  • RSA Animate: The Secret Powers of Time is a 10 min youtube video that has less content again, is focused on the theory, and the infographic drawn real-time is wonderful!