2012-06-03

Power Questions – A Review

The other day a colleague posted on her blog about the book “Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others“. Within minutes of reading her post, I had bought and started reading the book thanks to the power of electronic delivery. Why did I do that?

In my journey towards being a better father, friend, sibling, person I have read books such as “Crucial Conversations” and “Difficult Conversations“. Both are great books that have helped me stop making assumptions about others, learn to listen and to share more of my own thoughts in a respectful, non-confrontational way. In these books asking questions is essential to build understanding and the examples are all focused on emotionally volatile situations. That is great and isn’t always useful when you are looking to apply that same process outside of interpersonal situations.

In the past few years I have had the privilege of working with a couple of people who know how to ask power questions. Hopefully you know the type, the one who sits quietly listening then they ask the one question that completely re-frames the discussion into new and meaningful ways. And I have always wondering how do I develop that skill?

None of the questions in Power Questions were surprising or revelatory to me. The power of the questions comes from the story that told about how each question changed an interaction and made that interaction more meaningful. It allows you to imagine yourself, or remember yourself, in a conversation that would have benefited from the use of a power question. The story told with each question helps connect you with the question so that when faced with a similar situation you will recall the question.

So why did I buy the book? It is because I want to contribute in meaningful ways to the conversations I participate in both at work, and in life in general. This book is just one more tool that I can use to help me do that and well worth the few hours to read it. It is also a book that I think I will refer back to on a regular basis to help me tune my thinking.

2012-05-28

Collaboration At a Distance

Getting teams to function well when they are not co-located isn’t easy. Some teams figure out what works for them and, in my experience, most don’t do it well. When discussing this with others, there is always agreement that teams can be highly productive when distributed geographically and no one has ever given an example of how to get a team there. That was until I read an article by Johanna Rothman. Johanna posted the article on InfoQ which gives a step by step process that worked for a team as described to her by one of the team members.

Not only does the team make collaboration work across geographical locations but also across four and a half time zones. This is impressive.  For the teams I work with, we only have to contend with North American east coast versus west coast time zone. We do have teams in India however they are co-located and only need to collaborate with the North American Product Owner.

Not all steps will work for all teams however what is described should provide a distributed team some ideas of things to try. There will also be organizational challenges. For example, we use Scrum as our development methodology and the teams would have to work with their managers to ensure that expectations are met if they were to start using kanban. I would hope that this wouldn’t be too big a stumbling point as ultimately we just want quality software delivered at regular intervals.

I would love to hear thoughts from others on this topic, particularly any practices that work for your teams that aren’t in Johanna’s article.

2012-05-01

Sometimes you have to blog

Ed Yourdon's PhotostreamAs I mentioned in my post “New set of Posts“, I use this blog to share articles and blogs I have read that I think my colleagues and others should read. In that same vein, I would like to welcome my colleague Jarett to the world of blogging.

Jarett has started what is most likely going to be a very technical blog call “Silent Excellence“. Jarett leads a group within Sage that promotes the use of Sage Data, or SData, for product integration’s. Colleagues and partners are asking him for all sorts of information and sending out emails and resending emails quickly becomes tedious. To make everyone’s life easier, Jarett is blogging his answers for all to read. Due to the fact that partners as well as colleagues benefit from his information a blog was a good choice.

In the not so distant past, we would be sharing this via a mailing list and the blog is a much better format. The writer can create a much richer experience for the reader and the reader chooses when to consume the information. A win-win.

2012-03-28

Scott Berkun on Creativity

Scott Berkun, an author I greatly admire, posted a video where he talks about creativity and some ‘hacks’ to help you with creativity. This isn’t a “follow these steps and you will be creative” talk. Scott starts out by making the point, creativity is hard.

Scott begins by describing his view of creativity. He sees it as the combination of existing ideas. So there are no new ideas, only new ways of combining previous ideas to create something new. This is a view that I support. I certainly believe that we are the sum of everything we have done in our past though not in a deterministic way. It is non-deterministic in that we always have a choice and that our choices determine who we are.

After giving his view of creativity, Scott describes the three things that influence it, inhibition, environment and persistence. I think Scott has done a great job of distilling all the possible influences to these three items. I was unable to think of anything that couldn’t be categorized using the above.

And finally, Scott describes five hacks which help build creativity in different ways. I won’t give it all away and a summary would be, don’t trust your memory and change things up.

Check out the video as it is an hour well spent. If you don’t agree be sure to let me know and be creative about it.

2012-03-14

Positive Influences

A colleague blogged about National Women’s History Month and celebrates it by reflecting on the women whom have had a positive influence in her life. Celebrating the positive people in our life is something we should do on a regular basis, and if you are like me, something you don’t do enough.

So following on dorianns example, I want to celebrate the top three women in my world. For the record, I am ordering the list by the length of time these women have been in my life. I am not elevating any one of them over another. They are all important to me.

The first is my sister. While we were not particularly close as children, as adults she has helped and supported me whenever I needed it. One of my great pleasures in life is being able to spend time with her.

The second is my daughter. While she isn’t yet a woman, it isn’t that many years away. The joy that she has brought to my life is unbelievable and she has forced me to grow in ways I never expected. Every day my daughter delights and amuses me and I truly look forward to her growing into adulthood.

And third, not to be confused with last, is my partner Wendy. For the first half of your life you live with an idea of what your life partner will be like. For me, it was mostly about someone who loved me to the core. For all my faults and idiosyncrasies, they would be there for me to pick me up when I fall and celebrate my successes. I found that person in Wendy.

So that is my top three. There are so many others, both family and friends, that I have had the honour to share time with in this life. To my top three women and everyone else, male and female, that fill my life with happiness, thank you!

2012-03-07

Carpenter Programmer

So this is my third attempt at writing about being both a carpenter and a programmer. The first attempt started as a laundry list of attributes of carpenters and programmers and then a pitiful attempt to discuss them (sound of shredding paper). The second attempt started as a mind map of the skills and behaviours of each task then I attempted to write about the commonalities….(sound of shredding paper). This time there are no lists, just a stream of consciousness dumped to the editor for later manipulation. I have certainly thought about this enough, and hopefully managed to pull some coherency out of the pile that was.

If you follow the Software Craftmanship movement then this post is a no-brainer. Programming requires craftsmen as much as carpentry does so there is no need to contrast the two. And that would be a cop out and I rarely take the easy path.

Fundamentally, it is about the task and how it makes me feel. Whether I am writing a new function for a software package, or building a bookshelf for my daughter, it is the pleasure I get that counts. In the end whether it is a product of my mind or a product of my hands, I get to step back and admire my creation. I also get to identify the flaws and (hopefully) learn to do better next time.

I was fortunate to be born with a decent mind, spatial sense and dexterity. I also had some great role models. My father is a research scientist, author, carpenter, artist, botanist, musician and expert on historic building methods. His father was a medical doctor and war historian. I have an amazing collection of war histories and biographies on my bookshelves and a surprising amount of knowledge about the conflicts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries courtesy of him. My mother’s father was a mechanical genius and life long athlete. And the women were no slouches either and what I remember them most for is a love of reading, food and cooking. Oh, and impeccable table manners.

Where I am going with this is, when someone raises their eyebrows at carpenter and programmer, or a double major of computer  studies and philosophy, I am perplexed. My entire life I have been taught you can do anything you want and should definitely do the things you love. The only caveat I was ever given was that you should never pursue anything at the expense of others.

The same attributes that make me a good carpenter also make me a good programmer and they don’t make me a good vacuum salesman. And I also know that I don’t have to be good at something to love it because I am a poor singer and I still love doing it…usually alone so as not to irritate others.

In the end carpentry and programming make me happy, and being happy is good.

2012-03-02

Doing more by doing less

I use to have a regular disagreement with someone in my life who believed that multitasking was the best way to get things done. All I saw was multiple things half done and often done poorly. I prefer to focus on one thing at a time, and get it done…or mostly get it done. I often get bored at the end and leave the last 5% unfinished. It is this bias that lead me to flag the following two articles. When I bookmarked the second article I had forgotten about the first article and was amused when I discovered I had the author twice in my list on Springpad.

The first article is “How to Accomplish More by Doing Less” by Tony Schwarz. I particularly like this article because it calls out the benefits of a mid-afternoon nap. I know when I am tired that I spend more time struggling to stay awake than doing whatever task is at hand. I usually end up losing the battle and having a series of ‘micro-naps’. If I do the smart thing, stop and have a nap, then I am quickly back in productivity mode. I still struggle though with setting aside blocks of time to focus on stuff. I leave my email open and my browser which means I am constantly flipping over to read the latest email or check the latest article in my RSS feed reader.

The second article, ‘“No” is the New “Yes”: Four Practices to Reprioritize Your Life‘, is also by Tony Schwarz. The highlight of this article is the importance of saying “No” to meeting requests. I often hear this complaint from colleagues and I always encourage people to say “No”. I don’t think that many people listen to me though. It is easy to fill your calendar with meetings, particularly in a organization that tends towards process heavy. At times, in the twenty plus years our product has existed, mistakes were made and processes introduced to catch those mistakes. This is great but we are slowly sinking beneath the weight. I don’t think it is going to drown us though as the culture is changing and the burden is lifting. That said, the default method of getting input, or resolving issues is to call a meeting of everyone who might have some input. Productivity killer!

Productivity is something I think a lot about and something I want to enhance in both myself and those around me. If I can reduce the number of hours required to generate value for the company to offset my cost of my employment then I can use those ‘free’ hours to learn new things that further my ability to generate value for the company.

The one thing that I found lacking in the above articles was links to any of the studies that measure the cost of context switching. For example, here is a study that shows multi-tasking students achieve lower marks. This lack of scientific support, unfortunately, appears to be rather common. I can find dozens of blogs and articles on the negative impact of context switching however it takes some real digging to find the studies that support these claims. They are out there, you just have to dig and be prepared to pay to read the studies. I didn’t feel any desire to pay so didn’t include any links here and if interested check out Psychological Science.

And a side note to multitasking, yes, a study did prove that women are better at multitasking then men however it didn’t then compare multitasking to single tasking.

I know multitasking and distractions hurt my ability to get stuff done so if I ignore your phone call, or take a while to respond to your email it is because I am getting stuff done.

2012-02-23

New set of Posts

I am starting a new set of posts on my blog. In the past, when I found a blog post or article that I found interesting I would email it various colleagues. When I am catching up on my feeds this could result in three or four emails in an hour or so. Not everyone appreciated the ‘blast’ of emails.

It was suggested to me by a forthright and respected colleague that I should accumulate these and send a single email, once a week. She does this Friday mornings. Great idea! So I started a new ‘book’ on Springpad called “Things to share”. The problem is I haven’t shared any of those clippings.

Talking with my esteemed colleague recently as she started setting up her blog, she suggested that I use my blog to share the articles that I found interesting. Another great idea! This will particularly help with establishing a rhythm to my posts and give me the necessary practice in writing so that you get to see quality material.

Please stay tuned as the first post will be up shortly.

2012-02-22

Belated One Year Anniversary

I just realized that this blog is now more than a year old. My first post went up on January 6th, 2011. In that year I posted 21 times and have close to 1200 views. My most popular post, by nearly 50% more views than second place, was Causality. In second place was The Importance of Dialogue. Those two posts were on topics very close to my heart and that appears to reflect in their popularity. I will have to keep that in mind.

I wasn’t particularly good at keeping a regular stream of posts going. April, May and June were my biggest months due to being the months in which I was most consistent about posting. In May I posted 5 times and 4 in each of April and June. The remaining months only saw 1 or 2 posts.

To those who have been following me for the year, thank you. And to those following me into a new year, thank you too.

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2012-02-21

Facebook

In my original post I stated that I wanted to use this site to stimulate dialogue. Unfortunately I have not had a lot of commenters. That was until my post on “The Importance of Dialogue”. My sister shared my post on the Facebook page for her online magazine, Silver and Grace, and I suddenly had a bunch of commenters. The Silver & Grace experience is that  commenters prefer to use Facebook as their interaction medium. They will go read a post elsewhere then comment on it in Facebook.
So to facilitate conversation I have created a Facebook page. If this works for you, please like my Facebook page and watch my wall for new posts and, hopefully, comments too.

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