Saturday, February 17, 2018

#52books The Art of Living

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Format: Kindle

It’s been awhile since I have studied Ancient Greek philosophy.  When I was studying it, as part of my graduate studies in History, we didn’t spend much time on the Stoics.  Much of my time was spent with Asclepius, Hippocrates, Galen, and the other characters in Ancient Greek medicine.

The Art of Living is an interpretation of a translation of transcribed discourses from Epictetus.

The book is easy to read and easy to pick up and put down. Strict translations from the original Ancient Greek text tend towards painful reading.

You can see the gist of some key ideas that have carried over into modern day thinking.

  • Control what you can, accept what you can’t. (Serenity prayer, anyone?)
  • You are responsible for your thoughts.
  • Don’t adopt other people’s views as your own.
  • Clearly define the person you want to be.
  • You can choose how you respond.
  • Harmonize your actions with the way life is. Don’t try to make your own rules.
  • Appreciate what you have.
  • Happiness is within.
  • Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

From this interpretation, I can see why Stoicism and Epictetus are going through a resurgence in popularity among the entrepreneurial set.  Many of the messages have been passed down through the business/sales arm of the self-help community for generations.

The academic in me is “this close” to grabbing and reading a more literal translation of Epictetus’ discourses.  The inner academic would like to see how muddied the message is in today’s translations of Stoic philosophy.  Then there is the (larger) part of me that knows it has much better things to do than slog through literal English translations of Ancient Greek.

This translation/interpretation of Epictetus strikes me as a decent start.  If nothing else, I’d put this in the category of “distraction book” – something you can pick up and put down easily in short stints, close the cover, and feel just a bit better for having spent time with it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Types of Work

The authors of The Phoenix Project identified four types of work that appear in IT departments:

  • Business projects – the temporary activities that create something new with an eye towards creating a return on investment for the business.
  • Internal projects – the temporary activities that help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of internal business operations
  • Changes – work that needs to happen to accommodate a desired adjustment to an operational system (either a technology configuration or a business process). Often a result of projects.
  • Unplanned work – activities we didn’t see coming, but we have to do anyway. Often a result of projects, changes, and life.

I would argue that these types of work appear in all departments, not just IT.

These 4 types of work essentially define the whirlwind.

Too many projects.

Too much work in progress.

Maintaining broken systems and the unplanned work that results.

Saying “yes” to activities that, on the surface, don’t look like much.   “It will be quick.”

A death by a thousand cuts.


I think we are guilty of planning projects and activities in isolation.

Never accommodating ALL of the pieces of the whirlwind.

Never looking at what work is in progress right now, or lying around unfinished, or waiting for someone to have some bandwidth to finish the work.

I think we are also guilty of never pausing and asking whether the good idea is a good idea for US.

Never analyzing whether that good idea will move us towards our greater vision – or if it is just a distraction from the path.

Why are we not OK with letting that great idea go to someone else with the resources and bandwidth to execute?

Why the fear that good ideas will never appear again?

Or that we are “missing something” if we don’t do something with the idea.

We have so much inspiration, influences, and opportunity!

Where has chasing all of the things led you?

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Saturday, February 10, 2018

#52books The Phoenix Project

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#52books – The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win

Format: Kindle

It’s a luxury to sit and consume a book in one sitting.  Having the time to do that is half of it.  Finding a book you can’t put down is the other.

Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford use storytelling to share a way to think about DevOps and IT as a key business driver.

They have obviously spent time in the trenches.  The stories ring true, the characters seem to be modeled after people they have encountered, and I get the sense that some of the situations are thin disguises for real-life episodes.  Admittedly, they also try to cram those characters into typical IT and corporate stereotypes (the guru/mentor, the politician, the “CEO,” the savior engineer, etc). They also follow the hero’s journey as the framework, so you pretty much knew how things were going to end.

Thankfully, I was not reading this as a novel or expecting much of a plot.

I could have easily read the back of the book and get what I needed out of it.

Reading the whole book, however, helped to provide context to the ideas in the back of the book.

I also found myself going on the learning journey with Bill, the main character, as he tried to parse what Erik, the guru/mentor, told him.

It’s impressive when a book gets my attention enough to make me engage like that.

 

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Thursday, February 08, 2018

The Step Before the SMART Goal

Yeah, if you could create smart goals, that would be great.

I’ve noticed that people sometimes resist creating SMART goals.

That resistance strengthens the less certain they are about whether that goal (or even getting things headed in the right direction) is achievable.

I’m thinking there could be an in-between step.


Over ten years ago, I found myself carrying about 25 pounds more than I usually do.  The weight snuck up on me, of course.  A few incidents set off some alarms that maybe I ought to do something about it.

  1. I was wearing my mother’s hand-me-downs.  She had just lost a bunch of weight.  Her hand-me-downs were larger than anything I had worn – ever.  And some of them were too tight.
  2. A professional colleague made the harmless comment that I looked “old.”  I work in IT, so tact isn’t a strong suit for most people in the field.
  3. Clothes I’ve worn for years didn’t fit. Too tight.
  4. I was feeling tired, bloated, slow and fat.

Yes, I knew I needed to set SMART goals, but I’ve never needed to diet or lose weight before.

Furthermore, I wasn’t entirely sure what caused the weight gain to begin with.  I didn’t think I was doing anything differently.

I figured that a good approach, for me, was to see if I could change the momentum.

I didn’t set a target to fail at, then go through the whole shame-spiral thing when I missed.

It was more of an “if I do this, will the trend move in the right direction?”

In my case, I decided to start exercising. I tracked how often I did it and what I did.

After a month, I had enough data to start setting SMART goals.

What was that data?

  • Yes, in my case – exercise helps me lose weight
  • I also found that exercise dampened my appetite and I naturally made better food choices
  • I could exercise 2-3 days per week without feeling the “shoulds”
  • During my exploratory measurements, I lost 5 pounds and started to fit into my old clothes again.

Awesome!  NOW I can make a SMART goal because I have a good chance of achieving it and I have the data available to make it realistic.


If you find yourself resisting making a SMART goal, do some exploration.

  1. Where are you at now?
  2. Is there something you can try to change the trend?
  3. What happened?
    • Did your experiment have the desired result?
    • If yes, at what pace?
    • If not, is there something else you can try?  Or is there another variable at play?

With that data, you can then start setting specific, measurable, ACHIEVABLE, relevant and time-bound goals.

And you won’t get as stuck with the “achievable” part.


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Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Whirlwind

In The 4 Disciplines of Execution, the authors talk about the whirlwind – or “your day job.”

As I read the book, I had a nagging thought…

I think they are letting executives off the hook.

Why aren’t they asking what the executives are willing to give up to go after the wildly important goal?


Conversations around projects are about getting the project done.

I don’t see many questions about what life is going to look like AFTER it’s done.

Get the project done. Celebrate (maybe). Move on to the next thing.

Then they wonder why they aren’t seeing the expected business benefits.

Furthermore, projects are often conceived and expected on top of everything people are already doing.

The cult of “more.”

Do more. Have more. More productivity. More “lines of business.” More customers. More services. More more more!

Oh yeah, and with the exact same resources.

Then they wonder why their best employees leave and the rest have crummy attitudes on a good day.

They wonder why they can’t reach their goal.

No focus.

You keep adding.

You don’t provide any wiggle room to allow your people to adjust.

How adaptable are YOU when you are stressed out and tired?

And if you answer “very adaptable” – time to get an outside opinion. You likely won’t like what you hear.


The authors imply that by focusing on implementing the 4 disciplines and a wildly important goal with appropriate measures, focus takes care of itself.

And it might.

I think we can do more.

If we are leading a team, the least we can do is help that team gain some bandwidth to adjust to change.

Their resistance is valid.

Are you just adding on?

We need to do the hard, uncomfortable work of setting new boundaries, determining what activities need to stop, and saying “no.”


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Monday, February 05, 2018

#52books The 4 Disciplines of Execution

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#52 Books  – The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals

Format: Kindle

There will always be more good ideas than the capacity to implement.

I’m tempted to stick this quote on the back of my business card.

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Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, Jim Huling and Jim Stuart at FranklinCovey spent years developing and implementing this model of execution.

Their 4 disciplines are straightforward:

  1. Focus on the wildly important
  2. Act on the lead measures
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard
  4. Create a cadence of accountability

Straightforward, but not easy.

And, as with any sound change practice, the disciplines require steady, consistent effort to implement successfully.

They recognize the enemy of successful execution is the “Whirlwind”, i.e. your day job and the urgencies that appear necessary to sustain your business.  If you can’t focus on the wildly important, the other three disciplines won’t help you.

As they put it numerous times in the book:

The most important contribution a senior leader can make is to remain focused on the wildly important goal and resist the allure of your next great idea. (emphasis mine)

They recognized that the people who tend to rise to leadership positions are also the type of people who are creative and ambitious.  The type of people who are hard-wired to take on too much and, because they are in a leadership position, have their staff take on too much.

They also recognized that leaders like to hedge their bets and position themselves, and their team, such that people can’t question the level of effort.  Busy looks good.

Nothing is more counter-intuitive for a leader than saying no to a good idea, and nothing is a bigger destroyer of focus than always saying yes.

How many of these 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) implementations failed because their clients couldn’t find the discipline of focus?

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They kept avoiding the “whirlwind.”  Throughout the book, I hoped they would ask, “Is what you are doing in the whirlwind truly necessary?”

They stated that a focus on wildly important goals might help narrow the size and complexity of the whirlwind.  It was obvious, however, that they were keeping day-to-day operations out of scope.

They never asked about what was happening in the whirlwind.

Why did they keep skirting around the thing that was likely to derail their model?

I’m going to talk more about this book in the next couple of posts and try to unpack that.




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Friday, February 02, 2018

#52books Good Business

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Format: Softcover

After his seminal 1990 work, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote many books describing how flow works in various contexts.  Good Business is the first of two forays into Flow and business.

Csikszentmihalyi interviewed 39 business leaders who, he felt, combined high achievement with “moral commitment.”  He defined “moral commitment” as “long-term dedication to goals that advance the interests of the community, the people living in it, and humanity in general.”

Leveraging his previous research, he found that “few jobs nowadays have clear goals,” many jobs don’t leverage a worker’s skills, and there is little to no control over the goals of the process, how the worker performs the process or even the time it takes to do the process.

Csikszentmihalyi calls for a clear set of goals and values, along with consistent communication and reinforcement of those values.  “Every well run organization has not only a good business plan, but a set of core values that are expressed in the behavior of the leadership(emphasis mine) and are continuously reinforced through written statements and verbal communication.”

What saddens me is that 15 years after the initial publication of this book in 2003, goals are even less clear within many organizations.  A focus on “agility”, and the frequent abdication of the responsibility to decide on a direction and stick with it long enough to see results in many organizations, have not helped this issue.

I don’t know about you, but I am still seeing way too many people burned out, frustrated, and exhausted.  Maybe even more so now than in 1993.

Csikszentmihalyi also stresses the importance of an alignment between an organization’s values and an employee’s values.  Of course, this alignment is next to impossible if the organization isn’t entirely sure what it’s values are, or they have a laundry list of values that were decided by a committee.

There is an assumption, likely a result of his selected research methodology, that having a strong leader with clear values that are consistently demonstrated and communicated provides a partial solution to the misalignment problem.  At least employees can see the values and behaviors modeled.

I think that it is also a matter of the employee being more discerning about where to put his or her efforts. The employee needs to come in with his or her own clear and integrated set of values and determining whether there is a match with the organization and with the group; not trying to contort themselves to fit in.

In our current knowledge economy, our education, experience, and energy are the “means of production.”  How are we being asked to use our personal resources?  What values are we supporting?

Csikszentmihalyi warns, “The organization you work for will shape your entire identity. It will either enable you to grow or stunt you; it will either energize you or drain you; it will strengthen your values or make you cynical.”

I’m grateful that I am hearing more frequent discussions around how to make the workplace more responsive, responsible, humane, and sustainable.  I’m grateful for the small pockets of progress I’ve seen in the intervening 15 years.

I’m also sad that this book might be more important now than it was in 2003.


Amazon links
Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience 




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