Category Archives: productivity

Small steps

In a classic example of what goes wrong in bigger environments, I wanted to knock up a quick tool to solve a problem. I decided to use Clojure because the solution involves data transformation from XML to JSON, so a functional approach makes sense. I also want to improve my Clojure skills, which are on the amateur side.

Leiningen is the natural lifecycle tool. I created my project, updated my dependencies in project.clj to the latest version of the midje testing tool, and in fine TDD style wrote a quick sanity test, ran lein midje and got a green response. Good work.

After some reading up on XML zippers in Clojure, I then made the timeless error of overconfidence by taking a big leap forward and writing a simple functional test that required a number of implementation steps, including coding and updating components and tools. Pretty soon, I was in Leiningen hell, getting meaningless exception stack traces, thrashing around trying different versions of tools and libraries, and commenting out increasingly large pieces of code until I found my issue—in about the second line I’d written. Lots of time wasted, no value delivered.

Moral to the story: when you’re in unfamiliar territory, you move faster if you take small steps.

Talker’s Block

<p>Seth Godin, as usual, got me thinking. His post on <a href="http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451b31569e2015435a1252c970c">Talker&#39;s Block</a> reminded me that writing is the complement to thought. It&#39;s only by articulating thoughts that they gain clarity. So, I need to write more. The question is whether to do it publicly. If you do it from the beginning then you never need to decide when to publish. On the down side, it&#39;s public. So, I say publish and be damned.</p> 

Fear of falling behind

My first blog post in the while. I’m spending too much time reading the web. Not only does it appear to be expanding at a rate not far behind that of the universe, but it means that I’m not spending enough time creatively contributing to it. After I’ve read my 104 RSS feeds, 143 Twitter followee contributions (plus others on lists), emails, news stories, articles on Instapaper, had a coffee, and patted the dogs, I’m done. And after all that I still haven’t done anything useful. I try and judiciously cull my sources, but more just gets added. And I’m not even working at the moment.

Other than completely giving up and disconnecting the broadband, I have no definitive solutions. Doing more skimming and less diving seems promising. I’ve taken to using Flipboard on the iPad to just scan the tweets and feeds, and sending the longer interesting articles to Instapaper, where I have a backlog suitable for longer periods of reading time. Which is hardly ever. Google News gives me a diverse set of headlines to scan over my fibre-enhanced weeties in the morning.

My fear comes from the maxim that the more you know, the more you realise what you don’t know. Or put another way: the more you know, the stupider you get. Being a bit of the generalist, I’m forever worried that I’m falling behind. In the subject areas I actually do know something about, I’m worried that I’m missing out on the latest, the best, the cutting edge breakthroughs or analysis. And in the infinitely larger space of topics I don’t know much or anything about, how can I hold up my head as a well-informed member of our society?

And as a result of the paralysis, I’m not shipping my art, as Seth Godin might put it. Not enough time coming up with ideas, focusing on creative solutions, forming opinions, talking to people, creating music and photos, implementing world peace, and so on.

The general answer of course is more discipline. Just do it. Carve out the time to do the most valuable work. Focus on the important stuff. As a strategy lecturer once said to us, the only real correlator of success seems to be that successful people just work harder. 

Today’s list

Today’s list of 10 things…

  • Peak-hour traffic in the rain
  • Pan-fried mushrooms
  • Sales vs delivery
  • Five Dials
  • Precision and clarity in writing
  • Caramello chocolate
  • Blu Mar Ten
  • High-neck jumpers
  • Feedly
  • Photos of fog

Observations. Your mileage may vary.

Personal management tools

<p>When faced with a typical management task, having a kitbag of tools, techniques, and frameworks gets you started quicker, and, importantly, makes it look like you know what you're doing. Or maybe you're the one being managed, and you want to show that you're organised. Either way, they are sufficiently simple not to intimidate others. Here are three tools in my box. None of them are rocket science, and I can't take credit for them, but they all get used at various times and on various topics.</p>

PPP

I was introduced to this one by a manager ten years ago, and it works really well when you need to write or get a regular status report, whether it be for a project or a person. The three Ps are ProgressPlan, and Problems.
Whatever the timeframe for the status updates, list (1) the items you achieved in the last time period, (2) what you have planned for the next time period, and (3) any issues that slowed your progress, or may prevent you executing your plan. The problems can also be challenges, things where you’re looking for extending beyond the plan
This works well for regular performance reviews. Get your reports to bring this list to the meeting, and then discuss the areas with reference to the objectives laid down at the start of the review period. It could be every six months with a large team, or every day if you’re micromanaging someone against a performance improvement plan. It scales up and down nicely.

ABCD

I saw this one a lifetime ago and have always found it useful as a planning framework. It’s a technique for developing a plan to go from A to B, assuming you know what A and B are. You address each letter in turn:

  • A: Your current state. Where are we now? What issues do we have?
  • B: The future state. Where do we want to be? How do we see ourselves at a particular point in the future? Pick the timeframe.
  • C: What are the basic steps to get there? What is the sequence of actions we need to take? What milestones do we need along the way?
  • D: What are the risks along the way? What challenges do we face in undertaking the actions? What constraints are we working to?

From the high-level actions in C, and the risks in D, you have the start of a project plan that can go into more detail. And of course you can track progress with regular PPPs.
How you capture this can help the process. Listing A, B, C and D down the page is not particularly inspiring. Try your page in landscape mode, putting A on the left, B on the right with an arrow connecting the two, with C and D underneath the arrow. It’s more visual and reinforces the idea of movement.

Agile Review

This one comes from the agile software development world, and is the core of a review, when your project is done, or an iteration is complete. Leave the egos at the door, and look back critically at not what happened, but why. Learn the lessons for future iterations or projects. Change the processes.
The basic approach is to ask three main questions:

  1. What went well?
  2. What could we do better?
  3. What different things do we want to try?

The first two questions are the basic good vs bad, without being overly negative. The third one is about new ideas or innovation. It’s not asking how we’d do what we did differently, it’s asking what different things could we do? It’s about examining the process rather the activities. In an XP or a Scrum world, it’s often about looking at introducing or abandoning a particular technique, based on how the culture and patterns of the team are emerging or developing.