Goals, Leadership, Remote, Remote Leadership, Team Building, Technology, Tools, Vision

New year, new team members, clearer direction

My goal for this post: Describe how I set up and facilitated our team outing this year when all my team members were in town for the larger bi-annual tech team gathering. I hope this helps any reader spark ideas for their teams or their projects.

If you have any feedback, thoughts or ideas from your experiences, please let me know!

My Team Outing Experience

Two major responsibilities as a team leader are to clarify the team vision so the team can make decisions that align to our bigger tech team vision and make sure the team works well together to solve tough problems.

This year, I tried starting the year setting the vision and bring the team together via a team outing. Team outings help build relationships, offer a platform to help everyone get on the same page and provide a change of pace for the team (aka having fun outside of the office). Also, as a remote leader leading mostly remote team members I wanted to take advantage of having all the remote team members in town because nothing truly replaces face-to-face in-person interactions.

Before we got to town, I blocked out everyone’s calendar more than two weeks in advance. This is important because remote team members usually get their schedules booked quickly when they are in the office. Also, I recently gained two new team members. I thought this outing would be a great opportunity for the teams to meet and get to know these two team members before we starting diving into work together. Once the time was booked, I set the agenda and structure for our outing by starting with an end goal in mind.

End goal for this outing: Build relationships, clarify team dynamics and have fun!

Agenda

  • Arrive/Coffee/Intros
  • Kaizen Cards Exercise
    • Definition of Done
  • Stepping Stone Exercise
    • Team Vision, Goals and Project Overviews
  • Lunch
  • False Faces Exercise
    • Team Agreement
  • Chilling Out Exercise
  • Data Center Tour
  • Sushi Making

Exercise: Kaizen Cards (I couldn’t find a link, so explaining the exercise at end)

Why did I use this exercise?

It briefly simulates a scrum process, where you have a goal and want to improve on reaching that goal after every iteration. Also, for the first exercise of the day, it is pretty light weight and good to warm up everyone’s brain. Lastly, I think it’s most aligned to the definition of done, which helps you determine if when your work is done, like when you identify the card that is missing.

Team Decision: Definition of Done (link)

How do you know when your work is complete? This is a question that can mean lots of things to lots of people. Does your work need to be in a production environment? Does the work needed to be tested? What information should we have in our stories? These are questions that, if we don’t clarify and decide on, can create issues later.

Exercise: Stepping Stone (link)

Why did I use this exercise?

This exercise involves more physical movement, which can help increase the energy of the team right before lunch is coming and before the last presentation piece for the morning. Also, this activity is a little different than just using your brain. I think this problem is a little more complex than Kaizen Cards, so it was a little more impactful to building relationships with new team members.

Team Awareness: Team Vision, Team Goals and Team Projects

I presented our vision, the larger company vision, our goals and our projects. I wanted to make sure we everyone understood how our work aligns to the bigger vision and raise everyone’s awareness on what each team is working on.

A vision helps facilitate empowerment. It’s critical to empower your team to make decisions because your team members won’t stick around very long if they can’t make decisions and you don’t want to be the bottle neck to your team. When teams or team members look to make a decision, they can use the vision as a guide. In addition, I lead two teams where their work overlaps. For my situation, while I think team members need to talk with each other to tie threads on a daily basis, it’s also important that leaders help the team make some of those early connections. Overall, I hope this presentation helped my team think bigger to connect more dots when they are planning out their project work.

Exercise: False Faces – (link) adapted from Thinkertoys

Why did I use this exercise?

We’ve all experienced the food coma after lunch. To try and prevent this from totally taking effect during our decision making I wanted to use a multi-layer brainstorming technique that required us to change our thinking enough to break the coma. By starting with listing your assumptions, you get rid of the easy work first and begin getting the brain working. Reversing your assumptions really kicks you into another gear because we don’t seem to do it very often. When you try something new or unfamiliar, I believe, it increases your awareness and brain power because the newness of something prevents your brain from taking a break due to familiarity aka a food coma.

Team Decision: Team Agreement

This is a contract that together the team comes up with and holds each other accountable toward. I’ve used this in the past, but this year I did something different. I capped the limit to three agreement values. I did this because in the past, the team will come up with lots of values and it becomes too complex to uphold. An example of a team agreement value: Phone or video communication over email or skype.

Exercise: Chilling Out: The Jell-O Syndrome (I couldn’t find a link, so explaining the exercise at end & adapted from Thinkertoys)

Why did I use this exercise?

After 4-5 hours of brainstorming, listening and making decisions, it’s important to cool down, reset your mind and prepare for what’s next. This exercise is a great way to relax and reset.

When you work out or play an intense sport, you are supposed to stretch or roll out afterward. This can also be considered cooling down. This helps the recovery process and puts you in a position to be less sore later so you can continue your peak performance the next day.

Team Fun: Data Center & Sushi Making

After we relaxed, we moved to the fun portion of our day. We toured the Quicken Loans Data Center, which is really cool because of how complex the building needs to be designed to store and protect all the data. Afterward, we participated in a really cool sushi making class. These types of events, although small, are really great for team building because they allow the team to be themselves which helps promote relationship building so we can understand each other better when we are solving problems together.

Resources

Thinker Toys – Great book with lots of different exercise to spur creative ideas

Kaizen Cards Explained – adapted from Quicken Loans Leader Resources

Supplies: deck of cards and a stopwatch

Goal: Have the group shuffle the deck and the facilitator pulls out one card. The team has to find which card is missing as fast as possible. You can give the group a minute or two to discuss their plan before they begin. After you finish the first round, give the team a minute or two to “retro” how they can do it better. Then you repeat it a few times to see how much the team can improve their time.

Chilling Out: The Jell-O Syndrome Explained – adapted from Thinkertoys

Supplies: Quiet space, comfortable position, relaxing music and a facilitator

Goal: Spend 5 minutes listening to the music and repeating this script until time is up: “Close your eyes. Think of deeply relaxing all of your muscles…now clench your fists…relax them… flex your hands toward your shoulders…relax them…place your hands on your shoulders…flex your biceps…now relax your arms by your sides…shrug your shoulders…frown…relax your face…close your eyes tightly…relax them…push your tongue against the roof of your mouth…relax…press your lips together…relax…push your head back…push your head forward…relax your neck…arch your back…relax…suck your stomach in, tensing the muscles….relax…tense your thighs…relax them…flex your calves…relax them…flex your feet…relax them…curl your toes…relax them…”

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Communication, Discipline, Focus, Leadership, Learning Lessons, Remote, Technology, Tools

Lights, Web Cam, Action!

At the start of October, I became a remote team leader and I am constantly in front of a web cam. Scary, I know (Happy Halloween :P).

IsaacRemoteSetting

Overall, remote life is not exactly what I thought it would be like. You don’t necessarily roll out of bed and start to work. That is what happened when I worked from home one day a week. Since this became my primary day-to-day lifestyle, I’ve noticed remote work is similar to the office except quieter and lacks structure.

Due to the quiet and lack of structure, remote work in my opinion, is more about discipline than it is about being comfortable working from your PJs. Comfort is important, but if you get too comfortable, you may not be discipline enough to accomplish your work.

When I set out to become a remote leader, I talked with a number of Quicken Loans FOC remote team members and leaders to learn from them. I wanted to learn about their experiences and how they worked through issues. Also, when I was working on The Mighty Docs team (#quackquack), I got excellent firsthand experience working with two remote team members.

Here are a few things I am learning and trying as a new remote team member, all of which require a level of discipline that I didn’t anticipate at first and seem similar to office work!

Leave your office after work

  • I heard it was important to develop a home office that is separate from where you “live.” I can’t financially do that, so I work most of the day at home and I go out at night. I don’t go out and party, but I’ll go to a park, ride my bike, workout, visits friends, grab dinner and take the time to really separate myself from my “office” aka my home.

Getting comfortable being on camera to be extra approachable

  • The Mighty Docs team set up a system where we brought the office to the virtual space. All remote team members (TMs) were on Zoom all the time and all Detroit TMs were on that Zoom when they were at their desk. Today, I’ve set up my own virtual office for anyone to come and talk to me whenever they need.

Over communicate

  • This is easier said than done. Technology makes communicating much easier, but it isn’t the same as face-to-face communication. To work through this, I try to check in with my TMs every day via any method I can, but at least a ping or text. I do this to see how my team members are doing because if I were in the office, I would come around to their desk every day or so to do the same.

Focus! – this works two ways

  • Increased Focus – with a quieter setting you can focus more on getting things done! This is what you typically read about with regards to work from home and improved productivity.
  • Lots of distractions – when you are on a conference call you need to stay focused on that meeting. It’s very tempting to look at another monitor and check your email while your team is having a discussion. Don’t do it!

See that wasn’t too scary…

 IsaacHalloween

Happy Halloween!!

 

Header Image credit – https://www.istockphoto.com/photos/pumpkin-headphones-halloween-squash?excludenudity=true&sort=mostpopular&mediatype=photography&phrase=pumpkin%20headphones%20halloween%20squash

 

Accountability, Leadership, Learning Lessons, Technology, Tools

How to Avoid Micromanagement

This post stems from a one-on-one conversation I recently had with a team member. For the record, this was approved by the TM prior to publishing this post.

Holding people and teams accountable is really hard. Asking for updates, emphasizing deadlines, and pushing teams/people to accomplish goals can sometimes make you feel like you are playing the “bad cop.” This can be uncomfortable, especially if you don’t do it often.

A team member who is leading one of our projects mentioned they were feeling uncomfortable asking people about task updates because they felt like they were micromanaging.

Quickly, per Wikipedia, micromanagement is “a management style whereby a manager closely observes and/or controls the work of his/her subordinates or employees.”

First, this post is not arguing for or against micromanagement. A micromanagement style may be needed in certain situations. In this scenario, it seemed like there could be an opportunity to try something that isn’t as micromanagement oriented, an approach that would help the team member feel comfortable and provide the team member with more tools for their tool belt.

How to avoid micromanagement:

Set Vision

  • Create a vision/end goal in mind and if possible, have everyone on the team help add input to this process.
    • If everyone knows where we are going, then it reduces the need to constantly check in to make sure they are doing the right things. This doesn’t mean you set it and forget it (see next item).

Be Natural

  • Check-ins are still necessary, so make it natural.
    • In technology, one way we do this is via stand up.
    • Another suggestion is to have smaller more digestible visions/goals per build, per week, or per day that align to the larger vision.

Help Out

  • It may be helpful to ask “Does anyone have any roadblocks and how can I help?” rather than asking ‘where are they at with their task.’
    • By phrasing the question with an assistance first approach rather than looking over someone’s shoulder approach, it demonstrates to team members that we are all in this together trying to achieve the same vision/end goal.
Leadership, Learning Lessons, Tools

Are We Professionals?

Recently, I attended a two day Scrum workshop. Someone in the workshop asked our facilitator if there was a better way to estimate the amount of work we could accomplish in a two week sprint to avoid dropping work. After some back and forth, our facilitator said, “We are professionals. The team does not hold each other accountable, we hold each other up.”

This comment made me think, “Do we think of ourselves as ‘Professionals’? And if so, what does professional mean to us?”

For most of my life, I only thought of athletes as professionals because there are tiers below the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, etc., where people are considered semi-pro or amateur and working towards “professional” status.

So do we, as engineers (quality and software), team leaders, business analysts and others in the technology world, consider and treat ourselves as professionals?

Overall, I think we do because I think professionalism comes down to meeting, and hopefully exceeding, clear expectations.

For example, a professional athlete is expected to be healthy, on time for practice and games, attend team meetings, practice their craft, mentor younger professionals (ie: rookies) and be a role model for non-professionals.

Similarly, as a technology professional, I expect all of my team members to be on-time, attend their meetings, work on their craft, mentor newer team members and more.

I found three tools that helped clarify what it means to be a professional in our technology world.

  1. Team Agreements – Everyone on the team brainstorms ideas about what expectations they would like everyone on the team to meet. Eventually the team filters the list down to 5-10 clear items to live by. Some examples that my team came up with: Everyone be able to read and diagnosis application errors, have a team discussion for all walk-ins, and take care of yourself first – healthy mind and body = successful team members, to name a few.
  2. Team Values – Values are your DNA; it’s what drives you and your team. One value my team lives by is “Give a damn.” Giving a damn is a fun way to say you care and when you care about your work, you will give it your all.
  3. Definition of Done – When you finish a feature, what does it mean to be done? Is the software working? Is the feature in your production environment? How much testing should you do before you consider a feature done? Answering these questions is important because it helps set a professional standard of what it means to be done with your work.

These are some tools I’ve found to be useful. What are some concepts you use to set a level of professionalism?

7 Habits, Leadership, Learning Lessons, Self-Awareness

A Proactive Challenge

This post is stemming from an email I sent to a mentor of mine. Coincidentally, he is also reading the book at the same time (this was not planned).

Email to my mentor:

I am reading 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Have you read this or heard of it? So far, I really like it, but at the end of each habit, there are a few tips to applying what you learned.

The first habit focuses on a being “proactive.” The premise is you control your response to various stimulus, and rather than blaming others or giving excuses (ie being “reactive”) you can choose to respond with a more “proactive” approach. The book defines proactive “…as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have initiative and the responsibility to make things happen.”

The first chapter really dives into this definition and premise of choosing our responses. The book suggests becoming more self-aware of how “reactive” you and others around you are, so you can begin building a “proactive” habit. The author suggests doing a day long challenge, which I plan to do tomorrow (I actually did this on  3/15):

Full day challenge

Listen to your language and listen to the language of others around you. How often do you use or hear “reactive” phrases?

  • “If only…”
  • “I can’t…”
  • “I have to…”
  • “There’s nothing I can do…”
  • “That’s just the way I am…”
  • “He, she, it, they make me so mad…”
  • “They won’t allow that…”
  • “I must…”

My findings

The single biggest thing I noticed was how often my team members and I said, ‘I have to go to this meeting.’ I tried to move toward a more “proactive” response, especially during my team’s stand ups, to say ‘I am choosing to go to these meetings.’

It felt very uncomfortable to say I am choosing to go to 1 on 1s with my team members or choosing to go to a Scrum Ceremony because there may be consequence to not going to these meetings. (For context: The Family of Companies promotes Servant Leadership and Title Source Technology adopted Agile principles to our software development life cycle.)

Choosing to go to another meeting instead of attending a 1 on 1 may impact the relationship between me and my team member. Similarly, by missing a Scrum ceremony, I may lead my team to think ceremonies are less important than my other appointments. There are times where both of my teams’ ceremonies are at the same time. If this is the case, I try to balance my time or prioritize the importance of each ceremony to determine the one I should attend.

A few other observations

The most used phrase by far (I didn’t count the exact usage) was “I have.” The FOC culture does a really great job of pushing team members to be as “proactive” as possible by figuring out solutions when most would say “I can’t” or “there is nothing I can do.” This doesn’t mean I haven’t said these words or I haven’t heard team members say these things, but I definitely don’t hear it that often. Furthermore, I never noticed anyone say “That’s just the way I am…” or “He, she, it, they make me so mad…”

I believe two things played into this. First, I think the FOC promotes a very proactive culture. Second, the day I picked to be uber self-aware, I just didn’t catch myself or others saying these “reactive” phrases.

Moving forward and next steps

Try this challenge yourself and see what you find out! Once you identify reactive phrases, try turning them into more proactive attitude and behavior.

Reactive Proactive
“If only…” “I will…”
“I can’t…” “I choose…”
“I have to…” “I’ll choose…”
“There’s nothing I can do…” “Let’s look for alternatives…”
“That’s just the way I am…” “I can try…”
 “He, she, it, they make me so mad…” “I can control my feelings…”
“They won’t allow that…” “I can create a plan to change their mind…”
“I must… “I prefer…”

I will continue working hard at being more self-aware of my “reactive” and “proactive” behavior and attitudes. The critical thing I’ve realized is every meeting you choose to attend, action you choose to take or words you choose to use, matter. The critical component of being self-aware is learning when and how to control your response to these stimulus (meetings, actions, words etc.) and strive to choose your response (attitude and behavior) based on all the information you have. Sometimes you will choose to attend a meeting over a 1 on 1 or choose take an action in one direction rather than the other way. Again, these are your choices. You control your choices by your “proactive” response, rather than letting the conditions around you control you to trigger a “reactive” response.

If you take on this day challenge, feel free to share your findings here or directly reach out to me and let me know how it goes! #challengeaccepted

(Featured Image Citation: http://www.endare.com/blog/endare-challenges/)

7 Habits, Leadership, Self-Awareness

Are you working on the most valuable story?

“Suppose you wanted to arrive at a specific location in central Chicago. A street map of the city would be a great help to you in reaching your destination. But suppose you were given the wrong map. Through a printing error, the map labeled “Chicago” was actually a map of Detroit. Can you imagine the frustration, the ineffectiveness of trying to reach your destination?

 You might work on your behavior—you could try harder, be more diligent, double your speed. But your efforts would only succeed in getting you to the wrong place faster.

 You might work on your attitude—you could think more positively. You still wouldn’t get to the right place, but perhaps you wouldn’t care. Your attitude would be so positive, you’d be happy wherever you were.

The point is, you’d still be lost. The fundamental problem has nothing to do with your behavior or your attitude. It has everything to do with having a wrong map.

If you have the right map of Chicago, then diligence becomes important, and when you encounter frustrating obstacles along the way, then attitude can make a real difference. But the first and most important requirement is the accuracy of the map. 

Each of us has many, many maps in our head, which can be divided into two main categories: maps of the way things are, or realities, and maps of the way things should be, or values.” [Quoted from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People; emphasis mine]


Recently, I started reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen Covey. The book starts out describing two social paradigms:

  1. Character Ethic (aka your map) – the primary principles of effective living and the only way people can truly find success and happiness

  2. Personality ethic (aka your attitudes and behaviors) – secondary techniques used to bolster the character ethic, but only effective if you truly understand what character ethic principles you need to change.

When we talk about working on valuable or impactful work, have you thought that maybe YOU are the most valuable work? Going a step further, how do you know if you are working on the right parts of yourself? If you are able to raise your level of awareness, like the book discusses, you will understand that focusing on your map (the character ethic) will provide you with a foundation for change and success.

If you want to change your current situation, first look at yourself and think about what you need to change about yourself to change the situation for the better.

My challenge for you: for one day this week, take the time to think about your actions and make sure you’re working on yourself as the most valuable starting point.

Goals, Leadership

Shredding Down Goal Mountain

 

Last week, I traveled with some of my best childhood friends to go skiing in Colorado. We spent three amazing days skiing Keystone, Vail and A-Basin. After each day of skiing I felt mentally refreshed and ready to take on the next monumental mountain.

When we finished our last day of skiing, I mentioned to my friends that when I was skiing down down the mountain I only thought about skiing. My mind was clear of all other thoughts. My friend responded, ‘you can free your mind because you are so focused on that one goal ahead of you. Making it down the mountain, alive.’

We laughed but there is a lot of truth behind his comment.  A clear and measurable focus is critical to achieving your goals.

Skiing illustrated three major aspects of having a clear and measurable focus that can translate into the office.  

  1. Have a clear and measurable end in mind, like making it down the mountain alive and uninjured.
    • In technology, one of my team’s goal is to eliminate manual testing for our PDF documents by the end of 2017
  2. When you’re going down the mountain and you come to a cliff, you may need to pivot and try a different route to arrive at your goal.
    • As we work to eliminate manual testing, we will try a number of different methods to automate the testing of documents. We’ve tried using GUI automation to trigger a CompareDocs tool we use in our system. We are also working on finding ways to compare XMLs that are created versus what is expected. The key here is to constantly tinker and try different routes.
  3. After you pivot away from the cliff, be mentally and physically prepared for any situation that may come up, like sharp turns and other steep slopes.
    • It can be physically and mentally taxing to work hard on something and find out that route you just tried isn’t going to work out. When you pivot and it doesn’t go well, be prepared to try again, work a few extra hours, invest more time to learn what you don’t know and sometimes put on a good face when you are disappointed.

Keeping these aspects in mind while planning and working through your goals will only increase your ability to shred down bigger mountains!

TopOfVail.jpg

(all photos in this post are mine)