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The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Books (page 1 of 6)

Book Review: Brain Rules for Aging Well

I finally got around to reading “Brain Rules for Aging Well: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School” by John Medina. I’m really pleased I did.

I found the book extremely easy to read. The book summarises the latest in brain science about what keeps the brain strong. It underscores what science proves to work. More importantly, it breaks many myths about what doesn’t. Medina uses a lot of stories and analogies to simplify the complex field of brain science.

The field of studying the brain is relatively young. It was only in the last few decades that we could easily observe the brain without needing to remove it! As a result, this book still leaves many open answers but is at least honest about it.

Some tips that help keep the brain active and healthy include:

  • Maintain healthy relationships with a wide variety of people. Avoid emotionally controlling or abusive relationships. Avoid verbally aggressive people. Surround yourself with people who have different opinions and who value different perspectives.
  • Reflect on what you are grateful or appreciative about. Share your gratitude with others.
  • Learn about something new constantly. Better yet, teach others to expand your own understanding and stretch your brain.
  • Stay active (through exercise). Exercise strengths not only your body, but also your brain.
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep isn’t about resting. It’s about reseting, getting rid of “toxins” and forming connections essential to learning.

I also learned about a few areas that influences how your brain functions. Your diet has a big influence. Nostalgia can also help. I liked the question, “When did you have the most meaningful experiences of your long life?”

The book also underscored limits to the brain. We are rubbish at multi-tasking. Memories are volatile, so repetition is essential. If someone doesn’t feel safe in a particular environment, they will perform worse. The brain is not designed for long-term stress where you feel like you have no control.

I recommend Brain Rules to anyone who has interest in how their lifestyle affects how they think. It’s accessible, practical and hopefully you leave considering changes to your lifestyle!


Book Review: Factfulness

Book Review: Factfullness

It was almost a decade ago, I first watched Hans Rosling talk about the ever changing state of the world (see the videos here). He was a poster-child for demonstrating how visuals can bring static data to life. In his last legacy to the world, Rosling published the book, “Factfullness.” Unfortunately he passed away in 2017 due to pancreatic cancer.

Factfullness reflects many of Rosling’s personal stories. It also shares his frustration with a world filled with bias and “fake news.” This book is extremely relevant given the current state of politics both in the UK and the US. 

Factfullness challenges us to push past biased social and news media. Instead we should focus on globally available data such as from the United Nations. In the book, Rosling paints a much more positive view of the world than what the media likes to portray. As he often repeats, “It may still be bad, but it’s significantly better.”

Fuelled with data, Rosling shows us how child mortality is drastically decreasing. He demonstrates how fewer people live in critical poverty. He reminds us how women have better rights today. The book highlights how monkeys are more factful than educated humans. Rosling points out we are less factful because of “Instincts.”

The Gap Instinct describes how we quickly classify something into one of two camps. Examples include being poor/rich, sick/healthy, or us/them. Reality is more of a spectrum, with a majority in the middle and that there’s not that much of a gap. Rosling warns us to be careful of extreme comparisons.

The media fuels the Negativity Instinct. Rosling points out, “Negative news sells.” He contrasts this with an observation that  incremental improvements are not considered newsworthy. In this chapter, he starts using the phrase he later repeats, “It can be both better and bad.” (The situation can still improve, but the world has improved significantly.)

The Straight Line Instinct describes how we think linearly. In the context of an ever growing population, this instinct fuels the fear of overpopulation. Rosling highlights how childbirth rates reduce as a country becomes more prosperous. He challenges us to use data to better understand the shape of data. He gives examples where curves are more like doubling curves, or act like an S-curve. Straight line functions are the exception rather than the rule.

Rosling shares a personal example where the Fear Instinct causes unclear thinking. This reminds me of the Type I thinking (from Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman). Type I thinking means we react in critical situations with poor results. Fears from physical harm, captivity or contamination drive us to act irrationally. Rosling challenges us to differentiate between frightening and dangerous. Danger is risk multiplied by exposure. When we recognise this instinct, seek calmness before making an important decision. 

The Size Instinct focuses our attention on individual numbers out of context. A compelling story or a concrete example leads to us overestimating an impact. Rosling recommends we look at numbers in proportion. We should do relative comparisons, or look at trends rather than numbers alone. Rosling reminds us of the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) or use rates (e.g. number per person).

The Generalisation Instinct describes our habit to automatically category and generalise. Stereotyping through generalising leads us to incorrect conclusions or unjustified judgements. It also leads us to poorer decisions. GapMinder invented Dollar Street to highlight different categories. Rosling challenges us to look for differences and similiaries across categories. Avoid using categories to justify an assumption.

The Destiny Instinct drives us to believe destiny is pre-determined. This reminds me of the Fixed versus Growth Mindsets, made popular by Carol Dweck. To fight the Destiny Instinct, we must recognise small improvements and changes. We should seek knowledge about how cultures and societies do change over time.

The Single Perspective Instinct drives us to seek a simple solution or answer. I recognise this instinct from my studies in Systems Thinking. A counter against this instinct is to collect different Mental Models. Each Mental Model provides a different perspective on a situation. I loved this quote from this chapter. “The world cannot be understood without numbers, and it cannot be understood with numbers alone.”

The Blame Instinct describes our desire to find a scapegoat, or to point the blame at an individual. It blocks our ability to focus on contributing factors. It also means we are unlikely to prevent similiar problems in the future. Rosling provides great advice here. It reminds me of advice for healthy, blameless post-mortems. “Look for causes, not villains and look for systems, not heroes.” 

The final instinct Rosling describes is the Urgency Instinct. This instinct draws upon Type I thinking and biases for action now rather than later. Rosling reminds us that urgent decisions are rare. He encourages us to take a breath, insist on data and be wary of taking drastic actions. 

I really enjoyed reading this book. Rosling’s personal stories bring vibrancy to the book. He highlights how even “experts” or “highly educated” people fail to act factfully. The book makes us wary of the “Instincts” and provides concrete actions to help us. If you’re interested in learning more about Factfullness, get the book here.

Book Review: 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management

I ended up reading Kevin Kruse’s book, 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management: The Productivity Habits of 7 Billionaires, 13 Olympic Athletes, 29 Straight-A Students, and 239 Entrepreneurs in January but haven’t had the chance to write-up my review. Here it is now!

This book, other than having one of the longest book titles ever, is a huge collection of tips and tricks from a lot of people from different fields. It’s chapters are organised around different topics, with examples and quotes from different people (both famous and not so well known) to help you understand how others manage their time.

At the end of each chapter is the concluding tip, which I’ve summarised here below.

  1. Time is your most valuable and scarcest resource.
  2. Identify your Most Important Task (MIT) and work on it each day before doing anything else.
  3. Work from your calendar and not a to-do list.
  4. Procrastination can be overcome when you figure out how to beat your future self, who cannot be trusted to do the right thing.
  5. Accept the fact that there will always be more to do and more than can be done.
  6. Always carry a notebook.
  7. Email is a great way for other people to put their priorities into your life; control your inbox.
  8. Schedule and attend meetings as a last resort, when all other forms of communication won’t work.
  9. Say no to everything that doesn’t support your immediate goals.
  10. Eighty percent of outcomes are generated by twenty percent of activities.
  11. Focus your time only on things that utilise your unique strengths and passions.
  12. Batch your work with recurring themes for different days of the week.
  13. If a task can be completed in less than five minutes, do it immediately.
  14. Invest the first 60 minutes of each day in rituals that strengthen your mind, body and spirit.
  15. Productivity is about energy and focus, not time.

There are many nice personal stories about situations and each chapter frames the advice in terms of different roles about how it might apply if you’re an entrepreneur, an executive, a freelance, student or a stay-at-home parent.

I really found this book really easy to read as it was one of those books that gives you lots of practical bits of advice that you can apply immediately. I think it’s also a great book if you’re feeling overwhelmed and unsure about how to manage your time and energy. Since all the advice comes from different people, you will find that some of the advice may not be so easy for you to put into practice, but gives you a good set of ideas to try something out for yourself.

Why we wrote Building Evolutionary Architectures

When I first started working as a developer, agile was a taboo-word, seen as a fad driven by developers. Scrum was, at least in Australia, unheard of and I luckily fell into a team experimenting with XP (Extreme Programming) combining CruiseControl with CVS and the first version of JUnit.

In those days, most projects ran using some sort of waterfall process with a lengthy requirements-gathering phase, a long architectural design phase followed by problematic development and often a stressful testing phase. You were lucky to get access to a new development because there were long delays in obtaining new infrastructure, waiting for some operations person to set up the machine, configure the services and grant you access.

Fast forward to today where we have a completely different world of technology. We have rich, open source libraries that give us fundamental building blocks to focus on solving our problems. We have powerful computers with vast disk space, processing capacity and memory that enable us to build complex features without waiting for a lengthy compile or build phase. We have access to cloud services that give us even more compute power, disk space and broadband that allow us to rapidly interact with remote services, almost as if they were on a local network.

Today’s world of building software looks very different from what it looked ten or fifteen years ago. The way that we need to design and architect our systems also needs to change. This is one of the reasons why my co-authors and I decided to write the book, “Building Evolutionary Architectures

Long phases of designing an architecture will likely result in an architecture that will be cumbersome to build. Zero architectural design will fail to meet what we deem as a software’s “fitness function.” Instead, developers need to consider how their systems will adapt to change and we’ve looked at modern software development practices, methodologies and processes to understand what supports change and, more importantly, what typically hinders change.

If you’re interested more in this topic, then check out this page on how you can learn more about building evolutionary architectures.

Book Review: 37 Things One Architect Knows

The author of 37 Things One Architect Knows, Gregor Hohpe, has a lot of experience to share, already having published the hugely successful and still highly relevant book, Enterprise Integration Patterns book in 2003. More than a decade later, Hohpe published his experiences playing the Architect role across many different organisations and shares useful tips and tricks for the modern day Architect.

Grab a physical copy of 37 Things One Architect Knows here or get the ebook as a published bundle Tools for Tech Leads and Architects

The term Architect is certainly overloaded, and although his book is aimed at describing the role of a Transformational Architect (one who can help shift traditional organisations into thinking, planning and acting more digitally), there are many different gems that Architects in all types of situations can benefit from.

Hohpe describes the Architect role using the analogy of a large building and the interplay between the Architect, the elevator and traversing the building up and down; “Be sure to stop in the “engine room” and various floors from time to time,” is a useful reminder for Architects to avoid staying in the Penthouse (aka Ivory Tower) and understand the value that a well-informed Architect can add when they truly understand the issues in the “engine room.” He has kindly also published an expanded version using this metaphor on Martin Fowler’s Bliki.

The book is divided into five different sections:

  • Architects – Exploring the various interpretations of the term Architect, and his perception of its responsibilities.
  • Architecture – Useful tips and approaches to understanding, defining and shaping decisions.
  • Communication – A really key area that Architects need to develop and draw skills on to be succesful.
  • Organisations – An explanation about the relationship between the Architect and the interactions and world they find themselves in.
  • Transformation – A call to action for Architects.

Hohpe has a great story-telling skill, and with cute and memorable chapter titles like “Control is an Illusion”, “If You Never Kill Anything, You Will Live Among Zombies” and “You can’t fake IT” there are useful cross-references contextualising the pragmatic advice gathered over his long career in technology.

Buy this book if you want to be a more effective software architect. You will learn some of the false assumptions or traps unexperienced architects fall into when they take on the role. You can order a physical copy of 37 Things One Architect Knows here or get the ebook as part of a bundle, “Tools for Tech Leads and Architects”.

Book Review: Scaling Teams

This weekend I finished reading Scaling Teams by Alexander Grosse & David Loftesness.

I know Grosse personally and was looking forward to reading the book, knowing his own personal take on dealing with organisations and the structure.

tl;dr Summary

A concise book offering plenty of practical tips and ideas of what to watch out for and do when an organisation grows.

Detailed summary

The authors of the book have done a lot of extensive reading, research and talking to lots of other people in different organisations understanding their take on how they have grown their organisations. They have taken their findings and opinions and grouped them into five different areas:

  • Hiring
  • People Management
  • Organisational Structure
  • Culture
  • Communication

In each of these different areas, they describe the different challenges that organisations experience when growing, sharing a number of war stories, warning signs to look out for and different approaches of dealing with them.

I like the pragmatic approach to their “there’s no single answer” to a lot of their advice, as they acknoweldge in each section the different factors about why you might favour one option over another and there are always trade-offs you want to think about. In doing so, they make some of these trade-offs a lot more explict, and equip new managers with different examples of how companies have handled some of these situations.

There are a lot of links to reading materials (which, in my opinion, were heavily web-centric content). The articles were definitely relevant and up to date in the context of the topics being discussed but I would have expected that for a freshly published book. A small improvement would have been a way to have them all grouped together at the end in a referenced section, or perhaps, (hint hint), they might publish all the links on their website.

What I really liked about this book its wide reaching, practical advice. Although the book is aimed at rapidly growing start-ups, I find the advice useful for many of the companies we consult for, who are often already considered very succesful business.

I’ll be adding it to my list of recommended reading for leaders looking to improve their technology organisations. I suggest you get a copy too.

Reviewing the latest blinks August 28

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School by John Medina – A description of rules with how our brain works and how we learn. Our visual senses tend to trump our sense of smell. We need sleep to restore our energy and to help us concentrate. Spaced repetition is important, but assigning meaning to new words and concepts are also important to learning. Since I’m fascinated with learning and how the brain works, I’ll add this to my reading list.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity by
David Allen
– Although I never read the book, I felt like I follow a similarly described organisation system. The GTD method is almost like a cult, but requires a lot of discipline for it. Unlike keeping a single list of things to do, they have a systemised variant for keeping long-lived projects and ways of managing tasks to help you focus on getting through actions. Probably a good book if you want to focus more on breaking things done into smaller steps.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande – With lots of examples from the healthcare industry, a reminder that useful checklists can help us avoid making simple mistakes. For me, the idea of standardised work (a lean concept) already covers this. I agree with this idea in principle, but I’m not so sure the book covers the negative side effects of checklists as well (people getting lazy) or alternatives to checklist (automation and designing against error/failure demand to be begin with).

Connect: The Secret LinkedIn Playbook to Generate Leads, Build Relationships, and Dramatically Increase Your Sales by Josh Turner – Either a terrible summary or a terrible book, this blink gave advice about how to use LinkedIn to build a community. Although the advice isn’t terrible, it’s not terribly new, and I didn’t really find any insights. I definitely won’t be getting a copy of this book.

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action by Simon Sinek – A nice summary of leadership styles and rather than focusing on how something should be done, and the what, is starting with the why. I liked the explanation of the Golden Circle with three concentric circles draw within each other, with the Why being the starting point that leads to the How that ends in the What. It’s a good reminder about effective delegation and how powerful the Why motivator can be. I’ve added this book to my reading list to.

Book Review: The Phoenix Project

It has been a while since I read The Phoenix Project and I am glad to have reviewed it again recently. Described as a business novel, or The Goal for the 21st century, the book focuses on a story that large organisations need to realise when they feel they need to transform IT.

Title cover of the Phoenix Project book

The book focuses on a company in crisis – a company that is trying to complete lots of software projects, has a terrible number in flight and grapples with the problems many companies have – lack of visibility of the work, dependency on key individuals, marketing lead promises and IT treated as a cost-centre attitude. Bill, an IT Manager is one day promoted into a higher role where he is responsible for turning around and dealing with all the critical issues. He is given access to a mentor who introduces him to the “mysterious Three Ways” that are slowly uncovered throughout the book.

What I liked about the book

Business novels are refreshing to read as they feel less like reading a business book and sometimes makes picking up the book less of a chore. The authors manage to talk about generating insights and explaining some of the tools from a number of angles (Bill’s thoughts as well as from other characters’ perspectives) as well as relating it to existing material such as Theory of Constraints.

Like all good books, you follow the exciting story plot that descends into what seems like an insurmountable situation, only for the protagonist to find ways of overcoming it. For those who have never been exposed to visual ways of working (like Kanban), or understanding Work in Progress, Queueing theory and how IT capability matters to business, there are many useful lessons to learn.

What would have made the book better

Although the book has several characters who behave in a negative way, and pay for some of thoese consequences you don’t hear about the attempts by the protaganist which end up failing (with their consequences) unlike the real world. I also felt that the pace at which things changed seemed to occur at an unrealistic rate – but that’s proabably the downsides of a business novel versus what might actually happen in real life.

Conclusion
I would still highly recommend this reading if you’re interested in understanding about how modern IT, interested in how DevOps culture operates and some tools and techniques for moving IT management into a more responsive, flexible but still highly controlled manner.

Running a Personal Retrospective for 2015

It’s the end of yet another year and a great time to reflect and put your Personal Retrospective hats on. I mention using Personal Retrospectives in my book, “The Retrospective Handbook: A guide for agile teams” because I find them powerful tools to celebrate the past year and to establish new goals for a new year.

This year, instead of simply stepping through questions on paper or on the computer, I decided to use sticky notes and activities I would use with a larger group. In order to keep flow, I wanted to prepare appropriately. This meant I:

  1. Made a plan for the exercises I wanted to run;
  2. Prepared the activities in advance so I could focus on gathering data/generating insights and reflecting instead of thinking about the process;
  3. Had a set of questions prepared in case I got stuck;
  4. Put on some background music – a quick search on YouTube found this spiritual landscape music; and
  5. Had water and coffee ready so I didn’t need to leave the room.

Here are the activities I used this year and that you might find useful for your own Personal Retrospective.

A year in tweets

Using very small stickies to simulate the 140 character limit (I’m guessing I had ~50) trying to generate a number of small tweets about how I felt about 2015.

Personal Retrospective Activity: A year in review

Personal Retrospective Activity: A year in review

Generating a timeline of events

I find the timeline a very powerful way to reflect on the year’s events, and to celebrate their significance. I first brainstormed memorable events before I attempted to nest them into the timeline. I the checked my personal and work calendars, realising that the human memory (or maybe it’s just mine!) is quite bad at remembering the order of events.

I found this blog, my twitter stream and my slideshare page useful sources to remember other significant events.

Personal Retrospective Activity: Timeline

Personal Retrospective Activity: Timeline

Constructing the timeline took the most time of all exercises. Partly because there were lots of significant events for me, and I wanted to appreciate how much had occurred in this year.

4 L’s (Liked, Loved, Lacked, Longed For

I don’t normally use the 4 L’s exercise but figured I would give it a go. It seemed to work well in terms of framing insights but I found I needed to reflect deeper in some of the initial ideas I wrote up. Having an independent coach/facilitator would have been useful but I had to play this role myself.

Personal Retrospective Activity: 4Ls

Personal Retrospective Activity: 4Ls

Goals for 2016

After looking back at the timeline, and reflecting on how the events made me feel and what impact they had, I brainstormed some goals for this year. My focus for this first round was to generate all possible goals I might have, even though these long term goals would not meet the SMART criteria.

Personal Retrospective Activity: Goals (Before Actions)

Personal Retrospective Activity: Goals (Before Actions)

In the second round, I went through each of the different goals, generating some concrete next steps to move me towards each of those goals. My intention is to revisit the goals throughout the year and to take other actions to progress them further. The orange-coloured stickies in the picture below represet these next steps linked to the relevant goals (in green).

Personal Retrospective Activity: Goals (Next Step Actions)

Personal Retrospective Activity: Goals (Next Step Actions)

I also spent the time digitising the outputs into a A3 Personal Retrospective report and have made the template available here if you want to print it instead.

Have you set aside time to reflect on 2015? How did you run your Personal Retrospective? Leave a comment and let me know.

If you liked this post, you might be interested in The Retrospective Handbook: A guide for agile teams, also available in print.

Book Review: Difficult Conversations

Conflict, negotiation and difficult conversations are hard, but there are plenty of good books help. I often recommend Crucial Confrontations, Getting to Yes and Getting Past No. Someone recommended Difficult Conversations, a book that I recently finished reading.

Difficult Conversations

Difficult Conversations

Where the other books I read tended to take a more mechanistic view of steering the conversation, I really appreciated the slightly different take with this book, which I felt more humanistic because it acknowledged the emotional side to difficult conversations. The authors suggest that when we have a difficult conversation, we experience three simultaneous conversations:

  1. The “What Happened” Conversation
  2. The Feelings Conversation
  3. The Identity Conversation

The “What Happened” Conversation

We often assume we know what happened, because we know what we know (Our Story). The authors (rightly) point out, that our story may be completely different from the other person (Their Story). A good practical tip is to focus on building the Third Story as a way of building a shared awareness and appreciation of other data that may make a difference to the conversation

The Feelings Conversation

As much as we like to think we are logical, we are highly emotional and biased people. It’s what makes us human. We manifest this by saying things based on how we are feeling. Sometimes we don’t even know this is happening. The book helps us understand and gives us strategies for uncovering the feelings that we may be experiencing during the conversation. They also suggest building empathy with the other person by walking through the Feelings Conversation the other person will be having as well.

The Identity Conversation

I think this was the first time that I had thought about when we struggle to communicate, or agree on something, we may be doing so because have difficulty accepting something we may not like, or something that threatens our identity. This is what the authors call out as the Identity Conversation and is a natural part of successfully navigating a difficult conversation.

Conclusion

I found Difficult Conversations a really enjoyable read that added a few new perspectives to my toolkit. I appreciate their practical advice such as stepping through each of the three conversations from both your and the other person’s perspective and avoiding speaking in different modes. I like the fact that they address the emotional side to difficult conversations and give concrete ways of understanding and coping with them, instead of ignoring them or pushing them aside.

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