Busy Times – Personal Development, Organizational Restructuring and Big Rocks

Reading time ~ 2 minutes

I’ve been quiet on here for a few weeks as I’ve been head-down on some pretty major work at Red Gate and publishing what I and the team have been up to on their freshly launched dev.red-gate.com mini-site.

Here’s a roundup of the highlights:

“Slack” – Exploring how we approach “slack time”. Ensuring slack is available to the right people at the right time and trying to keep it guilt-free.

A Manifesto (of sorts) for personal development – what we expect from each other in developing ourselves and our careers. The outcome of 2 months of Genchi Genbutsu (go see at the source) – asking some really direction questions face to face (individually) with every single member of our development teams.

Top Tips for personal development – 12 Tips on personal development from Red Gate’s development team (plus another 12 linked from this one). These are the tips we use as part of our new personal development plans but are equally useful as prompts to simply “get out and do something”.

Skills Maps – An overview of the skills maps we’re developing at Red Gate for our development team roles (it turns out what we’re trying is pretty unique and developed a bit of a buzz.

Personal Development Plans – A distillation of the “Stop trying to fix your weaknesses” articles posted on here over the last couple of months. We’re still rolling these out but the trials from a dozen managers and staff so far have been resoundingly positive.

Fresh off the press yesterday; Organizational Restructuring – An Insider View – Putting Convergence & Divergence into practice. How Red Gate are performing a complete organizational restructuring to their teams without the usual cloak and dagger HR hell.

Finally, Johanna Hunt and I have paired up again on our “Cracking Big Rocks” cards and workshop. After much editing, re-editing and review we published the second edition of the card deck at the end of September and took them out for a first run at Agile Cambridge. The revised deck includes a few new patterns, rewording of many of the old ones, some basic instructions and some lovely artwork on a few of the cards from our good friend Paul Stapleton.

Enjoy the Friday reading.




Distributed Management and Work-Life Integration

Reading time ~ 4 minutes

This was posted on my office wall recently…

It brought home what the last decade of international teams and ubiquitous business email access has achieved for many of us software professionals.

Since the late 1990’s I’ve worked in globally distributed or virtual teams. There’s a huge amount of positive things to be said about the working experiences I’ve had with these teams over the years.

  • My cultural boundaries have stretched
  • I’ve had opportunities to work with great people all over the world
  • I’ve learned a mountain of cool stuff
  • I’ve met hundreds of new friends
  • I’ve visited amazing places
  • and…

  • I’ve left my family at home most of the time.

Sadly small children and transcontinental business trips don’t really mix. My family have been incredibly tolerant and I always look to bring something back for them. They have a pretty tough ride but they support what I do and I appreciate their patience.


With teams in the UK, India and the US there’s almost always a full working day of support, conversations and questions that happen outside the normal working timezone. As the pressure to deliver and support these teams has increased I find myself checking my work mail when I should be attending my family.

I recently reached the point where I was clearing my emails down during public holidays so that I could filter through and achieve something when I got in the following working day.

I check my email during breakfast at 6 or 7am and reply to things that came in during the US evening or India morning.

I commute to work and check my mail again to find another series of mails from India and a few UK early starters.

I check my mail when I get home from work to respond to anything urgent that came in during my commute.

I check my mail before bed in case there’s anything new that will derail my plans and priorities for the following day or that I can respond to before the US working day is over and 24 hours are lost on a decision.

(I also occasionally make time to write this blog, enjoy my family, study and maintain the house)

If I don’t clear my morning and evening international backlog my day job doesn’t have time & space to get done but this is all at the expense of other parts of life.

So how do I get things back under control?

WIP Limit vs Buffer Overrun

Here’s where Scrum, Lean & Kanban meet personal time management…

Set yourself a WIP limit. When that’s full, decide what doesn’t happen or has to be traded out. If you don’t make a decision, something will fall on the floor and chances are you’ll have a pile of half-done stuff. (a buffer overrun).

Build a visible backlog and keep it groomed. When new work comes in, prioritize and size it. (Take a look at the Covey Matrix as a powerful means of prioritizing). If I don’t have clear visibility to my backlog of work (not just my email inbox) then once again my mental buffer overruns and things fall on the floor.

This is where my problems are – relying on my mental buffer and inbox to be my primary and secondary backlogs!

Determine how big your backlog should be and whether it should be tiered (e.g. week, month, quarter). Just like a mature agile team, don’t build a backlog that’s bigger than your planning (or thinking and coping) horizon. If it’s important it’ll come back when you have the capacity.

Next, just like your agile projects, get your backlog visible. When new work comes in, take your stakeholders to the backlog and have a prioritization and trading out conversation.

Some things will have time deadlines and some of these you can’t avoid so what else has to give? If you have more items with time deadlines than you can cover, take your stakeholders back to your backlog and force the prioritization discussion again.

I recommend pipelining work into “emergencies“, “small“, and “not-small“. This is enough to provide an interesting mental mix but aim to limit multi-tasking to a maximum of one item in each area. (Clarke Ching has some fantastic insights and demonstrations on why multitasking is evil).

It’s also worth rewarding yourself. You’ll find items that fall in the “distraction” quadrant of the Covey matrix are often where some rewards lay hiding. Identify a few interesting, fun things and make sure they get some airtime in with all the priorities to pay off some of your priority fatigue.

Simple right?

OK, this won’t break the email addiction but it will help manage the personal backlog and priorities more effectively.

When it’s personal rather than a project this seems so much harder.  With all that time teaching teams to trade out and prioritize, it’s time I started to eat my own dog-food.

Epilogue: This article has been waiting in my backlog for a couple of weeks to be rounded off before publishing. Yesterday the manager I’m pairing with planted a large kanban board by my desk with a list of the top priority management goals and activities that we have on our planning horizon right now down the left hand side and the associated tasks and states all prepped up! It’s not our entire backlog but it’s well more than we can achieve in the next 2 weeks and covers all the known top priority things.

Now it’s time to start managing the load properly again.

Are You Empowered?

Reading time ~ 2 minutes

Many large companies want to promote a culture of empowerment but what does that really mean?

In a small company or start-up you often truly are empowered to act beyond your boundaries.  In fact it goes beyond that, you’re responsible for acting fast.

Chances are if you don’t pick things up that need dealing with, either someone else will and leave you feeling distinctly mediocre or your team or company will suffer. Either way, the culture of empowerment in small companies transforms into shared accountability.

In a large corporation, does this really still work?

Whilst we may think this is a problem with corporate culture, it actually depends most on individual managers.

In a traditional hierarchical organization, telling your management staff that their teams are empowered sounds very noble and supportive but in reality it’s seen more like abdicating support. Pushing empowerment at this level usually means you want something done for free with no risk to yourself.

There’s a difference between staff being told they are empowered and actually being empowered.  In fact, as a senior manager; empowering your staff requires you to make it safe for your teams to act.  One great way to do this is to lead by example.

In a conversation with Dan North early last year, his quip really stuck with me…

“You are anointed with empowerment, go forth and be empowered.”

Here’s what’s often hidden behind the words…

  • There’s an approval process you need to go through beforehand.
  • When you’re done, I want a full report with metrics on my desk and a 1 slide PowerPoint summary for the executive team.
  • Here’s a catalog of things you can’t do or touch and people you can’t speak to.
  • Don’t screw up or it’s your ass on the line.

Let’s break that mindset…

First, take a look at your constraints. What things are you really not allowed to change. Probably nothing – as long as you can demonstrate something better.

Sadly, most of us have a mortgage and/or family to sustain, a career to maintain, are on the line for getting stuff delivered and are way over-stretched.  That’s not a very empowering position.

Truly empowered people are able to take calculated risks and perform valuable actions that they know are the right thing to do, they ask for forgiveness & approval later if needed and most of all, they have their manager’s unflagging support, even when they fail.

As a Manager, don’t abdicate your responsibilities to your teams; give them the tools and safety they need to really be empowered so that they can make a difference and feel supported in doing so.

Your Leader Sets The Tone For Your Team

Reading time ~ 2 minutes

Recently I quite openly and permanently expressed my deep frustration with another senior manager. What bugged me was the finger pointing, “Over the Wall” behavior when it was clear there was a mutual screw-up.

My response caused a lot of upset and whilst inflammatory and not entirely justified, it did galvanise the groups into just getting on with things.

I’ll reflect on a quote from a recent predecessor.

“It’s up to us to be the grown-ups here”.

I wasn’t, and I should have been but it was hopefully a one-off. (Maybe it was the supermoon),  perhaps necessary this time – who knows. The fact that it still bothers me says I was probably wrong – I continue to learn from my mistakes…

I have quote from a leadership coach I learned from in a former life.

“A leader sets the tone for their organization”.

Her point was that my behavior goes way beyond a single team! I’ve seen this in every large company I’ve worked with so far. At some point a conflict forms between leaders for an unknown and often political reason. Once that rift is in place it becomes a defining part of the organization’s entire culture. The “us & them” barrier is erected and the rock hurling begins.

Teams downstream see this behaviour and believe it’s socially acceptable. They follow suit and perpetuate the problem.  When one or other problematic personality eventually moves on, do you really think that embedded culture will just naturally unwind itself?

It’s up to you at whatever level you’re at to cross the organizational chasm and drive out that attitude, one phone call, face to face conversation or collaborative relationship at a time. (more email is not the answer!)

Furthermore, we are all responsible to teach our leaders to demonstrate a positive role model to their teams. Call out bad behavior and get the parties to address their conflict. If not for the greater good of the company, at least for the personal and social well-being of the teams.

Work to understand and express the perspectives and motivations on either side of the rift. What’s driving the behaviour, is there any misalignment on priorities and goals? If so, who can help solve them and how? What impact will that alignment have and how soon can we fix it?

Just as with trust, good organizational culture takes years to build and moments to destroy.

The World Needs Ditch Diggers Too

Reading time ~ < 1 minutes

I once worked for a company that claimed:

“We only hire the best!”

– Interesting, did you know you shared a science park with Oracle, Google, Sun, GE and Yahoo?

So we have at least half a dozen companies (and probably more like twelve-dozen the world-over) where managers also claimed to “only hire the best”.

Somebody has to be stretching the truth here.

Now admittedly, some of the staff there really were spectacularly good but much like any other large company, most others were just good, some were average, and staff on the ground questioned the continued existence of the occasional one or two hangers on.

But this isn’t all bad news. In fact if you really only hired the best, chances are it’d be like casting a film where the entire cast are Oscar winners and everyone wants best supporting and lead titles. On paper it might look fantastic but I guarantee your production will be a complete nightmare and the end result would be pretentious and expensive!

Here’s an article by Kris Dunn I read a few years ago that really brought home to me how damaging the “only the best” approach can be when 80% of the time you simply need to get stuff done. (apologies if the formatting on the linked article is off).

Soylent Green Is People

Reading time ~ < 1 minutes

Everything I’ve seen in the last decade around agile development and transformation is driven by cultural norms on teams and in challenging those – looking beyond our boundaries and challenging our current reality to see what’s out there.

The link to Soylent Green is pretty tentative but it’s a great quote! I’m sure if I spent more time I could find a mountain of philosophical links but it’s Sunday and I’m off to cut the hedges in a minute.

Despite all the practices & tools, Agile is people.

Cultural Balance

Reading time ~ < 1 minutes

For most of us in enterprise product development, global teams are a fact of life. Even if we can get individual scrum teams co-located, the chances of an entire product suite being developed in a single location are pretty remote.

Having worked in global development environments for almost my entire career; whilst there are collaboration challenges, for the size of some projects I’ve worked on you’d have similar issues with the whole team being in a single building anyway.

Rather than worrying about the issues of working in global teams we can embrace the differences our sites provide for us in order to strike a cultural balance to our development activities.

Here’s what I’d like to make the most of for starters from my own experiences…

  1. The can-do attitude of teams in India without the lack of questioning.
  2. The attention to detail of teams in Germany without the formality.
  3. The work ethic of teams in the US without the heroics.
  4. The passion for quality of teams in the UK without the gold-plating.

Every culture has its pitfalls and benefits but don’t take my word for it – read a classic.