Writing Tips for Time-Starved Folks

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From a decade of making it happen on a strict time budget

I’m tired and annoyed by these “how to be a better writer” articles with advice about finding your flow state and writing entire drafts at a time. I’m a parent. With a job. I don’t have time for a pre-writing routine to do daily before losing myself in my writing for hours at a time. I can’t schedule multi-hour blocks on alternating days for writing and editing, and I can’t write and publish every day. Time is the scarcest of all resources.

I do love writing, though. It’s helped me immensely throughout my career as a software developer, manager, and parent. (Turns out there’s a lot of overlap between professional leadership and parenting. I recently experienced this through the irony of yelling at my kids while writing an article about the importance of being present and reducing multi-tasking, but I digress.)

Each year seems to bring a few more distractions and a little more responsibility, but I’ve managed to keep blogging for more than a decade now. Finding the time to write and meet my own increasingly high standards isn’t easy. It requires dedication and discipline. In this story, I’ll discuss the tactics that keep me going, publishing regularly, and improving along the way.


One goal to rule them all

There are two primary trains of thought in the when-to-publish debate. There are the folks who say not to be a perfectionist. They advise you to get your article to what you feel is 80 or 90 percent, then pull the trigger and move on. The other camp argues that you shouldn’t stop until it’s the best you’re capable of because there’s enough bad content out there, and a great article will outperform a poorly written one by orders of magnitude.

Have an overarching priority

Both philosophies are valid, and that’s why the single most important thing is to know what you’re trying to accomplish. Your specific goal has a significant impact on the relevancy of most of the other advice you’ll find. Consider your key metric for success. Is it the number of articles, views, likes, dollars, follows, or something else?

It’s kind of like asking a business to focus on product versus sales versus marketing. The truth is, you need all of them, but with limited resources, you must prioritize. So pick one — quality, quantity, or distribution — and make it your top priority.

Adjust the dials

Picking a top priority doesn’t make it your only priority. In the beginning, I was entirely focused on writing as many articles as I could. I think I was aiming for two articles per week at one point. The articles weren’t terribly deep, and the pace was unsustainable. I was publishing things as quickly as possible to keep up, and I’d stress or lose momentum entirely when I’d fall behind.

Photo by Drew Patrick Miller on Unsplash

Quality and enjoyment were being sacrificed to maintain consistency. It wasn’t worth it. But, by dialing back my commitment to a single article per week, I’ve found a much better balance. My writing quality has improved because I’m not rushing to get things out the door as quickly as possible. Stress is down, enjoyment is up, and I stay focused and committed.

Set deadlines

With your overarching goal in mind, set deadlines for yourself. My number one goal is to publish regularly, so I strive to write one article per week. This helps with the whole when-to-publish dilemma because I only have so much time. If I want to meet my deadline, I need to find good enough and stop.

However, if my goal was to provide deep, insightful content, I might target one article per month, so I have adequate time for research and analysis. In this case, it would be beneficial to invest the extra time to make my writing as perfect as possible because the stakes are higher when you publish less frequently. You’ve still got that finish line drawn in the sand to keep you honest about when to move on, though.

Work ahead

Sometimes I get ahead of my deadlines. An article comes together quickly, and it’s done several days before I intend to publish. I stick to my target schedule, though, and begin the next piece.

When articles come easy or when I have extra time, I keep pushing to build some buffer. This helps a lot in the long-term because I don’t stress about an unproductive week here and there. No time to write for two weeks? It’s okay because I’ve got four weeks of material scheduled and ready.

The buffer also lets me take a breather when I’m tired or low on inspiration. Instead, I can take a few weeks to read or focus on other things and come back reinvigorated.


Be ready to throw down

It’s Saturday. The kids just went outside, and you’ve got about 30 minutes to be productive. Go.

You need to be ready to take advantage of the time when it becomes available. Optimize your writing process for fragmentation so that you can use it effectively when you have a little bit of time.

There are two primary influencers of what activity I can do at any given moment. First is where I am and what’s available — like, physically in the world. Am I at home? Do I have a computer? The second is the state of in-progress work.

Being stuck somewhere with a little bit of time but no computer is a great opportunity for phone-friendly activities. You can brainstorm new ideas and create story stubs or develop outlines. It’s hard for me to do actual writing from my phone, but I can begin filling in notes for sections. Phones are good for proofreading and light editing, though. I read a lot of articles on the go; why not experience my own content that way?

Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

A quick disclaimer on the phone thing, though. Many of us suffer from some form of digital addiction. Don’t choose to edit articles instead of enjoying the company of your friends and family. Be present — it makes life better. It’s those times we find ourselves obsessively checking story stats, investments, and social media that are our opportunities. If you’ve got 15 minutes alone in the car while waiting for your partner to grab a few things from the grocery store, that’s the perfect time to put in a little work instead of re-checking your various feeds.

The actual writing process at a computer is a little different. For a new story, I try to focus on a single section at a time. Usually, I’ve got at least an outline with notes that I can expand upon. As the work draws closer to completion, effort shifts toward reading & revising, repeating until I’m either satisfied or up against my deadline.

The point is when you don’t have the luxury of being able to schedule consistent blocks of time, you need to make effective use of the time you do get when it’s available. Try to view content creation as an incremental process. Start with a skeleton. Expand it to an outline. Write sections one by one. Add images, headlines, & headers. Proofread and revise. All these tasks can be completed in short bursts.


Make it part of your job

I had no aspirations of being a writer when I started blogging. As a software developer, I was constantly learning about new technologies and figuring things out. I’d solve the problem du jour and move on. Inevitably, 6 months later, I’d find someone else who was bumping up against the same problem, but I’d long since forgotten the details.

So, I started writing to create a repository of things I’d learned that I could refer back to and share.

It became part of my job to document my findings into succinct little packages. These weren’t the kind of articles I write today. They were tiny, how-to articles about whatever I happened to be working on that week.

You know what, though? In my first 5 years, from 2009 to 2013, I published 215 posts this way. These weren’t deep, insightful pieces, but they were valuable practice. They were “putting in the time” and learning to write. I was curious how bad my first post was, so I dug it up — it’s less embarrassing than I was expecting.

However, the most important thing is that I didn’t have to find time outside of work to hone my writing skills. It happened as part of my job. Even if work isn’t your passion and the thing you really want to write about, all that practice is valuable and makes you better.


Find a robot editor

No matter how many times I proofread, I always notice small mistakes while reading the published article. It drives me crazy. As a result, I’ve embraced Grammarly as my editor.

Is it as good as a human editor? Probably not. Does it find a lot of small mistakes that I might’ve missed otherwise? Yup.

When I first learned about Grammarly, I was a little smug about it. I know how to use a comma, thanks. It’s pretty good, though. I like that it checks for things like passive voice and can optimize for conciseness. I also like the score it gives — it feels good to get the thumbs up from my robo-buddy.

All this can be a little distracting. It’s hard to ignore the squiggles while you write and easy to do too much ad-hoc editing as a result. (Even though I poo-pooed it earlier, there’s a reason people like to suggest separating writing & editing.) Good outweighs bad by a lot for me, though. When up against a deadline, it’s really helpful for quick cleanup. I definitely suggest employing Grammarly or a similar tool to sweat the small stuff.


You got this

Writing, parenting, working, and everything else in life are almost entirely about doing the best you can with what you have. Parenting and a full-time day job take up a lot of time. Like, a lot a lot. That doesn’t leave much for writing and all the other things you want to do.

With what precious little time you have left, it’s important to understand what you’re trying to accomplish and do the things that most effectively move you toward your goals. There are many important parts of the writing and publishing process, and you need to dip into all of them to be successful. So, investing time in any of them is valuable and makes you better — that’s how “practice” works.

Identify your overarching priority. Adjust the dials, so time spent is invested in the right ways. Set deadlines to motivate yourself and promote productivity. Approach writing projects iteratively and chip away at them in all those little free spaces. Finally, find ways to make writing part of your every day; use them as a reason to write instead of an impediment.

Do these things, and I promise you’ll write more, get better, and sustain it for a long time.


This article was originally published on The Writing Cooperative on January 29, 2021.


I’m not an author, but I play one on the internet. If you’re looking for real writing, try the wonderful Mulrox and the Malcognitos by my friend & colleague Kerelyn Smith. Note that I use affiliate links when linking to products on Amazon. Thank you for your support!

Why Asking for Help Is the Most Important Behavior for Your Team

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad from Pexels

The ultimate trust-builder and collaboration-enhancer

We’ve all known that person. You like them. They’re friendly and smart. But you hesitate to let them take difficult tasks. You’d rather they stick to things you know they can handle — the kinds of assignments they’ve been successful with in the past.

We’ve all got someone at the other end of the spectrum, too. The person that, no matter what it is, you know they’ll be successful. They’ll find a way, figure it out, and produce great results every time.

It hasn’t been a matter of intelligence or competency for the people in my life that have fallen into these buckets. It’s been entirely about trust. One group lacks it; the other has it.


Like a stretchy waistband

What is it about those folks we trust so much? How can we be so sure they’ll do a great job with new and difficult assignments?

It’s rooted in past performance. They’ve demonstrated an ability to figure things out and succeed. More importantly, though, is that we’re confident they have the right safeguards in place. We know they’ll do the right things to keep us comfortable as they work through challenges and arrive at a solution.

They’ll discuss the plan beforehand, solicit feedback as they go, review when they’re done, and speak up if they get stuck along the way. These are all ways of asking for help — and they all build trust.


The number one thing that earns trust

Brené Brown uses a great metaphor for trust: the marble jar. The concept is borrowed from her daughter’s classroom system for promoting good behavior. When the class does something good, a marble is earned. When bad things happen, marbles are removed.

It’s the same with trust. When you do something trustworthy, you earn a marble. Damage trust, however, and risk losing a handful.

So, what’s the best way to fill the jar? In her book Dare to Lead, Brown shares the following observation from her research:

We asked a thousand leaders to list marble-earning behaviors — what do your team members do that earns your trust? The most common answer: asking for help. When it comes to people who do not habitually ask for help, the leaders we polled explained that they would not delegate important work to them because the leaders did not trust that they would raise their hands and ask for help.

It makes sense, right? If someone is doing something unfamiliar — something they’ve maybe never done before — and we don’t think they’ll seek guidance or check-in as they go, it’s natural to worry about the outcome. How could you not be concerned?


Everyone gets a marble

Think about the marble jar for this person that you’re uncomfortable with, that you don’t quite trust. How full is it? Probably not very.

Luckily, the solution to an empty jar is simple: start adding marbles.

When you don’t trust someone, part of the challenge is that they need to be the ones to earn marbles. Don’t worry, though, because there’s a wonderful, marble-earning solution for that, too! Ask them for help.

It takes courage and vulnerability to acknowledge a lack of trust in a relationship, particularly with someone you’ve known for a long time. It doesn’t need to be awkward, though. You don’t need to say, “I don’t trust you,” which can be harsh, ambiguous, and defense-triggering.

Instead, focus on promoting specific, trust-building behaviors. Suggest reviewing a plan before getting started. Tell them you’re happy to provide feedback at any point. Ask them to report on the status and offer help if they’re stuck. Give them space, but let them know you’re in it with them. Supporting a colleague in these ways is sure to earn you a lot of marbles.


The ultimate trust-builder

Asking for help is an underrated and insanely powerful tool. Look beyond the obvious, immediate benefits like getting your question answered. When you review a plan and get input before starting, mistakes are prevented before they occur. Soliciting feedback and double-checking your thinking improves quality and creates opportunity.

And, all the while, you’re creating a trusting, collaborative environment.

The benefits don’t end there, though. Asking questions demonstrates vulnerability and humility. It’s a signal of self-awareness, an admission that you don’t know everything. It signals to others that it’s okay to ask questions. People will be less afraid of judgment and less likely to judge themselves.

Trust is important, and asking for help is an easy, straightforward way to develop a lot. Don’t save it as a last resort. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to fill your jar. Cite specific ask-for-help behaviors missing in your interactions with others. Make asking for help habitual, so it comes naturally when help is needed most — when stakes are high and mistakes costly.

A team that trusts deeply and actively supports itself is capable of incredible things — and all it takes is for members to buy in on asking for help.


This article was originally published on The Startup on January 21, 2021.


Interested in learning more? This article was inspired by Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. Check it out! Note that I use affiliate links when linking to products on Amazon.

How to Connect Azure Data Factory to an Azure SQL Database Using a Private Endpoint

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A step-by-step tutorial

Azure Data Factory (ADF) is great for extracting data from multiple sources, the most obvious of which may be Azure SQL. However, Azure SQL has a security option to deny public network access, which, if enabled, will prevent ADF from connecting without extra steps.

In this article, we’ll look at the steps required to set up a private endpoint and use it to connect to an Azure SQL database from Azure Data Factory.


‘Deny public network access’ setting in Azure SQL

Before we get started, let’s review which setting I’m referring to in Azure SQL. It’s a toggle named deny public network access found under Security > Firewalls and virtual networks in the Azure portal.

Source: author

When this setting is enabled, Azure Data Factory won’t connect without a private endpoint. You can see there’s even a link to create a private endpoint below the toggle control, but don’t use this now — we’ll create the request from Azure Data Factory in a minute.


ADF integration runtime

To use private endpoints in Azure Data Factory, you must use an integration runtime with virtual network configuration enabled. The setting cannot be changed, so you’ll need to create a new runtime if you don’t have one with it enabled already.

Source: author
Source: author

Now that you have an integration runtime with virtual network configuration enabled, you’re ready to create a new linked service.


ADF linked service

While still in Azure Data Factory, click to create a new linked service.

Source: author

When you select an integration runtime with virtual network configuration enabled, a managed private endpoint setting will appear in the account selection method section. The setting is read-only and will populate as you enter subscription and server details. If a managed private endpoint is already available — you’re good to go!

If a managed private endpoint isn’t available, click the create new link button to start the process.

Source: author

When you save the new managed private endpoint in Azure Data Factory, it will be provisioned in Azure but remain in a Pending status until approved.


Azure private endpoint

Now we need to hop back to Azure to approve the new private endpoint. Find your Azure SQL database in the Azure portal, and browse to Security > Private endpoint connections.

You should see the connection created by Azure Data Factory with the status Pending. Select its checkbox and click the Approve button.

Source: author

The status will change to Approved in the Azure portal. It takes a minute or two for the status to make its way to Azure Data Factory, but it will show as Approved there after a moment, too.

Source: author

Once it shows as approved, you’re ready to go. You can enter the rest of your connection info and connect!


Recap

Most of the settings I’ve shown can be accessed in several different ways and performed in different orders. For example, you could create the private endpoint from the Azure portal instead of through Azure Data Factory. You can obviously experiment and find the process that works for you.

The important pieces are the following:

  1. Azure Data Factory has an integration runtime with virtual network configuration enabled.
  2. Azure SQL has an approved private endpoint connection.
  3. Azure Data Factory has a linked service using the integration runtime and private endpoint connection.

That’s it — now go have fun with your new connection!


This article was originally published in Towards Data Science on January 20, 2021.


Interested in learning more about Azure Data Factory? Give these books a try. Note that I use affiliate links when linking to products on Amazon.

Light Up Your Razer Peripherals In Linux Mint

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A tutorial for installing OpenRazer and Polychromatic

I’ve been slowly building a Linux Mint desk setup in the basement, and this weekend I added an old Razer BlackWidow Lite keyboard and Naga Hex mouse to the mix. As expected, they were plug & play functional out of the box, but the keyboard didn’t have its backlighting enabled. This will simply not do.

Luckily, Razer has pretty good support for Linux with its OpenRazer project.

Installing is pretty simple, but lighting still wasn’t enabled. It took a few minutes of research to figure out that I also needed to install Polychromatic.

So it’s really a 3-step process but still very easy. Here’s how to do it!

Step 1 – Install OpenRazer

Open a terminal and run the following commands:

sudo apt install software-properties-gtk
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:openrazer/stable
sudo apt update
sudo apt install openrazer-meta

Step 2 – Install Polychromatic

Open a terminal and run the following commands:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:polychromatic/stable
sudo apt update
sudo apt install polychromatic

Step 3 – Configure Polychromatic

Now you can run Polychromatic Controller to enable the lighting effects. I found and launched it by typing “poly” in the system menu.

Source: author

Polychromatic detected both of my peripherals and allowed me to configure them just as I expected.

Source: author
Source: author

Once I selected the static lighting effect and turned up the brightness, the keyboard lit up. Very exciting. Now everything’s working exactly how I hoped and expected!

How To Run Websites As If They Were Apps in Linux Mint

Photo by Carlos Lindner on Unsplash

A WebApp Manager tutorial

I’ve been using Linux Mint for just a couple of weeks, and I’ve been very impressed with it. One of my grumbles from previous forays into Linux has been, why is it so hard to add a shortcut to a website?

Like, look at this tutorial for How to Create Desktop Shortcuts on Ubuntu from 2019. The instructions have you installing applications, doing extra steps to customize the icon, and creating .desktop files. It’s a lot.

So, I was intrigued while reading about Linux Mint’s WebApp Manager. You can read the announcement on the Linux Mint blog or check out the WebApp Manager project page on Github, but the idea’s simple: run websites as if they were apps.


Sounds cool. How do I do it?

I don’t know where I got this impression, but I thought WebApp Manager was supposed to be included with Linux Mint. My first hurdle was realizing that it wasn’t and I needed to install it.

You can download and install the beta from the Linux Mint blog article mentioned above. Here’s the download link they provide in the article.

Download and install WebApp Manager, and it becomes accessible from the system menu.

Source: author

Once installed, it’s ultra-intuitive to use. Open it and click to add a new website. When you save, the web app becomes accessible from the system menu like all your other installed applications.


Okay, but can I get an example?

The thing that pushed me into figuring out WebApp Manager is that Amazon doesn’t offer a Kindle reading app for Linux. They do, however, have a cloud reader available at read.amazon.com.

So, let’s see how it looks as a web app in Linux Mint.

First, we launch WebApp Manager from the system menu, as shown in the screenshot above. Click the “+” icon to add a new app and enter the URL.

Source: author

There are a few cool things to note. First, when you enter the URL, it automatically grabs an icon, but you can also click the icon next to the address box to look for and select other icons. The Amazon smile icon is okay, but I wanted something a little more Kindle-specific.

Source: author

Other options include which category of the system menu to list the web app under and which browser to use. Also noteworthy is the “Isolated profile” option, which is equivalent to running the app in private or incognito mode.

Enter the details, save it, and you’re done. The application now shows in the system menu with the name and icon specified.

Source: author

Launching it opens a satisfying experience that has a very “native app” feel to it. You can pin the icon to your panel for quick access, or right-click it in the system menu to add it to the desktop.

Source: author

Conclusion

In our increasingly web-based world, having access to installable, platform-specific programs becomes less and less critical. It’s one of the reasons Chromebooks are so popular, and Linux benefits from it, too. Linux Mint’s WebApp Manager does a beautiful job of converting websites into an app-like experience.

WebApp Manager is still in beta, and I couldn’t find much information about it after some (very brief) research. It makes a great first impression, though, and it’s another bullet on my growing list of reasons to love Linux Mint.


This article was originally published on Medium on January 7, 2021.

How I Learned to Be More Decisive and Stop Trying to Please Everyone

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CONFESSIONS OF A CONSENSUS-SEEKER

I used to think my ability to get everybody to agree was a strength. I have strong opinions, I’m competitive, and it’s not enough to have my opponent concede when debating a topic. I need them to agree with me — to believe what I believe. This served me well early in my career, and my fiery conviction and the resulting success allowed me to rise into leadership positions.

Honestly, even as a team lead this approach worked pretty well. Looking back, I think the turning point was when I became the manager of two teams. That’s when I no longer had the capacity to be “in it” with the team on every assignment. That’s when I hit a wall with my consensus-seeking.


The Deadliest Slide at the Playground

As a team lead, I did the best I could. Of course, I didn’t really know what I was doing and was mostly making it up as I went. That’s not to say I didn’t try or that I did a bad job. It’s just that I’m a learn-by-doing sort of person, so even though I’d read and done research on what it meant to be a good boss, it took some time and experience for concepts to set in.

The pattern continued as I moved into management. I wanted to be a “manager of the people” — to empower the team, and to give them a voice and sense of ownership. But they didn’t always agree among themselves about what needed to be done or how to do it. (Who’da guessed?) On top of that, I had my own opinions about what was best. This is where consensus-seeking started to be a problem.

The team would go on and on about a problem and then, just as they’d be coming to a conclusion, I’d weigh in with my 2 cents and reset the whole conversation. You know the big slide in the board game Chutes and Ladders? The one right toward the end that basically takes you back to the beginning? It was kinda like that.

And, because I needed that consensus, I’d keep the debate going as long as people continued to disagree. I just felt like, if we could all understand each other’s perspectives, we could find a solution we all agreed on.

I knew it was a problem. I could feel the team spinning, and we were spending more time coming up with plans than it would take to execute them. Feedback from the team provided clear supporting evidence in my performance reviews, too.

Could be more decisive. It’s good to listen, but sometimes the team just needs someone to choose. (paraphrasing)

Message received. I wasn’t surprised, though. I knew it was coming, but it still stung a little to be forced to acknowledge my shortcoming in a more official way.


Melancholy and the Infinite Debate

Analysis paralysis was certainly a key problem caused by my consensus-seeking. We’d talk and talk and talk about a topic or design, then reserve ourselves to continue the discussion in the next meeting. It was exhausting.

But, having no decision and pressure to make progress, the team would soldier on, with fatigue from the endless debate taking its toll. Even if it was my idea that “won,” it didn’t feel like winning. My effort to make everybody happy had done the opposite — everyone was miserable!

That gave way to the second major issue: lack of commitment. With so much discussion, people would lose track of what we were even trying to accomplish. Or, worse, they’d stop caring. I was mentally beating them into submission, and they just wanted it to end.

Team members would shake their heads and ask, “So, what are we doing?” They had no energy and just wanted to get on with it. It’s a real feelsbad moment to look into the defeated eyes of your team and explain that you’re just going to do the thing that you all talked about so long ago.


Can we all agree that consensus is horrible?

My a-ha moment came while reading Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The main character, Kathryn, is speaking and says the following:

“Consensus is horrible. I mean, if everyone really agrees on something and consensus comes about quickly and naturally, well that’s terrific. But that isn’t how it usually works, and so consensus becomes an attempt to please everyone.”

It feels dumb and obvious, but I literally stopped and thought, Oh no. That was it, that was my problem. I continued reading.

“…some teams get paralyzed by their need for complete agreement, and their inability to move beyond debate.”

Yep, that was us. I was worried that people would be upset by not having their idea picked, so instead, I chose to pummel them into having the same idea. Reading about my own behavior in the context of the book was reassuring, to know that the bad thing I was doing was prolific enough to be addressed in a novel about the bad things we do. Still, not a great feeling to know that I had stepped into a common pitfall.

I always tell my teams that I’d rather have a problem we know the solution to than one we don’t, though, and this was one of those cases.

In the same chapter, another character speaks up about “disagree and commit” which is a popular idea that’s been written and talked about by many people, including Jeff Bezos. The concept is simple: it’s okay to disagree, but once the decision is made, everyone commits to it.

Certainly, that’s the philosophy I need to embrace, I thought. The hard part about decision-making was the fear of being wrong. I needed consensus because, if we all agreed and were wrong, we’d be wrong together. I didn’t want to force my decision on the team to have it rubbed in my face later by bitter and spiteful colleagues.

Because they’d be bitter and spiteful… Right?


A Breathtaking Detour

Making decisions requires a constructive environment filled with trust and communication, and my consensus-seeking didn’t provide that. I felt like we needed to talk things through because people would be upset if we didn’t do it their way. And it wore them down. Instead of looking for the best solution, they were looking for a way out.

However, it turns people don’t need to get their way to be happy. They need to feel heard. Having a voice makes us feel safe, like we’re in control. We want to know that if we call out danger, the team will steer away from it. Similarly, if we know a safe path, the whole team benefits from taking it.

Imagine you have plans for dinner at a restaurant with a friend. You and your friend have many choices for how to get there. You can take highways or backroads. You can drive yourselves or take public transportation. You can go separately or together. There are a few tradeoffs with each decision, but for the most part, they’re inconsequential.

Now, let’s say you know about some construction on one of the roads. You tell your friend to avoid that route because of significant delays, but they take it anyway and show up super late. You’d probably be upset, right?

Conversely, if they show up on time, you probably don’t care which specific path they took to get there. Maybe the same construction takes them through a scenic part of town, so your friend left early to enjoy it. You wouldn’t mind that they ignored your advice. It wouldn’t prevent you from enjoying each other’s company and having a good time — it might even give you something to talk about!

It’s the same with most team decisions. If you can agree on what you’re trying to accomplish, listen to everybody’s input, and make a reasonable decision, it doesn’t usually matter which specific path is chosen. What matters is that you get to where you’re going.


The Destination vs. The Journey

We’ve all heard the popular adage about road trips: it’s about the journey, not the destination. The idea is that the experiences you’ll have on the way to your destination will outweigh the ones you’ll have once you arrive. The point of these sorts of trips is usually to have experiences, and the journey is long and thus provides many experiences, so there’s truth to the statement.

When you have several options to choose from, you’ll often find yourself in one of two buckets. Choices will be equal or have tradeoffs. When all things are equal, it’s like meeting your friend at a restaurant. It probably doesn’t matter. Pick and move on. Most decisions have tradeoffs with multiple factors being influenced to different degrees, though, and that’s what makes them so tricky.

The reason they’re difficult is that people have different values. The best decision for me is different than the best decision for someone else, and neither of us is wrong — we just have different values. For example, one of us may value speed to market whereas the other values robustness of features. This is sort of a destination-vs-journeyquestion all in itself! Is it better to reach your destination quickly to benefit from more time or go a bit slower and arrive more prepared?

The question to ask yourself is, what are you trying to accomplish? This is why it’s so important for leaders and stakeholders to set goals and priorities: to enable the team to make decisions.

But, even if all that fails, there’s some good news. In the absence of a clear winner, you’re somewhat back to the all-things-equal scenario. There is no right or wrong when the deciding factor is subjectivity, so choose and move on.


The only losing move is not to choose.

As a former consensus-seeker, I hope I’ve said enough to convince you — to make you believe — that consensus-seeking is bad.

The two major problems with consensus-seeking are time lost and lack of commitment. You sacrifice time with endless discussion, and with no decision, there’s nothing to commit to.

For that reason, any decision is better than no decision, even if it proves to be the wrong choice. Being wrong is often more efficient than trying to ensure you’re right, and conducting marathon debates won’t save you from mistakes, anyway.

Consensus is painful, and you don’t need it. What you do need is commitment. Seeking consensus will drain energy and morale whereas listening and incorporating feedback will build trust. When the team trusts you, they’ll support your decisions, and that’s how you get commitment.

Energy saved by skipping analysis paralysis now gets applied toward the commitment, and a positive cycle begins. Commitment and energy lead to results. Results earn trust and influence, which then get applied to the next round of decisions.

Making decisions is more important than the decisions themselves. Know what you’re trying to achieve, listen to your team, and make a decision. Everyone will be happier and more productive for it.


This article was originally published in The Ascent on January 5, 2021.

The Fault In Our Loyalties

Photo by Thomas Evans on Unsplash

Having the wrong “first team” may be driving intergroup conflict throughout your company

Regardless of your position in a company, you’re probably a part of multiple teams. You have an immediate team — the people you work with every day. There’s another team made up of everybody in your department, and you might also be on a team with peers from other departments. And within those teams, there might be even more virtual teams that you belong to.

The point is, you’ve got a lot of teams beyond the one you’re assigned to on the org chart.

But, all those teams have a common goal. They all want the company to grow and succeed and be an awesome place to work. If everybody and every team wants the same thing, what’s the problem? Why do you need to know your “first team” and prioritize your allegiance?

The plan is nothing, strategery is everything

For most of my life, commitment & accountability have gone hand-in-hand as the formula for success. Set a goal, commit, and get it done. So, as I’ve landed in leadership roles, it’s something I’ve emphasized a lot with my teams.

That’s not bad, per se, but I was encouraging commitment at the wrong level. I wanted team members to commit to completing an assignment within a certain timeframe, then hold themselves accountable to get it done. However, that sort of commitment has proven to be too low-level and individual-focused.

You can’t emphasize execution without buy-in on strategy.

What I’ve come to realize is that commitment is much more effective when used to obtain buy-in from the team on a particular strategy. In other words, it’s really powerful when the team can agree, “We’re going to accomplish X by doing A, B, & C,” and commit to the approach. You can’t emphasize execution without buy-in on strategy. I’d been looking for people to commit to A, B, & C without understanding or agreement on what we were trying to accomplish.

I was doing everything I could to make execution of assignments go as smoothly as possibly — and being marginally successful — but it wasn’t until I read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni that I came to see I was prioritizing my teams incorrectly and creating unnecessary turbulence as a result.

In the book, members of a fictional executive team learn to prioritize shared objectives above the goals of their individual departments so the company can succeed. They prioritize themselves as a team and align on strategy. Departments begin working together to achieve common goals rather than competing for resources, and they experience success as an organization rather than as disconnected teams. It’s beautiful.

Overarching goal, all the way across the sky

Every team will have an opinion on what’s most important and how to achieve success. The sales team will tell you sales are the key: “Great product doesn’t mean anything if nobody buys it, and revenue is our lifeblood.” The product team notes, however, that this is why investing in the product is so crucial. “If you have a superior product, selling is easier!” Finance might say sales and product mean nothing if you spend irresponsibly and manage money poorly.

The thing is, each of these teams is right. Their perspectives are valid and true. What’s most essential, though, is to have an overarching goal— an objective that all the teams can get behind and rally around. Something to unite the clans.

“If everything is important, then nothing is.”

An overarching goal is important because, as CEO Kathryn notes in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “If everything is important, then nothing is.” The goals of individual teams are certainly important, but the leadership of those teams needs to commit to a greater objective. Without agreement at the top, conflict will trickle down through the ranks and become more severe at it seeps deeper in the company.

The whole is greater than some of its parts. Or whatever.

In order for the company to be truly successful, all teams need to achieve some level of success. No single team can carry all the others, but one failing hard enough could lead to disaster. It doesn’t matter if your team hits its numbers if everything else burns to ash.

I’m a competitive person. I want my team to be the best and most successful. It’s easy to look at peer teams and think, “Not my problem. We’re doing our part.” There’s even a certain amount of pride in that, right? To know that you’re winning by out-pacing the others? But I also know that my team’s only part of the puzzle, and our performance won’t mean as much without the other teams succeeding.

For the company to succeed, all teams need to work together to maximize strengths, mitigate weaknesses, and understand how they’re doing collectively so they can adapt and win. This is where the concept of your first team becomes so important. You shouldn’t just listen to your peers explain what’s happening on their respective teams. You should be invested in it. You should be on the same page about what you’re trying to accomplish together— the overarching goal — and be willing to adapt as a group in order meet your objective, because that will make the company successful.

The concentric safety dance

One of key themes in Simon Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last is the importance of the circle of safety. The idea is that when a group trusts each other and doesn’t need to worry about internal threats, it can focus all of its energy externally which allows the group to succeed.

Imagine an organization where all the leaders are in the middle of circles that represent their departments, divisions, or teams of direct reports. The individual teams are united and working together well, but they’re treating other teams within the organization as external threats. That makes for a tremendous amount of energy wasted on intergroup conflict.

Now let’s adjust the picture so that the leadership team forms their own circle of safety in the middle. When this group trusts itself and has a shared vision, its energy can all be focused outward to the next layer of team. When all teams are being directed toward common objectives, they can also learn to trust each other eventually form their own greater circle of safety.

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Source: author

Come down from the mountain

Deciding that you’re more committed to one team than another doesn’t mean the other team is unimportant or somehow less valuable. Those other teams, especially the one made of your direct reports or day-to-day peers, are extremely important. It’s critical to invest heavily in those teams and relationships, but prioritizing your allegiance will improve the efficiency of all your teams immensely.

Google research has shown that psychological safety is the number one most important factor for effective teams. When leadership agrees on an overarching goal and strategy for achieving it, it leads to commitment. Commitment within leadership translates to clearer messages around what needs to be accomplished by their teams — the commitment travels down and across the organization. Cross-team alignment means less conflict and less internal threat, which in turn allows teams to focus more of their energy outward and toward achieving the common goals. A tidal wave of commitment can wash over the entire organization.

It starts with leaders prioritizing themselves as a team and putting the interests of the company ahead of those of their specific departments.

Ask yourself, who is your first team? What’s the overarching goal that the team is trying to achieve, and what’s the strategy for achieving it? How is the team progressing, and how can it use its collective resources to adapt?

Work together as a leadership team. Set an overarching goal, commit to a strategy, and hold each other accountable to execute your parts. With clarity and commitment, all teams can contribute and support each other in helping the company achieve its goals, and the company will grow, succeed, and be an awesome place to work.


Want to learn more? Check out these books! Note that I use affiliate links when linking to products on Amazon.


This article was originally published in ILLUMINATION on December 23, 2020.

Conference Call Less, Smile More

How to keep engaged with your team when you can’t stomach another #$@!ing conference call

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Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash

It’s 2021. The offices are closed, and you’re working from home. It’s 8:59 am, and in 1 minute, your next day of conference calls begins. And you just don’t want to do it. <expletive>.

It’s okay. We’ve all been there, so much so that the idea of “no meeting days/weeks” is gaining in popularity. If you can get your team and boss to buy-in, that’s probably the best way to give everyone a much-needed break. That’s not always an option, though, and even if it is, it’s something that needs to be scheduled and coordinated with the team. What if you need relief today?

The bad news is that you can’t ditch your team entirely; you need them, and they need you. However, take it from me — a grizzled work-from-home vet — there are ways to isolate yourself and fight call fatigue without completely ghosting your coworkers.

That last point’s worth repeating: don’t just disappear. When you go dark, your boss and teammates start to question your contributions and effort, and the more you do it, the worse it gets. Before you know it, you’re on the downward spiral of broken trust and poor performance. It’s much better to wrestle this beast out in the open, where everybody can see, and leave no question about your commitment and dedication — but, just, for the love of god, not on a video call.

Know thy tools

The first thing you need to do is assess what’s available in your toolkit. How does your team communicate? Most teams have a few different ways. Mine, for example, uses Slack and Teams in addition to everyone’s good friend, email.

In addition to those pure communication tools, you’ve probably got some collaborative tools, too, like Jira or SharePoint or Miro or Asana. You know, the apps you use to actually get things done? Yea, those. The reason these apps are so popular is because they make sharing & collaboration easy.

Here’s the secret with these tools, though. If you’re going to use them in lieu of actually talking to the people you work with, you need to use ‘em, like, extra. Catching up on email? Post a message. Writing a report? Share it. Taking a bathroom break? Okay, keep that one to yourself… But, updating those revenue projections? Shout it out! It doesn’t need to be every 5 minutes, but it should be enough so that there’s no question about whether or not you’re there or what you’re working on.

Maintaining this level of visibility isn’t just so people know you’re working — it also lets the team know you’re available for them. That’s half of what makes all these calls and meetings necessary. You know things! And people need to suck those things that you know out of your brain in order to do their jobs. You might be loving life and having the most productive solo day you’ve ever had, but if three people are stuck on a call trying to figure out what they know you know because they think you’re unavailable, it’s not going to reflect well on you.

Honor your commitments

We were on a break.

— Ross Geller

Just because you’re on a break doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want. Making all that noise about the things you’re doing won’t mean much to your team if you don’t deliver. You’re exhausted. You don’t want to talk. That’s okay, but it’s going to take a little extra work on your part to get the same results.

A critical part of honoring commitments is having some commitments. This goes hand-in-hand with my previous point of over-communicating and keeping visibility high, but it requires a little planning and forethought. Lay out the next few things you plan on doing so the team can coordinate and avoid duplicate effort.

Don’t be afraid to be a little ambitious with your goals, too. You’re on a team that’s trying to accomplish important things. Don’t phone it in while you’re… not phoning in — sign up for something meaningful.

With a few commitments in hand, it’s time to demonstrate your worth. I’ve got no problem with anybody on my team working whatever hours they want when they get their work done — so get your work done. And you better double and triple check it, too, because you lose some some quality safety nets when you fly solo. The goal is to make sure nobody has anything to complain about, so you need to make sure you catch the problems that would’ve been caught by doing the same work collaboratively with the folks you don’t want to talk to.

The key word here is “dependability.” You want the team to know that when you take an assignment into your bunker, they don’t need to worry. They can check it off the list. They’ve called in the closer, and you’ll find a way to get it done.

End of day wrap-up

Before you sign off for the day, send a status update to the team. You’ve been keeping your visibility high, so everybody knows what you’ve been up to, and you’ve put a little extra elbow grease on your deliverables to make sure quality is top-notch. Now it’s time to wrap-up all that ass you’ve kicked with a big, beautiful bow on top.

The end-of-day update is important and valuable for several reasons. The team knows you’ve been active but stating what you’ve completed shows them that you actually achieved things, too. It’s a chance for you to punctuate your effort and commitment. Those meaningful things you signed up for earlier? Yea, they’re done.

The status update sends the message that you worked hard to accomplish things for the team. It took you a little longer, but you got it done — and then you cared enough to summarize the journey. This is a great chance to showcase some leadership skills and sense of urgency, too. What needs to happen next? Who’s responsible? Make some callouts to help ensure that none of the momentum you’ve created will be lost.

Conclusion

Being on conference calls all day, every day is just plain exhausting. We all need a break, but the collaboration that pushes us to keep having them is important and valuable — it can’t be ignored. The answer to call fatigue is not less communication but different communication.

These “tips” are great advice for anybody that wants to be more effective, whether you’re dodging your co-workers in meetings and conference calls or not. Similarly, if you don’t do these things, it will ruin your team. People won’t trust you to complete your work. They won’t try to collaborate because it’s easier not to. They’ll resent you for not pulling your weight.

The stakes are a little higher when you’re working asynchronously, though, because you’re not “in the room” to defend yourself against misperception. You can’t explain why something took 3x longer than everyone thought it would or that you didn’t get to one thing because another, more important task cropped up.

None of this is hard, though; it just requires thoughtfulness and awareness. Communication and collaboration. Visibility and transparency. You can follow the same basic formula that’s often prescribed for presentations and writing: say what you’re going to do, do it, then say what you did. This keeps you highly-visible and transparent while also being present and available for the team. Commitment and accountability ensure that you produce results, and the end-of-day report is the cherry on top, helping everyone to build on your success.


This article was originally published in ILLUMINATION on November 25, 2020.

10 Behaviors to Make Your Team Great

Is your team greater than the sum of its parts?

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Photo by Michael Ankes on Unsplash

My team was in a bit of a rut. There was no trust and poor communication. People weren’t collaborating, and there was no transparency into anyone’s days. Updates in our daily standup meetings were vague and non-committal. Morale was low. Things just weren’t getting done.

I knew it wasn’t a people problem. I’d been with most of the team for years, and everybody was smart and talented. No — this was definitely a behaviors problem.

But, while I could feel the problems, I didn’t know how to articulate them. Before I could address the issues, I needed a better understanding of what they were, and I needed to establish a vocabulary with the team to facilitate a discussion. Only then, with awareness and buy-in, could we begin to implement change to improve our effectiveness.

Good Behaviors, Bad Behaviors

I was discussing the team’s underperformance and collaboration problems with a colleague, and they joking-not-jokingly proposed doing a Five Dysfunctions of a Team exercise. (Disclosure: as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

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The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable

It had been a while since the five dysfunctions had been front of mind, and I had to look them up for a refresher. “Let’s see what we’ve got here,” I thought as I clicked through some search results.

  1. Absence of trust — check.
  2. Fear of conflict — yup.
  3. Lack of commitment — oh yea.
  4. Avoidance of accountability — definitely.
  5. Inattention to results — mhmm.

Wow. We had ’em all. People on the team didn’t trust each other to complete assignments. Rather than confront the lack of trust, they preferred to work alone on whatever they felt was most important. Updates in standups would be, “I worked on some things and will figure out what’s next,” and people would leave for a coffee and disappear for the rest of the afternoon. Meanwhile, user stories would drag on for days and weeks with no sense of urgency. Yikes!

The five dysfunctions also reminded me of Project Aristotle. This Google Research project attempts to answer the question, “What makes a team great?” One of their key findings was that effectiveness depended more on how the team worked together than who was on the team. In other words, team dynamics and behaviors matter more than people and individual performance.

…what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together

Google’s “five effectiveness pillars” go with the five dysfunctions like peanut butter goes with jelly, combining to create a gooey smattering of team efficiency — and they gave me exactly what I was missing most: a vocabulary for talking about the areas we needed to improve and ways to communicate the importance & impact.

The Actions in Action

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Photo by Trym Nilsen on Unsplash

I had the concepts. Now I needed to deliver the message. I decided to put together two hypothetical situations based on our very real problems to illustrate the impact of these behavioral patterns & anti-patterns.

Example One. In standup, a dev says, “I’m going to work on implementing the Thingamabob. I’m going to try to complete tasks A, B, & C today, then we can test and close it out tomorrow.” In the afternoon, they say, “Something came up and I need to leave for a few hours, but I’ll be back to finish up. I completed task A and am almost done with B.” They come back later when everyone else is offline, complete task B, and leave a note before signing off: “Completing task B took longer than expected, but I got it done. I wasn’t able to get to task C. I’ll pick it up first thing in the morning.”

Example Two. In standup, a dev says, “Not sure what I’m doing today. I might start working on implementing the Thingamabob.” They start working on the story to implement the Thingamabob and complete task A plus part of task B. They need to leave for a few hours, but they don’t say anything. They come back later when everyone else is offline and complete task B.

In both examples, the person might’ve been equally productive, written brilliant code, and completed the same tasks. In both cases, the person had to leave for several hours, and in both cases they didn’t complete the (stated or unstated) goal of finishing task C.

However, the first example demonstrates all of Google’s dynamics of great teams.

  • Psychological safety. The dev wasn’t afraid to share status or go away because of other responsibilities; they felt safe to let the team know they didn’t complete their stated goal.
  • Dependability: The developer made commitments in standup and was transparent about progress and effort.
  • Structure and clarity: They communicated status so the team had awareness, which allows the team to adjust its actions and priorities. (For example, this could allow someone else to jump in on completing task B while the developer was away, and upon returning they could complete task C versus only completing task B.)
  • Meaning: The developer appreciates having a job that allows them the flexibility to take care of other responsibilities during the day.
  • Impact: Ensuring progress and helping the team achieve its goals feels good.

Conversely, the second example exhibits symptoms of all five dysfunctions.

  • Absence of trust: Low visibility and poor communication lead the team to wonder what the developer is working on.
  • Fear of conflict: Sporadic availability makes it hard to collaborate; team members become exasperated and prefer to work alone.
  • Lack of commitment: The developer was non-committal in standup, and the team has no expectations or ability to coordinate.
  • Avoidance of accountability: No commitments and poor visibility & availability; the dev does nothing to demonstrate their effort.
  • Inattention to results: Individual behavior prevents the team from achieving its goals.

All this is to say that, in order to be an effective team, individuals must focus on their behavior and interactions with teammates more than just being productive themselves.

Staging the Intervention

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Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

Okay, I had my ideas to share, and I had my plan of how I wanted to roll my message out to the team — it was time to put the wheels into motion.

The first thing I did was to send an email using the examples above. My messaging (paraphrasing) was, “Hey, team — I’ve been thinking that we haven’t been as productive lately as we’ve been in the past. I think we’re exhibiting some of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and we’ve lost some of Google’s pillars of effectiveness that we had previously. Consider these examples.” I also shared my analysis about how the examples were illustrative of the five dysfunctions and effectiveness pillars.

I didn’t really get feedback on the email, but there was a mention here & there in standups and retrospectives. I feel like the email did a fine job of planting the seed and helping to establish a vocabulary for the conversation. Mission accomplished there, I’d say.

Step two was to solicit feedback in one-on-ones. I’d ask people what they thought about the email and how they felt about the team in that context. These conversations were helpful because it confirmed my feelings and demonstrated that others were experiencing similar frustrations. This also helped to establish that we were all on the same page and had similar perceptions of our team strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, I decided to bring it up in the team’s sprint retrospective. I was blunt with them. I said, “I don’t think the team is doing enough to demonstrate commitment & accountability.” It took some courage, but I had to trust the team and not fear conflict — to practice what I was about to preach. The groundwork I’d laid proved valuable. People referenced the email I’d sent, and we’d all had miniature versions of the discussion in one-on-ones. It was a really productive conversation and a catalyst for positive change.

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Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Things didn’t fix themselves overnight, but we began trending positively in just a week or two. People started giving updates like, “My goal for today is …” and leaving messages at the end of the day to highlight what they did and didn’t accomplish.

If your team can buy-in on the importance of these dynamics and be self-reflective & honest, it can lead to some pretty incredible growth — even on a team that’s already high-performing and seemingly happy. Awareness of these dynamics can turn things around on an underperforming team or protect a happy, productive team from growing pains and evolution.

My team isn’t perfect, but we’re getting better every day. The next step was to continue the momentum. We planned a recurring team meeting to focus on these behaviors and team growth to increase introspection and awareness, but the best way to keep improving is by walking the walk. Psychological safety, trust, commitment, accountability, and no fear of conflict allow us to continue having productive conversations and ensure that we stay on track to accomplish great things together.

Resources:


Originally published at The Innovation on November 20, 2020.

Scope Like Goldilocks

How to control scope and navigate the spectrum of engineering excellence versus business needs

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Photo by Toa Heftiba Şinca from Pexels

There is no single right answer to any non-trivial problem in software engineering. So, if multiple correct solutions exist, how do you decide which is best? It’s difficult to determine which is best because “best” is highly subjective and deeply personal — your opinion is formed from your individual collection of experiences, strengths & weaknesses, and values on related aspects like simplicity, maintainability, & scalability.

It’s these internal values that make all of this so tricky. Imagine a spectrum with engineering excellence at one end and business needs at the other. Both elements are required for a project to be successful, and operating at either extreme can be detrimental to the other. As an example, making too many quick-twitch fixes to address urgent business needs can have significant long-term impact on the quality of the code base or system maintainability; conversely, focusing too deeply on engineering excellence can lead to over-investment in areas or competitive disadvantages from being slow to market.

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Understanding this spectrum — and having awareness of where you and your colleagues lie on it — can help your team to be more pragmatic.

Awareness of this spectrum alone isn’t going to do you any favors in resolving conflict from perceived disconnects between you and co-workers, though. I’ve found myself in design/requirements stalemates many times, and I’ve used the spectrum as a way to visualize my frustration.

“You see, I live over here on one end of the spectrum,” I’d say, “and my colleague operates here, at the other end. We can’t agree on scope, and we aren’t getting started or making any progress as a result.”

The problem with the visualization as a tool for conflict resolution is those pesky personal values. Neither of us thinks we’re advocating for a solution that would be in the unhealthy extremes of the spectrum. The person in the engineering excellence camp just believes that business value is generated by following all the best engineering principles and creating scalable, high-performing, resilient applications whereas business needs nation wants quick delivery and maximum responsiveness to meet the ever-changing needs of its customers.

So, how do you find compromise when the source of conflict is so visceral?


Let’s see if we can steal a page from the Goldilocks playbook. She’s got a knack for identifying the undesirable ends of a spectrum before settling into a satisfying sweet spot. If you and your team or colleague(s) can’t agree on the scope of a solution, can you agree on what it shouldn’t be?

What’s a reasonable solution that everybody agrees is over-engineered, and what’s the fastest, but perhaps short-sighted, thing you could do? What’s the effort required for each approach, and what are the risks or consequences?

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting to simply compare different proposals by plotting them on the spectrum— that probably won’t get you anywhere. Instead, work collaboratively to come up with bad solutions that lean too far in both directions. Find agreement by identifying undesirable characteristics of these options in the unhealthy parts of the spectrum.

Still not able to find compromise? It’s probably time to bring in a 3rd party, preferably a stakeholder. Show them your spectrum and explain the tradeoffs that exist at the opposite ends, then present the “real” options that are on the table and allow the stakeholder to decide.

The whole activity is an exercise in pragmatism. How can two parties with equal but conflicting opinions find common ground? The key is to calibrate and remove as much subjectivity as you can. By acknowledging the necessity of both aspects — engineering excellence and needs of the business — and agreeing on the “bounds” of the spectrum, you create a framework for identifying the region for compromise. That’s your sweet spot. That’s likely where your “best” solution should be.


Originally published at The Startup on September 21, 2020.