With 7 years in Microsoft, I can safely say email overload and extreme multiplexing is a part of my life! JD’s agile results has been a perfect system to find method in this madness. This helped me bring back focus to key “outcomes” on a daily, weekly, monthly reducing the complex and overwhelming web of pending work into a meaningful hierarchy of scoped and prioritized backlog. JD is super passionate about making others successful and he has used his superpower of enabling others to achieve results effectively in creating this comprehensive system of agile results. I have used this system for nearly the past half year and have benefited immensely from the simple yet powerful methods described by JD. It takes very little effort to create a clear concise plan for the day and the week that ensures I am in sync with my “hotspots”. The quick retrospectives help figure out productivity enhancers and time sinks and allow for quick course correction. And of course, I love being in zero email nirvana 🙂 … without being driven by Outlook. I am amazed at how effective and easy to follow this system is and absolutely recommend this to anyone that is trying to be more effective at what they do. Thanks for creating this beautiful system, JD!
What I have learned from practicing Agile Results, and how I implement it.
Before I met JD, and he introduced me to Agile Results. I would pick one important thing for the day and do it. Because of my incubatory (some would say procrastinatory) nature, it would be a major accomplishment if I achieved the ‘one’ task by days end. So many ‘fires’ would happen during the day; and I would never get around to ‘me.’ I would end the day emotionally exhausted, and resentful of the others around me who kept me from my daily goal.
When I met JD he was reputed to be doing 15 projects a year where as his peers at Microsoft did 3-5. I was a bottom 10% guy; I did 1 project a year. So JD, was not just a top 10% he is one of the top 1%. What initially worried me about meeting with JD was that in the past the people like JD I had met were all workaholics, they have zero life balance; and I did not really think I would gain much from the introduction. What I needed was more time alone to do my incubating, but also needed more time with my family. Advice about working harder was not what I needed.
This fear was put to rest the first time I spoke to JD: The first thing he talked about was balance. I knew JD was a 1%er and so I was lucky to have been in the room with him, let alone have him investing his time in me; so I was paying attention; but as soon as he started talking about “Hotspots” I was as alert and attentive, I was hanging on every word. He was not another workaholic advocating I work longer, harder, faster. He was talking about reduction. Less is more. Buckets, flows, and frames. This was strategy not tactics. I was hooked.
JD showed me how I was doing way more than one thing a day, and that I was doing the wrong things. I needed to ‘do less’ of the things I was doing and more of the things that added congruence and value to my life. I needed to set boundaries. I needed to manage my plate. It was about this time I had learned about Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero; that was enlightening and I started doing it. I had learned a useful tactics, and I shared it with JD. JD showed me how to simply that even more, with one email rule and Do it, Date it, Delegate or Delete. No more hours and hours of reacting to emails. I learned to batch email to 30 minutes twice a day, and always have an empty inbox. I now had a giant chunk of time to get work done in.
I started “the power of three” & “scalable outcomes” each morning I would create a text file with today’s date. I then write down 3 things I needed to do that day (JD highly recommends doing this the night before; this is just an example of how I don’t follow instructions and experiment to see what works for me). I then type a line under it… as in the example below:
- Outcome a
- Outcome b
- Outcome c
- yesterday todo a
- yesterday todo b
- yesterday todo c
- yesterday todo d
- new todo e
- new todo f
- new todo g
- new todo h
- could a
- could b
- could c
This is my ‘todo’ list – under the line I put all the things people ask me to do that day – either by email, phone call, or speaking with me. (my should list) They will not be done until I complete my three outcomes for the day (my must list). Most of the time they will be actionable the following day, but sometimes they do get done same day. The outcomes are a closed list; it has boundaries, it is achievable. If I do those three things I have had a good day and accomplished all I set out to do. If I get more done, it is even better. And if I don’t that is perfectly ok. The list under the line I allow to grow without bounds – this is an open list. Actually, there is another open list, ‘the could list’ that is separated by a blank line after the should do or ‘todo-list’. This is a list where I record ideas, this is an incubation area. This should and could list is often the list from which I choose the three outcomes for the day. But sometimes my outcomes are generated by my needs or desires, as necessary. When a thing gets done I change the font to bold. This allows me to see what I have done and what I haven’t at a glance. (more recently I have been experimenting with various ways of doing this system with emacs org-mode) Additionally, the ‘should do’ and ‘could do’ are carried over from day to day. As a rule, I do my best to get all the should dos from the day before done each day. This forms another closed list; and is almost like a fourth Must do item. I have noticed that open lists never get done – it is important to close them off so you can call them done; reward yourself with the feeling of having accomplished them. Open lists are a recipe for failure, because by definition you can’t successfully complete it.
As a result of these few practices; and Agile Results contains so much, much more that I haven’t put into practice. I routinely not only get my 3 most important outcomes done and stay in balance with my life; I get another 9 things done. This testimonial is a perfect example of the power of Agile Results. JD emailed me during one of the busier times in my life, and I agreed to this task. I had 3 birthdays, two job interviews, full time school, part time work and homework. In the past I simply wouldn’t have committed to the task, it would have overwhelmed me; and I wouldn’t have gotten it done. Agile Results has allowed me to scale up to the demands of life, and scale back down and incubate.
I came to Getting Results with a history of effectiveness and success. I had a solid sense of what I felt were the best ways to get things done, a set of process and principles that had worked well for me over many years. I am a process guy, a details guy and a lover of great strategy. I sweat the small stuff and I look at the big picture in order to guide myself and my organization to maximum results. Then I met JD…
I started with JD on a project to build security guidance for the ASP.NET development platform. A huge undertaking that involved discovering, consuming, and analyzing a huge amount of information from a huge amount of sources both written and verbal and then turning that into specific, contextual, prescriptive guidance for Microsoft developers. The goal was nothing less than to change the way in which web applications were written on the Microsoft platform. In order to make consumers more secure, the applications needed to be more secure. In order to make the applications more secure, developers needed to know what to do. That’s where JD and team came in. What I saw in the course of this project, changed my view on how to get things done. JD accomplished the seeming impossible. In too little time, with too little resources, with a staggering amount of chaos to deal with, JD coaxed the team into writing a masterpiece. I couldn’t see how it was done, but I was curious. Luckily for me I had to opportunity to work with JD on a number of other projects over the course of several years. I learned the process as it was developed and maybe even had a chance to contribute to it a little here and there. Whether I had any impact on it or not, it had a huge impact on me. Before I explain what I learned, I want to set some context to explain how I used to get results. I was a huge believer in up-front planning. For a new project I would spend a lot of time designing and planning what needed to get done, how it would get done, when it would get done, who would do it and in what order. I was a master of this style. I could plan a complex project with a dozen team members and have an 18 month plan with all of the tasks laid out to the day and then we could execute to that plan so that 18 months from the start we had accomplished exactly what I had laid out at the start. Impressive right? Well, not really. I learned, the hard way, that I was focusing on the wrong things. I was focusing on tasks and activities. I was focusing on what got done, which I thought were the results, but I was neglecting the real results. Most importantly, I had the wrong assumptions. I assumed that a rigorous planning process could remove risk. I assumed that I knew up-front what I wanted to accomplish. I assumed that my plan was helping me when it was actually a prison.
So what did I learn from JD and how did it change how I do things? What kind of a difference did it make? Here are the key lessons I learned, my most important take-aways:
- Focus on scenarios and stories. I’d always used scenarios and stories as a tool, but I hadn’t used them correctly. They were something I considered, they were an input to my plan, just one more thing that mattered. What JD taught me is that they are the only thing that matters. If you get this one thing right you win. If you get it wrong you lose. Planning should be about determining the right scenarios and stories you want to enable. Execution is about making these scenarios and stories real. You know you are done, you judge your success, by measuring against these scenarios and stories. Everything else is a means to this end.
- Expose risk early, fail quickly. Planning is an exercise in risk discovery and mitigation. You plan so that you can create a path to success while imagining the pitfalls and avoiding them. Planning is a mental exercise, it is not doing, it is imagining. JD helped me realize that the world is too complex to plan for every possible problem and it is too complex for you to be able to plan the best possible path. I learned that I should be exploring and optimizing as I go instead of trying to do it all up front. If the price of failure is not extreme (lost lives, destroyed business) and I can afford the exploration, I discovered I am better off reducing my up-front planning and jumping into the ‘doing’ sooner. By ‘doing’ I can expose risks early and I can determine if my chosen path will fail so I can pick another. I think JD calls it “Prove the Path”. I like to think that mistakes and failure are bound to happen and I’d rather discover it fast while I have the chance to correct than discover it too late when I’m over-committed.
- Ruthless effectiveness. I thought I was ruthless already. I thought I went after results like a Pit Bull and didn’t let go till I’d chewed it to a pulp. I was right, but that’s not the most effective path. Ruthless effectiveness isn’t being a Pit Bull and never letting go. Ruthless effectiveness is knowing when something is good enough and knowing when it will never be good enough. Ruthless effectiveness is learning to let go. I am a perfectionist, I like things to be more than good. I want them to be great, exceptional even. I can forget the rule of diminishing returns once I have my teeth into something. JD taught me to let a project go, to ship the book, to release the software when you’ve maximized its value and when it will make the most impact. Let go when there are external reasons to let go, don’t let your own internal attachment cause you to hang on to something too long. It felt crazy to me when I first saw it, almost irresponsible. But it works. Its a ruthless focus on results. Nothing personal.
I’m sure your take-aways from Getting Results will be different from mine. We are all different, have different goals and are all in different places in regards to our abilities and motivations to be effective. There is so much in this guide, it has so much to offer, that I think anyone who reads it will get something out of it. If you are lucky, it may even change your life like it did mine.
For a majority of my life, I had never been a “Process” guy except when it came to work. I always believed order was meant for the military. I wanted to be a free bird – doing things my way at the time of my choosing.
When JD briefed me on his new book and the process he was working on, I volunteered and said I wanted to be a part of it. I am quite successful at work and wanted to improve it further. However, I wasn’t too keen on adopting it for life. I thought it would restrict me a lot and clip my feathers. So, I adopted it at work and did a trial run for a month. It was much more successful than I thought. The Agile Results process has in more ways than one made me a responsible individual. The most important realizations for me at the end of it was
- do not misuse time or take it for granted.
- your mind is your best friend and your worst enemy.
- the ideal world does not exist. You cannot achieve the best. There is always room to make it better. But the trick lies in identifying what works best for now. Be agile in determining the best.
I started by applying the Rule of 3. On the way to work, I decide on the three things I want to get done for the day. I restricted myself to one day only. I get distracted if I start thinking too far ahead. For the first week or so, I had trouble identifying the three best things for a day. I would either achieve it in the first hour of work or wouldn’t be able to complete even 1 out of the 3. For example, I wanted to complete a module that would have been possible had it not been for a CR [change request] flowing in. Now, it would take me more than 2 days to finish it. My plan for the day went down the tube. Slowly, I began to realize that I had to be more granular. The granularity had to be such that it was independent enough to be completed in isolation and at the same time wasn’t too small a puzzle to solve. For example, “complete and check-in functionality ABC in module XYZ”. This way I’m assured of completing the three activities I want to perform. Also, I can add more if time permits. The next most important pattern was the Timeboxing a week. In other words, scheduling results for a week. Its a pretty simple yet strong pattern. Again, I misunderstood its importance when I started off. I used it more like a calendar. A reminder of bucket lists of sorts. Although it helps, there is something more that this pattern offers. JD was kind enough to point it out to me. He said to think of it like a strengths and weaknesses chart. It triggered a new way of thinking in me. I was now also looking at a week gone by and identifying times of the day, or days of the week where I was strong or weak, and displayed efficiency vs. laziness. And if this behavior was repetitive, odds are you have just plotted a pattern map. Ultimately this chart helps you make better use of your “Best” time, and look to improve upon your “Idle” time. Complementing the pattern above is the Mindsets pattern. JD uses the term switching hats or changing personas. This basically allows you to maximize the returns on “Idle” time by using them effectively in other ways. For example, I would be annoyed when someone disturbed me with something really stupid when I was doing great work. I would lose 10 minutes in the conversation and another 20 cursing the moron who started it off. After using the Mindsets pattern, I now use the 20 minutes of previously wasted time to walk out of my cubicle and stretch and relax. What it has allowed me to do is to concentrate on my exercise rather than the worthless discussion. Also, both my mind and body get a mini-refreshment.
I began to admire this [Agile Results] process because it was so flexible that I could take, leave or modify certain steps so that they fit my profile better. The goal is to understand the essence of the process and modify it to one’s needs. I was pretty satisfied with the results and decided to do a trial run for life as well. A week later, the results came. It was a disaster. The worst part was when I couldn’t figure out why it failed. I thought I must be doing something wrong and worked out the whole thing again. Another week went by and it was still not working. After giving it some thought and asking the right set of questions, I realized one fundamental part that I completely ignored in the application of this process to life – and that is setting minimum and maximum time to activities right from the most granular to the complete. Now, I re-did my strategy of application. In two weeks time I could see improvement. It was far from the final outcome. But bottom line, it had started to work. Now, it is unto me to make it successful. Like they say, success or failure lies in not what you have but how you apply what you have.
Like I had stated earlier, the process works well even if I pick 1 out 10 steps as long as I believe it is going to be my game changer. You can add/remove steps any time. At the end of the day, you want your life to be better. And only you know what’s best for you. In my case, the most important game changers were:
- Rule of 3.
- Monday, Friday reflection pattern.
- Timeboxing a week.
- Weekly results.
- Reward for results.
A very important by-product of this process is quick feedback. You get to know if you are on-track or tangential almost immediately. You can alter the course of your activities midway so long as you understand what you are doing and targeting. This is one of the very few processes that works its way backward, i.e. you look at the end and work your way back. This means you have a vision for what you want to achieve even before you start. This is a very positive way to look at things. The problem with thinking the other way is that my mind will give up very soon. It [Agile Results] is designed to choose the most optimal Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP) algorithm. And if the time to achieve is long, it will deem it unimportant and a waste of my time.
In summary, this process has not turned my life upside down in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. But it has paved a path. Adopting it has not been easy at all, at least for me. But the ROI has been well worth it so far. There’s no denying that it will only improve as time goes by and I continue to keep doing things the right way. If there is one thing I have to tell others about this process, it is that do not follow it like a horse. It is a guide, a mentor. Like my mother always tells me, God will help you get you good grades in your exam only if you prepare well for it and put all your energy into it. You cannot expect him to perform miracles out of nothing. Same goes to this process as well. Put your best foot forward and the rest will follow.
From a young age I knew that something was not right in my life. Was it the artist in me? Something that my parents didn’t provide? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I remember going to a New England prep school and taking “study habits” in 7th grade. To this day I can’t remember a single thing they taught in the class, but as I got older and in college it dawned on me that no one was teaching this information. You were just supposed to know how to manage your time, break down large tasks, and move forward. My mother nicknamed me “cliff” for “cliff hanger” because I would always put off school things to the last minute.
My father, a Type A personality with a sensitive heart, talked to me about success, that I could do anything I wanted to; I could see him just muscle his way through most things. My mother, an intellectual who ended up being a homemaker when she would have preferred to be a professor, could provide knowledge but couldn’t understand me and my emotional needs. So I went at it alone, trying to figure out who I was and how to balance things. They loved me, but they couldn’t provide everything I needed.
When I entered college, my life changed dramatically. Previously, I was smart enough to get by on my intelligence alone. Not anymore. I was in a large university for Computer Science and Engineering and the philosophy of the program was likened to medical school. 50% of the class dropped out in the first year due to the workload. I was able to keep up, but no longer as the A and B national honor student in the 99th percentile that I once was. I wanted to be social as well, and I tried to be, but it was getting harder.
Sophomore year, I hit a wall. Anxiety attacks, including vomiting on a daily basis and being unable to eat, plagued me. I had reached the limits of my skills. I created my own personal psychological hell. I was actually still able to get As and Bs, but I took it out on myself to meet the standards. The standards had been my identity and now I was losing my ability to meet them, and losing myself in the process. I started to realize that the standards didn’t make sense.
Looking back I can see that I had certain patterns that set me up to be a powder keg. It was only a matter of time before something lit the fuse. I had few personal boundaries when it came to time. I didn’t understand balance, managing emotions, having a mission. I didn’t know about having a why, or what my strengths were besides being smart. I was there to “do well so I could be successful” except I had no idea what successful was, but I was pretty sure it was not what I was experiencing.
It was in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s that I started searching for these answers. Always a man who talked about integrity, my father introduced me to the Steven Covey books. I started reading psychology books, trying to figure out what my problem was. I was learning about the importance of managing emotions and that some patterns work and some do not. I realized that even though I thought my parents had done something wrong with me, it did not matter — I owned and was living these patterns.
After college, I was able to get a job at Microsoft even before I graduated, and I moved to the Seattle area. While I had learned to manage my emotions better, I still had issues. I got involved in the “personal effectiveness” movement. I learned about responsibility vs. guilt and blame. I was growing and I had knowledge, but applying it took time.
I was successful at Microsoft and learned a lot, but still had trouble balancing my life. I had learned in college that you needed to govern yourself. I saw people around me pushing to get ahead as they saw people earning a lot of money and retiring. I was able to support myself and accomplish a lot, but being happy was elusive. I wasn’t driving from vision; I was running from something else. Emotionally, I still felt like my head was underwater.
In short, I was and still am an artist, but did not want to live the clichéd, tortured life of some artists. I wanted to flow and be alive, but structured enough to be effective. Two parts of me fought it out. I tried a number of other methods as I knew the direction but not how to balance. To everyone around me I appeared to be a well-balanced individual, but I could feel the gap between what I was and what I wanted to be and was capable of. Sum up to say that due to a number of patterns in my life, I was getting in my own way.
Along came working for J.D. Meier. I had known J.D. in the 1990s in the Developer Support group at Microsoft. I now had a chance to work with him in the patterns & practices group. While a number of the things I studied helped me, J.D.’s methodology for Agile Results gave me a number of things that I did not have before. I realized that the content and format of Agile Results worked well for what I was trying to do — quickly understand myself as a human system and to tune and improve that system while working with my human and creative aspects. I like Agile Results for many reasons, but here are a few specifics.
- It’s about results and outcomes. Many books that incorporate feelings are about “feeling better”, but do not focus on outcomes and actually producing something of value. This one combines both in such a way that it can clearly see the connection and how to do both. Previously I would go back and forth between each, sacrificing one for the other.
- It’s not making me into a small “J.D.” When I read the book, I don’t feel like it is about fitting myself into a system. I feel it’s about tuning my own system to be its best and defining how I measure that myself.
- It has a “low barrier to entry.” I could implement even a very small part of the system and it would work. That’s what I’ve done actually. I’m probably only doing about 15% of what’s in the book, but I’m building on it. Previously, I just could not keep everything together in other systems to continue to move forward—I would get some parts, but it felt more like juggling balls, often starting right off with 3 of them, not 1 or 2. Since I had issues with trying to do too much at once, beating myself up, and measuring my worth from outcomes, this didn’t work well and I kept falling backwards. Not so with Agile Results.
- It was simple, easy to process and easy to refer to as a reference. So many other books mix stories into their teachings. I LOVE stories actually, but when I am trying to implement a system, I just need a rollup of the facts to remind me. Separating reference or conceptual information from actionable information was a key that I did not understand before this. And it’s not a linear book, but can be read as one. In many systems, I seem to have to read the whole story to understand it. I like the fact that I can jump around in Agile Results and not really get lost or that I can read it cover to cover.
- Its writing is engineered. The book is written like J.D.’s other books on technical concepts. He’s brought content engineering to the personal realm. The software world is already a combination of art and structure.
- It’s dense but digestable. J.D. has an uncanny ability to reduce concepts so that they are short, but not reduce them so much that they are abstract and thus harder to understand and process. Splitting out tools like cheat sheets and templates helps immensely in jump starting the whole process. In all, it’s like vitamins and protein bars for the mind and spirit.
- It took into account the human factor. It dealt with how humans really work from the standpoint of looking at patterns in life and work. Something clicked for me in the parts about closing down work, multitasking, and fully engaging what’s in front of me. I could see the part of having “a why” and how it was important in my own life. The concept of having a “story” was helpful as well. Certainly, some parts I’d heard before as a student of other authors and classes. These principles are not secrets necessarily. However, I don’t remember encountering them stated so succinctly.
Has Agile Results “fixed” my life? It cannot do that. This is up to me. But the book has given me a great toolbox for the job. It’s made the process seem much simpler than I previously thought. I can more easily see patterns that do not work and correct them using strategies in the book. I highly recommend it.
—Rob Boucher, author, musician
For the past 10 years I’ve been focused on two significant methods for getting results 1) Using Project Management methods (PMBOK) and 2) Franklin Covey’s “Habits.” In May of 2010 I began to apply the Agile Results process, and put simply, it has added completeness. While both Project Management, with its strong focus on planning correctly, and 7 Habits, with its foundation in values, are both effective – using Getting Results provides a few things that I hadn’t expected. You see, for several years I’ve been a big proponent of planning correctly, analyzing prior to implementing, long periods of thinking, and then implementing. My methods were incomplete. Agile Results provided completeness, agility, and flexibility to my approach. It’s not a matter of the PMBOK, or 7 Habits systems being better, or worse. It is a matter of the approach being different. It is now part of the big three methods right, not separate? So here is what I think is my “Big 3”:
- Project Management
- 7 Habits & Values
- Getting Results the Agile Way
Agile Results allow you to make adjustments, immediately or over time, as you need them. It’s more than just a systematic way of doing things. JD provides insight, advice, through proven practices that he and others use. It is more than just a Project, or a Value, or a Habit. It’s a combination of them all, and they all work together synergistically. So, pick any given project or goal you might have. Just try starting with something simple from this large swath of information from JD (another thing I learned – keep it simple). Say like, the rule of 3, the reflection pattern and then after a few weeks of trying it out, look at the results. It’s amazing. I did it. And you’ll want more. I was completely overwhelmed, overworked, and behind in a huge project delivery. I needed a way to get it done, effectively. JD gave me a hint to read through “Getting Started.” Of course, the last thing you want is more workload, but I listened and tried applying it immediately. I haven’t stopped. Every day, every week, even monthly, quarterly, yearly, the rule of 3 is my foundation. And now that’s just the beginning … imagine what’s next.
—Tim Kropp, Information Security Program Manager