Quick Fix Days and Hack Weeks

At Automattic we’ve redefined our hack weeks to focus on product changes for customer kindness: fixing flows, removing dead ends, and paying down technical debt.

In The big secret of small improvements Tal Bereznitskey explains how to improve “quick fix days,” where software teams take time to make small improvements. Those small changes can together mean a big win for customers and the business.

At Automattic we’ve experimented with both 1-day bug scrubs in one team all the way up to a full “hack week” — so Tal’s principles strike a chord with me.

Framing the problem is halfway to solving it — I love how he suggests rewording the subject line of a software change to fix a bug as something actionable, not just a description of the problem.

6. Well defined. Only work on tasks that are defined properly. Prefer “Make content scrollable” over “Bug: can’t see content when scrolling”.

Create positive feedback loops — I remember during my days answering WordPress.com Themes bug reports and how rewarding it was to hear directly from the people I helped with a bug fix.

7. Thanks you. There’s nothing like hearing a customer say “Thank you!”. When a quick-fix was suggested by a customer, let the developer email him and tell him the good news.

This is the work: customer kindness — Our latest iteration at Automattic speaks to this customer focus as the goal of the maintenance work — it isn’t just polish or cleanup, this is the product work. We even have a fun acronym for it now! H.A.C.K. — Helping Acts of Customer Kindness.

Aaron Douglas: Being Mindful During Video Calls

Tips from my coworker and prodigious mobile app maker Aaron Douglas on being mindful during video calls. Great tips, not just for remote workers, either. “I’ve come up with a bunch of little tweaks to help with attentiveness and mindfulness during the call. It is important to show you’re listening.”

The Dangling Pointer

Working remote means I’m on a lot of video calls. I’ve come up with a bunch of little tweaks to help with attentiveness and mindfulness during the call. It is important to show you’re listening.

Look at the camera often

When you’re in person you look at people’s eyes to show them you’re listening. Doing that on a video call requires a bit of counter-intuitive body language by looking at the camera. You won’t be looking at the person but they’ll see you looking directly at them. It’s a subtle difference but I’ve found it highly effective.

Also try to place the video call window up the screen towards the camera. Also decrease the size of the window so the person’s eyes are naturally closer to the top of the window (closer to the camera). When you’re not looking at the camera while the person is speaking it’ll still look…

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Product Management: Active Questions

I’m a fan of Oblique Strategies for triggering a new perspective when I get stuck. To me this method brings active questions to trigger better thinking.

This practice comes up for me frequently in product management when working on both short and long views of a roadmap. As part of any decision making process, whether by myself for reflection, or in a team working on a product change, I might ask something like:

What is the end result for our customers?
Where are we going in the long term?

The purpose of active questions, like Oblique Strategies, is to trigger more questions until you get a better answer. A truer answer. An honest answer. To find the why is to find the signal that drives everything else forward.

Who is it for?
How will they understand it’s for them?
How will we know if it’s a success?
What do we expect to see change?
How are we measuring it?
What would be a surprise here; something that we don’t expect?
Have we considered doing the opposite?
Who has the most to gain?
What’s the context?

What questions do you ask to find the why?

(Video) Indistractable, Nir Eyal

Being indistractable is a super power. Nir Eyal started out his Mind the Product SF 2018 presentation by sharing that in the five years since his book Hooked came out he’s kept up with everything, gathered feedback, and learned even more about the neuroscience and behavior that drives our motivations and attention.

My main takeaway from his message is simple. You’ll know when you’re distracted by planning ahead. Using DND (do not disturb) mode to plan your time grants you freedom for what author Cal Newport calls “Deep Work” and Nir Eyal names “Traction.”

Working to your input each day rather than output to get important work done. Nir mentioned the “Forest” app to stay focused. In the few weeks after I attended Mind the Product my colleague Rachel McRoberts also mentioned this app to me. It’s a simple concept: each focus period grows a virtual green tree. If you interrupt the focus, the tree dies and you have to start over. Nir also uses the “Time Guard” app which allows you to set sensible limits to time spent on distractions.

I highly recommend watching this 28 minute video to hear and understand Nir’s latest work and pick up practical tips on decluttering and avoiding distraction.

Video courtesy of Mind the Product.

Clean Room, Clean Mind

Why do I avoid the backlog and overflowing todo list? Why do I shove one more tool into a drawer already full of bits and bobs? Why do I squeeze yet another outfit into an overflowing closet? Because confronting this mess is hard work. It means making tough choices. Most of the time, I’d rather not decide.

To make sense of my environment, my work, my life—I need to confront the mess. Once the clutter is gone I know I’m left with just the essentials. Once the dust is clear, I can get to work.

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo explains that while the process of decluttering and cleaning your home is important to your physical wellbeing, the true outcome is happiness and clarity in your mind. The habit gives you the freedom to take responsibility for important decisions.

I learned so much from this book, from awareness and mindfulness to practical tips on folding and hanging clothes. The habit of tidiness is now a mindset for me rather than just a chore to be completed.

The process starts by discarding the inessential items. Tidying up defines what is valuable: learning what I can do without; learning which books, clothes, keepsakes, or kitchen tools give me the most joy.

In applying her principles, my books were the hardest. I had hundreds and many in the category of “I’ll read this someday.” I trimmed it down to 80-90 best of the best — including this one! Hah. Keeping sentimental, must-read again, and books I reference often. The rest I gave as gifts to a new home or donated.

Life becomes far easier once you know that things will still work out even if you are lacking something.

A clean home is a perfect metaphor for a clear and organized mind. If my room and desk are clear and tidy I can face the reality of what’s in front of me. “It is by putting one’s own house in order that one’s mindset is changed. When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state.” Am I scared of what I’ll find?

Because you have continued to identify and dispense with things that you don’t need, you no longer abdicate responsibility for decision making to other people.

Decisions are now easier as I see more clearly the work in front of me. And I enjoy even more the treasures, clothes, and tools I chose to keep.

Distractions Are Allowed

Via the Headspace app’s “Productivity” lessons, I love this mindful approach to distractions. I’ve been learning that distractions can be good or bad. Like thoughts, they’ll always come and go.

It’s not the nature of the distraction but acknowledging its existence.

A skill I’d like to develop further is to be at ease with my current activity even if a distraction does arise. Calmly either allow it or not allow it. It’s that simple.

When I do this now—not consistently, yet—I’m naturally more productive. I stay longer in the flow.

distractions.jpeg

The Secret (Don’t Label the Technique)

When I come to a conversation without technique and provide the space to listen, I do so because I’ve failed at this a thousand times. I’ve planned and schemed and got lost in my own mind — missing the conversation, missing the moment, missing the person on the other side.

This time I’m going to do it differently.

I’m going to pause, give enough time and space to see other person first. Listen deeply so I can adjust my effort to the situation. If it’s the right moment, share what has worked for me. Later, I can ask how I’m doing to measure success.

That is the secret.

Radical Renewal

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My hand-drawn interpretation of John Maeda’s radical renewal quadrant.

If this is something that comes up for you — I highly recommend John Gardner’s “Personal Renewal” essay (via John Maeda). Powerful and resonant piece; one of the best I’ve ever read. Though written in 1990, it resonates with me today as if the words were spoken in my ear this morning.

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Screenshot of John Gardner’s powerful essay on personal renewal (on PBS.org).

Radical renewal is personal renewal — it means you’re ready for impactful changes.

Maker Versus Manager

An oldie but goodie from Paul Graham: Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.

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Posting this as a personal bookmark because it comes up often in conversations with new leads. When I talk to people new to management I highlight the mindset change from “just you” to “the team.” The context of an outward mindset is important — you don’t own your time when you manage more than your own time. Keeping track of everything changes drastically when you start paying attention to more that just your own time and tasks.

This explains the frustration of a work day gets cut short — which can happen if something comes up unexpectedly or you’re continually interrupted. The resulting “short period” of time for making or creating is essentially lost. The big project, like the essay or talk you need to start on, don’t get attention because you don’t have the time for deep work.

Another clue for discovering the maker-vs-manager mindset is how you view your calendar. By month — and not by week or day — means you could be in maker mode. If you care more about every hour or 15-minute interval, you’re likely in manager mode.

A visual note to illustrate this concept:

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Screenshot from @phil_wade on Twitter illustrating how meetings appear to makers.

Meetings can be disruptive to makers, says @phil_wade on Twitter. This ties into the concept of “flow state” made famous by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others. If you’re curious to learn more, search that name (hard to spell!) for his talks and books — and read my thoughts on the flow fallacy.

GTD: Sometimes You Just Need Simple Paper Tools

Some days my normal task list doesn’t cut it. To easy to be distracted, and not stick to the task at hand with 100% focus. At its worst, the more pressure I feel, the slower I seem to move. The end of the day looms with zero progress on important projects.

Wouldn’t I rather just get things done? GTD. Yes, ideally I’d move everything even a tiny bit ahead.

On the most productive and successful days I look back to see that I’ve advanced 8-10 tracks forward. This is positive for two reasons: 1) I want to spend time in more than one area, and 2) I’d like to start something in each track to unblock and gain momentum.

To systemize the day I often throw out my GTD software (closing the Things app) and go back to simple paper tools plus a timer.

  1. Index cards or a printed list. Write one task per card, or one task per line on the big paper. Start the timer. When it ends, flip to the next card or list item. Repeat.
  2. A timer. Could be the Clock app on the phone, or something like BreakTime.

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Screenshot of how I format my task list before printing it on paper.

The use of time intervals to organize work is commonly known as the Pomodoro Technique (Wikipedia).

I alternate between 20 minutes on, 5 minutes off — or longer intervals of 50 minutes on, 10 minutes off. The length depends on criteria such as urgency, amount of items to get moving, and other obligations and distractions.

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Screenshot of the macOS BreakTime app, set to 25 minutes on and 5 minutes off.

In short: I turn to simple paper tools plus a timer to systemize the day when I need to focus. To get many tasks moving, I close my task manager and other apps to remove distractions. Maybe mute or turn off the phone. Bring out the paper tools, start the timer, and get to work.


See also my GTD Quadrant Flowchart, a simple flowchart designed to prioritize a task list.