Attitude Check: Are You a Pig or Chicken?

Our chief software architect, Aref Memarian, recently shared “Essential Scrum” with me.  If you’re looking for a great review of scrum from someone who has obvious hands-on experience, I’d definitely recommend it.

While reviewing the various roles involved in agile development, the author describes two types of people: Pigs, and Chickens.  Imagine this scenario:

A Pig and a Chicken are walking down the road.  The Chicken says, “Hey Pig, I was thinking we should open a restaurant!”

Pig replies, “Well, perhaps, but what would we call it?”

The Chicken responds, “How about ‘ham-n-eggs’?”

The Pig thinks for a moment and says, “No thanks.  I’d be committed, but you’d only be involved!”

This analogy is based upon the Pig providing bacon, an act which requires total commitment to provide (i.e., death), in contrast to a Chicken who provides eggs — a task requiring participant but not his life.

In other words, in a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, the difference between a Pig and Chicken is that the Chicken is involved, but the Pig is fully committed!

In most organizations, you’ll probably need a combination of Pigs and Chickens involved on any particular project. You want your Pigs to be committed, which means they should have autonomy and freedom, in exchange for being held completely accountable and responsible for the project’s success. Your Chickens can provide input and support as required.

Now, what if you apply this concept beyond a particular project, and apply it to an organization as a whole?  For example:

  • If you’re a leader, what’s your mix of Pigs and Chickens?  Do you want more of one and less of another?  (And think: Which are you?)
  • If you’re in a non-leadership position, what’s your perspective? Are you a Pig, committed and accountable for your organization’s success, or a Chicken — involved, but only to a limit?

Is there anything wrong with being a Chicken?

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Three GoToMeeting Productivity Hacks

GoToMeeting

GoToMeeting

We’ve used GoToMeeting’s line of products for years to host ad-hoc meetings, training sessions, and webinars.  We’ve also recently started using Join.Me, which some team members have reported is working well for them — more on that later.

Here are three GoToMeeting hacks that we’ve found increase productivity:

  • Set up a recurring meeting that never expires, and reuse it over and over.  It’s relatively easy to launch a new meeting every time you need to meet with someone, but I’ve found it is even easier to use the same meeting ID and phone # whenever possible.  I’ve been using the same meeting ID for about 2 years, and now nearly everyone in the company has it memorized — as do a number of Clients.  It’s very easy to say, “Hey, meet me in the usual place in 3 minutes!”  It probably saves 5-10 minutes in back-and-forth creating a meeting, reading the meeting ID to someone, etc.
  • Let them see your face — and take a look at theirs!  We’ve found that it is incredibly useful to turn on video.  We’ve found that it helps strengthen the communication, as body language and facial expressions can add tremendous depth to an interaction.  I’ve seen another software company report a 40% increase in sales conversions, directly correlated to the simple act of their sales team turning on their webcams.  You may find people in your organization hesitant to do this, but little by little I believe this will become the norm as opposed to the exception.  I’d love to experiment with using this on our Support Team, and measure how the quality of service is impacted by allowing folks to see us.
  • Record your meetings and share them with others.  GoToMeeting makes it very easy to record your meetings, and by doing so, provides you a great way to share information with others in your company.  In addition, I’ve found that I learn a great deal by re-listening to my meetings.  Why?  In many cases, I miss a possible meaning, opportunity, or issue during the real-time exchange.  Upon reflection and in a setting where I don’t have to think about what’s coming next, I’m able to absorb more deeply.   

What GoToMeeting productivity hacks have you discovered?  Do you use your webcam during meetings?  If not, what keeps you from doing it?

Investing In a Duplex As Owner-Occupied

In addition to spending lots of time thinking about multi-channel marketing automation, I have been blessed to be able to cultivate an interest in real estate investing.  As a child, I noticed that people who seemed to have it together financially tended to own real-estate.  Maybe you’ve noticed the same?

For years, I analyzed and considered the pros and cons of various real-estate investments, wrestling with the financial benefits of purchasing a single family home versus acquiring a multi-family property (duplex, triplex, or fourplex) where we occupied one house .   Eventually, this property (and any others acquired in the future), could generate cash-flow for our golden years — in addition to numerous other benefits.

Lots of spreadsheets, what-if scenarios, and prayer led us to finally decide this was the course we wanted to pursue.  So in 2011, my wife and I purchased a two unit property in Costa Mesa, CA.  We currently live in one of the houses, and rent out the other.

During the selection process (which by the way, was about 18 months), I found myself looking for (but not finding much) literature and insight from other investors considering the multi-family purchase as the first step in a long-term real-estate strategy for their family.  There’s a lot of information available about real-estate in general, but here are some things we learned during the process:

  • Know what you’re looking for.  When we started the process, we drafted a set of criteria to help us find what we felt was a good fit for us.  For example, since we intended to live in one of the houses with at least one child, we felt we needed at least 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms.  This particular point proved difficult in our area of the country — but we stuck it out and finally found something that had a 3/2 and 2/2.
  • Be open-minded.  During our selection process, we looked at a lot of different properties — including those that did not exactly fit our criteria.  We found this helpful to give us context for making better decisions about our target property.  For example, we were able to compare duplex and triplex properties against similarly priced single-family homes.  Having this contrast provided us with deeper insights.
  • Find the right real-estate team.  Since our investment situation and longterm strategy was a little different than looking for the perfect single family home with a white picket fence, we sought help from an agent and mortgage broker with multi-family experience.  Like any endeavor, having the right team can make all the difference.  For us, it was important to have a helpful (not pushy) set of people to rely upon.  We were fortunate to get some great referrals!

It’s been almost a year since we completed the transaction, and we’ve already learned a lot about being landlords.  Financially, what we pay ourselves in “rent” is less than what we previously paid to rent a much smaller place.  Even factoring in property taxes, we’re still paying less.  Amen!

What do you think of the strategy of acquiring a multi-family property, and living in one of the houses while you rent the other?  Have you tried this?  If not, what are your questions?

6 Lessons Learned Creating a SaaS MVP (Minimally Viable Product)

Over the past few years, we’ve become big proponents of developing new products by creating an MVP: a minimally viable product.

An MVP is the smallest set of functionality required to meet the needs of your targeted User.

The goal of an MVP is to rapidly validate your product hypotheses. Every great product should have an opinion, a way of seeing the world. That view may (and should) evolve, but at some fundamental level, your product is based on some view of how something should work.

As a company, founder, or product owner, your goal is to get real feedback as early (and often) as possible to validate and refine your hypotheses. While it sounds easy, it can be difficult, especially learning to say no to things in order to remain “minimal”.

At MindFire, we’re 16 months past our MVP milestone for one of our products. While we’re still learning and iterating by gaining feedback from 400+ users, here’s a bit of what we’ve learned about developing an MVP:

  • The idea of an MVP may be hard for people accustomed to more traditional development methods to understand. You may find yourself working hard to remind your organization why everything isn’t perfect. The goal of an MVP is not perfection.
  • Creating a successful MVP requires that your engineers understand the User’s domain, their struggles, and the job they’re trying to do. In the absence of this understanding, it is very difficult to communicate an idea (or User Story). Without domain experience, you may find your team asking for detailed instructions. If this happens, you probably need to spend more time introducing your engineers to real Users.
  • The sooner your MVP is in the hands of real Users, the better off you are. Nothing counts until this happens. Customer feedback and usage is oxygen to your efforts.
  • You’ll have to work hard to resist over-engineering things. Don’t try to get things perfect. It’s better to acknowledge that its hard to predict the future, and thus, to instead get working software into the hands of users ASAP. The goal is not perfection; rather, you seek feedback on the question: do you have a product that provides value to your Users?
  • On the topic of feedback: be prepared for lots of it. If you’ve got a real MVP (one that although buggy, inherently works … at least most of the time), rest assured things will be missing. Users will ask for features, improvements, and sometimes flat-out tell you that something sucks. You may even hear “How on earth could you not have feature x?!?”  If you hear things like this, you’re on the right track. That’s oxygen!
  • A part of the MVP philosophy is an understanding that there is no one specific release point. In traditional methods, everyone works from detailed specs for months (or years!) towards a huge goal — often, in the end, falling short (been there, done that). In the MVP philosophy, you still have goals and milestones, but what’s more important is a deep respect for valuing fast iteration based on user feedback, rather than working towards monumental releases. What happens if you’re wrong when you get there? Much better to find out sooner.

Developing an MVP certainly hasn’t been easy, so perhaps in another post, I’ll share some of the things I’d do differently with an MVP the next time around. But what I can tell you from first-hand experience is that the benefits far exceed the difficulties.

What do you think of the idea of an MVP? In what situations is it best? If you’ve developed an MVP, what lessons have you learned?

Success Factors No One Talks About: How The # of Yucky Convos You’re Willing to Have Is Strangely Correlated w/Your Success

In order to move forward, whether it be your organization, your project team, or even a personal relationship, I’ve found that it takes leaning into uncomfortable, yucky conversations to really take steps forward.

You know the types of conversations I’m talking about, right? The ones you dread. The ones that keep you up at night. The ones you’d rather fast-forward through and not have to live through in real-time. But what I have found time and time again, is that when we’re willing to lean into those uncomfortable conversations … we end up obtaining real progress.

And when we realize that forcing ourselves through these conversations is directly correlated with our success, great things can happen.

Progress that changes the quality of our life. Progress that improves the ability you have to get things done, like make better software, strengthen your relationship with a business partner, or improve your marriage. The alternative is ugly. Not having these conversations can make you miserable, as they can suck up enormous amounts of brain energy if left unaddressed. Not to mention the stories we create in our minds about the other person and their motives!

Here’s what I’ve found helpful in getting myself geared up for (and having) these types of conversations:

  • Have talking points.  Write them down, think about their order, and if you’re disciplined, use some mental imagery to imagine yourself delivering them.  Work through the most extreme and uncomfortable situations in your head.  The act of playing scenarios out in your head in advance can do amazing things.
  • During the conversation, have an outlet for that nervous, yucky energy.  Have you felt this?  Sometimes during a meeting it’s just plain awkward.  I’ve found that it is good to have a release of this tension, but it’s usually not socially appropriate to punch a wall.  Instead, here’s a tip: curl your toes tightly in your shoe.  No one can see you do it, but I’ve found that it helps release that energy.  You look calm on the surface, but inside that shoe it’s another story!
  • Put your conversation in perspective.  For example, talking to that team member about how they’re not meeting your expectations — is it really that bad?  Sometimes I’ll imagine a much more difficult scenario.  What if I were a doctor, having to tell a mother that her child has passed?  In view of that type of conversation, my fears will sometimes subside.

What about you: have you noticed that when you’re willing to have uncomfortable conversations, you actually move forward?  Have you noticed that people who seem to make stuff happen are the ones who don’t seem to mind having yucky conversations?

(Or maybe they do mind, but are just curling their toes!)

How We Use Daily Stand-ups To Improve Communication

On a drive back from Fresno, my friend and fellow Mika board member, Jeff Tanner, described how he implemented Patrick Lencioni’s method for daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly sessions to align his leadership team.

I’m fascinated by organizational methods for improving performance, and so I listened intently as he described the process.  I couldn’t wait to visit our local Barnes and Noble to read Lencioni’s books (they’re short, written like short stories).  You’ve probably seem them numerous times in the business section of your bookstore.

At MindFire, we’ve been using daily stand-ups as a core part of our engineering culture for about two years (watch an example here).  It is by far one of my favorite times of the work day, as it gives me the opportunity to hear (in a succinct fashion) what everyone accomplished the prior day, and what they intend to do that day.  Everyone gives Twitter-like bursts of information in the following format:

  • What they accomplished the prior day (not a lot of details, just the bullet-point summary)
  • What they intended to accomplish that day
  • Whether they have any “blocks”, i.e., impediments in the way of achieving their stated objectives

We’ve found that it is helpful to stand up (keeps everyone brief and avoids verbal diarrhea), and set a timer for 12 minutes.  We start promptly at 9:00 AM, and if you’re late, we require one push-up for everyone minute past 9.  Keeps things lively!

At the end of the session, everyone is aware of what their teammates are working on, and we’re able to make quick course adjustments based on the day’s activities.

Have you implemented daily stand-ups in your organization?  If so, have they helped your organization?  If not, what keeps you from trying?

I’m Thankful For Music

Yesterday was Thanksgiving in the US.  We often think about things we’re thankful for around this time of year.  For us, this year has brought so many things … including the birth of our beautiful baby girl, Abigail.  More on her in a later post.

As we woke up slowly and lazily yesterday morning, I thought about how much music has impacted me.  It was such a big part of my life as a child.  It gave me a deep sense of what it means to work hard for something you love.

A few years ago my wife had the foresight to transfer an old VHS tape to DVD.  It contains a recording of me playing the first movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto.  As we were cleaning out the garage this week, we found the DVD.  Here it is on Youtube.  I’m thankful for music.

What about you?  What are you thankful for?

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