Little by little...

Little by little...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Holding Back

I’ve become a conference junkie over the last 2+ years. Add in books, webinars, articles, and tweets and I sometimes feel like Violet Beauregarde. I share her competitive tendencies and wonder if I’m not too quick to jump on every opportunity to expand my knowledge.

My concern is that I’m spending a lot of time taking in other people’s thoughts and ideas. That’s not bad, of course. It’s a primary source of learning and stretching your brain.

But how do I know I’m learning? Where is my output? I write a blog post once a month (at least I try to) and I have presented a few talks and webinars. But most of that has been repetitive material and all things that I know very well.

What am I doing with all this new stuff I’m taking in?

A key component of learning is doing something with the new information. And sharing it aids retention like nothing else. So why aren’t I sharing more?

I started thinking about what might be holding me back because it feels unbalanced. Here's what I came up with. Do any of these reasons sound familiar?

No Process Time: Sometimes I don’t give myself time to process the new material. Or the situation doesn’t conveniently provide a respite, like at a conference. And in the flurry of new ideas, I just move on to the next gem. Shiny!

-> Opportunity: Pause. Breathe. Digest. Even if it means missing something else. It’s better for me to skip a session that I’m not super excited about so that I can process the notes from a session that posed cool, new ideas. Same applies to webinars, articles, etc. Be intentional with my time. Less is more.

Imposter Syndrome Strikes: Why do I think I have something original to add to the plethora of information already out there? This self-doubt that I have something unique to say is, well, ridiculous, when I think about it. We are all literally unique. I just might explain the same idea with a twist that helps someone understand it for the first time or push someone else’s thought in a new direction.

-> Opportunity: Speak now or forever hold your peace (or is it piece, in this case?). Ok, less drama, but the point is – just say it. I have this one life to make a difference. Offer my thoughts boldly and without comparison to those around me.

Fear of Rejection: Related to Imposter Syndrome, the fear of rejection creeps in whenever I put my self out there. What if no one likes my idea? Or no one agrees? Or worse, everyone thinks I’m an idiot. It’s much safer to share someone else’s ideas because if they are rejected, then the original speaker is getting rejected, not me.

-> Opportunity: I think the advice is “same as above” with one addition. If I am going to write an article or create a presentation, then it’s ok to call on trusted friends and colleagues to review my material. So be brave and step out there – and put my best self out there.

Is There Anybody Out There? Another mental game I play is called, “If you have a brilliant thought and no one hears it, is it really brilliant?” In moments of weakness, I worry that my efforts are wasted. How can I impact the world if I don’t get 10,000 page views?

-> Opportunity: I must remind myself why I’m writing, sharing, etc. It is not about page views or likes or shares. Those numbers don’t measure anything valuable. What gets me excited is teaching one person a better approach to a problem. Or reigniting one person’s passion for their career. Or inspiring one person to submit a talk to a conference for the first time.  The power of one will change the world.

So there’s my list. What about you? What’s holding you back? Leave me a comment – I would love to hear from you.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Stepping Off The Edge

" When you walk to the edge of all the light that you have and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, you must believe that one of two things will happen…there will be something solid for you to stand upon or you will be taught to fly. "

Patrick Overton

When I first read this quote, I thought of how nervous I was when I became an independent consultant. I left my company of more than 18 years with a 6-month plan and faith that things would work out. It definitely felt like taking a step into the darkness of the unknown...

And then I remembered how I felt on my first agile lingo, new tools, new practices. Everything I had known was disappearing and I was being figuratively pushed into darkness – or at least it felt that way at times.

Some of my teammates must have felt pushed too, because they resisted every step of the way. They clung to their old roles and familiar behaviors. They did not trust that the team had full support, or something to stand on, if we failed. And without support, we retreat to what is comfortable, even if it’s dysfunctional.

Even after we got an agile coach, and reassurance from management, I don’t think they had faith that we could succeed. Their fear of the unknown, of the uncomfortable, kept them grounded in the status quo. They did not want to learn how to fly.

I understood their trepidation. They had been taught that their value was in knowing the answers, not in discovering better questions. So they stopped being curious. They no longer searched for new ideas. They had no time for experiments.

Thankfully, I had a moment of enlightenment early on, something like an ‘aha,’ where it just clicked. I don’t remember what I was doing at that moment, but I knew that I would never go back to the old way. At that moment, I stepped off the edge.

Agile is a curious thing. As a methodology, it provides solid development practices and proven testing techniques, as well as better ways to collaborate with stakeholders and customers to make sure we’re building the right thing. These are solid things to stand upon.

And, when embraced as a mindset, agile creates environments where trust is valued and expected. New ideas are respected and expanded. Learning & discovery are the new status quo. In this way, an agile mindset teaches us to fly to heights not yet imagined.

What about you? What have you resisted? What helped you to step into the darkness of the unknown? 

Monday, August 18, 2014

TestRetreat: NYC

A weekend ago I traveled to NYC so I could participate in a one-day event called TestRetreat. It was a first for me and I was a bit nervous about attending. I’ve worked with testers before and they are a pretty intense bunch. J

Several months ago, Matt Heusser, founder of Excelon Development and the organizer of the event, convinced me to attend on the basis of bringing perspectives from folks outside the testing arena. I met the requirements, as I have never held the title of tester. I spent many years as a business analyst, working side-by-side with testers so I greatly respect what it takes to be a good tester. Plus, breaking down silos always sounds like a great idea to me, so I booked my flight. (And did I mention that it was in NYC? Twist my arm…)

I knew that I chose wisely as the attendees started gathering Friday evening. After easy introductions, the conversation bounced between industry debates, family updates, career moves, and ideas for the evening plans. Warm and welcoming, this crowd immediately removed my “new person status.”

The next morning, we swarmed on the sleek, modern offices of Liquidnet, our gracious host for the day. (Special thanks to Anna Roysman and Thomas Vaniotis!) After a few bites of breakfast and a few bits of socializing, we got to work creating the schedule for the day. Matt Barcomb did a nice job facilitating the open space format and we quickly had a wall full of topics and discussions underway.

No matter how many I’ve seen, open space events still fascinate me. Most of the dysfunctions I see in teams and in organizations are caused by people, intentionally or not. Over time, I start to lose faith in humanity! So the self-organization, openness and adaptability of participants in this kind of event renew my hope in humans.

And that leads to my biggest takeaway from the day. When we create environments that are safe – free of judgment or repercussions – with a loose structure to support them, people will share ideas freely and take ownership of their time.

Regardless of industry, we carry around different knowledge, ideas and experience. Unfortunately, we also haul around our own insecurities, fears and unconstructive habits. What Test Retreat reinforced for me is that people want to contribute and connect. So our challenge is to create spaces, every day, where they can do that.

Are you creating safe spaces for those around you? Do you see people easily sharing ideas on a daily basis? What can you do to increase the conversations and collaboration on your team?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Connect the Dots

It is with mixed emotions that I announce that I am leaving Erie Insurance. An opportunity arose to take an independent consulting contract as an agile coach and trainer. It will allow me to work 2 days a week so I can spend more time with my boys. I also get to travel a bit and pursue more writing opportunities.
ERIE has been my ‘home-away-from-home’ for over 18 years. I feel a bit like when I went to college – ready for a new adventure, but not entirely sure where the road will take me. Knowing that things will never be the same, but knowing that they must change.
The hardest part then, and now, is saying goodbye to old friends and trusting that our paths will cross again.
My last day was yesterday. During my final days, I said goodbye to so many faces and was reminded of so many wonderful phases of my life. The phases didn’t all seem wonderful at the time, but they have all shaped the person that I am and for that I am grateful.
When I was in college, the Internet was not widely available (Gasp! How did we survive?). As friends graduated and moved on, it took effort to stay connected – you had to actually write down phone numbers and addresses and call or send a letter to stay in touch. It was easy for friendships to fade.
I’m less worried about that now. Partly because technology makes it so simple to stay in touch. But mostly because I have lived long enough to know that the friends that stick around are the friends that I need. And if we’re meant to meet again, we will when the time is right.
It seems fitting to end with a quote from Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address:
Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

I Am Not My Failure

A year ago I presented at a conference for the first time. (You can read about it here.) I was very nervous and practiced intently in the weeks prior. The hard work paid off and it went very well. I’ve since done that talk at many other conferences, each time with positive feedback and a sense of real connection with the attendees.

I decided to ride the wave of success to Vegas a few weeks ago. Even though the conference was not the largest at which I’ve spoken, something about Vegas made it feel like the big time. I learned that the organizers use a survey & scoring system to rank sessions. Then I was warned by other speakers that if your scores weren’t high enough, you may not be asked to return. Pressure was on!

I wish I could say it went well. Oh, how I wish. But the truth is, my session was not great. As a person who’s trying to view failure as something to be celebrated & learned from, I’ve evaluated what kept it from hitting the mark. Here are some lessons learned:

      ·      Arrive early! I did not arrive early enough…and of course there were technical difficulties. The projector adapter I brought was incorrect so I had to run to get a conference person for help. They thankfully had an adapter that I could use, but I missed the opportunity to welcome folks and chat a bit as they entered. Plus, I probably appeared rushed and flustered when I started – not a good first impression.
      ·      Practice! Because I’ve given this talk so many times, I underestimated the need to practice. Since this talk is very much a narrative, timing is important. After 2 months, the material was rusty and I should have rehearsed a few times. Maybe some day I can wing it, but for now, I am too new – and too nervous!
      ·      Get enough rest! I presented on my 4th day in Vegas. After 3 nights of not getting much sleep, I can admit that I was tired. Maybe with more rest, I would have handled the technical setbacks better or at least been more witty or graceful about it.
      ·      Know thy audience! I made some assumptions about the attendees to this conference…namely that they were like all the other attendees that I’ve met. I didn’t consider that some people select this conference because it’s, “Vegas Baby,” and maybe they are less enthusiastic about sessions. Even the eager learners stay out too late and then arrive to sessions a little less engaged.

This last one gave me my biggest takeaway: be prepared to read the audience & adapt on the fly. I’ve never encountered a disengaged audience so I had not considered that possibility. It wasn’t over-confidence – just sheer ignorance.

The day after I flew home, I gave the talk again in Pittsburgh. I was filled with speaker-regret for volunteering to speak after a week in Vegas! And I was a little more nervous than usual, but it went very well. There were very thoughtful questions and several people stayed behind to chat afterwards.

Which taught me an even bigger lesson…my abilities are defined by an entire collection of behaviors, not by any one attempt. My failures and successes are merged together to create an ever-changing picture of my competency.

So, as I add knowledge and experiment with new ideas, I’m improving my abilities and the picture gets better and better. The problem with failure is that it sometimes feels like the positive image is being deleted and replaced with a less desirable version. Thankfully, our capabilities do not work like a Word document.

If we allow it, the failure can become part of the image. And just like shadows enhance a photograph, our missteps enhance our abilities. They make our resilience stronger and our success sweeter. But only if we take the time to accept them, learn from them and move on.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Honor Your Own Journey

Have you ever given a talk? Did you prepare weeks in advance? Or did you type the last word on the final slide 10 minutes before you spoke?

I gave a talk recently at Agile and Beyond, a regional agile conference in Dearborn, MI. I presented the material 3-4 times before, but I always get a little nervous before I present.

Throughout the day, as I visited the speaker room, there were other presenters in various stages of practicing and polishing their slides. I was in awe of the last-minute preparations. How could they just show up, finish some slides and nail it?

And most of them do nail it. I’ve heard them – articulate, funny, expertly fielding questions from the audience. No one has any idea that they never ran through their slides in their entirety out loud. And I’m so jealous.

I felt completely out of my league. It had been a few months since I gave my talk so I practiced the week prior then I ran through it twice on the car ride there. All the while with typed-out notes so I wouldn’t forget key points.

Why can’t I just wing it? I know this stuff! This particular talk is about my journey of discovering how I can add value. So why do I still need notes? And how am I in the same room as a girl literally hitting save on her slides as she left to go give her talk?

Ok, so maybe there are other explanations. Maybe she’s given that talk 10 times and was just tweaking something minor. Maybe she’s written countless articles about her subject. Or maybe, just maybe, her “practice” is the hours she spends coaching and teaching on a daily basis.

I guess none of these “maybes” matter anyway. I have to remember that we all have our own style of learning, practicing and mastering skills. Just because I don’t follow the same steps or pattern doesn’t mean that I can’t achieve the same success.

…Just like climbing a rock wall. At a gym, there are 100’s of holds to help you get to the top. But even
following the same route, no two people will ever use the same exact combination of holds to achieve the summit. A hold that is perfect for my reach is too close or too far for yours. We are each made gloriously different so we must each make our own path to the top.

And thankfully, we don’t have to go it alone. My first experience climbing taught me the value of having friends to guide your way. When you are hanging onto a wall, trying not to plummet to your death (those ropes are SO thin!), your face is inches away from the wall. You can only see the holds that immediately surround you. There are moments when you feel frozen, with no hope for continuing.

Your friends on the ground can see the whole wall. They know that just past your view is a perfect hold that will help you. They yell things like, “Let go with your left hand and reach straight up 18 inches. You can do this!” You don’t want to let go, but you trust their guidance and, reach by reach, make it up the wall.

Trust and let go…

Trust that your path is going the right direction and let go of pre-conceived notions of what success looks like. You will never follow the same exact path as someone else so stop comparing and start honoring your own journey toward mastery. And don’t forget to listen to friends for guidance when you can’t see the next step. Each climb gets easier and less frightening (I hope!). 

Where do you feel out of your league? What do other people breeze through while you stress out? And how can you honor your own journey?