Lean Agile Edinburgh meetup at Royal London, March 2018

You can watch the recording of the live stream above.

  • 14:33 Introductions
  • 18:45 Welcome from Royal London (hosts)
  • 23:50 Kathy Thomson—Explain and explore
  • 42:00 Krish Bissonauth—CIA model
  • 1:24:00 Greg Urquhart—What does Agile even mean now?

Last night I took the train down to Edinburgh for my second Lean Agile Edinburgh meetup.

Started in June 2013, Lean Agile Edinburgh is an informal and social monthly meetup to discuss and share all things agile, lean, kanban, scrum, etc. At most meetups we have talks, workshops/activities or Lean-Coffee discussion sessions.

Yesterday’s meetup was kindly hosted by Royal London at their new offices at Haymarket Yards in Edinburgh, a short hop, skip and a jump from the railway station. Last month’s was hosted at the other end of Princes Street, in the Amazon Development Centre Scotland offices at Waverley Gate.

The evening began with an opportunity to network and chat with folks over pizza and refreshments, before we took our seats for three excellent presentations.

Explain and explore

The first session was a very hands-on, get out of your seats and move about exercise lead by Kathy Thomson, a scrum master at Royal London.

We were each given a postcard and pencil and invited to answer the following question in either a word or short phrase: “What does agile transformation mean for you?”

I wrote something like, “Iterative change that is collaborated on by a team towards a shared goal”.

With our postcards completed we were invited to stand in a large open space to the near the presentation area, and turning to the person next to us explain our answers.

Next we were invited to exchange our cards with someone else, and then someone else, and so on until we had effectively shuffled the cards. I ended up on in the middle of the room. This was the ‘explore‘ part of the exercise.

And then again we were to pair up with the person next to us and explain to them the card we were holding. Which, obviously, was now not our own card. Interestingly, I felt less defensive about explaining this card. And I appreciated seeing someone else’s perspective on the same question.

Somehow, I ended up with two cards for this one! And I can’t remember either of them.

And then we were off around the room again, quickly exchanging cards, and pairing up to explain our new cards to one another. Mine simply said, “Pace”.

It was a really interesting and useful exercise, even with a room of about 60 people.

Control Influence Accept model

Returning to our seats, Krish Bissonauth, an Agile coach at Royal London, introduced us to the Control Influence Accept model (or CIA model).

This is a versatile problem-solving and stress-management tool that identifies three ways to respond to challenges:

  • Control—identify the elements of the situation over which you have control.
  • Influence—identify the elements over which you have no control but which you can influence.
  • Accept—identify the elements over which you have neither control nor acceptance, which you will simply need to accept and adapt to.

I loved the Clarke Ching quote he finished with. It spoke about social comparison—why do your Facebook friends’ holidays and kids look so much better than your own? It’s simple: their lives are just like ours but they only share the good stuff. So it is with books we read and presentations we experience about Agile and DevOps: we see the good stuff and we feel bad.

His message: stop comparing yourself to the “Facebook” versions of Agile and DevOps, and start comparing yourself with how you were doing three weeks ago, three months ago, three years ago, and feel proud of the all the hard work you are doing and the progress you have made.

What does Agile even mean now?

The final talk was by former Skyscanner product delivery director, and current Agile 4-12 consultant Greg Urquhart.

There was much in Greg’s talk that resonated with me, but it was what he called his “cut the Agile bullshit-o-meter” slide that I found most helpful. He had set himself the task of limiting his definition of what agile is to just five bullet points. This is what he came up with:

  1. A culture of experimentation constantly generates validated learning.
  2. Teams have missions, mastery and the autonomy to act with no strings attached.
  3. Software is frequently delivered to users. We learn its value through serious use.
  4. Teams and resources align beautifully to strategic objectives at all times.
  5. Minimum viable bureaucracy.

If you’re not doing these five things, he argued, then you’re not agile.

Towards the end of his talk he advocated for what he called scientific engineering (learning work) and argued that this more than lean and agile (knowledge work) would bring about the most effective and productive change.

This aligns with another talk I attended recently in Perth at the Scottish Programme and Project Management Group conference, where one of the speakers encouraged all the project managers and business analysts in the room to start to get familiar with big data and data analysis. It’s what the most valuable companies in the world are doing—Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook. They are using data (massive amounts of data) to design and refine their products.

I walked away from last night’s meetup feeling encouraged and more animated. It has certainly given me a lot to consider, a couple more tools under my belt, and a little more clarity about the direction I want to take my career.

Thanks Lean Agile Edinburgh.

Kiwi for Gmail—initial impressions

For the last few years, I’ve been faithfully using eM Client as my preferred way of accessing my Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Contacts. But this past weekend—having vowed to myself that during 2018 I wouldn’t change any of my productivity tools and instead just focus on getting stuff done—I made the switch to Kiwi for Gmail 2.0 and I have to say that I’m delighted.

Gmail as a native, windowed desktop app... kinda
Gmail as a native, windowed desktop app… kinda

Move away from eM Client

Since Google upgraded their calendar to Material Design I’ve been hugely impressed and have found myself using it almost as much as eM Client’s API view of the calendar. I now prefer the default web app view more than the desktop client.

Similarly, I’ve also found myself using the Gmail webapp almost as much as eM Client, find it to be a little quicker but also feeling that I should get to know the web interface more because it’s the default view.

But what really tipped me over the edge towards moving away from eM Client is how long it takes to open Google Contacts.

Move towards Kiwi for Gmail

I had used Kiwi for Gmail before, but version 2.0 seems to have been a cosmic leap forward compared with what I remembered of the first iteration.

Kiwi for Gmail appears to be a wrapper application that quickly—very quickly—loads the default Google web apps, with a little magic thrown in for good measure.

One of the most immediate is that I now have immediate access to five different Gmail accounts, without the need to log out of one before checking the other.

(This feature is only available in the paid-for version, which is currently on special offer for free with the code: WikiForFree.)

I now have immediate access to five Gmail accounts
I now have immediate access to five Gmail accounts

I’m really looking forward to Gmail getting the Material Design treatment. This will take Kiwi for Gmail to another level.

In the meantime, I’m going to see how I get on with Kiwi for Gmail. But for what it does, I can’t see myself going back to eM Client any time soon. I’ll try to remember to report back after a few months to give an update on how this experience is going.

Trello coloured lists for Tampermonkey updated to v4.x

Coloured lists make identifying their purpose quicker at a glance
Coloured lists makes identifying their purpose quicker at a glance

This evening I updated a script I first wrote back in March 2014. I wrote about it on the old University of St Andrews web team blog.

The script, which runs in the browser using an add-on such as Tampermonkey, lets you define Trello list titles to search for, and then apply a background colour to it.

Continue reading Trello coloured lists for Tampermonkey updated to v4.x

The importance of a good email subject line

Ever since I first read Sally McGhee’s excellent book on productivity Take Back Your Life! (Microsoft Press, 2005) I have been acutely aware of the importance of writing good email subject lines.

The subject line is the message title that appears in your email client before you open the message to read it. To illustrate, here are a few emails that I received about National Youth Choirs of Great Britain-related activities:

My email client shows me who sent the email and the subject line
My email client shows me who sent the email and the subject line

Write the subject line afterwards

McGhee’s advice is to write the subject line after you’ve written your email, as the subject line should summarise what you’ve written.

How many times have you written a subject line, then written the email message, and then had to go back to edit the subject because it now doesn’t match what you actually wrote?

If the subject line is meant to be a summary of what you’ve written, then it makes sense to write it afterwards.

What makes a good email subject line?

McGhee suggests that when writing a good subject line you should make it very clear:

  1. What project or task you are communicating about.
  2. What action is being requested,
  3. Identify a due date, if there is one.

So, a subject line of “Website” isn’t really helpful at quickly conveying what is being asked. Which website? What would you like me to do with the website? Is it one that you’d like me to update, or visit, or build? Is there a deadline?

Actions

Something that I love about McGhee’s approach, that I would love to see spread more widely, is her use of action prefixes for email subject lines.

There are four different types of action, McGhee suggests:

  1. Action reqiured (AR)
    The recipient has to complete an action before they can respond.
  2. Response required (RR)
    The recipient needs only to respond. There is no action required.
  3. Read only (RO)
    The recipient needs only read the message. There is no action required, and no need to reply.
  4. For your information (FYI)
    The recipient doesn’t even need to read the message, they simply need to archive the message somewhere as it may be useful later.

McGhee then suggests prefixing the subject line with the initials of the action required. For example,

AR Project board status report required by Monday 9 January 2017

Immediately I know that I need to do something, I know what it relates to (the project board), I know what it is (a status report), and I know when it needs to be completed (Monday 9 January).

More than that, if all my emails were prefixed accordingly, I could then sort my inbox by subject line and see a prioritised list of what I need to do: act on, respond, read, or simply archive.

McGhee also has a neat practice for very short messages: write the whole message in the subject line only, so the recipient doesn’t even have to open the message, and end the message with “EOM” (end of message). For example, if I’m replying to an email trying to fix a date to meet for lunch I could write a subject line: “RO Tuesday at 12:30 is fine EOM”.

Don’t make me think!

We know from numerous studies by the Nielsen-Norman Group that screen users tend to scan rather than read every word.

Usability consultant Steve Krug encouraged digital content authors to write with a user-centred approach. His book title “don’t make me think!” has become a mantra in my team.

A bad example from my web host

I became very aware of the importance of writing good email subjects in the light of these insights these past couple of months as the renewal date for my web hosting approached.

45 days left…

On Monday 28 November I received an email from my web hosting provider telling me that I had “45 days left until service expiration”.

Fine, I thought, I have about six weeks to sort it out. I knew that I wanted to look into moving my website to another host, so pencilled in that period between Christmas and New Year to look into it; my current hosting package expires on 12 January 2017 so that would give me plenty of time.

21 days left…

On Thursday 22 December, I received another email from my web hosting provider: “21 days left until service expiration”.

I glanced at the subject line and read the opening paragraph:

There are 21 days left until the expiration of your [package] Hosting garethjmsaunders.co.uk on Jan 12, 2017.

Great! I still have three weeks to do something.

14 days left… WHAT?!

So, imagine my surprise when six days later I received an email from them with the subject line “Sales Receipt”.

WHAT?!

But my hosting doesn’t expire for another two weeks. Why are they suddenly charging me the best part of £260 now?!

That’s when I read through the rest of the email that I received on 22 December.  Paragraph two:

In order to provide you with a smooth and uninterrupted service, we will renew it automatically on the next bill date – Dec 28, 2016. We will charge you 215.46 GBP (excluding VAT) for the renewal period of 12 months.

I quickly got in touch with their support team, got a refund, and instructed them to cancel my hosting on 12 January.

What would have been a better subject line?

Looking at McGhee’s three tips for what makes a good email subject

  1. What project or task you are communicating about.
  2. What action is being requested,
  3. Identify a due date, if there is one.

we can look at the email subjects I received from my web host, and suggest how this could be improved. The email I received on 22 December read, “21 days left until service expiration”.

What project or task were they communicating about? A service was expiring. No indication which—I actually pay for two services with them. It would have been clearer if they’d indicated which one.

What action was being requested? They were implying that I needed to renew (or at least review) my hosting service.

What was the due date? Well, the subject suggested 21 days, but in actual fact I had only 7 days before something was actioned.

A better subject line would have been:

Action required: 7 days until automatic service renewal for garethjmsaunders.co.uk

That is the action that I am most concerned about: when does the money get transferred out of my bank account.

Conclusion

I will certainly be paying closer attention to emails now, but also more careful about writing meaningful subject lines that better summarise the email message for recipients.