Leaders are Readers

photo credit:  binaryape

photo credit: binaryape

I wrote a post in 2012 to serve as a reading list for my replacement of an IT Acquisition Project in 2013. I followed that up with highlights from the team’s library that had served well as guideposts for the team.

It’s time for an update. Since those two posts, a few friends have published books that I’ve found myself recommending over and over, and I’ve read (or re-read) others that belong on a short list of books to recommend to any agile practitioner.

Also a confession: I’m lazy; I want to have a few places where I can point folks two who are putting agile principles to work in their lives in IT or non-IT projects.

Here’s my top fifteen list of books for agile practitioners that didn't make the previous posts here and here.

FIRE: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained, and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation by Dan Ward, 2014. Dan’s work has influenced my thinking for many years. This book is an evolution of a framework he called FIST: Fast, Inexpensive, Simple, Tiny. When my team invited industry participation to crowdsource our acquisition strategy, we shamelessly stole his work (and acronym) by calling it the FIST Acquisition Strategy Team, or FAST. We took to heart his premise that “If the implementation is hard to explain, it’s a bad idea. If it’s easy to explain, it might be a good idea.” Anyone using agile values and principles in their work will learn something they can use.

The Simplicity Cycle: A Field Guide to Making Things Better Without Making Them Worse by Dan Ward, 2015. This book captures more great ideas that influenced my team when Dan and I were both on active duty. It describes a simple framework that can help agile teams and leaders at all levels communicate the relationship between simplicity and complexity.

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland and J.J. Sutherland, 2014. No one better than Jeff Sutherland to explain Scrum. Full of reminders about the “Why” behind scrum. This is a great read for beginners or experienced practitioner. One tiny thing I loved was the way he phrases the three questions in the daily stand-up, which subtly puts focus on team :

  1. What did you do yesterday to help the team finish the Sprint?

  2. What will you do today to help the team finish the Sprint?

  3. What obstacles are getting in the team’s way?

This is a great book for Scrum teams and for senior executives who want to understand how those teams could be working.

The Art of Business Value by Mark Schwartz, 2016. This book will make you think. If agile is all about “delivering value quickly,” we ought to have a good definition of what value is. There aren’t a lot of answers in the book, but there are plenty of great questions worth considering and hypotheses worth testing.

A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility by Mark Schwartz, 2017. This is a great read for IT leaders in an organization, and anyone who has a role in how the IT organization is resourced.

Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition by Lyssa Adkins, 2010. This is a great resource for folks with experience with agile teams.

Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great (Pragmatic Programmers) by Esther Derby and Diana Laren, 2006. If you’re going to read one book on retrospectives, this could be it.

The Elements of Scrum by Chris Sims and Hillary Louise Johnson, 2011. One of the client’s I coached chose this book to have the team members read to gain a shared understanding of basic agile principles, practices, and ceremonies. It’s a good place to start.

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims, 2011.

The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford, 2013

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries, 2011.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, 2011

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni, 2002.

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by Stanley McChrystal, 2015

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, 1989. This is one of those timeless books everyone should read. If you read it as I did when it came out, you probably internalized some of it and are putting it to use in your work and life. If you haven’t thumbed through it in ten or fifteen years, it’s worth another read.

Thinking Big

DHS Agile Expo_small.png

Think Big, Plan Big, Start Small, Deliver Quickly

I heard something this week at the DHS Agile Expo that struck a chord with me. In a talk on Product Ownership, Barry Zukose, DHS's Deputy Chief Data Architect told us about a sign he has in his office:

Think Big and Develop Small

I like that.

It's similar to a sign on my Coast Guard office wall years ago:

Think Big, Plan Big, Start Small, Deliver Quickly.

That was a mantra for the teams I led delivering IT systems.

I consider myself accomplished at stealing ideas from others and putting them to work in my life, but I can't figure out where I got that phrase from. Google searches lead me back to my project blog from Coast Guard days. If anyone reads this and knows the source, please let me know so I can give credit where it's due. I’ve repeated it many times and It has served me well.

This week also marked the end to a non-IT projects I've been working on for five years. My role with the team evolved from full-time PM to part time SME as I took on work with other clients.

While reflecting on the great work of the team, I was reminded of the final blog post I'd shared with the team as their PM. It was a good reminder that "Think Big, Plan Big, Start Small, Deliver Quickly" works for more than just software. It's might apply to anything where value can be delivered in chunks. Here is that post from April 2014 (with portions redacted):

Little Things


During our first meeting together after I stepped into a leadership role, I told you my approach to TSCAP would be characterized by a desire to:

  • Think Big

  • Plan Big

  • Start Small

  • Deliver Quickly

You should all be proud of the work we did to start small and deliver quickly in the first six months. I had the privilege of speaking on the team’s behalf to [Assistant Administrator] Thursday and Friday last week. Thursday Mike and I briefed him on the results of the [——-] case study. Friday I got to share all that we’d accomplished in the four months since our last PMR.

As I reflect on how far we’ve come since I briefed him in December, I’m just amazed at the progress. In December, we had lots of work that was partially done and lots of concepts that were coming together. In just four short months, the work was made real in our Security System Architecture Framework, or SSAF. Our work isn’t all done, but we’ve made visible progress, and we were able to put it to use to show real results.

As I took a step back to think about the importance of our work, I’m convinced that we’ve taken the first steps in creating something that can fundamentally change the way the TSA does business. We have provided some tools and simple processes that can help decision­makers to be clear about what the important factors and data are in making a decision so they can be transparent about why they are pursuing a course of action. Then we’re using the SSAF to show the impact of alternative courses of actions. That’s pretty powerful stuff. Knowing WHY a decision is made and better understanding the IMPACTS is huge.

What we’re doing is bigger than tools. This isn’t about Decision Lens and Tableau and Access. it’s about how we’re using those tools to help TSA think different. That’s where we’ll see the real payoff down the road.

Granted, our problem domain is just a part of what TSA does... but it’s a pretty important part. Imagine if the way of thinking we’re promoting – structured, repeatable, and transparent – can start to take hold throughout the organization.

Be proud. We started small. And we delivered. We delivered work that is making a difference. You’ve started to deliver a series of little things that will continue to grow into something great.

Reading List

photo credit:  the bbp

photo credit: the bbp

As I prepare to turn over the reins of the CG-LIMS project to another leader, I want to provide my replacement a reading list.   I will use this post to share ten books: one book a month  between now and when I'm replaced.  These books have  have influenced me over the years as I've delivered IT tools.  This list could also be useful for anyone working in the field either in government or in the private sector.  

These ten books are a subset of the project library we created a few months ago.   It was hard to pare the list to just ten, so I may share the whole list in a future post.  I've constrained the list to ten books so my relief can read one book a month between now and when they arrive.  Some are classics, some are fairly new.  You may have already read many of them.  Hopefully there is at least one that's new to you and piques your interest.  

I provided links for easy access to a description and reviews.  These aren't affiliate links.  There's nothing in it for me.  I've also provided links to posts in which I've shared some specific takeaways from the books in project blogs over the years. 

Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman, 1988.  See the July 21, 2010 post, "User Experience." 

Rework by JasonFried & David Heinemeier-Hansson, 2010.  See the April 22, 2010 post, "Just Enough" and the April 26, 2010 post "Illusions."

Linchpin by Seth Godin, 2011.  See the  Feb 8, 2010 post, "Ship!"  See the comments to that post for some great links as well.

Usability Engineering by Jakob Nielsen, 1993.  See the December 14, 2008 post, "Putting People First."   Also, much of my 2003 Coast Guard Innovation Expo Speech drew form lessons on this book.  The slides with notes are on SlideShare.  The notes are also available separately.  

The Agile Samurai by Jonathan Rasmusson, 2010.   This is a straightforward introduction to Agile software development.  This served as a common knowledge base for the development team.  It's a good basic introduction for anyone considering delivering using an Agile methodology.  The first mention of the book is in the comments to the September 26, 2011 post, "Rules of the Game."   I also described in in three more posts, January 5, 2012 "Prioritize," May 30, 2012 "Show, Don't Tell," and Emil's April 8, 2012 "Interpreting Development Burndown Charts."

Mythical Man Month by Frederick Brooks,  1995 (20th anniversary edition). See the September 20, 2011 post, "Why Document?"

The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge, 1990.  See the January 21, 2010 post, "Simple, Familiar Message," the February 16, 2010 post, "Take Five," and the February 18, 2010 post "Finance Drives Logistics."

Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry by Sue Hammond, 1996.  See the March 12, 2012 post, "What Did We Do Well?"

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink, 2011. 

Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath,  2010. 

The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt, 1984.  See November 16, 2011 post, "What's the Goal?"

As I read some of the blog posts this evening to share the links for each book, I was reminded of the great work done by the team who is now delivering CG-LIMS one step at a time.  It is an honor to work with each of you!