Saturday, October 26, 2002

Amplifying Your Effectiveness, Seven Habits

This article appears in slightly different form in the September/October 2002 issue of IEEE Micro © 2002 IEEE.

The two books I look at this time deal with personal effectiveness. One is a collection of essays by Gerald Weinberg and some of his colleagues. The other is a runaway best seller, still relevant twelve years after it first appeared. I look at the ways in which these two books agree on all the important points.

Amplifying Your Effectiveness -- Collected Essays ed by Gerald M. Weinberg, James Bach, and Naomi Karten (Dorset House, NY, 2000, 160pp, ISBN 0-932633-47-1,, 800-342-6657, $30.45)

Gerald Weinberg (see Micro Review, July/August 2001) is an expert on making software practitioners, teams, and organizations more effective. He has been doing this for more than 30 years and is the author of many classics in the field. James Bach is an experienced software tester and trainer of testers. He is the founder of Satisfice, Inc. Naomi Karten is an expert on human behavior and communication in organizations. She is the author of several books on the subject.

This book grew out of the planning for the Amplifying Your Effectiveness (AYE) conference (, a meeting that bills itself as designed to increase your effectiveness in leadership, coaching, managing, influencing and working in teams. The planners decided to set the stage for the conference by writing essays about their own experience. The editors arranged this material into a book.

In his introduction, Weinberg finds a pattern in the 19 essays that make up the book. He defines a taxonomy based on two axes: whose effectiveness is being amplified, and which aspect of effectiveness. On the first axis, he places:
1. Team member
2. Team
3. Organization 
Many essays deal with more than one of these, but Weinberg divides the book into four parts, based mainly on the first axis:
I     Empowering the Individual (1)
II   Improving Interpersonal Interactions (2)
III Mastering Projects (2)
IV  Changing the Organization (3)
On the second axis, Weinberg places the following general abilities that effective technical leaders have:
A. Observe situations and understand the significance of what they see.
B. Act congruently (that is, do the right thing) when confused, angry, or afraid.
C. Understand complex situations, and devise and execute appropriate plans to deal with them.  
Weinberg specifies where each essay falls on the second axis, so each essay has a pair of coordinates. Thus, for example, James Bach's essay The Role of Testing has coordinates 1C in the Weinberg taxonomy: it deals with a team member's effectiveness at understanding and dealing with complex situations. Rick Brenner's Ten Project Haiku has coordinates 1A, while James Bach's Good Practice Hunting has coordinates 3C.

Weinberg does not make the coordinate system explicit, nor does he carry it too far. If you look too closely it falls apart, but as an overview it can help in two ways. It can help you identify the areas you want to work on, and it can lead you to the material that will help you do so. It imposes a useful structure on what otherwise might appear to be a collection of tenuously related essays. And if you plan to attend an AYE conference, it can help you make the most of it.

James Bach's The Role of Testing is a wonderful example of how a job is what you make of it. His job stays the same, but his perspective keeps changing. At first he sees himself as engaged in finding problems. Enlarging his view, he then sees himself as assuring quality and analyzing risk. Taking an even broader view, he sees his job as helping the team understand what's going on. There is no way to know where this will end.

Consultants are a large part of this book's target audience, and the book contains a wonderful cautionary essay for consultants called Solving Other People's Problems by Paul Gray. He sets out a few simple principles, most of which I can remember violating to my own detriment at some time or other. For example, the Pay Attention principle warns that critical information often hides in plain view. The Passion principle (they all begin with the letter P) reminds you that it's a bad idea to care more about the other person's problem than the other person does. This goes hand in hand with the Partnership principle, which reminds you to keep the problem's owner involved at all stages of finding the solution, as in the proverb about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish.

Focus is an important part of effectiveness. In The Perils of Parallel Projects, Johanna Rothman quantifies the degree to which context switching reduces effectiveness. A person working on 5 projects, according to her numbers, spends 75% of the time on context switching and 5% on each of the projects. Most people know this -- qualitatively if not quantitatively -- but don't know how to get out of the situation when it happens to them. Rothman offers some suggestions.

Naomi Karten adds two brief articles from the point of view of a student of human behavior. They focus on seeing the people we deal with as fellow human beings. You don't have to be in a high tech industry to know that finding a common interest or experience helps people work together. Unfortunately, many people in high tech industries don't understand this intuitively or don't think it's important. Another impediment to good interpersonal relationships is labeling. In How to Deal with Irate Customers, Karten says to begin by banishing "irate," "unreasonable," "demanding," and other such labels from your vocabulary.

Of the five essays in the section on mastering projects, only two present the kind of material that usually appears in project management books. The others approach the subject more creatively. For example, Rick Brenner observes and advises in the form of 10 haiku (defined in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as "an unrhymed verse form of Japanese origin having three lines containing usually 5, 7, and 5 syllables"). Brenner packs quite a bit of wisdom and humor into 170 well chosen syllables. My two favorites are:
I gave estimates.
They cut all of them in half.
Next time I'll pad them.
There is no more time,
but the work is unfinished.
Take more time from Test. 
Johanna Rothman takes another creative approach to project management in her essay It's Just the First Slip. She tells you to listen to your project. The first slip is a whisper: "Your expectation is not matching my reality. Listen to me. I can tell you my reality." By the fourth slip, it's yelling "You'll pay for this!" 

Brian Priorek's contribution to the genre of creative project management writing is an account of how he kept his head in a chaotic project -- breakfast in bed for his wife on their anniversary -- and brought it to a satisfactory conclusion, despite inadequate preparation, challenging personnel issues, and lack of tools.

The essays that deal with changing the organization are in many ways the most important, but the hardest to put into practice.

Steven Smith describes the Satir change model. Virginia Satir is a family therapist whose work inspired Gerald Weinberg's More Secrets of Consulting (see Micro Review Jan/Feb 2002). Smith describes Satir's stages of group change and provides ways to keep things moving forward successfully at each stage.

James Bach, who begins the book with The Role of Testing, ends it with a provocative essay about best practices and the myths that go with them. For example, he examines the widely recognized best practice of performing unit testing as a part of software development. Almost all companies say they do this, but few actually do so, according to Bach's definition of unit testing:
The testing of individual modules, functions, or classes without regard for their integration with the rest of the system, where the goals are to find problems before integration and to find those problems that are difficult to isolate on a subsystem or system level.
Most companies call whatever testing developers perform on their own code unit testing. The typical methodology is: I exercise the code and see if it works.

Bach cites other myths about testing:
It's important to repeat the same tests on each new build.

It's important to document all test cases and procedures.

It's important to create tests based on specifications well before it's time to execute them.
Each of these best practices is good to do in some situations, but not in others. The problem, Bach says, is that the software industry consists of many broad communities of practice (for example, regulated, high reliability, market driven), and what's important for one may not be for others.

As you can see, this small book covers a lot of ground. The essays are all short and easy to read. They don't require much specialized knowledge. They are filled with information that most of us can use right away. If you have anything to do with software development projects, you should read this book.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey (Simon & Schuster, NY, 1989, 360pp, ISBN 0-671-70863-5, $14.00)

It would not have occurred to me to review this book, which has already sold 10 million copies in the 12 years since it appeared, had it not been for a coincidence. When I first picked up Amplifying Your Effectiveness, I had just participated in a workshop based on Stephen Covey's ideas, so those ideas were fresh in my mind. I saw immediately how closely Weinberg's taxonomy of improving effectiveness parallels Covey's habits. Looking deeper, I found many other places where these two books say the same thing in different ways.

The icon of Covey's habits is a figure resembling an hourglass inside a circle. The lower triangle represents the three habits that comprise the private victory, that is, the move from dependence to independence. The upper triangle represents the three habits that comprise the public victory, that is, the move from independence to interdependence. The circle represents the seventh habit, which concerns continual personal renewal.

When I first saw Weinberg's first axis in Amplifying Your Effectiveness, it reminded me immediately of Covey's hourglass figure.

Weinberg's second axis also lines up with some of Covey's principles. For example, Covey's first habit concerns breaking the connection between stimulus and response. Rather than reacting to anger or fear, pause a moment to think about how the person you want to be would respond in this situation. This corresponds pretty closely to acting congruently when confused, angry, or afraid.

Another of Covey's habits, seek first to understand, then to be understood, lines up pretty well with the other items on Weinberg's second axis.

Covey sees effectiveness as based on keeping a balance between your production and your capacity to produce. The story of the goose that laid golden eggs expresses this idea. The goose's owner sought ways to obtain eggs faster than the goose could produce them, and in doing so killed the goose. Covey's habits are about building your production capacity and performing within its limits. For example, Covey's third habit, Put first things first, is exactly the advice Johanna Rothman gives in her article The Perils of Parallel Projects. To reduce context switching, she suggests picking the most important task and working on it until it's finished.

Covey's third habit gives rise to one of the best known aspects of his book, his time management matrix. Covey characterizes tasks on two dichotomies: (important, not important) and (urgent, not urgent). This gives rise to four quadrants. Covey's time management strategy is to spend as much time as possible in quadrant II, important but not urgent. This prepares you to handle quadrant I (urgent and important) tasks efficiently and reduces the number of such tasks.

I could go on and on drawing parallels between these two books, but I'll leave the rest as an exercise for the reader.

Covey's book is an intricate interweaving of simple themes. It is a book to read and to refer to again and again. I recommend it highly.

The FranklinCovey company ( offers workshops on the contents of the book, and many companies make these available to their employees. If you get a chance to attend one of these workshops, you should take advantage of it.