Earlier this year I embarked on a journey to write and publish my first book, Strong Words and Simple Truths. After eight years of writing this blog, I knew I had enough content (102 Posts with over 50,000 words). The trick was figuring out how to knit together so many seemingly disparate topics into a cohesive and interesting story.
I had a mountain of ideas and knew I had to focus, organize and categorize.
The first thing I did was put on my Scrum Master hat and break out the pink and yellow sticky notes! For a definition of what a Scrum Master is click here.
With an Agile mindset, I set about the task of visualizing every blog post. I did this by writing the title of every blog with a black marker on square sticky notes. The pink notes covered the majority of the wall in my home office. For more information on Agile click here.
The next step involved organizing and grouping the blog titles into themes or categories. I ended up with eight themes that I wrote on larger, rectangular sticky notes. I moved the smaller titles around on the wall so they were under the appropriate theme. I let this display sit on my wall for many weeks and I spent hours staring at them to see how they looked together. I moved some titles around and I removed over 20 blogs entirely. This editing process was difficult but very important to the integrity and flow of the book.
The eight themes became the chapters of the book which are: Communication, Toastmasters, Creativity, Veterans, the 1980s, Gratitude, Science and Health, and Agile.
I built a storyboard of the eight chapters to help visualize the order and flow of the themes. I evolved and iterated on this multiple times and landed on this display which includes the custom drawn illustrations by Alex Delit Garcia.
The creation of the Table of Contents was quite simple as I ordered the blog titles chronologically under each chapter/theme.
To tie all of the chapters together, I chose a fun and symbolic circus theme. Each chapter was represented by a character or element from the circus and I spun a tale about a curious girl named Elizabeth and her hedgehog friend, Ernie. The story took us on a “run away and join the circus” journey and wove together all of the chapters’ topics with the Ringleader kicking things off.
The use of a creative and symbolic fiction story to tie together 80 non-fiction articles was a fun and effective way to compile and build a book in a short amount of time. From the start of my sticky note wall display to the publication of the book was five months (including the creation of the chapter illustrations and the editing/formatting).
I often call my book a patchwork quilt of lifelong learnings, dreams and ideas and I hope you enjoyed my sharing of the stitching process!
For more information on Strong Words and Simple Truths: The Courage to Communicate, click here.
There are over one hundred and seventy thousand commonly used words in the English language, but most people employ just a fraction of them in their daily lives. Many people yearn to find and articulate the truth. The courage to communicate has many meanings; each of us struggling to get our voices heard brings our own understanding and desires to the process. I bring my understanding of communication and wish to be heard to this book.
Growing up in a large family in the northeastern United States, I learned the value of direct and powerful communication. I still appreciate the emphatic and heartfelt style of my New Jersey upbringing and have spent my adult life honing my skills through key programs, paths, and career choices.
I believe that strong words have the power to catalyze change, that direct communication has value, and that words have energy.I believe that words are best when they are consumable, easily understood, and impactful.
I also believe that simplicity in communication is elegant. Simple is clear and honest and true. The most delicious recipes have five or fewer ingredients. My Mom’s delicious rice pudding comes to mind. But alas, communication is not always as simple as a recipe.
From this understanding came the title of my first WordPress blog, Strong Words and Simple Truths, which I began writing in 2013. The title encompasses everything I believe about communication, and I have not changed the focus or intent of the phrase in my nine years of blogging.
I always have an idea that I’d like to share, so I’ve continued thinking, speaking, and blogging about communication since 2013. I am rarely at a loss for words.
Some of the articles I published on my blog were adapted from speeches I gave at Toastmaster meetings. Other times, I would challenge myself to convert a blog article into a speech. I found the challenges of the back-and-forth creations fun and fascinating. This process taught me the important lesson that the spoken word is quite different from the written word, and through this hard work I learned to be more flexible and creative in my communication style.
This book invites you to accompany me on a journey of discovery through a curated selection of over eighty articles from my blog. When I decided to compile these articles into a book, I knew that the same title, Strong Words and Simple Truths, would perfectly express what I am trying to convey. Little did I know when I started writing my blog that the extreme events of 2020 and 2021 would make my pithy title and subtitle all the more relevant and important.
So here I am, sharing in the most powerfully vulnerable way I have ever attempted. Blogging and public speaking are one thing, but publishing a book has brought me to a whole new level of commitment to my beliefs and my message.
The format of this book was inspired by author and fellow veteran, Ed Latimore. His book, Not Caring What Other People Think Is a Superpower: Insights from a Heavy Boxer, was an outstanding compilation of his tweets, which includes strong and powerful lessons of life.
In this book, I blend the creative power of agility, communication, history, and science to create a patchwork quilt of my ideas, stories, and dreams.
I am honored to share the stories of the people and personalities who shaped who I am today. While I may not have been completely fearless as a child, the role models I emulated were feisty, strong, and spirited. Many of the themes in this book were inspired by my mom, Virginia, my brother, Bill, and my sister, Barbara. During elementary and high school, I was encouraged and guided by many amazing and motivational teachers and coaches.Ihad role models from the entertainment world as well. I desired to be as daring as Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett and as strong as Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman.
These role models were heroes to me, and they inspired me to branch out and achieve the substantial and audacious goals I set for myself. I hope they will inspire you to do the same.
As a young adult, I had two different career aspirations. In high school, I wanted to be a medical doctor. After college, I considered becoming a science teacher.The common thread through my life is the desire to help people, share knowledge, and train others to learn new skills.
In this book, I’ll also share lessons from mymilitary service, which taught me the importance of KISS- Keep It Simple Soldier (or Stupid as some would joke). As a US Army Signal Corps officer, I supported combat and support units on the battlefield with precise and effective communication infrastructure and procedures.When lives depend on clear, concise, and timely messages, you learn to value their quality greatly.
My wish is that you find this book entertaining and educational, and I hope that it motivates you in creative and unique ways. I also pray that these words, thoughts, and expressions pay adequate tribute to the brave and selfless heroes in our world.
I have grouped the blog articles into eight sections. Each article includes the original publication date and appears as it originally appeared on the blog (with some proofreading to correct minor issues). I stitched the articles together much as a quilter would piece together colorful fabrics to create an intricate and appealing pattern. To keep things fun, I chose a theme from the magical world of the circus.
The sections of this book represent the main interests, influences, values, priorities, and passions in my life, each linked to a symbolic element from the circus.To aid the reader in remembering the sections and their symbols, I created a brief tall tale to open the book.
Strong Man—Veterans, Remembrance and Traditions
Laughter—Connections and Gratitude
Animals—Science and Truth
When you read the Table of Contents, you can think of it as a menu for a smorgasbord dinner which allows you to select the topics that most appeal to you. It’s a collection of various perspectives, angles, and tastes.
Come on, let’s run away and join the circus for a few hours!
I dusted off my old unicycle and brought it down to the bike shop where they put on a spiffy new Specialized tire called the Renegade.
While circling the cul de sac last night on my spruced up one wheeler, my husband Steve encouraged me to put on my helmet. My initial response was that I didn’t need it since I had never worn one growing up and I didn’t injure myself when I fell. After a few minutes, common sense and an abundance of caution led me back into the garage to get my helmet. It was fun to ride on something that I learned to balance on 40 years ago but you can never be too careful.
Strong and vivid childhood memories came rushing back and they reinforced a key concept I recently read in Ray Dalio’s book titled Principles. Learning from our mistakes is key to growing and developing new skills.
I was reminded that it is okay to try something new and fall down. If we are going to learn a new skill we should not be afraid of failing, in fact, we should look at our failures as the ultimate learning experiences. This is also the Agile mindset which embraces experiments and encourages doing, testing, reflecting and adapting in an iterative manner.
When I was 10 years old, my eldest brother, Billy gave me a unicycle for Christmas. It was a shiny steel Schwinn with a black leather banana seat. I was so excited and couldn’t wait until spring arrived so I could take it outside and ride it.
I knew that I had to learn how to balance in order to ride but I was ready for the challenge. Little did I realize just how hard it would be since my memory of mastering my first coaster bike at age four was that it was simple, quick and easy.
When learning to ride a bicycle, I didn’t use training wheels and was helped by Billy holding on to my sissy bar and running along side me as we traveled on Maiden Lane. After a few sprints up and down the block, he encouraged me to keep pedaling so I could balance and ride on my own. In little time, I was off to the races and just a bit wobbly.
There are no training wheels when learning to ride a unicycle- just continuous practice and persistence. You have to experiment and try an action in order to learn what works and what doesn’t.
I had to continually fall and fall again until my muscles and my brain learned how to balance. I practiced for many weeks by holding on to the side of my brother John’s 1973 blue Chevy pickup. I went up and down the length of the truck until one day I got to the end of tailgate and kept going. It was a wonderful feeling of freedom and I remember thinking “What do I do with hands now?”. In the end, I used my hands to wave hello and goodbye to all my neighbors and friends.
A 1973 Chevy like the one my brother John had
I road my unicycle all over Spotswood NJ in the early 1980s and loved the responsive steering it provided. You could turn on a dime and make quick 90 degree turns just by rotating your hips. It was fun, lighter and so much easier to stow than a bicycle.
Learning to balance on one wheel wasn’t a quick and easy endeavor but in retrospect, I think it helped prepare me for the future challenges I would face in life. I had to experience what didn’t work, learn from it and try again. Over and over and over.
Making mistakes and falling well are part of the process of learning.
I appreciate Ray Dalio’s reminder of this important principle and for all the happy memories of my Spotswood unicycle adventures!
Remember: It’s okay to try something new and fall.
It’s even better when we learn from our failures and do it better the next time!
What a simple but profound question to ask. What a bold request to make.
Change is hard. Change is painful. Why do I need to Change?
In the spirit of being Agile, I’d rather talk about adaptive transformation. It sounds so much more fun and interesting!
Looking back in my blog archives, I realize that I have dipped my toe into this topic a few times in articles like “A Tower of Change” and “Dying to Adapt”. I was having fun with my Tarot cards in late 2016 and the Death and Tower cards kept showing up so I reflected on them and wove them into the chaotic current events of the day. “A Matter of Perspective” and a few other articles also danced around this difficult and daunting theme.
As I watch the train wreck that has become our nation’s political discourse, I am concerned that people are losing the ability to communicate with each other. How we converse and share information has changed so rapidly and dramatically in just 10 years that it makes my head spin.
The Facebook and Twitter threads I see today make me wonder, are we able to “change” another person’s mind or position on anything?
As witnessed on social media every day, I don’t see much give and take on ideas where people disagree. I see a whole lot of confirmation bias and reinforcement of one’s existing views and values. I see many instances of digging in on positions and not much changing or adapting.
Why is it so hard to Change?
If I called you live on the phone right now and asked you to describe what change feels like, what would you say?
For me and many others the adjectives painful, stressful and uncomfortable would probably top the list.
The DailyOM blog by Madison Taylor sent me an article last week titled “Anxiety about Change”. It seems to be on the minds of many people.
Change is Difficult. No Pain, No Gain, right? Every competitive athlete understands this mantra but most people’s default setting is to take the path of least resistance. The easy way and the status quo are like a close, dysfunctional couple and breaking up is hard to do!
At work I keep hearing the words and phrases Transformation, Agile Maturity, Accelerators and Radical Change being used in the context of staying competitive and relevant in the market. Being a disruptive Change Agent is a good thing in today’s world and it is being rewarded with dollars, likes and followers. Adaptivetransformation is sometimes critical to one’s survival.
If change is such an important aspect to survive in this world, why is it so hard?
Why do humans usually respond to change with the reflective impulse to resist it?
Most of our major change of life events are made easier and less stressful with rituals and ceremonies that typically involve the abundant intake of food and/or alcohol.
Think about graduation parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funeral repasts. These are all times of big and scary change.
Evolve or die may seem a bit extreme but is an understood reality in our competitive business and technology world today. Remember what happened to Kodak moments and our once beloved Blackberry devices. They didn’t transform quickly enough and now they are a footnote in history.
In more tame Agile terms, the iterative process of Build, Test, Inspect and Adapt is a continuous and beautiful flow of events that occurs over and over in short time increments (sprints). This flow makes change easier since it is done is smaller chunks (think baby steps).
Playdough and Juggling Balls displaying Incremental Change
And if you fail, it is best to Fail Fast and start sprinting again.
“Evolution is good because it is a process of adaption that generally moves things toward improvement.”
“The faster one appropriately adapts, the better.”
I also appreciate Mr. Dalio’s equation: Pain + Reflection = Progress
The question is: Are we ready to embrace the discomfort and potential failure so that we can change and get to a better place?
Are we open to adaptive transformations to get us to a higher level?
None of my questions have simple, easy answers but I do think that if we strive to keep our lenses clear and both eyes open like I discuss in “A View on Balance” and “A Matter of Perspective“ then perhaps we can frame our challenges in a new light and take the small, incremental steps to evolve to a different and better way.
Looking at an issue or a challenge from a completely different angle can help us adapt and evolve to improve the situation.
On the topic of changing other people’s views and opinions on Social Media – upon further reflection, I don’t see this as a reasonable or easily attainable goal and will instead focus on changing myself in the hope that others will see my values in action.
So let’s hear it for real live Adaptive Transformations!
Taken in smaller, bite-sized chunks, change doesn’t have to be so painfully hard.
The title of this blog is the chorus of this catchy tune by the group Churchill.
Click here for the fun and cool video of the song “Change”.
I listened to this tune while writing these words and it gave me additional motivation and inspiration. It greased the skids in my mind and helped me get unblocked. Maybe it can do the same thing for you.
There is nothing like a good tarot card reading, a pending move to a new state and a bizarrely disgusting election news cycle to get me to look at things in an altered way. An Agile Life encourages us to have frequent Retrospectives to review what is going well, what is blocking us and what we can do differently.
I view tarot cards as a mirror to the heart and soul and they often reflect thoughts and notions back to us in a new light.
Below is a story about the Judgement Card, taken from the website Aeclectic Tarot“.
“There is no way to leave the past behind,” The Angel observes. “Each step wears down the shoe just a bit, and so shapes the next step you take, and the next and the next. Your past is always under your feet. You cannot hide from it, run from it, or rid yourself of it. But you can call it up, and come to terms with it. Are you willing to do that?
The Angel hands the Fool a small trumpet. The Fool is hesitant, but he knows that the Angel is right. There are certain memories he has a hard time looking back on as they make him feel guilty, ashamed, angry. He knows that he’s never come to terms with what happened and he must if he wants to make that final transition.”
Here are some retrospective thoughts and questions based my drawing of the Judgement Card last night:
Are we able to resurrect the past, forgive it and let it go?
Do we need to start something we’ve been putting off or have the courage to finally end something that isn’t good for us?
Is it time to move on?
As I bask in the glorious autumn weather of Colorado and watch the leaves turn to orange, yellow and red, I remember that they will all fall to the ground soon, dead but nurturing to the soil below. I also have faith that the leaves will be reborn in the spring as the seasons continue to roll by.
I have hope that after the cold winter, there will be a better, brighter season but in the mean time…
It’s time forgive and move on to more important things.
As a matter of course, I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions until at least February and this year, I have not made any.
Since I am a Scrum Master striving to lead an Agile Life, I’ve started planning and living my life in 2 week iteration (sprints) and am doing my first Sprint Review and Retrospective today. It is so much easier to set and achieve goals in a short 2-3 week period rather than the whole year. Plus it makes me very happy and excited to move my yellow sticky note user stories from the “In Progress” to the “Done” column (I know I am a total geek. See my article on Confessions of a Dashboard Junkie for further proof).
It is satisfying to have rapid feedback and visualization on the completion of your small, bite-sized chunk goals (user stories) and it is important to do a thorough review of the Sprint Board at the end of each iteration to determine what is still In Progress and/or what is not started in the To Do column.
In the Retrospective, you can reflect on what you were able to complete and why, as well as what prevented you from starting or finishing a user story. Were there obstacles or unforeseen circumstances that interfered with you completing all your goals or did you simply procrastinate? Be brutally honest with yourself and strive to improve your process in the next sprint which starts tomorrow.
The outcome of your Retrospective is a mini New Sprint Resolution and provides input to your next Sprint Plan. This is why I don’t need New Year’s Resolutions anymore!
The Sprint Plan is done on the 1st day of the sprint and includes all of the user stories (goals) you want to complete in the next time period. It is meant to be a realistic picture of what you commit to getting done based on your understanding of the size and scope of the various items.
Living an Agile Life is rewarding, effective and less stressful than making huge blanket resolutions on some arbitrary date at the beginning of the year. Besides, your goals for the time period of Jan. 1-15 will probably be very different than your goals for Sep. 15-30. Conducting your Reviews and Retrospectives every 2 weeks will help you quickly analyze and adjust your life plans and goals as needed plus you will get so much more accomplished than if you didn’t track and plan with your Sprint board.
So here’s a toast to happy and healthy Sprint Reviews and Retrospectives!
In October 2013, I wrote the following in Part 1 of my blog’s “An Agile Life” series:
“What if we lived our lives in 2 week increments?
Imagine what it would be like to create a Backlog of all the things you wanted or needed to do in your life including all of your wishes and desires. Kind of like a Bucket list on steroids.
What if you reviewed, prioritized and ordered this list every 2 weeks?
What if you planned out which items on your list (User Stories) you wanted or needed to accomplish in the next 2 week time period (Sprint)?
What if you (and your team/partner/family) committed to completing these items by the end of the Sprint? “
Well, 2+ years later and after a serious New Years Day Retrospective, it is time for a major reboot in my life sprints. Time to create my Backlog again, prioritize my User Stories and work on them in shorter iterations.
Time to post my sprint board on the refrigerator!
Here we go, Day 1 of Sprint 16.01, I’ll let you know how my Retrospective went in early February!
Here’s how you can get started on your Agile Life:
Step 1: Grab some sticky notes and markers and start writing out the items you wish to work on/ accomplish (one per note).
Step 2: Create your sprint board with a sheet of page. Make 3 columns: To Do, In Progress and Done.
Step 3: Determine your sprint duration ( 1, 2, 3 or 4 weeks)
Step 4: Place your items ( user stories on sticky notes) on your sprint board.
Step 5: Review your user story status and track progress each day until the end of the sprint.
Step 6: Conduct a Retrospective on the last day of the sprint.
Step 7: Update your sprint board during for the next sprint’s planning session.
As a user story, I want the respect I deserve so that I don’t develop an inferiority complex.
Oh the user story! You either love it or you hate it. You understand it or you are totally perplexed and frustrated by it. The must fundamental and core element of the Agile process is often misunderstood, under appreciated and misused.
The User Story, child of the Epic and parent to the Task, occasionally suffers from an identity crisis. Last month I happened upon a sad and lonely 8-point story who had only one 0.5 hour task linked to it. It confided in me that it was really a Task masquerading as a User Story but it was too ashamed to tell anyone.
The role and purpose of the user story can sometimes be misunderstood to the point of causing heated conversations and disagreements among Product Owners, Business Analysts and Scrum team members who are new to the Agile process. Here the Scrum Master’s coaching and facilitation of the Agile process is critical to the success and happiness of the team (and the user story).
As a user story, I want to define an incremental unit of work in the “who, what and why” format so that the scrum team can efficiently deliver the requirements by the end of the sprint.
As a user story, I want to represent a small piece of business value so that the Product Owner can see the iterative development of the work.
As a user story, I want to describe high-level requirements in such a way that it sparks conversations among the scrum team members.
As a user story, I want to have detailed acceptance criteria so that the team knows the definition of done and exactly what is expected at the end of the sprint.
As a user story, I want to be groomed and refined on a regular basis so that I will be properly understood, stack ranked and sized by the scrum team.
As a user story, I want to meet the criteria of Bill Wake’s INVEST acronym so that I can be well formed and have high self-esteem.
Acceptance Criteria of this INVEST story:
Scalable (small sized)
As the author of this blog, I want to share my thoughts and insights about user stories so that you learn in a fun and memorable way!
Alternate title: Oh the joys of documenting requirements on a new Agile project!
Many organizations struggle with adopting Agile since it requires such a fundamental and overarching shift in business process. Often times the biggest challenge with the new process is how to gather and document Requirements. I’ve observed that a piece meal approach to implementing Agile is not as effective since the performance benefits are not fully realized unless all Scrum team members and stakeholders are on board. So how do we get everyone on board?
First, it can be helpful for Scrum Masters to recognize that the Agile manifesto value of “Working Software over Comprehensive Document” is a struggle for many Project Management Offices ( PMO) and Business Analysts (BA). Organizations and firms which are heavily regulated have strict requirements on detailed project artifacts in order to pass audits and the PMOs and BAs are oftentimes the creators and/or keepers of these documents. In short, it’s a balancing act to the find the appropriate and agreed to level of documentation that meets everyone’s needs. These discussions and agreements can take place during Sprint 0 and reviewed in the Release Planning meeting.
Waterfall/RUP documentation habits die hard with some seasoned BAs. The urge to analyze, research and detail out full use cases and system requirements prior to the start of sprinting can be strong for those who are new to iterative development and User Stories. The Scrum Master’s coaching and guidance on the Agile best practices for User Story creation and refinement are critical to keeping the project moving along and not getting bogged down in analysis paralysis.
And then is there is the battle of what tools to use to document and where to store the project and requirement artifacts. Boy can opinions and passions run hot in this area! Whether you use TFS, Rally, Jira, VersionOne, PivotalTracker or any other application for tracking your User Stories, sprint tasks and velocity, your Scrum team and the Project stakeholders need to understand and come to an agreement that certain Requirement Documents of Record can should be stored, tracked and linked to in other repositories like Sharepoint or Blueprint. Traceability is a key concern for many organizations and should be addressed in your Team Agreements and processes.
The Goldilocks Dilemma
How much detail do we need to put in a User Story? This is another deeply philosophical question and everyone seems to have a different opinion on it.
How much is too much? How much is too little? What level of information and detail is just right?
As Scrum Masters, our role is to strike the right balance with the Product Owners, BAs and PMs so that the needs of the organization are met without sacrificing the benefits of the iterative design and development. This is certainly easier said than done but know that you are not alone in this challenge.
It helps to explain that details on the requirements will be uncovered and documented in a more collaborative manner with ongoing conversions and meetings with the entire team. Requirements will not be created in a vacuum and will be refined /groomed/ sized by the scrum team.
It occurs to me that this topic is important and meaty enough to deserve its own article, so I’ll dive into the details of User Story Creation in Part 3 of my “Confessions of a Scrum Master” series next week.
The behavioral changes involved in adopting the Agile can be uncomfortable and difficult for many people and teams. Documenting requirements in Agile often requires a significant shift in process and the Scrum Master’s coaching and facilitation role is critical to helping the team to learn and understand the value and benefits of iterative development while allaying their fears and concerns about the “new and different” way.