The Secret to Successful Collaboration? Communication!

If there was ever one truth about myself which pretty much drove all my career decisions, it was the need to know everything about what I was involved in. “Do this because I say so” has never been my style in either side (as a worker, or as a manager). I didn’t accept it, and I don’t deliver it. I find buy-in to be the biggest motivation. I want to do work because I believe in it, not because I was told to do it, and I want those who report to me to feel the same way.

If you invest in your work you become a much bigger part of the solution.

That bit of true-ism made all the difference to me when it came to delivering solutions.  Obviously I understood the need to “do my job” but I never considered myself a cog in a machine just playing my part.  I wanted to know how I fit into the big picture.  I wanted to understand how others could be helped by what I was doing. If I could “see” what we were trying to build/ deliver, it would help make decisions a lot easier.

It took over twenty years before I understood that this trait – which seemed to be one of the things that differentiated me from many others – was called Connectedness.  I need to feel connected to what I’m doing.  I need to understand the whole flow of what we’re building and this helps me easily see how each piece feeds the whole. That knowledge allows me to share a complete vision with everyone involved and brings about the best team discussions since we’re all “rowing together” towards the same destination.

If I apply this trait to my “natural” state of Agile, it would be akin to having a fully defined User Story.

For those who don’t know what a User Story is, there are plenty of definitions on the web.  Just Google “Define User Stories” and you’ll see what I mean. The way I summarize it is that a User Story defines what a “user” wants or needs, and why. The general statement I use follows this format:

As a PERSONA <client, user, etc.>, I want to <vision, idea> so that <business value>

In my experience, many teams tend to leave out the ‘business value’ of the statement because they want to focus on what they need to build. However, if you look at it logically, that ‘business value’ is the driving force and gives everyone a clear understanding of WHY something needs to be delivered. This value can then be compared against other deliverables in order to better prioritize what needs to be done first.

Going back to what I was saying at the beginning of this post, letting me in on why something is required allows me to understand and appreciate the importance and value of the solution. With this information, it is a lot easier to get buy-in from the team tasked to delivering it. Finally, sharing that information with the team allows them to feel connected to the whole process and makes them feel valued and valuable to the process.

The result? Constant communication around delivering the right solution the best way possible.  And if you have a strong trust level in the team, that communication and sharing / challenging of ideas will bring about true collaboration.

Remember, “because I say so” will never get you the kind of results a true collaborative effort will. Explain what needs to be done, share the information you have, don’t be afraid to be challenged, and learn to listen to the opinions of others (especially if they are experienced in the matters at hand!). Make your team feel like they are part of the whole solution, and not just another widget-maker. You’ll be amazed at the magic that will come out of your sessions.

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My 3 Simple Rules (for workplace engagement)

Recently, I came to the realization that I have less years left to work (before getting to the “official” retirement age), than I have already worked in my life! Although I plan to still be working (in one way or another) after age 65, this bit of news made me pause for a number of reasons. Most of these all took second place to a trip through my memories as I remembered all the jobs I held through the years and all the companies I worked for.

Basically, I was trying to understand how I got to be where I currently am.  Was there a specific point or path I was on that led me from being a programmer laying out ALGOL or Clipper code to a Manager of Development and Operations? Where did I go from wanting to create programs myself to wanting to lead a team of diverse individuals to create systems together?

Also, in an attempt to look towards the future, I was trying (or rather, am still trying) to understand where I want to go, or what I want to accomplish in the next few years. I don’t really see this as a “career mid-life crisis” since I never looked at the work I’ve done as being a career! I worked at a company because 1) I liked what I did, 2) who I worked with, and 3) believed in what the company was trying to do. When two of those three points would no longer be true, I packed my bags and went looking for a new company to hopefully set down roots.

Three simple points, but they served me well.  Any one alone could have a huge impact on my morale and attitude if it was negative, but mixed with a second negative one, it was a deal breaker.  Simply put:

  1. If I didn’t like what I was doing, I could drudge through it for a while (provided it was temporary)
  2. If I didn’t like the people I was working with OR working for, I could contain my exposure to them (to a certain degree)
  3. If I felt the company was no longer “helping” people or bringing value to everyday citizens, or focused purely on profits… well, that was the toughest one to ride through and usually caused me to start planning a move.

Yes, there have been times when I have been unemployed because I stuck to my personal rules. Those times were tough but making myself miserable and continuing to work in a toxic environment was worse.  How do these three points stack up to engagement?  Easily:

  1. Liking my work = feeling valued and appreciated.  Getting to work each day should not be a chore.  If I’m happy, I’m providing value and will constantly bring my “A” game.
  2. Working with strong and intelligent co-workers drives us individually and as a team which ultimately leads us to create great things together. Successful Collaboration = high output.
  3. Companies need to make money to stay in business, that’s a fact.  But that can still be done while holding onto moral values of bettering the lives of those we serve. Keeping a sense of community allows us to thrive because of the trust and respect of our customers, not in spite of them! Proud of your company = proud of the work you do/ feeling like you’re making a true difference.

The beauty of these points is that, on a specific level, I treat my employees the same way.  I want them to like what they do, learn to collaborate effectively, and be proud of their contributions! In other words, we work together to be engaged. There’s my truth for a high-performing team!

As I continue to reflect upon my past, I’ll use the opportunity to jot some of the bigger “aha!” moments down.  Considering I find myself regularly sharing tidbits of knowledge and management styles with newer managers, this might make it easier for me to have a list of pieces I can direct them to.

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Agile is…

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about Agile and what it means in my world of Development. Now, I have to state “in my world” because I realize, after years of living Agile and talking about it with so many others in the industry, that what passes for Agile in my world isn’t necessarily reflective of what others say Agile is (or should be) for them.

So, in the fairness of my personal motto that Agile is not a process or checklist of things that MUST be followed, but rather a template of skills and scenarios that SHOULD be followed, I accept the reality of what-works-for-me-might-not-work-for-you (and vice-versa). Now, with that out of the way, let me share some thoughts:

Agile is the Ability to Move Quickly and Easily:

  • Every day we’re challenged in some way. There are roadblocks that literally pop up from the ground in the form of failed tests, persistent bugs, missing team members (due to illness or vacation), etc. With time-boxed iterations, every day represents a virtual geiger counter on what your team’s burn chart looks like. Every day is precious to keeping the momentum going so when something unexpected happens, the team should be able to move around it (or mitigate or solve it) without a great deal of effort. In other words, it should not be a momentous task (like fighting red tape) to navigate stormy waters and keep the cadence going. A well-oiled, independent, and empowered team would not trip themselves up so easily.

Agile is to have the Power to move with the Changing Currents of Priorities:

  • Yes, I was going for a Boating analogy here. In fact, I had also thought of the phrase “Agile is the Ability to Match the Shifting Tide of Reality”. The reason is that I definitely do see Priorities ebb and flow like the tide on a regular basis. This could be due to the nature of the industry you’re in, or external factors that a strategic team is focused on, or even Customer Requests that may seem critical one minute and less urgent the next (once information is passed along to them). The point is, whatever flavor of Agile you’re working in, are you “stuck” or do you have the power to stop a sprint or reprioritize without wasting time (with red tape or a mindset that says “no, we have to finish this first!”)? Again, empowered teams with a strong relationship with the business or customers goes a long way in the trust that we’re all working together for similar goals.

Agile is the Ability to Challenge, Adapt, and Re-Focus:

  • Change for change’s sake is never good. It’s wasteful in both time and resources. Just because you’re agile and can be nimble in changing priorities, it doesn’t mean that you automatically accept every change thrown your way! In a relationship built on trust, the Team should be able to challenge the PM, or SM, or BU if they feel the request being made doesn’t make sense (and vice-versa of course). I usually see a challenge as a request for more information (as opposed to an argument) because it’s in the discussion that the true need comes out and which a brainstorming session will help guide the next steps. Afterwards, if the change does get accepted, then it becomes a matter of adapting what needs to be done and to re-focus on the priorities.

Is that all there is to Agile? No, of course not. There’s definitely a lot more to it, but as I was in the process of preparing some presentation material, I had this tangential thought about what “The Agile” is and thought I’d use this forum to write out some of the thoughts currently in my head. It seems there are actually quite a lot of these “thoughts” bouncing around in there (as anyone who’s spoken with me at conferences can attest to) so it may indeed be possible that I will share a few more of them here. I’ll have to see where the tide takes me 🙂


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One Mad Night

It’s kind of hard to avoid thinking of Halloween when it becomes so prevalent this time of year 🙂  Plus, I keep remembering to oh-so-many-years-ago when I decided to run a slew of Fast Fictions during Halloween week (way before it became vogue to do so 🙂 ).  Anyhow, I was kicking around the idea that I should put up a Flash Fiction (at 568 words, it doesn’t fall under my category of Fast Fiction which is 200 words or less) piece this year simply because it’s been so long. I initially wanted to run a new “My Eyes Burn” pieces… but decided I couldn’t just put one of those up as they tend to run in series.

I decided, instead, that for this year, I would just write a short/ cute little story. Nothing horrific, nothing bloody, just something that could make my wife smile 🙂  Of course, as she sat across from me doing her own work and saw me smiling to myself, she asked what I was up to.  I told her I was simply writing her something and she immediately wanted to know if I was writing about Gnomes.  Or Bunnies.  Or Gnomes with Bunnies.  Damn it.  Now I *have* to do that.  But before I get to that, let me at least share this quick piece with everyone 🙂

[Flash Fiction: One Mad Night – October 30, 2013]
“Come on, I dare ya!”

Mickey tried to be brave as Frank kept badgering him.

“I bet ya can’t do it! I bet ya can’t!” he kept repeating, literally turning it into a chant.

“I can, too!” said Mickey, sounding braver than he felt.

It was the same thing every year. October 30. Mad Night. The eve of Halloween, when all the so-called ‘bad boys’ come out to play.

Mickey wasn’t really a bad boy. Truth was, he never got into any trouble. Not because he was afraid of causing any, but just because he tended to not see the entertainment value that others, like Frank, did.

This year, however, he knew he couldn’t walk away. He was eleven years old now and in Junior High School. If he didn’t prove he could handle a little trouble, his next five years of school would be a nightmare.

“Watch. I’ll show you what I can do,” he finally blurted out as he screwed up his courage and lunged for the gate in front of him.

Frank ducked back onto the street and hid behind a parked car while Mickey crossed the walkway and made his way to the door of Old Man Boris’ house. This was it. No turning back now. He would ring that doorbell and take off before anything could happen to him. All that talk about giant spiders was just talk. No one kept pets like that! He’d show Frank that he wasn’t afraid.

As he got to the door, he took one quick look behind him to ensure Frank was watching him. If he was going to go through with this, he needed a witness. He saw Frank hiding but before Mickey could turn back to the door, Frank suddenly yelled out and ran away screaming.

Mickey whipped his head around and a yell escaped from him as he came face to chest with the monstrous Boris.

“Good evening,” he said, with a voice that sounded like heavy rocks sliding down the surface of a mountain. “How may I help you?” he asked.

Mickey, mouth agape and eyes bulging out, just stood there, literally shaking with fear.

“Yesss?” drawled Boris as he leaned forward and downwards, putting his face a few inches from Mickey’s.

Mickey tried to get his mouth to work but the only sounds coming out were little gasps and wheezes as he tried to get his breathing under control and slow the crazy beating of his heart.

Boris tilted his head and furrowed his brow at this strange boy standing before him. “Are you unwell?” he asked slowly.

Mickey finally managed to snap himself out of his stupor and in a surge of adrenaline he pounded his chest, took something out of his jacket pocket, and yelled, “TAG! YOU’RE IT!” In one quick motion he slapped Boris on the forehead and took off before Boris could react. Mickey kept running at top speed, never looking back, as Boris blinked in surprise and straightened up. He reached up, removed the sticker from his forehead, and looked at it blankly. It was a black cartoon bomb with the word “boom!” written on it in yellow. From behind him, inside the house, he heard laughter.

“He did it! He really finally did it!” laughed Frank hysterically.

“You have some very strange friends, son,” said Boris as he walked inside and closed the door behind him.

[Story (c) Mike Aragona]
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
[Alternate Ending: “Please be sure to invite him over tomorrow night. It would be nice to have him for supper…”]

Sorry, I couldn’t resist 🙂

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Time Enough for Good-Bye

Last month, a friend of my parents had been admitted to the hospital to undergo surgery.  The docs opened him up… and then closed him back again.  There was nothing they could do to save him.  Afterwards, they told him he had only a couple of weeks left to live.

I can’t imagine what went through his or his family’s heads at that point, nor, if I can be honest, would I ever want to.  If one were to think of life as a game, it seems a little cruel to imagine that the “reward” for living/ playing the game would be death. My own beliefs are completely against that simply for the fact that I can not believe that the beauty of life (from the natural world around us, to the beautiful moments of living and loving) could be “wiped away” with something as natural as expiring without it being more than just “death”. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Anyhow, one of the things he did do as part of preparing for the end was to take the time to reach out to everyone he had known to just say good-bye, to thank others for the times they spent together, and just basically have one final discussion.

I will say that my parents were both extremely touched and grateful to have been given that chance to speak to him before he passed on.  They were obviously very sad to learn of his imminent death but for the length of that phone call, they were all able to reminisce, laugh, and be grateful together for the times they spent together and the things they all did for each other over the years. I think it was a beautiful way to leave behind the right memories because as they think about him from now on, just as they did when he finally passed away 2 weeks later, it will always be about that phone call and not about anything negative in the “I wish I had told him…” way.

I was saddened to hear that he had passed on as I both knew and liked him.  But my esteem of him was definitely raised when my parents related the story of his good-bye.  It made me wonder – which is usually the case when death stops in for a visit – if I’m living the kind of life where it would be okay for me to pass on.  You know, the whole “live every day as if it were your last because one day you’ll be right” mantra.

Now, I know the kind of life I’ve lived, and the “type” of person I’ve been over my last 40+ years, and I have come to terms with many of my “stupidities of youth” which I sometimes feel lasted for many, many years 🙂  And I can say that I’ve reconciled or accepted how things are with everyone I’ve ever needed to (apologizing where appropriate) except for perhaps 2 people in varying degrees in my more recent past.

If I were to die today, I know how everyone would/could remember me and know that there isn’t anything important that is “unsaid” and there is a certain peace that comes with that. Those who know me, know how I feel about them, and that is a comforting feeling.  For the two I mentioned above, well, I know they come around here every now and then so there is still a chance they will read what I’m writing now and know that one day I will reach out again.

I guess the main point I’m trying to make is to remind everyone, again, that life is way too short.  That is true if you’ve lived 5, 10, or 500 years.  When you’re at the end of it, it’s all a blur. You could be standing there regretting that you never climbed Everest (which is something I’ll never understand because you don’t need to go that high up to see the beauty of the world unfolding before you) but you should, but you shouldn’t be regretting not having said something important to someone you know and love.  As another reminder, the truth can be said for the reverse as well.  Don’t wait for someone to be gone to miss them and regret words you should have said.

The people you see each day frame the kind of life you live.  Make sure you surround yourselves with the right ones who will bring light to your soul and not the ones that will suck the light out of your soul and leave darkness behind. A smile is much more powerful than a frown if you know how to use it right.



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Celebrating 10 Years…

Today, August 30, 2013, marks 10 years that Chantale and I have been married.  10 years of wedded bliss and also (from back in May) 10 years of living in our first home.  As anniversaries go, it’s both such a big and little number.  Considering we expect to be married (on earth) ’till death do us part’ it’s a small number.  Comparing it to so many other things in life, it’s pretty big.

Every year, we celebrate this day as a family, especially since 6 years ago also marked Charlize’s re-birth at the repair of her heart.  This year, I had originally wanted to do something “bigger” and had been kicking around the idea of taking Chantale back to Paris for a non-rushed vacation.  But then, several months ago, we started thinking about everything we’ve lived through and where we’re at in our lives and decided that instead of spending money on a lavish vacation, we would reorganize our finances and invest into our home.  True enough, with all the saving and planning we’d been doing these last 10 years, we were able to make this new dream possible and completely revamped our backyard.

The first step of committing to purchasing a spa gave us the oomph to tackle this project. Taking inspiration from the many “Decking” shows we’ve been immersed in for the last couple of months, we went ahead and designed the kind of deck we wanted to have.  And then, all the special tweaks and specific items we wanted incorporated!

What began as a great idea took shape during August in amazing fashion!  Chantale’s design ideas were fantastic and we now have an absolutely stunning 3-level deck with some pretty cool triangular gazebos, with a spa as a nice separator 🙂  We also (finally) installed a large shed in the yard so we can get stuff out of garage and store it there (leaving more space for the car in the winter!).  And, with the small crack in the foundation fixed just last week, it’s clear to say that we’re good and ready to enjoy our backyard again!

Not only have we reclaimed the yard, but we feel we’ve extending our living space (in a way) because it “draws” us outside now and is comfortable to be on 🙂  We’ve all gotten more reasons to go outside now, especially with Kyle getting that Basketball net he wanted for his birthday, and Charlize getting swings like she wanted 🙂  So, you see, 10 years is definitely a big deal and I love that we’ve been able to celebrate it in such a way as to last many more years (as opposed to a trip that, however nice, would still only last in memories after a short period).

So, best friends for over 15 years, dating for over 13, living together for over 12, and now married for 10 years!  What a wonderful, wonderful, life!  I’m so blessed and grateful for the beauty of it all 🙂

Happy, happy, anniversary, my love!  To the future! 🙂


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Start A New Ending

There’s this great quote I came across last month from Maria Robinson.  She states, “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”

It’s such a profound, yet simple, quote that I actually printed it up and have a copy of it hanging on my wall at work.  I did this for a number of reasons. At the most basic level, it’s a reminder that nothing goes exactly the way we wish or hope it does.  Sometimes, things muck up, or even start in a bad way.  That doesn’t mean it will always have to BE that way, so why not leave the past in the past and move on?  Aim towards the new or better ending.

The image attached to the quote is one of a tree at sunset. It reminded me of Rafiki trying to give little Simba a lesson about growing up (for those of you who’ve seen The Lion King). Things in the past can still hurt, but we shouldn’t dwell on them. Instead, we should just face forward. Let bygones be bygones, or leave the past in the past, or today is the first day of the rest of your life. Whichever way you want to take it, the lesson is that negative actions of the past can only drag you back, keep you down. Either forgive and move on, or forget and move on, if you can’t forgive and forget.

This kind of thinking comes up in my day-job as well. With Development, bugs happen, or scope changes, or whatever. Some frustration is bound to come up, but the best approach is to simply say, “Ok, what have we learned from this, how do we resolve it, and ensure it doesn’t happen again?”.  It’s not the way you wish the work had started, but it’s now up to you to look at it with eyes towards getting a better ending.

See? That’s the beauty in the simplicity of “LifeTruths”. They can apply across the board, so long as you’re willing to step outside yourself sometimes and see things in a new light.  I apply it to everything from work, to home, to trying to keep a regular blog going… 🙂


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A Question of Choices

I find myself thinking about all the projects I’ve been constantly juggling over the course of many, many years and how much my priorities have changed.

After the zaniness of the ’90s, I made a conscious decision to focus primarily on my family. This meant that outside of some very specific/ big projects, my writing was going to take a backseat.  Obviously I understood what it meant (and what it still means) in terms of everything from building an audience to keeping momentum going.  However, I felt and still feel that it is more important to be there for my wife and kids than anything else. Family is my priority.

What made me realize (today) how different my thinking and priorities are came from the fact that there are a lot of “local” events this weekend that I would love to attend, yet they can’t ever be considered important enough to battle over which one wins.

The Comic creator and fan in me would love to be in Toronto for the Toronto Comic Art Festival. The media fan and writer in me would love to be in Ottawa for the Ottawa ComicCon.  What seems to have been “forgotten” is that Sunday is Mother’s Day!  A day to honor my wife for being an incredible mother to my four children.  A day to remember my own mother for all the things she’s done for me my whole life. Putting all that side-by-side is really a no-contest event.

Of course, if my wife had wanted to go to any of these events, I would gladly have taken her :). The point is the same, though. She takes precedence!



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Death Musings

Death has been on my mind recently.  Whether it be because I’ve been watching too many violent television shows, or that I’m going to be celebrating another birthday next week, or that I recently heard of an ex-colleague’s passing, I can’t escape the fact that it has come into bouncing into my head.  So, as a means of moving beyond it, I’m going to fall back on writing therapy 🙂

There’s a scene in “When Harry Met Sally” where Harry (Billy Crystal’s character) is discussing death with Sally (Meg Ryan’s character) and boasting how he had spent “weeks, months” thinking about death and that it made him ready for the day whenever it happened.

It’s an interesting discussion point because it’s almost impossible to consider.  How can you be ready for something that takes you away from your loved ones?  Granted death is just the end of the road for our mortal coils and we all have to accept it and accept that those who live on will mourn our passing, but that doesn’t mean we can all feel that we’ve wrapped up everything we needed to and can move on.

Personally, I’m not afraid of death.  I don’t believe everything just ends there.  I see it as the “start” of a new journey.  Who’s to say that our dying in this world/ life isn’t a childbirth into another life?  If every physical object in our universe does not disappear but simply changes or transforms (like paper burns into ashes, for a quick example) why should who we are cease to exist? Why can’t we transform into something or someone else?  That, however, is a discussion for another day.  All I wanted to say is that for me, it’s not the end.  It’s like moving to another country with no communications protocol (be it telephone or internet) back to where you were.

When you take away the “fear” of death, then you have nothing to fear from dying.  But my not fearing death does not make me ready for it.  Besides the truth that I don’t want to leave my family behind, that I don’t want them to go through the emotional turmoil of carrying on without me, I don’t want to die just yet.  I love my life and everything around me.  My family, my home, my career.  It’s probably one of the best “time” in my life at the moment – where we’re able to actually enjoy the fruits of our very hard labor of the last few years.  We still have so much more love to give and laughs to live for.  Who would want to leave when there is so much happiness all around us?

When the time does come, sure, I’ll be “ready” in the sense that I won’t have a choice.  Looking at it today, however, I hope that time doesn’t come for a long, long, time!


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Music adds to the Writing Madness

I realized (again) that I hadn’t posted of any of the events that were planned and executed upon in the last couple of months.  January had the Family Disney Trip, February had me returning to Emeryville for a week followed by a weekend jaunt to Chicago to visit my extended family and led into Chantale’s birthday celebrations (yes, multiple :)) and then Melyssa’s birthday celebrations (also multiple!) 🙂

So, there were a lot of emotions and thoughts running through my head these last couple of months about getting older (and now actually looking back on old photos of me as a child with true nostalgia, almost seeing them in a completely new light) as well as doing “more” of the things I love.

As much as I want to share further on what’s bouncing around my head in regards to getting older (more those around me than myself), I think what’s pushing me a lot lately has been creativity and the need to create.

Back in January, a friend of mine sent me his new CD (“Lucky Drive” by OceanRoyal) and then afterwards, talking to him about it (the making of it, the difference with the first CD, playing gigs, studio collaboration, etc) made me really miss that period of my life.  However, no longer being part of a band makes it harder to re-live 🙂  Of course, being a writer with manuscripts to polish off and set free, that’s where I can put energy towards.

The same feelings hit me when I went to see Serena Ryder in concert and got to hang out at the foot of the stage.  Watching her up there and grooving with the music, getting caught up in the energy of the band made me want to get my own stage and rock out… But, again, no longer having a band puts a curve on that rush, so the next best thing is writing.

See, for the last year or so, I’ve had to focus on “bringing home the bacon” and taking care of my family.  Having devoted all my available time to carving out a new career, there was very little time to think about my own creativity.  Whatever small time I could find went to help out my fellow writers as I worked on collaborations and did a lot of copy editing and proof reading. It was enough to make me feel connected while I helped roll out a huge and very satisfying project to Canada.

Now, however… blame it on Spring, or on things moving along at an even pace, or that I’ve just been filled with external creativity and energy… but it’s not enough.  I *need* to get some words down.  I need to see those scenes in my head played out “on paper”.  I need to share the discussions and situations characters are going through.

This means, of course, that unless I can make time for myself to sit down and write creatively again… I’m just going to explode.  And that won’t be pretty 🙂


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