Leadership Priorities Vulnerability Willingness

Your Personal Values Underpin Everything You Do. Have You Taken the Time to Write Them Down?

🎹 Music for this post:

There’s nothing quite like a car accident to help you identify your values.

Thirty years ago, Hyrum Smith became well-known for his “Productivity Pyramid” and popularized the practice of value-setting in his Franklin Planner system:

  • How can you identify things to do if you haven’t identified your goals?
  • How can you identify goals if you haven’t taken the time to identify your values?

While I was trained in the Franklin Planner, and appreciated the fact that what I do each day should have its roots in goals and values, Hyrum Smith’s approach always felt a little bit soulless. Why should values focus on productivity? Life is not all about productivity. It’s about floating through space on an earth-sized boat with trillions of other creatures, supporting one another while we try to make sense of what we are doing here together. While I had developed some values that underpinned what I did back then, all I can recall about them is that they were unremarkable and unmemorable.

I don’t think I’m alone. Most people I know — leaders included — have not taken the time to write out and articulate their personal values in a way that brings them personal clarity and vision. It’s a worthwhile exercise, as I hope you come to see.

In my first winter in Rochester, NY, my daily commute to Webster, NY involved driving over the infamous Irondequoit Bay Bridge. Traveling eastbound in the highly-cambered left lane one chilly January morning at 55 miles per hour, my car slid on black ice into the central barrier, ricocheting across all three lanes of traffic, straight toward the water side of the bridge.

In that moment, I closed my eyes.

I was sure that I was going to fly right off the bridge and into the cold bay below. It’s hard to describe what the human brain can conjure in the course of one or two seconds, but I can tell you that this is what came into mine:

“I am going to die. But at least I’ve settled every issue and shared my key life lessons with others, with no lasting regrets.”


Then, I bounced from barrier on the water side of the bridge, ricocheting back into the middle lane of the highway, where my car came to rest. No other cars hit me. I opened my eyes, yet I was fairly confident that I was dead. Airbag smoke filled the cabin, my glasses were blown off my face, and I could not see very well. I took a minute to think about whether or not I was dead, and thought, “Well, if I am alive, I should at least be able to get out of this car.”

Getting out of a car on a busy highway is a bad idea, but adrenaline and cortisol have a way of making you do dumb things. I wound up being perfectly OK, with only a seat-belt bruise across my chest (which I didn’t discover until taking my shirt off later that evening.) My car was totaled, but I walked away with the greatest epiphany of my life:

“Whenever I confront my mortality the next time, I want to have the very same feeling that I did this morning.”

My values didn’t change in that moment; they merely became clear. Over the following years, as I went back to articulate my values, they developed into this:

  1. To love my partner Charles all day, every day. To be with him as often as I can, and to help him with whatever he needs. To learn from him, to listen to him, to make my life better. To do the same for him as he does for me.
  2. To be ready to pass away at any time, and to get others to understand why this is a valuable way of going about life. This involves sharing — never hoarding — my experiences and everything I know, ensuring that others are able to use what I share. This requires persistent teaching skills, and a dedication to knowing that this is an utmost priority.
  3. To do something rather than nothing. To take small steps toward an uncertain future. A partially complete plan with a spirit of commitment toward that uncertain future is more likely to survive the loss of a key person than a plan that never took root at all.

I would never wish you a car accident, but moments like this have a way of bringing all sorts of clarity.

Can I help you articulate your own core values without such a scare? Allow me to try.

Start by trying to identify your top three values:

  1. The first should not involve your work, because work is not an end; it is only a means to an end, and it is far from the most important part of life. It should involve your devotion to a person, or being, or people who are closest to you. It might help you to amplify the earthly actions that drive your relationship with this person, or being, or people.
  2. The second should not involve your work, because work is not an end; it is only a means to an end, and it is far from the most important part of life. It might involve things that inform your daily behaviors and that ensure a sense of assuredness when you pass away.
  3. The third should not involve your work, because work is not an end; it is only a means to an end, and it is far from the most important part of life. It might involve the approach you take to do the things associated with your second value.

The values I value — and that are of value to us all — are the values that involve our soul, and not our work. I hope you can sense, as I do, that well-articulated values can have a huge impact on how you carry about your work. If your find that your work is at odds with your values, however…what you have, dear reader, is a bad job.

If the culture of your workplace allows it — and I hope that it does — I recommend that you and your leadership peers work on your individual values, and share them with one another. It can be especially valuable to do if your team is working on defining your company’s values; it’s almost impossible to do this well if the group of people doing it don’t have an appreciation for each other’s personal values. Although it requires a great deal of vulnerability, when done thoughtfully, thoroughly, and openly, this sort of exercise will enhance team understanding better than any Meyers Briggs test series can.

Are you willing to give this a start, today?

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Agility Priorities Scrum

The Condition of Satisfaction for Agility

🎹 Music for this post:

“What does it mean to be agile?” might be the most common conversation starter in agility’s entire canon.

I don’t really care what people do to achieve agility. Scrum, Kanban, XP, Scrum-ban…whatever you want to practice, it’s fine by me. So long as you are:

  • Trying different things rather than standing still;
  • Not afraid to fail;
  • Accomplishing something — even if it’s learning — rather than nothing;

…you are being agile.

But I’ve come to believe that the entire point of an agile approach is to reduce the anxiety of analysis paralysis. If your agile methods aren’t doing that, then they aren’t serving the intended purpose. Be agile with your agility, and keep trying other things until your anxieties start to decrease. Then — and only then — will you be on the right track.

If you are scratching your head, continue below the graphic…

The condition of satisfaction for agility is the accomplishment of something through an alleviation of anxiety.

How do you mean, Drew?

Look at any of the prescribed techniques of agility, and each seems designed to chisel away anxiety in one way or another:

Scrum’s “three pillars”

  • Transparency: people agree to talk regularly — and not hide or make mysterious — their issues, progress, concerns, deliberations and accomplishments.
  • Inspection: people agree to share regularly — and not hide or make mysterious — their progress, learning, and accomplishments.
  • Adaptation: people agree to change in response to lessons learned, thinking only as much as is necessary in the moment, making choices one step at a time.

The backlog to-do list

  • People agree to have a single place to record their needs so that they are always ready for review, never to be forgotten, and readily re-prioritized as needs evolve.

The user story

  • People employ this simple device that democratizes and simplifies the articulation of functional specifications, something that once was the domain of highly trained engineers.
  • Product owners are liberated to merely articulate the who, the what, and the why of their problem, without having to carry the sole burden of the how.

Meeting reduction

  • People employ agile frameworks with an aim, to one degree or another, to reduce the number of random and/or unnecessary meetings that they have to have.
  • Agile teams recognize that many meetings are a response to a lack of regular information sharing, and a “smell” of something awry. If meetings are an opportunity to “catch up” and allow conversation when everybody has been working separately for too long, something else needs addressing.


  • People are asked to break large, abstract needs into small, approachable, and interchangeable chunks.


  • Each small step in an agile process provides genuine and meaningful value that addresses present needs. Even when a past solution is replaced with something else, all participants can appreciate the value it provided en route.

Prioritization methods

  • Whether a Kano analysis, Theme Screening, Risk/Value Assessment, or others, prioritization methods remove guesswork from the pressures we face when trying to be objective in determining priorities.

Other tools

  • Planning poker: An antidote to the dangers of groupthink, ensuring that each person’s unique perspective is shared and understood without bias from others.
  • Backlog systems like Jira, Azure DevOps, Trello, and others allow collaborative work on backlogs that significantly reduce or eliminate email communication, ensuring greater visibility into the conversation and progress behind each item in your…ahem…to-do list.

Are there things you think are missing? Email me!

I’m hard pressed to think of any agile techniques that increase anxiety. If you can, email me that, too!

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Advice Priorities Read Other People’s Stuff

Three Things About Priorities

(And, Read Other People’s Stuff: 6)

🎹 Music for this post:

It seems that I’ve spent a large part of my life coaching people through prioritization exercises. While there are all sorts of formal methods to help people objectively prioritize things (like my favorite, the Kano analysis), more often than not, prioritization can be — and is — done intuitively. Frankly, intuitive prioritization is wonderful; I tend to save formal methods for times when my (or our) intuition starts to struggle.

I’d like to share three things about intuitive prioritization that are, however, not all that intuitive.

1. Your highest priorities probably aren’t as high as you suspect.

Say you have a list — or backlog — of 100 items.

And say you prioritize each one, 1 (highest) to 4 (lowest).

How many of them are 1s?

Of those, how many are you actively working on?

Subtract that number from the total number of 1s.

If the number is zero, you’re a superstar, and you should pour a glass of your favorite beverage, kick back, and…move on to item #2.

If not, read on.

Of the 1s that you are not actively working on, how long have they been hanging around with that priority?

How many of them really deserve to be 1s?

I remember a few decades ago when I was introduced to the Franklin Planner’s lucid prioritization system. My teacher colored outside the lines and explained to me that “A” priorities are best thought of as do or die. That is, if an “A” priority were to be neglected, someone’s life or job would be at stake. In that sense, in most situations, very few priorities are truly worthy of Franklin “A.” That’s good!

Let’s get back to your list of 100 items. Of those, how many had to be done by yesterday? This may be difficult to swallow, but the answer is always zero. The soonest you can get any of those done is today.

“Have to” is a funny, overused phrase, and we’re all better off remembering that.

The vast majority of our high priorities are likely a Franklin “B.” That is, things that we would like to get done today, but if we can’t, nobody will die or be fired.

2. Your highest priority may be to feel good. Either own that, or do hard things.

Here’s another test of your prioritization prowess:

  • You have a prioritized list of five items
  • The first four have been determined to involve a lot of complex work to address
  • The fifth is easy to address
  • During planning, you decide you want to do the fifth item on the list first, because it will make you feel good to get something done

You’ve just committed a common violation of the laws of prioritization: you’ve lied to yourself about your priorities. Here’s the thing: it’s perfectly OK to want to do item five and feel a “quick win.” It means, however, that feeling a “quick win” is your true priority. Is that OK? It sure is! But you have to own it; you have a grand opportunity to reconsider whether or not items one through four are indeed your highest priorities. Do that openly, in the moment, while the thinking is fresh.

Many times, our highest priorities are the hardest things to address. With finite resources, it takes discipline to stay focused on getting those done if they are indeed high priorities, no matter how hard they may be.

3. Your highest priorities aren’t even in your to-do list.

Why do we all forego so much of the above, so frequently?

The answer is: priorities are about choices, and choices are not naturally easy to make.

Here’s a maxim: There’s no such thing as a perfect decision or choice. If a decision or choice were that easy, there would be no decision or choice to make! You would, as we sometimes say, proceed without having to think too much.

Many things have an intrinsic priority: our families, our friends, our personal lives, our moments of joy, and our moments of sorrow come to mind. Beyond those, there are smaller things, like self-care and emotional fulfillment. We may be able to sustain short bursts de-prioritizing these, but trouble is nigh if this goes on for too long.

In the healthiest moments of our lives, these intrinsic priorities don’t even feel like choices.

You may argue that some of your business processes are similar; fulfilling customer orders, for example. Given a choice of an innovation or following through on a customer need, the latter should probably win.

What puts us out of prioritization whack more than anything else is feeling conflict in the process of tending to things with intrinsic priority over things without.

When you find yourself at this moment…

“I’ve got 10 innovations to work on. I can’t work on them, though, because I have customers to serve.”

…you have two things you can do: 1) Serve your customers and let your innovations wait; or 2) Serve your customers and de-prioritize a few other things to start working on your innovations. Both options involve some pain, but the latter requires deeper thinking. For that, my friends, in the spirit of Read Other People’s Stuff, I can’t recommend this highly enough: Deep Change, by Robert Quinn.

Postscript, October 14, 2023: If you liked this, there’s one more thing…

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Advice Priorities

Another Thing About Priorities

🎹 Music for this post:

Here’s something that I didn’t think belonged in Three Things About Priorities, but that is important nonetheless:

In a pure prioritization process, you should not consider the resources you have at hand to address your priorities.

Why is that?

If something is important enough to be your #1 priority, then it is…your top priority. Whether or not you have the resources to accomplish it is another matter entirely.

If that priority is truly important, then your next step is to consider how to get the resources to address it.

If that becomes uncomfortable, and your #2 priority seems more appealing as a result, then your #2 is, in fact, your top priority.

You might say that this concept is adjacent to “Your highest priority may be to feel good. Either own that, or do hard things” in my previous post, and I would agree with you. In fact, avoiding the work that you need to wrangle resources for your #1 priority may be a form of feeling good.

Whatever choice you make, own it.

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.