Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Getting to Yes, Getting Things Done

I work for a small company and sometimes get involved in business affairs. I'm not primarily a hacker most of the time. I read a lot of books about business, personal productivity, leading projects, giving talks, marketing, etc,. as well as books on technology, of course.

I'm a little bit addicted to these books actually. But it's not too bad. I don't take most of them very seriously. I don't constantly say to myself, "I must adopt this new pare-a-dime!" Don't worry.
I have read a few really good books, though, and I'll briefly mention two of them today:
  • Getting to Yes and
  • Getting Things Done
    Of the many, many books in the world of business and personal productivity, I think these two are really worth a read. I really like the perspectives and the attitude that they bring to work. I'm mentioning them together for a few really good reasons:

  • They both start with the word "Getting",
  • They look a bit similar, and
  • I read them both over a year ago and still find them useful.
    Getting Things Done: This is a book about personal productivity; I think of it as a relatively simple system of tracking work and keeping promises. I saw this book mentioned on Slashdot, and had heard of a few other people reading it. I implemented the process in this book about 2 years back and still use it today. The book gets it right about most aspects of getting work done.

    It doesn't require a really complicated software system, or really any software at all. You can implement it effectively with file folders and loose-leaf papers. I implement it using a wiki called Trac... so I do happen to use a complicated software system to do a relatively simple job, but that's just me ;)
    Trac is really neat for this system, though, because:

  • it's a wiki - which is a nice way to organize data and
  • it's a "ticket tracking system" - which is a nice way to keep track of "TODO" items.
    If you have access to Trac, I recommend using it for this. When I get email with TODO items in it, I often just copy the email into a ticket, or if it's information that I actually want to save longer term, I copy it into the wiki (or later on move it from the ticket system to the wiki). Then if more emails come in that are related to the same TODO, I actually copy those into the same ticket so that I collect together all of the information that's related to a single action.

    But enough about the technology. The best advice in "Getting Things Done" is about boiling "stuff" into "actions". The author points out that a lot of "TODO items" aren't really very actionable as originally conceived.

    For instance "Hire a new developer" isn't a really good "TODO item" because it's not really a single action that you can perform. On the other hand, "Talk to HR about the job description for a new developer" is a real action.

    So the idea is that it actually takes a bit of thinking to get from the basic idea for a project to an tangible action (not always a lot of thinking, but a bit). It's really important to articulate the tangible action that you need to perform for all of your "TODO items". That way you can look at them and think, "Should I do that NOW?"

    Getting to Yes: This book is about negotiating in a principled and ethical way. I really like the ideas here because I believe in taking care of long-term relationships in all aspects of life, including negotiations. A lot of people approach a negotiation with the idea, "Let's see how much I can get out of this". That can be really damaging when that negotiation is with a coworker for instance. Maybe buying a used car is a different story, since you probably don't really care about a long-term relationship with the person you're buying a used car from.

    The book was recommended by my brother who used it as a text book in law school and applied it in real-life arbitration situations.

    The basic ideas in the book are as follows:
  • Don't bargain over positions, but rather focus on the interests & concerns of each party. It's often the case that positional bargaining limits options, and focusing on interests allows each side to be more creative and "invent options for mutual gain".
  • Invent options for mutual gain. If people are creative and understand each-other, you can create new options that are beneficial to both parties.
  • Separate people from the problem. Don't let personalities rule. Make it possible to be friends. Be hard on the problem, but soft on the people.
  • Insist on using objective criteria. Don't give in to pressure or personalities. Base agreements on objective measures that both sides can see.
    You can read more about that on wikipedia.

    Two relatively simple books with good messages and good attitudes. Definitely a far cry from the run of the mill book on business. In the future, I might write more about my trac configuration for "Getting Things Done". Email me if you're interested in it.
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