Book Review-Getting Results the Agile Way

JD Meier and I know and have worked with the same people. We had exchanged a few emails and were casually acquainted. Over a year ago, I was trying to start a series of articles on developer productivity, and I reached out to him for sage advice. I discovered that he had written a book about personal productivity – Getting Results the Agile Way – and so I wanted to see what he would say about how to be productive in life. True to form, he didn’t disappoint.

Despite this, my review of Getting Results the Agile Way has been stuck for over a year.

Thinking Differently

Just because you respect someone doesn’t mean that you process information the way that they do. I think that is why this review has been on pause for so long. Everything for JD is a list. For me, I make lists up on the fly and then change them as needed. The frameworks that I build are more like willow trees, bending and changing shape to let the wind move past them. JD’s approaches are mechanical and consistent.

I’ve encountered other books that are very checklist oriented – like Michael Hyatt’s Platform. For me, it was hollow. I could see that when I read it. However, with Getting Results the Agile Way there was something more. JD really understands the concepts and perspectives behind the agile movement and at the same time distills them into practical steps that can be used by anyone – whether or not they comprehend the core tenets.

In the end, what caused me to be able to finish this review was the twin awareness of our differences in thinking and recognizing that his audience wasn’t me. His audience is the millions of folks who are trying to get more productive, more enjoyment, and more joy out of their lives, and they want to do it with a recipe book – rather than learning chemistry and physiology – so they can understand how to make a good meal. You can get good at cooking if you understand chemistry and how our bodies respond to food, but it’s the long way around if you just want to cook some good meals.

Developers are Whole People

Both JD and I grew up as developers. In our quest to become better at our craft, we stumbled across and embraced agile methodologies for software development, but JD recognized the applicability to some of the core concepts to other areas of your life. In fact, he identifies the following areas of life, which he calls “hot spots”:

  • Mind
  • Body
  • Emotions
  • Career
  • Financial
  • Relationships
  • Fun

He takes the agile lens and applies it to these areas of his life. (The ONE Thing has a similar set of areas that are areas of focus.) One of the traps that many people struggle with is that life is so complicated that it’s difficult to get your hands on how to move it forward. (And, as Extreme Productivity explains, sometimes even your best made plans aren’t where you’ll end up.) Getting Results the Agile Way is effective at breaking the problem down into different dimensions so that you can make small but measurable progress in one area of your life, then turn your focus to the next area of your life. By processing in sequence, you don’t get overwhelmed, and, over time, you can make progress.

What’s Different About Agile

Imagine that you’re back in the late 1800s, and you hear about two competing groups that are trying to build the first powered flying machine. The first is a well-funded and respected professor out of Chicago named Langley. The second is a pair of brothers who run a bicycle shop in Dayton, OH. They have no background. They have no research support. However, somehow the Wright brothers manage to fly before Langley. How is that?

Much has been made of the publicity surrounding Langley and the fact that he couldn’t fail – but then again, they would say similar things about the Titanic a little more than a decade later. The difference was that the Wright brothers failed over and over again, learning from each attempt. They built wind tunnels and tried to solve what would now be called “engineering problems” even when they couldn’t test full-scale machines. We now know that the Wright brothers were successful – but the reasons why they were successful have as much to do with agile thinking as Langley’s approach was like waterfall development.

When the Agile Manifesto was first introduced, it was a radical departure in software development. Waterfall meant long planning cycles and monolithic projects that did one big delivery and were, for the most part, done. While this was never the intention of the waterfall software development lifecycle, bringing in project managers who were only experienced with developing projects in the physical world necessarily made it difficult to iterate. Agile software development didn’t just turn over the idea of a single release towards a model of continuous release, it challenged several other ideas as well.

Trying became a first-class citizen. Failure wasn’t just an option; it was a certainty. Instead of denying that failure was real, it was embraced and accepted. Failure was recognized as a step in learning, growing, and becoming better. Agile approaches do view problems differently while acknowledging that a more accurate view of reality is important.

JD summarizes the differences as:

  • Fresh Start. If you fall off the horse, you can get back on. You get a fresh start each day, each week, each month, each year.
  • Test Your Results. Have a bias for action. Rather than do a bunch of analysis and commit to a big plan up front, start taking action and testing your results.
  • Fix Time, Flex Scope. By fixing time, you set yourself up for success. The main thing is to set a fixed time for eating, sleeping, and working out.
  • Boundaries. Boundaries are simply minimums and maximums. Setting boundaries is a key to success.
  • Tests for Success. Your tests for success answer the question, “What will good look like?”
  • Approach over Results. How you accomplish your results is more important than the results themselves in the long run.
  • The Rhythm of Results. Iterate on your results. Version your results over time. The rhythm of results is your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly results.
  • Time, Energy, and Technique. You don’t want to just throw more time at problems. You also don’t want to burn yourself out by just throwing your energy into things. Your results are a combination of time, energy, and technique.
  • Strengths over Weaknesses. Rather than spend all your time improving your weaknesses, spend your time playing to your strengths.
  • System over Ad Hoc. When you have routines for how you produce results, you can learn and improve.
  • Continuous Learning. The world’s not static. Skills aren’t static. You’re not static. Learning is a first-class citizen.

Throughout the book, he summarizes key points and makes lists for you to return to when you’re struggling to see the world in a helpful way.

Worst Things First

Long ago I learned a skill that’s been with me. I learned it from project management and think of it as managing my risks; but in JD’s language, it’s doing the worst things first. That is, whatever is risky or dangerous or might not work gets done first, as do the things that you don’t want to do.

This is frustrating from a startup perspective, because it means that you’re slaying all the dragons and you’re not getting to experience the thrill of the countryside. However, in my experience, lives and projects go off track when you wait until the very end to try to do the hardest parts. By then, interest and energy wane, and sometimes it’s not enough to get things done.

Energy Management

JD’s right on target as he speaks about the challenges of energy management. Recognizing when you’re the most powerful and have the most energy is an important first step. Recognizing what things bring you energy and help build you up is a solid second step. Time is the one commodity that we have a fixed amount of. Energy can be cultivated, and it’s the energy to get things done that makes time valuable.

Agile resets the energy clock at each cycle. Each day, week, month, year makes a new cycle of energy available to you – if you know to look for it. Constantly seeking energy and learning how to cultivate it in yourself and can give you what you need to get results.

The Wright brothers celebrated each of their small successes, recognizing they’d have another the next day – but at the same time, they had one less problem to solve.

Maintaining Motivation

One of the secrets to getting results is staying motivated long enough to get them. It’s one part productivity and efficiency and another part persistence – keeping your shoulder to the work until it’s done. (See Willpower for more on the components of willpower.) Maintaining motivation requires an understanding that everyone can expand themselves through work. We aren’t born with a skill, and if we try and fail, we’ll never be able to do something. (See Mindset for more on our ability to grow and expand ourselves.) The truth is that we live in a probabilistic world, where the ability to do something relies on more than the situation and our capabilities. There’s a certain amount of randomness to life that we have to accept. (See The Halo Effect for more on our probabilistic world.)

Perhaps the biggest risk in not finding the motivation to continue is accidentally and unintentionally teaching ourselves helplessness. Learned helplessness is the state we can get into when we believe that there is nothing that we can do to improve our situation. Like the elephant tied in place with a strong chain as a child won’t pull on the tiny rope that holds him back as an adult, we can be held back by our limiting beliefs that we’re helpless. It’s obvious that the tiny rope doesn’t hold back the large elephant – the elephant is held back by his learned helplessness. (Find more on learned helplessness in The Paradox of Choice.)

The Rule of Three

One of the rules that I struggle with most is the rule of three. That is, I should only have three things that I’m working on in any given period. That isn’t to say that you can only do three things a day. Rather, it’s that you shouldn’t have more than three areas of focus. Here I feel challenged for the same reasons I mentioned while reviewing The ONE Thing – there are more than three areas. How can I focus on only three areas when there are so many areas to focus on?

The answer seems to be that there are things you’re just keeping going, and there are things you’re actively developing. We’ve got projects around here that we occasionally put a bit of energy into. They are not, however, areas of focus. The goal of the rule of three isn’t to limit you. It’s to allow you to focus enough energy into a single direction so that you can see progress. (See Predictably Irrational for more on our aversion to letting things go and focusing.)

Fix Time, not Scope

One of the things that I learned in the development of books and educational materials is that they’re never perfect. There’s always the ability to get another review, do some fixups on the content, or do something that would make the content better. The challenge that the lean philosophy addresses is not making investments that the customer doesn’t find value in. Lean relentlessly removes waste and parts of the system that don’t add value. In the book development process, the number of editors has been steadily scaled back over the last 20 years. We used to have half a dozen people crawling over content to make it better. Now, that number is probably half that.

The tricky part is knowing when the effort is important and necessary. Having friends in the publishing industry, I know that there are books that absolutely took more to produce because they required precise layout, color prints, etc. But these books also stood out from the crowd because of their quality, and thus they sold well. The quandary is how much energy and time should you put into a book – or any project – to make it right?

By fixing time you can dodge the question. You can say that, while scope may be hard to figure out, you can time box and deliver what you have when the timer expires. This is at the heart of agile thinking. When the sprint ends, whatever you can add to the delivery is what you have. Whether it’s enough for the customer or not is for them to decide.

In the physical world, when you’re finished with something, it’s often hard to modify. However, in relationships and in other ethereal contexts, sometimes you just must define how much time you can invest in the project.

Focus on Results

In the end, whatever you do is only measured by the results that you get. JD provides a useful structure for evaluating results:

Hot Spot Description
Action How you take action and manage your activities towards results.
Efficiency and Effectiveness How you manage the cost and speed of your results, as well as how you manage the quality of your results.
Energy Management How you manage your energy in terms of thinking, feeling, and doing, as well as how you take care of your eating, sleeping, and working out.
Expectations How you set and reset expectations with yourself and others.
Focus How you focus your time, energy, and attention.
Goals and Objectives How you set meaningful goals and objectives for your results.
Information Management How you organize and manage information, as well as avoid information overload.
Learning How you find the lessons, improve, and correct course.
Mindsets and Motivation How you get your head in the game.
Planning How you map out the work to be done.
Prioritizing How you choose what’s more important.
Self-Awareness How to improve your knowledge about yourself in terms of achieving results.
Self-Discipline How you correct your behavior.
Task Management How you manage your tasks and action items.
Time Management How you manage and schedule your time.

The First Step

JD offers up dozens of other tips, lists, keys, and ways to convert the relatively loose framework of agile thinking into something that you can use to improve not just your software development but your life as well. To do that, you’ll have to read Getting Results the Agile Way.

managing controlled documents

Now Available: Managing Controlled Documents in SharePoint White Paper

Controlled documents have been with us for a long time.  Whether there’s a legal, regulatory, or internal political reason to maintain control of documents, they’re an important part of any content strategy.  We found that we were helping clients understand the core requirements for controlled documents – and how SharePoint could support those requirements.  We decided to gather our discussions into a white paper, “Managing Controlled Documents in SharePoint.”  It distills what you need to know about controlled documents into a few pages.  Whether you’re an old hand at controlled documents or you’re new to the idea, you’ll find a better understanding in this white paper.

Get the Managing Controlled Documents white paper

Reenabling Home Page / Web Page Views for Outlook Folders

One of my favorite tricks for making it easier for folks to use SharePoint is to set the view of a folder in Microsoft Outlook to a page so that users see the page instead of the contents of the folder. This creates a quick link inside of Outlook to SharePoint. However, the October 2017 updates broke this functionality. See Outlook Home Page feature is missing in folder properties for more on what they changed and why. Fortunately, the blog post has a way to reenable the functionality. I’ve put together a quick .reg file that you can run to get the functionality back. It’s in this ZIP file. You’ll have to extract it and double-click it. The standard legal disclaimers apply.

Once you’ve run the file you can right-click a folder, from the menu that appears select properties, then select the Home Page tab. On the Home Page tab, you can click the ‘Show home page by default for this folder’ and enter the URL of the site that you want to have displayed when you select the folder. Finally, click OK.

In this case, I’ve got my Saved Mail folder set to open the SharePoint Search site for my Office 365 tenant.

Book Review-Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything

It might seem odd that one of the forefathers of information architecture would proclaim that everything is intertwingled and thus hard to force down into specific categories, but that’s what Peter Morville is saying. You can’t separate the parts from the whole. Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything is the start of a journey in realizing that, no matter how hard you try to cut apart, partition, chunk, and dissect, most things can’t be broken down without losing something. That won’t stop us from doing it, because we need to do it to simplify our world. However, it may change the way that we approach the process.

Thinking in Systems

The vehicle in our journey is the ability to see everything as a system. There’s an old Tootsie Roll commercial where a jingle is played that ends with “Tootsie Rolls are all I see.” It’s a catchy tune that was designed to get people thinking about Tootsie Rolls, so they couldn’t forget about them. However, there’s some truth in life to this commercial. Once you see something, you can’t un-see it. It’s impossible to not know what a hippopotamus looks like after you’ve seen one. If you’ve learned to see things in systems, it’s hard to un-see them.

For Morville – and for me – everything is a system. It’s a system that can be manipulated, changed, and adapted often with unintended and inexplicable outcomes. Whether you realize that steel axe heads degenerated some aboriginal societies (as in Diffusion of Innovations), you got caught up in Peter Singe’s wildly popular The Fifth Discipline, or you stumbled across the posthumously published book Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows, once you’ve been infected with the awareness that everything is a system of stocks and flows (inbound and outbound), it’s hard to not see it any longer.

However, just because you can see things in systems doesn’t mean you can predict outcomes. Gary Klein recognized that fire commanders build mental models of the fire where they could predict what is happening. Their Sources of Power may not have been consciously known to them, but they did know when one of their expectations generated by the model was violated, and it was time to go back to the drawing board and try to learn how the system was really functioning.

Fire commanders were strikingly good at predicting how the fires they were used to would behave. Their mental models worked. However, knowing how fires worked made them no better at predictions in other areas of their life. They didn’t even realize that they were seeing the fire as a system and simulating its facets – they were blind to the fact that they were even seeing the fire as a system. (Seeing What Others Don’t is another work by Klein which helps to explain how we develop the insights that fuel our mental models.)

Wireframes and Storyboards

Wireframes are a stock tool of a user experience designer and of the information architect. These wireframes form the boxes. They’re the pictures of what’s being built. However, what Morville and others have discovered is that it’s what happens between the boxes that is truly interesting. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud explains that the story in a comic book happens in the gutter between the frames. In effect, it’s the arrows between the boxes that gives the story its power. It’s what the user fills in themselves that helps the most.

Story is about connecting one frame with the next. That’s why storyboards are an even more powerful tool for designers than the venerable wire frame. Storyboards, which are often used in designing feature films (see Creativity, Inc.), connect the dots and reveal what’s hidden in plain sight in the way of the wireframes.

Rewinding to Agility

One of the criticisms laid at the steps of information architecture is that it reeks of “big design up front.” This is just the sort of waterfall-based logic that agile development teams launch scud missiles at. The problem is that too few practitioners of agile have read the Agile Manifesto or understand what information architecture is. They argue against documentation when the original founders of the agile movement were more concerned with ceremony and eliminating the waste caused by it. They didn’t want to eliminate documentation. They were focused on building and adapting instead of unnecessary documentation and unnecessary rigidity. However, there’s nothing in agile that argues against understanding what you’re doing. In fact, agile is focused on learning and understanding. The argument that agile levels against traditional waterfall (one-iteration) approaches is in believing in the planning fallacy – that you can plan through things ahead of time. (See How Will You Measure Your Life? for more.)

In fact, agile aligns perfectly with systems thinking, where you do something, observe the results, and then do something else. Sometimes you reverse (or try to reverse) the latest change. Sometimes you head off in a different direction. Ultimately, you’re always making small changes to see how things react, then adapting.

Information architecture – like software development – can take on characteristics of agile or traditional waterfall development. It all depends upon whose hands the tools are wielding the tools. There are some activities that require the development of non-intervention understanding. However, this is not always the case. Good information architecture recognizes that you won’t get it right the first time – or at one time. The needs of users to access content shift as attitudes and options change.

Memories

Our memories are fickle things. Our memories aren’t like video recorders accurately storing what happened. Instead, the memories become encoded and reduced into fragments and concepts that we can rearrange when we try to retrieve them. (See Science in Pseudo Science in Clinical Psychology for more on the fallacy of our memories.) Our memories don’t encode words. Instead, we encode concepts and ideas. When we retrieve the memory, we reconstruct the concepts using the words that we have in our current vocabulary.

If you don’t believe me, try to recall a conversation that you had when you were 8-10 years old. Recite the dialogue as you remember it into a recorder. Then go back and review the recording. You’re likely to find that your words weren’t words that you had in your vocabulary back then. Your memories were reconstructed with the help of your current vocabulary.

This simple trick reveals one of the ways that our brain tries to fool us. (For more on the way that our brain fools us see Incognito.)

Words

Even though we don’t remember words directly, words are deeply embedded into the way that we think. If you feed people negative experiences, you’ll get back negative words. One of the favorite parlor tricks of pop psychology is to listen for the Freudian slip. That is, when the truthful thing slips out from underneath the weight of polite society. Chris Argyris has an exercise of left and right columns, where the right column is what was actually said, and the left column is what was thought or felt. This exercise exposes how the words we use aren’t the words that we mean, and how these words can lead us down unproductive paths. (See Organizational Traps for more on the two-column method.)

Words are the way that we create the mental framing that we use for a problem. That’s why the words we use in our taxonomies are so important. They can conjure up the right ideas or ones that don’t connect with our audiences.

Maps and Territories

They’re called the badlands. Technically, this is a geological term referring to the erosion of clay-rich soil and softer sedentary rocks. However, the connotations of the term “bad” subtly influence millions of people to avoid these beautiful geological features. In this way, labeling an area as “badlands” on a map influences the visitors at Badlands National Park. The hidden connotations of the words we use shape how people see what we’re talking about, for better or for worse.

If I define a category for furniture, I’ll shape the way that people think about the category. They’ll picture in their mind what furniture means. They’ll see a chair, a couch, or a table. (At least 90% of the groups I do this exercise with say these three items.) If I’m looking for a rug, I won’t automatically look in furniture. Similarly, I’ll have a problem looking for a lamp. Is it in electrical or furniture? It has both properties.

So in one sense, a map isn’t a territory – but in another sense, it is, because it shapes that way that we think about the territory.

Multiplicity

There is an information architecture problem caused when the categorization labels make it difficult for consumers to decide which path they should follow. One approach to solving this is to use polyhierarchy – having one category included in multiple places in the hierarchy – said differently, having two parent categories for the same category.

While this is a necessary strategy for providing solutions to platypus-type problems (which don’t fit neatly in any one category), it can be an unnecessary crutch used because of poor category selection. Like other tools in the information architecture toolbox, it’s important to know when to use it – and when not to.

The best strategy for managing the problem of things that fall within multiple categories of an existing taxonomy is to use multiple taxonomies. That is, instead of creating one and only one hierarchy of terms, multiple taxonomies are used, each with its own set of terms that can be selected when appropriate – and omitted when not necessary.

Intertwingled

With all we know about how the mind works and how we categorize, we still don’t know enough, and we still can’t see enough. Breaking things down into their components so that we can learn about them is a good strategy. (See Efficiency in Learning and The Art of Explanation for more on learning approaches.) However, it’s not a good strategy if we fail to learn how those pieces fit together, how they work together, and how they break the rules when they’re connected to one another. That’s what makes things Intertwingled. They become that way because, when you put the pieces back together, you don’t always get exactly what you would expect. If you’re ready to start your own journey, perhaps it’s time to learn to see the world Intertwingled.

designing departmental sites

Now Available: Designing Departmental Sites White Paper

One of the common challenges that we see when working with our larger clients is how departments can communicate their value to the organization.  There’s substantial confusion about the spaces needed by a department, including their need to communicate to the rest of the organization and the seemingly competing requirements for a collaboration space.

We captured all the thinking and backing research about how to create departmental sites that communicate the value of your department to the organization.  Leveraging ideas like service catalogs and how to write service value statements, our “Designing Departmental Sites” white paper is designed to help IT, HR, and other “shared services” departments build something that is usable both internally for collaboration and externally to communicate value to the rest of the organization.

Get the Designing Departmental Sites white paper

Book Review-How to Make Sense of Any Mess

When I explain my passion for information architecture to folks, they often wonder what I’m talking about. They understand intuitively that I’m not talking about designing buildings, but how can you design information? A better way of explaining information architecture is to say it is How to Make Sense of Any Mess. Abby Covert nailed the colloquial definition. In her book, she takes a practical tone to an often academic topic and explains how to make sense of our messes.

Fuzzy Lines of Information and Knowledge

The first thing that we’ve got to get out of the way is that all information is relative. What we know is true for our beliefs and our circumstances but not necessarily true to everyone or in all circumstances. The depths of the problem aren’t new to me. I’ve spent time exploring choice theory, where explaining your choices makes you less likely to like them. (See The Paradox of Choice.) I’ve peered under the covers of knowledge management to realize that not everything we know can be explained explicitly. Somethings are tacit – we just know them, and we can’t take them out of context. (See Lost Knowledge.)

I’ve addressed the fuzziness with which our words convey our meaning. Though we have powerful mind-reading skills that allow us to work together, these skills are not perfect (see Mindreading). A single word can have opposite meanings. Words with multiple, different meanings are called homographs. They’re particularly insidious to communication when they have opposite meanings. Consider dust – which can either refer to the act of removing dust or the dust itself. Consider “weather,” which can either mean to withstand a storm or to be worn away.

I know, too, that the way we arrange options can make us what Nudge calls “choice architects.” We can shape the choices that people take by their arrangement. However, the rules for this rely upon the murky depths of subtle cues that we use to make or decisions without knowing we’re making decisions.

To What End

The ultimate question for any information architecture effort is “To what end?” That is, who is going to use the information you’re organizing? What are their goals? What is it that you would like them to learn – without knowing it? By answering these questions, you can use the tools you have to create organizations that make it easier for users to find the information they’re looking for.

However, the current users aren’t the only people to be considered when designing the information architecture. Future potential users count, too – particularly when the existing user base is small and you’re trying to make it larger. So, too, do those people who are involved in the outcome of the structure that you’re using – like investors or managers of the departments.

Make It Visual

Organizing information isn’t an easy proposition. It’s a process designed to reduce the cognitive load necessary to learn. (See Efficiency in Learning for more on cognitive load.) One might argue that, if we’re speaking about organizing and making sense of messes, what does learning have to do with this seemingly unrelated topic? The answer is that we’re learning to navigate the information jungle to find what we’re looking for. We’re learning how to organize our thinking into more effective patterns. Thus, we’re always learning. Marcia Bates estimates that we absorb 80% of what we know not through formal learning. We just “get” it by experiencing life.

Our brains are inherently visual. We’re not wired to process information in the collection of ordered symbols called letters into words, sentences, and paragraphs. While we adapt in the direction of being able to process this information, we still make sense of pictures and diagrams easier. That’s why “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Abby Covert walks us through several diagram types including block diagrams, flow diagrams, Gantt charts, quadrant diagrams, Venn diagrams, swim lanes, hierarchies, mind maps, schematics, and journey maps. Each of these visualizations has different benefits. In software requirements gathering, I use these types of diagrams as well as entity relationship diagrams, activity diagrams, state diagrams, data flow diagrams, and ecosystem maps. The idea is that each type of visualization can quickly relate an aspect of the relationship between entities in ways that the others – and certainly words – cannot.

Technically Right, Practically Useless

In designing a taxonomy, there are sometimes some hard choices to be made. In some cases, the users routinely categorize something “incorrectly.” While there’s no right or wrong way to organize things, once you’ve accepted a taxonomy, every item should have its place. A classic example is the tomato. Technically, it’s a fruit, but it’s important to know not to put it in a fruit salad. Most folks recognize that it has vegetable-type qualities when used in cooking. When classifying products in a grocery store, where would you put the tomato? In the technically correct location – where few people would find it initially – or in the incorrect location where it’s findable?

The answer depends on your goals. In the case of a grocery store, the answer may be that you file it with vegetables, because cashiers and shoppers who use self-serve lines expect to find it there. If you’re a college library on botany ,where would you place it, then? Because there’s a different objective, teaching the “correct” locations, you might be inclined to place it in the category of fruit. Of course, people still won’t be able to find it, but then they can be admonished by a professor for not realizing that the tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable.

Ambiguity and Exactitude

On the surface, exactitude would be our goal in organizing any mess. After all, if everything has a place, and everything is in its place, then all is right with the universe. However, exactitude costs us flexibility. We can’t put cooking scissors in a drawer labeled spices and expect anyone will find them. Spices is a specific and –relatively speaking – exact label. It means that we don’t have the flexibility to add scissors into the same container. Of course, the ambiguity of “kitchen stuff” is probably broad.

“Kitchen stuff” could be almost anything even – quite literally – the kitchen sink. Cooking stuff may be an alternate category label that restricts the contents some, but not by much. The flexibility offered by ambiguity increases the level of abstraction and reduces navigability.

There’s no answer to how to create the right balance of being ambiguous enough to be accommodating to unexpected events and at the same time exact enough to be clear and valuable. When you err in one direction, you move away from the other.

Everything is a Mess

In the context of How to Make Sense of Any Mess, everything is a mess. At some level, something designed by someone else won’t make perfect sense for us. Things designed by others will at least seem messy to us. Even things that seem like they’re organized today won’t feel organized tomorrow. We don’t have to feel overwhelmed by the mess. Bit by bit, we can make sense of our messes – and try to move things forward. Even if we don’t expect to ever learn how to make sense of our messes, it’s worth learning How to Make Sense of Any Mess.

while you were out form

Adding Quick Parts to Your Form Template

This step-by-step will help you add Word Quick Parts to your existing form template. This will allow your users to fill out the fields on the form and have those fields filled out in the corresponding SharePoint library. Users will still fill out the fields they always do when completing the form, but they won’t have to add the same information in again back in SharePoint.

This solution will change the default document template of a library. In this case, we’ll use an invoice form. This solution is good if you have a single library that holds a single type of form. If you want a library to hold many kinds of forms, you can still take advantage of Quick Parts, but you’ll want to take a look at the solution, “Using Word Quick Parts with a Custom Content Type.”

Task 1: Set Up the Library

The first step is to make sure the library is set up. Our example library will exclusively hold invoices. This is important to know, as the content we want to store here will influence the site columns we’ll need to add in the next task.

1.    In a web browser, navigate to the SharePoint site where you want your library to be. The site’s home page will open.

2.    In the Suite bar, in the upper-right hand corner of the page, click the gear icon. The actions menu will open.

3.    Click Add an app. The Your Apps page will open.

Figure 1: The Your Apps Page

4.    Click on the Document Library tile. This is normally found under Noteworthy, but you can search for it as well. Click the “Find an app” search box, type library, then press Enter. Matching results for “library” will appear. You can then click Document Library. The Adding Document Library dialog box will appear.

5.    In the Name field, type a name for the Library app, such as Invoices. We’ll use the name Invoices for the rest of this document to refer to this new library.

Figure 2: The Adding Document Library Dialog Box with the Invoices Name

6.    Click Create. The Invoices library will be created, and you’ll be taken to the Site Contents page.

7.    In the site contents listing, click Invoices. The Invoices library’s default view will open.

Figure 3: The Invoices Library’s Default View

Task 2: Associate Site Columns to the Invoices Library

Now we’ll add some site columns to the library. This is important, because Word Quick Parts can only populate properties when they’re associated with site columns. When opened in Word, the site columns will be displayed as “properties” of the document. This example will use custom site columns that we’ve already created. For more guidance on creating site columns, please see the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users task, “Create a Site Column.”

1.    On the Invoices library’s default view, in the Suite bar, click the gear icon to open the actions menu.

2.    Click Library settings. The Invoices library’s settings page will open.

Figure 4: The Invoices Settings Page

3.    Towards the bottom of the page in the Columns section, under the list of columns, click Add from existing site columns. The Add Columns from Site Columns page will open.

Figure 5: The Add Columns from Site Columns Page

4.    In the Select Columns section, under Select site columns from, select the site column group that your site column is categorized as. For this example, we’ll select the Secret SharePoint site column group.

Figure 6: The Available Site Columns in the Secret SharePoint Site Column Group

5.    Under Available site columns, select a site column to add to the library. For this example, we’ll select Invoice #.

6.    Click Add. The site column will be added to the Columns to add box.

7.    Repeat steps 5-6 to add more site columns. For this example, we’ll also add the site column PO #.

Figure 7: The Site Columns Selected to Add to the Invoices Library

8.    When you’re finished adding site columns, at the bottom of the page, click OK. The site columns will be added to the Invoices library, and you’ll be returned to the library’s settings page. In the Columns section, the selected site columns will be listed along with the library’s default site columns.

Figure 8: The Site Columns in the Columns Section

Task 3: Edit the Default Document Template

This task now walks you through editing the Invoices library’s default document template. If you already have a form designed and prepared, you can copy and paste the contents of the form into the blank Word document. Then we’ll show you how to add the Quick Parts to the template. Remember, any site columns we added to the library app will be called “properties” in Microsoft Word.

1.    On the Invoices library’s settings page, under General Settings, click Advanced settings. The Advanced Settings page will appear.

Figure 9: The Advanced Settings Page

2.    In the Document Template section, under Template URL, click (Edit Template). Microsoft Word will launch, and a blank Word document will appear.

Figure 10: The Blank Template Open in Microsoft Word

3.    Design your form or copy and paste in the contents of an existing form. For our example, we already have our invoice form prepared, so we’ll copy and paste it into the blank Word document.

Figure 11: The Invoices Form Pasted into the Template

4.    Click the Insert tab to open the Insert ribbon.

5.    Find a location on the document that will contain the information you want to send to SharePoint. For our first example, we’ll use Invoice #, which is found in the upper-right corner of the form. Because we want to place invoice numbers to the right of Invoice #, click the area to the right of Invoice # to move the insertion point there. If there is existing placeholder text, delete it now.

Figure 12: The Insertion Point to the Right of Invoice #

6.    In the Insert ribbon’s Text section, click the Explore Quick Parts icon. The icon looks like a page that has multiple boxes of content in different colors. The Quick Parts menu will appear.

Figure 13: The Explore Quick Parts Icon

7.    Hover over Document Property, and a list of the document’s properties will be displayed. You should see both the default document properties, such as Author, Title, and Tags, as well as the names of the site columns that we just associated to the library.

Figure 14: The Document Property Menu

8.    Select the site column you want to add as a Quick Part in the document. For our example, we’ll select the Invoice # site column. The Invoice # site column will be added to the form as a Quick Part. It’ll be displayed as a gray text box with the site column’s name in square brackets, such as [Invoice #].

Figure 15: The Invoice # Quick Part in the Template

9.    Repeat steps 5-8 to add other Quick Parts to the form in the desired locations. For our example, we’ll also add the PO # site column. Our location for purchase order numbers is in the table on the middle of the page, under PO#, so we’ll click the blank table cell, then select PO # from the Quick Parts menu. This will add the PO # Quick Part to the form.

Figure 16: The PO # Quick Part in the Template

10.    When you’re finished adding Quick Parts to the template, save the template. If you’re using SharePoint Online, you must save the template as a new name. Start by clicking the File tab to open the Info screen.

Figure 17: The Info Screen

11.    Click Save As. The Save As screen will appear.

Figure 18: The Save As Screen

12.    Under Current Folder, click Forms. The Save As window will open.

13.    In the File name field, give a new name to the template. For this example, we’ll use the name Invoice.

14.    Click Save. The Save As window will close, and the template will be saved in the Forms library.

15.    Now we need to set our new template as the library’s default template. Close Microsoft Word.

16.    The Advanced Settings page should still be visible in your browser window. In the Document Template section, under Template URL, delete template and replace it with the new name you just gave to the template. The Template URL field should read something like Invoices/Forms/Invoice.dotx.

Figure 19: The New Document Template

17.    At the bottom of the Advanced Settings page, click OK. You’ll be returned to the Invoices library’s settings page.

18.    To return to the Invoice’s library’s default view, at the top of the Invoices library’s settings page, in the breadcrumb bar, click Invoices. You’ll be returned to the Invoices library’s default view.

Task 4: Populate Metadata Using Quick Parts

This final task will show you how information added to the Quick Parts will be added to SharePoint without typing the information twice. You can instruct users to use these steps whenever they fill out their form.

1.    On the Invoices library’s default view, in the command bar, click New. The New menu will appear.

Figure 20: The Expanded New Menu

2.    Click Document. Depending on your library’s settings, Microsoft Word will launch, and the default document template will open.

Note: Depending on your library’s settings, Word Online may launch. At the top of the Word Online screen, click Edit in Word. The We’re opening this in Microsoft Word… dialog box will appear, and Microsoft Word will launch.

Figure 21: The New Document Open in Word

3.    Fill out the fields of your form.

4.    When you get to a field that contains a Quick Part, you’ll see a gray text box with the name of the field in square brackets, such as [Invoice #]. To fill out these fields, click into the Quick Part, then type the information. For the Invoice # example, we’ll type LL-001.

Figure 22: The Invoice # Quick Part with LL-001

5.    Repeat step 4 for every Quick Part in the form. For our example, we’ll also fill out the P.O. Number field. We’ll click the Quick Part, then type PO-100.

Figure 23: The PO # Quick Part with PO-100

6.    When you’re finished filling out the fields, save your document. Click the File tab to open the Info screen.

7.    Click Save As. The Save As screen will appear.

8.    Under Current Folder, click Invoices. The Save As window will open.

Figure 24: The Save As Window

9.    In the File name field, give a unique name to your document. For this example and for the rest of the document, we’ll use the name Invoice LL-001.

10.    Click Save. The document will be saved to the Invoices library, and the information you entered into the Quick Parts will now be added to the site columns of the document library as properties of the document.

11.    Close the Word document. If Microsoft Word was initially launched instead of Word Online, your browser window should show the library’s default view.

Note: If Word Online was originally launched, you should see the Word Online window instead of the library’s default view. To navigate back to the library app, in the Suite bar to the left of the document’s name, click Invoices. You’ll be returned to the library app’s default view.

12.    Your document will appear in the item listing with the metadata populated in the columns. For our example, you’ll see the Invoice # field contains LL-001, and the PO # field contains PO-100.

Figure 25: Invoice LL-001 with the Populated Metadata

Book Review-The Accidental Taxonomist

There are dozens of things that I do each day that I didn’t set out to do. I do accounting and billing work without a desire or intent to do it. I do sales and marketing – and neither are at the top of my list of things to do. I accidentally picked these things up when I decided to be an entrepreneur and run my own company well over a decade ago. Working with taxonomies – and becoming a taxonomist – can happen by accident too. That’s why The Accidental Taxonomist is appropriate for someone looking to learn how to create taxonomies. I’ve never heard a child say, “I want to grow up to be a taxonomist.” Despite this, there are those who have taxonomy as a part of their job – whether they intended it to be or not.

Long, Long Road

Before I get to the heart of the matter, it’s appropriate to tell you that I didn’t read the book in one sitting. I didn’t read it in a week, a month, or even a year. I started the process of reading The Accidental Taxonomist about half a dozen years ago. It was as I was putting the final touches on my Pluralsight course The Art and Practice of Information Architecture. I got the course done and never finished the book.

In just getting back to it, I felt a bit like some of my clients that struggle to get their taxonomy projects off the ground. Or, rather, my clients that needed to get something accomplished and realized they needed a taxonomy to accomplish their goals. The taxonomy was started, the goals were achieved, and the taxonomy sat aside for a while – sometimes a long while. Before we get too far, we should explain what a taxonomy is.

What is a Taxonomy, Anyway?

Barry Swartz in The Paradox of Choice explains that filtering is one of the basic functions of consciousness. What he doesn’t cover is that so is organization. We’re hardwired to make sense out of our world, and, as Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power, that comes through simplification until we have a model that we can run in our heads. Taxonomies allow us to organize our thoughts and information.

We’re all familiar – willingly or not – with the hierarchical biological taxonomy of zoology. That is to say that we learned Carl Linnaeus’ organization of all animals. We learned Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species as a way for differentiating one animal from another and identifying their nearest cousins.

We also learned, but most of us promptly forgot, how Melvin Dewey organized his library. The system of organization held a brilliant discovery for extension. He figured out that he could make his system flexible and allow for increasing levels of detail through the use of a numbering system.

We probably never learned about S.R. Ranganathan’s different approach to classification. He was frustrated that things could only be placed in one spot. There was in effect one “right” way to find things. His insight was to introduce facets. Instead of trying to capture the uniqueness of any given item in a single hierarchical dimension, he proposed that items be classified in several different categories, or facets, and the combination of these facets would be how the item was classified. This approach was called colon classification, because he chose the colon to separate the various facets.

I include Ranganathan’s system to point out that taxonomies are about organization. They’re not about hierarchy, though that is often the way they’re executed. They’re not about books or animals. Taxonomies are, at their core, about how we make sense of this world that is far too complex for our minds to process.

What’s a Thesaurus?

I remember first “discovering” the thesaurus in grade school. You could make your writing sound more impressive by looking up words that no one knew. I could take a simple, common, everyday word and replace it with something more profound and meaningful. (Perhaps I even looked up the word profound.) To me at the time, thesaurus only meant synonyms. I could find words with similar definitions. Eventually, I found the antonyms. However, for the better part of 30 years, that’s all they were.

When I started diving into information architecture and how we organize information in ways designed to make them easier to access, I realized that my old friend the thesaurus was more powerful than I had given her credit for. More than just synonyms and antonyms, the thesaurus contained the relationships between words. Where a dictionary can tell you what meanings are associated with a word, it’s the thesaurus that can put the word on the map in relationship to other words.

Understanding which words had broader and narrower meanings allows you to respond with precision words that encapsulate the exact scope that you wish to cover. There can be alternative spellings to help you understand how there might be multiple different ways to spell a word – such as color and colour. The thesaurus had more to offer than I had anticipated.

What’s an Organization’s Thesaurus?

The role of a thesaurus in an organization is even more powerful. Inside the context of an organization, a thesaurus can identify preferred terms over terms that are less preferred. They can share common misspellings. They can define terms across languages. They can translate the scientific to the everyday – and vice versa.

An organization’s taxonomy provides a map of the terms that are used in the organization and notes about how those terms are used – or are intended to be used. They provide the basic relationships between the terms. When the relationships get more complex, then we’ve moved from the world of thesaurus into the world of ontology.

Ontology’s Relationships

In a thesaurus, the focus is on words. They make up the tent poles on which the relationships are hung. However, ontologies focus much more on the relationships between words and the nuances of these relationships than the words themselves. Instead of being focused on the tent, ontologies are focused on the net that keeps circus workers safe. It’s not the individual ropes – or words – that keep performers safe. It’s the relationship and connection between the words that keep performers from falling.

Ontologies are a way of understanding a field of study or knowledge. Ontologies provide a rich map of how things in the field are connected to one another. The relationships are richer than simply one term being broader or narrower than another.

What is a Taxonomist?

If an organization organizes their content through a taxonomy in the form of a thesaurus and a set of ontologies, why do we call the role a taxonomist? At the root, it’s the development of an organizational structure – irrespective of which tools are used – that defines the core behaviors of a taxonomist. Their role is to organize and make easier to access information. The tools they use are just the tools of the trade.

The funny thing is that many taxonomists – but not all – aren’t in full-time roles. Few taxonomists have it in their title, though some have it in their job description. It’s more common to have taxonomy development as a prerequisite for something the role requires, so often the taxonomist isn’t a person who spends all day organizing structures. Most of the time, the taxonomist is someone who has a job to do that is made better by taxonomic development.

Special Skills

If categorization and organization is a part of the basic functioning of consciousness, then shouldn’t everyone be considered a taxonomist? At some level, yes. However, what differentiates every man from the taxonomist is in the tools that they’ve developed for clarifying, codifying, and communicating what the structure of organization is. By learning what humanity knows about psychology, neurology, and the organization of large information, taxonomists can distinguish their capabilities.

While these aren’t likely enough for a taxonomist to feel truly confident in every situation, this knowledge and these skills are useful.

Taxonomy Purpose

A taxonomy’s purpose is to help organize content, that’s easy. However, taxonomies provide structure and framing that shapes the way that people think. As a result, taxonomies are more than just a way to browse to the information you want. Taxonomies can be helpful in shifting the way the organization works.

Sometimes this is through the inclusion of detailed terms in a hierarchy to encourage users to be more specific about what they mean. Other times, it might be through the use of preferred terms. Preferred terms in the taxonomy can shift the thinking from package delivery to package assurance. It’s a subtle shift that focuses the corporate consciousness on assuring shippers and recipients that their package will make it to their destination.

Polyhierarchy

Atoms have a challenge that they can only exist in one place at a time. However, in our electronic taxonomies, we can put things into more than one place in the taxonomic tree. Consider a color taxonomy that starts with a level of red, blue, and green. Where does the second-level color blue-green belong? Blue sure, but green as well. This is a polyhierarchy, where an item has multiple parents. While logically this seems like the exception, polyhierarchies are more common than most would like to admit.

The truth is that taxonomy projects are messy. It’s only a matter of time before you’re going to run across the digital equivalent of a platypus. The platypus has a mixture of reptilian, avian, and mammalian genes. It’s a classic challenge for the zoological taxonomy that splits reptiles, birds, and mammals all the way at the top. With a polyhierarchy, the platypus can find its place in all three taxonomies.

Tagging

Being a taxonomist solves only one part of the puzzle. Taxonomists create the structures, but it’s often up to others to tag the content to fit into the taxonomy. This split means that, in many cases, the taxonomist must make a point to sit with those who are actually doing the categorization to understand what is and isn’t working. Similarly, they should sit with users who are actually trying to find the information.

The key challenge in taxonomic development isn’t in designing the taxonomy. The key challenge is getting the users – who are often not dedicated indexers – to enter the metadata necessary to make the taxonomy work. Too many taxonomy projects are abandoned before the work really gets started, because the people indexing the content refuse to do it.

Pre and Post Coordination

There are tricks that can be used to improve results. Search can aggregate terms by leveraging synonyms even if the users aren’t always using the preferred term. Facets can go a long way to simplifying the search process, and full-text indexing makes some level of taxonomic identification unnecessary. Automatic classifiers – whether rules or machine learning-based – can help the content get the correct metadata with minimal help from the indexers.

With all this mess, it’s hard to keep track of when the metadata is known and to judge its reliability. Whether it’s entered at or near the time of creation in the form of pre-coordination or it’s managed through the searching process, getting it right is hard. Maybe you find that you’re not getting the findability that you want, so to fix the problem, you’re going to become The Accidental Taxonomist. Perhaps a quick read can give you tips that will make the process easier and less painful.

o365 authentication using adfs

Now Available: Office 365 Authentication Using ADFS White Paper

Last week, I posted about our two newest white papers, and I provided a link to the first. The second, Office 365 Authentication Using ADFS, is now available. It takes the information introduced in the Integrated Office 365 Identity Using Azure AD Connect white paper and builds on that knowledge. This white paper discusses what to do if you have more than one Active Directory forest or need enhanced authentication scenarios beyond the scope of the Azure AD Connect options.

We provide some background information about how claim-based authentication works, including what trusted identity providers are, single sign-on vs. same sign-on, and different types of claims. We also discuss the importance of fault tolerance before delving into the phases and steps of implementing ADFS for your Office 365 authentication.

If you’re looking to use Office 365 but need more advanced authentication options than Azure AD Connect can provide, take a look at the white paper.

Get the Office 365 Authentication Using ADFS white paper

Book Review-I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough”

I’ve read much of Brené Brown’s work, but it wasn’t until I read I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” that I made it back to the beginning. I had previously commented in my review of The Gifts of Imperfection that I was reading her work in non-sequential order and how that can sometimes be disorienting. I had already read Daring Greatly and Rising Strong (my review is split into part 1 and part 2). Despite having read some of Brown’s later work and some of the references she uses, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) still had things to teach and remind me.

As a sidebar, the book was initially self-published by Brown in 2004 with the title Women & Shame: Reaching Out, Speaking Truths, & Building Connections. It was 2007 when Penguin bought the rights and released it with this title. I’ve taken some of Brown’s work here, put it together with pieces from other resources, and created a shame map:

Shame Researcher

Brown frequently describes herself as a shame researcher; that is, she seeks to understand shame. Along the way, she’s clarified that guilt is someone feeling that they’ve done something bad, and shame is a separate emotion where people believe they are bad. Brown believes that shame separates us from one another, and it’s this separation that makes shame so particularly toxic to our being.

Shame is a self-sealing proposition. As shame disconnects and silences us, our shame becomes a secret, and secrets are where our mental sickness festers. The challenge with shame is the feeling itself makes it unsafe for us to share the shame with others. It erodes our trust in ourselves and others.

Beyond the definition of shame and cataloging experiences of shame she has sought to identify those skills and temperaments that make folks more resistant to shame and there by to live a happier and healthier life.

Connection

Before we can confront shame for what it is, we must acknowledge the truth that life is about connection. We’re inherently social creatures. We’ve been designed to be in community, and we experience psychological pain when we’re isolated and removed from every kind of human connection. Loneliness explains the lack of connection and how it differs from the physical state of being alone. The Dance of Connection speaks about the need for and the way to get connection. Dr. Cloud describes the need for connection – and healthy connection – in The Power of the Other as being core to our human condition.

When we accept that connection is essential to our human condition we can realize that shame has the power to separate us from others through our fear. If we ourselves believe that we’re bad and therefore unworthy of connection, isn’t it realistic to expect that others will believe that we’re not worthy of connecting to? That’s our ultimate fear: that we’ll be excluded from the group. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on exclusion.)

Fear

I attribute most of my shame resilience to stealing fear as a basic component from it. It was years and years ago when I decided that I wouldn’t live in fear. I’m not saying that I won’t be afraid, everyone experiences fear from time to time. What I’m saying is that I made a conscious decision to not live in fear. If that meant that I made financial choices so that I wasn’t in debt, and the consequences were a beat-up car, a small house, and modest clothes – then that’s what it meant. I realized that my first concern was going to be not allowing fear to build a stronghold in my life.

Over the years, as people have attempted to shame me, I’ve resisted, in part because I refused to accept the fear of disconnection. I would confront the fears directly and speak with people about what was real and what wasn’t real. I’d use my friends like a GPS system to triangulate my real position. (See Where Are You, Where are You Going, But More Importantly, How Fast Are You Moving? for more on this idea.)

Fear is an essential component for shame, and without it, it’s like starving a fire of oxygen. Eventually, it will go out. Not immediately, not without a fight, but eventually it will yield.

Courage

Courage comes from the Latin root word cor, which is “heart.” In its earliest forms, courage meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” We’ve lost this definition with our focus on courageous acts, which are framed around charging into burning buildings and taking great personal risk (altruism). However, courage in its purest sense is the ability to work through the fear of being rejected for who you are to defend people or ideals that you hold dear. (Look here if you want to get clear on the distinctions between Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism.)

Notice that courage requires fear. You can’t be courageous without vulnerability – and thus some fear. Vulnerability comes in the ability to be hurt. Without vulnerability, there is no fear and no courage.

Vulnerability

Why would anyone want to allow harm to – possibly – come to them? What possible motivation could someone have to become vulnerable? In a word: connection. Without vulnerability, there is no connection. Without our ability to share an unvarnished, unprotected part of ourselves, there’s no way that someone can get close to us. Wearing a suit of impenetrable armor also makes it impossible for someone to touch you – to connect with you.

Vulnerability in our relationships with others isn’t a binary thing. We don’t one day wake up and say to ourselves, “Today is vulnerability day.” Instead, we choose how much we share with others, how much we let them in and let them see us, warts and all. Often, we do this slowly, as we send over little test balloons. He might not like me if he realizes I’m saddled with debt, so maybe I can whine about my car payment and see how he reacts. She thinks that I have my act together. I wonder how she’d react if she knew I’d been in counseling for depression for years. Maybe I can suggest drinks at that bar “right next to the counseling center” and see what happens.

As we are vulnerable and aren’t attacked, we can open up to more to places and ideas that we’ve not yet broached. Each bid for connection – another way of thinking about being vulnerable – that is met with a positive response opens us up for more. (See The Science of Trust for more about bids for connection.)

Vulnerability may have a purpose and a need, but that still doesn’t make it easy. The process of being vulnerable to build trust takes time to build and a moment to lose.

Perceived Safety

In walking around in cities that I don’t know, I’ve probably walked into neighborhoods that I wasn’t really safe in. I probably shouldn’t have been there alone – or there at all. However, in most cases I felt fine. I was being vigilant about my surroundings, and things were fine. The funny thing is that one of the places that I can remember feeling the least safe was in downtown Manhattan. I couldn’t tell you where exactly I was, but I can remember the thing that triggered the feeling. It was the graffiti on the steel, roll-down doors on the shops.

Intellectually, I knew that there were uniformed officers a block away, leisurely chatting. They weren’t actively or intently scanning their environment. They seemed pleased that they had received such an easy assignment. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t safe. I started processing the fact that these shops needed these steel doors. I started to process the bravado required to mark the doors. I had fallen for what Malcom Gladwell described in Blink as “broken windows.”

There are times when we feel safe when we are not – and distinctly, there are times when the opposite is true. When it comes to our willingness to be vulnerable – our willingness to walk into a new neighborhood – it’s our perception of safety that is important. Strangely, our perception of safety may have been shaped years ago in our childhood. How Children Succeed explains the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, and how if you were exposed to adverse childhood events, you’ll be more cautious and reserved as an adult. You’ll be predisposed to not be vulnerable, because your perception of safety will be lower than most people.

Conversely, people who have a high degree of inner safety – which they had to develop – will take risks that no sane person should. (I may resemble this remark at times.) For these folks, there’s very little reason to spend energy protecting themselves, because they don’t believe they can be harmed – they don’t perceive their safety to be in jeopardy.

Clearly, there’s a balance here. You can’t have your set point for safety set too high, or you’ll step out in front of a beer truck and get flattened; but being so afraid that you can’t leave your home is also dysfunctional. We need to have enough safety to be vulnerable in a world with sympathy suckers.

Sympathy Suckers, Empathy Engagement, and Compassionate Connection

Sympathy is about separation. It’s an acknowledgement that things look bad – for you. The person who throws the blow-out pity party of the year is looking for someone to acknowledge their pain. That’s fine – as long as they, at the same time, don’t insist that you can’t understand. If you want someone to come alongside of you and invest themselves in your experience, you can’t tell them that they’ll never get there or, worse, make it impossible for them to get there.

Sympathy suckers want the energy associated with sympathy and don’t realize that it’s not a connection. It’s pity. The result isn’t two people getting closer together, it’s two people getting farther apart. A healthier approach is to seek and accept empathy. This is a simple expression of “I understand this about you.” It isn’t to say that one person understands everything about the other. It’s simply that there’s an aspect of your experience that I understand. I’ve never lost a child, but I’ve lost a brother, and I can use that tragic event to connect with others who’ve experienced a loss of someone close to them. I can demonstrate my compassion through my attempt to experience my own pain again, so that I can understand more of them and seek to find a way to alleviate their suffering in some small way.

You can find out more about my perspective on Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism in my post.

Bad Labels

The research on labeling, and how the labels that we apply to others and to ourselves shapes our behavior in subtle but persistent ways, is well-replicated. When students are labeled bad by their teacher (or administration), they do more poorly. When people label themselves as stupid, dumb, or incapable, they inevitably become this. (See Mindset for more on labeling.) Whether you believe that you can succeed or that you will surely fail, you’re right. However, you’re right not because of your skill, but rather because of the label that you apply to yourself.

One of the challenges with shame is the possibility that it will clue on to you your worst moments. Somehow your shame defines you by the moment that you were weak or at your worst and fails to recognize that this isn’t the whole picture. We are – none of us – one moment in time or one decision. We’re a series of good – and bad – decisions.

A healthy act of shame resistance is to resist being defined by our worst moments. We can – and should – acknowledge that it happened, that it was bad, make restitution, reform ourselves, and so on. I’m not minimizing the need to address the consequences of the action or inaction. Rather, we should not be defined by that moment. We should refuse to be labeled as a thief (and a no good) because of one incident. We shouldn’t label ourselves as insensitive when we missed the tear in the eye of a loved one. We can be compassionate and have times where we’ve lacked compassion.

Caregiving

It can be absolutely exhausting. Caring for another human being can take its physical toll on you. However, this feeling pales in comparison to the emotional exhaustion that many caregivers experience. The warm glow from the comments of friends fades, as you don’t have time for yourself and can’t make it to see them, because you’re too busy taking care of someone. The feeling of joy for being able to take care of someone when they need it is overtaken by bitterness and resentment, as you realize that you may be saving or helping their lives at the seeming expense of your own.

Slowly, the thought creeps in. What would it be like if this person died? What if I didn’t have to sacrifice my life for theirs any longer? And the thought starts to linger longer and longer. However, the thought itself seems shameful. What kind of a monster am I? What kind of a person would want someone they loved to die just so they can spend more time with friends? Why can’t I just suck it up and accept my fate?

The problem is that this perspective – shame – fails to realize that this is a normal response to exhaustion. The conclusion isn’t the right one, but the path that’s being walked makes sense. It’s a sign that you’re overburdened – not that you’re a monster. However, shame won’t let you see this. You’re supposed to be the perfect father or mother or relative. You’re supposed to be able to handle this on your own. You don’t need tights and a cape, but you’re supposed to be super.

If you’re in this situation, I know it’s tough. The difficult challenge is how to get the support you need to not become exhausted. It’s difficult when your siblings won’t help to take care of your aging parents and refuse to find them care, because it’s too expensive. They want to control the decision making – or influence it – but they’re unwilling to come support you while you’re supporting your parents. The answer – though it’s hard – is to stand your ground and insist that you need to be able to take care of yourself, your family, and your life too.

Peak Perfection

I’m always amazed at how put together other people appear. Whether it’s your favorite musician or the TV star or the celebrity, it seems like their life is right. From the outside looking in, everything seems perfect – until it isn’t. It takes a toll. Projecting the image that you’re perfect when you’re not is hard. You’re always considering what you have to say and where you need to be, what you need to wear, and what you need to drive.

It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to believe that you must be put together. It’s hard to hide the gambling addiction or the liver problems caused by drinking too much too often. Preachers hide their marital trouble from the congregation. Politicians hide their financial problems from their constituents. The mayor is worried how long it will be until the town finds out about how much he’s been drinking.

Perfection takes work – and a bit of careful editing. How many takes happen before your favorite action thriller’s scene is done correctly? Two or three? Or thirty? How much work is put into hiding the mistakes and making the best take seem perfect? It’s not reality that anyone’s perfect. No one can be perfect, but in our highly edited society, we believe that it’s possible.

The problem is that no one has that kind of energy. No one can be all things to all people at all times. If we’re unable to allow ourselves to be real and vulnerable, then we’ll end up feeling lonely inside and shame has won. We silently condemn ourselves for not reaching the perfection we seek without consciously realizing that it’s an impossible goal.

Need for Learning

The understanding that perfection is an illusion isn’t an opportunity to sit back and do nothing. We need to learn from our mistakes, and we need others who are willing to do the same. We need to find ways to grow that are real. We’re not trying to be perfect, but we’re striving to be better. One of the amazing things about humans, both individually and collectively, is our capacity to become more than what we are.

The best way to do this is to learn from our trials and failures. The more willing we’re able to stare into the places that we haven’t done well and examine what happened, the more we can figure out how to do better. We become the best possible version of ourselves through our learning.

Multifaceted

When you meet someone at work or in a community club or a kid’s activity, you associate them with that one thing that you know them for. However, everyone is more complex than the one view that we see them through. They’re more than the stereotypical soccer mom. They’re more than the corporate executive. Everyone of us has facets to our life that others don’t see. While it’s normal for us to seek to simplify other people into categories, it’s equally frustrating.

People need simple, but I spent my whole life building this complexity. For me, my interests are so diverse that people struggle to put me into a box. They don’t understand embedded systems programming and multithreaded technical detail with an interest in information architecture or psychology or user adoption. These facets of my personality – my me – seem incompatible. It’s frustrating to try to explain the interests and the passions and to have folks not understand.

People wonder how you get anything done with so many diverse interests. The question lingering in the minds of folks is how can both be true? How can all of it be true? I can tell them that the answer is hard work and dedication, but that’s not an answer that they can hear. It’s easier to find a single-dimensional view of others – of me – even if it minimizes others to cardboard cutouts, even if it means that you miss their richness.

Disconnected from Ourselves

The saddest thing about shame is the way that it disconnects us from ourselves. It causes us to focus on one facet of who we are, judge it, and disconnect with others, but we also lose the richness of our understanding of ourselves for the single-faceted focus. It seems like it should be easy to know yourself. It seems like you should be able to just know who you are, what you like, and what will make you happy. However, Daniel Gilbert points out in Stumbling on Happiness that we don’t know what will make us happy. Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis and Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow point out that we’re not one commander at the helm of the ship of our lives, we’re two. We’re the emotional elephant with pattern recognition and the rational rider trying to justify and explain the decisions made by the elephant. Dan Aisley points out that we’re Predictably Irrational – but we don’t know it’s so. Eagleman shows us how our brains lie to us in Incognito.

All of this is to say that, though understanding ourselves may seem easy on the surface, it’s perhaps the hardest thing we’ll ever do – and the most rewarding.

Strength from Weakness

In the end, the way to conquer shame is to become weak. The path to victory runs through the forest of defeat. The way to connect is to realize that, even though I Thought It was Just Me, it isn’t.