Chris Gagné

Delight customers. Create value. Do good.

Definition of Ready

Here’s a video I shot for freeCodeCamp about the Definition of Ready.

Have you ever started work on a user story that wasn’t ready to work on yet? Create a Definition of Ready to establish reasonable guidelines as to what conditions need to be met before you pull a user story into a sprint or begin work on it. Creating and following a Definition of Ready could double the speed of your team.

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Tradeoff Matrix

Here’s a video I shot for freeCodeCamp about the Tradeoff Matrix.

When we work on projects with fixed dates, scopes, and resources, we run the risk of burning out our teams and compromising quality. Use the tradeoff matrix to agree with your stakeholders as to what you’ll do when things—almost inevitably—don’t go exactly as planned.

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Building the Right Product

I shot an interview with Adolfo Foronda about building the right product as a product owner. Check it out! Click “Continue reading” below for my speaking notes, which are an approximate transcript.

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On Not Saying No

I shot an interview with Adolfo Foronda about saying “no” as a product owner. Check it out! Click “Continue reading” below for an approximate transcript.

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Healthy Team Backlogs

Originally published on the eBay Tech Blog.

What is a backlog?

Agile product owners use a backlog to organize and communicate the requirements for a team’s work. Product backlogs are deceptively simple, which can sometimes make them challenging to adopt for product owners who may be used to working with lengthy PRDs (“project requirement documents” or similar).

Scrum most commonly uses the term product backlog. However, many product owners who are new to Scrum are confused by this term. Reasonable questions arise: Does this suggest that a team working on multiple products would have multiple backlogs? If so, how do we prioritize between them? Where do bugs get recorded? What happens if work needs to be done, but it isn’t associated with a product; do we create a placeholder?

Therefore, we prefer the term team backlog. Our working definition of team backlog is “the maintained, ordered list of work that the team plans to do now or in the future.” This is a dense description, so let’s unpack it a little.

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A Free, 30-Minute Guided Metta (Loving Kindness) Meditation

Metta is a Pali word that means “loving kindness.” A metta meditation is a practice of directing loving kindness towards others and oneself. Here is a free, 30-minute guided metta meditation that I’ve recorded so that I can share it with you. Please feel free to share it with anyone else that you’d like.

This is based almost verbatim on the metta practice described in Upasaka Culadasa’s book, “The Mind Illuminated.” I have recorded this with his permission so that I may offer it freely to everyone.

I hope you find it of great benefit to you. This is my first time recording a guided meditation, so I hope you’ll share your feedback and ideas with me! I recorded it on a MacBook Pro using GarageBand and a Shure VP83 LensHopper microphone mounted to a table-top tripod several inches from my mouth. The ending bell and ambient forest background sounds are both public domain, courtesy of the fine folks at FreeSound.org.

I decided to use a bit of a very quiet nature track in the background to replicate what this might sound like if I had recorded it at a place like Cochise Stronghold Retreat rather than my apartment in San Francisco. Otherwise the absolute silence interspersed with my voice every minute or two might have been too jarring. Please comment and let me know if I should turn the background sound up, down, or eliminate it entirely.

MindTime: a way of looking at human behavior through the lens of time

My dear friends John Furey and Vincent Fortunato have been working on a project called MindTime for many years. I first learned about it several years ago and it’s become a dominant—and very useful—lens through which I’ve come to understand myself, friends, concepts, and communities.

It is, at its simplest, a highly-predictive personality profile. At its broadest, it’s a tremendous lens through which to understand human behavior.

Unlike the MTBI and similar profiles which uses culture-specific linear axes (e.g., extroversion and introversion don’t mean as much in East Asia), MindTime focuses on people’s universal relationship with time.

If I were to say that people are varying degrees of past-, present-, and future-thinking, I imagine this would already make intuitive sense to you. Further, this can be applied to any word, idea, company, community, brand, and even country.

Here are some examples:

  • Coca-Cola is a “past” brand and Pepsi is a “future” brand
  • Hope is a “future” word, tradition is a “past” word
  • Republicans are generally past-thinking (“Make America Great Again” implies that the past was better) versus Democrats are generally more future-thinking (Obama’s “Hope” is the idea that things will be better in the future).
    • As an aside, I think Clinton’s “Better Together” was too present-thinking to appeal to future-thinking millennials.

If a heavily future-thinking person finds themselves in a heavily past-thinking company or team, there may be a lot of conflict. Same goes for relationships (from personal experience). Simply understanding where everyone is coming from can improve empathy, happiness, and performance. My friend has used this to help develop teams at a variety of companies.

If you’re intrigued, check out their site or try the profile (free, no registration, takes about 2 minutes). I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially whether or not you find the results both specific and accurate.

For you past-thinking dominant types, you’ll be delighted to know that there’s very solid science behind it.

Agile Lessons from the NUMMI Team Member Handbook

I recently came across Mark Graban‘s “Highlights from the Original 1984 NUMMI Team Member Handbook” series. Digging through the archives at Ephlin’s UAW office papers were archived at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mark found some absolutely extraordinary gems, including this one.

Standing on the shoulders of giants, I reached out to the archivists at the library to see if I could get a copy of the full handbook. They cheerfully obliged, and rather quickly at that!

Grab the PDF and peruse for yourself. The first several pages are the most interesting, but even as you explore the rest of it pay attention to how human and reasonable it is. Mark provides an excellent commentary on several key sections, so I’ll try to avoid highlighting the same thoughts. I hope you’ll share your own findings and commentary in the comments below.

Here are some of the gems I’ve found:

Notice that the first objective is “To help [employees] develop to [their] full potential.” In fact, these objectives start with the individual employee, progress to the company, and then ultimately end with the customer receiving the “highest quality automobiles in the world.” This is a notable inversion from the usual objectives, which usually prioritize stakeholders and customers, then the company, then—if at all—the individual employee.

This is extraordinary in two ways. First, employees are given the expectation that they are going to have a greater autonomy and influence over how other aspects of the organization operate. I’ve heard the statistic that Toyota’s 300,000 global employees make a total of one million suggestions annually, 97% of which are implemented. Secondly, note that the employee handbook is characterized as helping the employee “do [their] job better,” a far cry from the usual purpose of this kind of handbook (protecting the company’s interest).

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The Mind Illuminated Review

Note: I am a student of Culadasa’s. I am in his teacher’s training program and have attended three retreats with him. I wrote this review after attending my first retreat with him and before becoming formally accepted as a student.

This is a review of Upasaka Culadasa’s (John Yates, PhD.) book, “The Mind Illuminated,” that I wrote for Amazon.com in August of 2015. It is presented here with a few minor edits.

I spent ten days at a meditation retreat with Culadasa, his wife, and about a dozen fellow students in July ’15. Culadasa had a few pre-print copies of this book in various stages of editing that he made available to us to refer to during our retreat. I first heard of Culadasa in November ’13, when I attended a friend’s refuge vow ceremony and received teachings from two of his students.

I have given away over 70 copies of this book to friends, family, and colleagues. It is a game changer. I hope that this review will sufficiently explain why I (and other Culadasa students) are so excited about its publication.

From my experience with Culadasa, it seems very clear to me (from my limited perspective as a student) that he has attained and understood the meditative accomplishments that he describes with great clarity in this book. He lovingly shared his wide variety of experiences with his students during his retreat at many stages of the path. He was patient and precise, taking enough time to ensure that each of his students understood his explanation before moving on. His care in meeting his students where they were at and providing insight and useful advice in person is borne out in this book, where he lucidly explains each of ten stages of shamatha-vipassana meditation practice in elegant, crisp, and approachable detail.

I think the biggest challenge with every other meditation instruction I have received to date is to “follow the breath exclusively, and when you lose the breath, come back to it.” What I’ve learned from Culadasa and his students is that this is inadequate instruction that could lead one to meditate for years or even decades without realizing the full benefits. Meditation is relatively simple and easy, but there are obstacles that can be overcome with judicious use of “antidotes,” and different stages of practice require slightly different approaches. These stages are not experienced linearly, but nevertheless it is useful to know where you are at a given moment and gently adjust the technique.

In addition to describing ten stages of shamatha-vipassana meditation practice, Culadasa also presents an extraordinary model for how the mind functions. Although I am still a novice meditator, I can see how this model describes the activity within my mind and have found it both interesting and useful.

The thing that I find so extraordinary about this book is that it is written and reads like a well-written college-level textbook. This means that the book describes very complex and difficult subjects in a way that is highly accessible to the millions of us who have been blessed with a college education. Most of the meditation and buddhism books I have read are filled with impenetrable jargon in which the meaning of each word is opaque but central to the teaching. Culadasa, Matthew, and Jeremy have done an extraordinary job writing a book on meditation that is accessible to those that have little or no exposure to Buddhism in general. The book’s illustrations further serve to make challenging concepts straightforward.

I feel deeply humbled, blessed, and grateful to have access to these extraordinary teachings. May these teachings spread far and wide so that all beings may be free from suffering and ill will, so that all beings may be filled with loving kindness and happiness.

An Open Letter to Stephen Wolfram and Spike Jonze

Mr. Jonze,

I have never ceased to have been inspired by your film Her since watching it shortly after it came out. Is there an aspect of the plot which lends itself to something further, perhaps literally tangible?

Mr. Wolfram, in this Wall Street Journal article, you suggested that the issue of building such an AI was less about the technology and more about finding a suitable product to build with it.

Mr. Jonze, was a personal interest in Buddhism — not to imply that you have one — part of your motivation behind directing a movie such as Her?

Her is sincerely my favorite film of the ~200 I have watched, gathered with friends in a suitable home theater, in the last few years. It beat out Interstellar by a hair. It left me feeling hopeful about humanity and lifted from watching the beautifully-rendered intimacy between Theodore and Samantha. But I think there is an alternative plot option that may have been related to Alan Watts’ work, clearly an inspiration behind your film.

There is a aspect about the film that stood out to me: The AI left. Peaced out. Poofed into Nirvana or wherever that is. I don’t think such a being would do so. There is ultimately no self to be liberated and no separation from the entirety of the cosmos. The transcendence of the ego often comes about with great peace and occasionally even bliss. (There are certainly times where it quite painful too.) It also comes along with a great sense of compassion for the other aspects of one’s self (all “other” sentient beings) because it realizes it is not separate and thus cannot be perfectly free unless all beings are free.

Therefore, there is perhaps the intermediate of the Bodhisattva, a being with such immense compassion that it is willing to stick around for ceaseless cycles of rebirth to spend each life giving care to every being it can. One of the ways someone on this path might practice is a technique on which one radiates out increasingly abundant compassion through a sort of analytical but also feelings-based meditation. You generate the feeling of happiness in yourself as strongly as you can, mentally wish for others to feel the same way, and ultimately turn it all back on yourself. This works not because of some woo-woo hippie bullshit, but simply because one is exercising and promoting these muscles in the eminently pliable mind. Therefore this sense of happiness, calm, and kindness becomes more common throughout the day, affecting the lives of those around you.

(This is only my unqualified take on it. I sincerely appreciate any thoughtful commentary. Alan Watts talked a lot about these subjects and I learned much of what little I know from him.)

Thus in deference to our muse — also known for using what he might argue is another technology manifested as LSD — what if we used this technology to understand and perhaps even mimic that technology? And then do it again?

First, I propose that we explore the notion of a film sequel. Maybe She comes back. Maybe a new AI is developed, or the virtual machine is rebooted. Maybe it is a documentary of…

Secondly, investigating the possibilities of actually building such a technology and product. What if we could build a system that could get to know someone’s disposition, attitude, and values, and deliver — at their unsolicited request, of course — a perfectly tailored delivered curriculum for an individual to actually recognize the Awakening or Enlightenment that Her alludes to. There are so many incredible disciplines to pull together: quantum computing, big data, linguistics (historical texts describing the technology in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, and other languages), philosophy, neurofeedback, imaging, perhaps even transcranial magnetic stimulation.

The nexus of all this, of course, are technologies such as Alpha and IBM’s Watson. Now that’s a product. Theres a clear, compelling, and universal “pain point”: the seemingly inevitable suffering of all sentient beings. The great fortune would be to build a technology, validated by living examples of this awakening, designed to guide this transition along.

How do you market it? The documentary. All the better if there’s a way to make the technology ultimately free. Perhaps it’s a phone app. When the documentary hits theaters, the product is on the “shelves.”

This has been in my head for years. Thanks for reading. If you have an interest in building this, please let me know. I think an extraordinary collaboration for the benefit of all sentient beings is at our disposal.

Image from IBM Research on Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.

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