Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"Restraint in what you ask for is the key to success" - Arnold's Aphorism

A good friend of mine sent me an email about our current sprint (we use a relatively formal Scrum process), encouraging us to define our stories such that the team could experience a success. He is also a great student of military history. I assumed the quote below was from some past general or philosopher. He claims not. So I've named it after him and am spreading the word.

"Restraint in what you ask for is the key to success" - Arnold's Aphorism

I can picture Napoleon fighting with himself over asking his men to achieve a little too much and fail. Or ask less and wind up with better morale. Applying this to software engineering teams makes a lot of sense. If you always ask for more than can be successfully completed, the team may feel unsuccessful/underachieving, and you may feel disappointed. When in fact, they are doing almost the same work whether you expected more or not.

Here's the thing, though. It's been said before. In all things, moderation. Time management, and interpersonal relationship books talk about expectation management. "Under promise and over deliver". The pessimist is never disappointed and often surprised. Live beneath your means. "Let go". Thou shalt not covet.

This is probably more true of things we ask of ourselves: get this, do that, convince them...

What struck me in the phrasing of this old-new aphorism is how clearly it shows that you have the *choice* in setting the expectations. And yet, that goal is the very thing that defines success. And for many goal-oriented folks like us, that success defines our happiness. Ergo, we choose to be happy. Or not.

But it requires self discipline. Not so much in the exercise of effort, but in the restraining of wanting.

You may have heard analyses of the great American marketing machine. It generates unrequited desires, while offering to fulfill them (for a price). The promise of happiness. Oddly, it is more commonly the restraint of those desires that leads to happiness, not the fulfillment.

I think you are going to see many more instances of this wisdom over then next while. See if you can't identify the aspect that you control.

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