Essence and Problem Solving Blog

May 19, 2020

Slow Down and Go Faster

Filed under: Essence and Problem Solving — pemcmahon @ 9:42 pm
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May 12, 2020

The Secret to Solving Any Repeating Specific Weakness

Filed under: Essence and Problem Solving — pemcmahon @ 10:55 pm
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May 5, 2020

Why Fundamentals Aren’t Enough To Keep Getting Better

Filed under: Essence and Problem Solving — pemcmahon @ 1:33 pm

May 3, 2020

The Essence of Getting Better at Anything

Filed under: Essence and Problem Solving — pemcmahon @ 1:49 pm
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If you have been following my blog posts, you already know I have been involved over the last ten years with the SEMAT initiative which resulted in Essence. Essence has been referred to as a “thinking framework” and it includes the “essence” of the experiences of successful software practitioners as shared by the SEMAT volunteers.

However, I discovered with just a few minor adjustments, along with the addition of a key practice and a few tips, Essence can be generalized to help any team or individual think-through and develop a sound approach to solve any problem.  And I have been using it in this capacity to help my clients over the past 6 years and in my training workshops.

One problem we all face both in our professional careers and in our personal life is how to get better. I have strongly believed for a number of years that Essence has the potential to help with many problems beyond just software development, including how to get better at literally anything.

There is currently an initiative underway to generalize Essence for systems engineering and I had actually started to write a book a few years ago about helping people get better at anything using Essence. However, that book ended up being heavily focused on software and so I ended up titling it “15 fundamentals for higher performance in software development.”  I do share in that book a number of personal improvement stories, including how I approached a challenge to improve my golf game.  And in my online Essence Training course ( ) I focus on the use of Essence as a practical and proven general problem-solving tool.

What makes Essence particularly attractive to getting better at anything is the fact that improvement is inherent in its framework. And with this in mind I have extracted from the Essence framework the essence of getting better at anything” and described it in a short new book (to be released within the next week),  in which I explain how anyone, at any age, or with any other limitation, can use the approach to get better at anything.  I also provide in the book my own personal experiences that I have used to validate the approach.

Over the next few weeks I am going to be sharing a series of short video blogs providing key insights into the approach.  The first two blog posts (which will be released within the next two weeks), will be titled:

Why Fundamentals Aren’t Enough To Keep Getting Better and The Art of Getting Better At Anything.

Hope you enjoy the video blogs, and if you know of others who may be interested in this subject, please feel free to forward the link.



March 15, 2020

6 Tips in 10 minutes for successful working from home

Filed under: Working from home — pemcmahon @ 2:10 pm

Please forward to anyone who might benefit.


November 16, 2019

Let’s start a conversation on integrating Essence into day to day activities as a thinking framework and general problem-solving tool

I received a question on the title of last week’s blog– “The value of listening to people who think differently from yourself.

To clarify, if it wasn’t already clear to you, there are two distinct groups of people I was referring to.  First, are the SEMAT volunteers from around the world who shared their different perspectives based on their own experiences and culture.  The second group is the reviewers of my “Shy Boys” book who– as I explained in the blog– shared their own experiences and perspectives in helping me write a better book.

This week I would like to start a conversation (or get your feedback) on an idea I received from one of those book reviewers that really appeals to me, and I am particularly interested in hearing the thoughts from those of you who are in the education field.

This reviewer was a software developer in industry and had gone back to the university to teach software engineering to our next generation of software professionals.

Let me first give you some context for the reviewer’s comment.

In Chapter Fifteen of the book I refer to a discussion I had with Watts Humphrey shortly before his passing in 2010 and I state:

Part of training in how to act professionally includes how to listen, learn, improve and work collaboratively as a team member. These essential elements to software engineering success are found within the Essence framework Team Alpha checklists.”

This reviewer made the following related comment:

“Most Computer Science programs have a Software Engineering class, but the common issue is that the ideas are isolated within that particular class. In many programs, mine included, the software engineering class  is presented in the third year, after the basics are taught. You highlighted in this book the idea that you believed Watts wanted to make sure graduates had the proper attitude. One class in a computer science degree, as I learned over the years, doesn’t influence students enough to keep it present. I think we need to take a wholistic approach… We need a curriculum that integrates these ideas into the day to day activities without having to detail the activity in a text. While I was pleased that you and your colleagues produced a textbook, I think it might be more helpful to use “stealth mode” within the classroom environment. How to accomplish this could be your next book!”

 This comment got me thinking about how such a “wholistic approach” might be implemented in a university environment and one idea that occurred to me was to use Essence as a thinking framework to aid problem-solving in multiple computer science courses.

Just to provide a few examples where I think Essence could be integrated into existing courses, consider the fact that most computer science curriculums today have distinct courses in Cybersecurity, Computer Ethics, Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning, and Software Requirements/Design/Testing.

Each of the computer science courses mentioned above provides its own unique perspective into critical challenges related to developing software.  Each of these perspectives brings its own set of common problems, or challenges, that students need to be exposed to, and learn how to go about dealing with in a professional way.

As a common ground for all software engineering endeavors, Essence could be used in each of these classes to demonstrate to students how to go about analyzing such challenges, identifying related root causes, and assessing options and consequences of possible decisions.

What I am suggesting could provide a path to achieving the “wholistic approach” my reviewer referred to by helping to teach our next generation of software practitioners what it means to act professionally when it comes to the common challenges they are likely to face when they enter industry.

One potential advantage to this idea is that it doesn’t require university professors to make major changes to their existing course curriculums as Essence is integrated into the existing course material as a tool that aids critical thinking and problem-solving.  This approach also can help students learn practical ways to use Essence to address common challenges they are likely to face in industry.

Another potential advantage to this idea ties back to one of the potential problems we are trying to solve with Essence as I state in Chapter One of my “Shy Boys” book.  That is, the fact that “there isn’t commonly accepted software engineering terminology so when new graduates come out of school with computer science degrees and go into industry they have a whole new set of terms to learn, and then if they change  jobs and move to another company they  have to relearn a whole new set again.”

By integrating Essence into multiple computer science courses as a thinking framework and general problem-solving tool we can continually reinforce the Essence standard terminology so it becomes the natural language of choice for new graduating computer science students as they enter industry.

I am interested in hearing your thoughts on this idea, particularly from those of you within the education field.

If you believe this idea might have merit, I am also interested in hearing about any specific problem scenarios you may be currently using, or thinking about using, in your course material.

We can then use such scenarios to continue this conversation by providing practical demonstrations of the power of Essence as an aid to critical thinking and problem-solving related to these timely computer science topics.

To be clear, what I am suggesting is not intended to replace a first course in Software Engineering using Essence, but rather to show how Essence can be effectively integrated into other common computer science courses as an aid to critical thinking and as a general problem-solving tool.

Looking forward to hearing your feedback and keeping this conversation going!

November 8, 2019

The value in listening to people who think differently from yourself

Filed under: Software Engineering Method & Theory (SEMAT) — pemcmahon @ 8:18 pm
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October 30, 2019

In 60 seconds, motivation for my latest book: “Shy Boys”

June 9, 2019

Scaling “Essence in stealth mode” and why you should care

Filed under: Software Engineering Method & Theory (SEMAT) — pemcmahon @ 12:57 pm
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In this blog I would like to address one of the comments I received on my last video-blog, titled, Using Essence in “stealth mode” to help solve a Cybersecurity Challenge.  

Following is the comment in italics:

“I think it is a great approach for a lone consultant. ‘Stealth mode’ seems to me by definition to be ‘not a scalable model’, since what you are making visible and selling is very specifically ‘the consultant’ and very specifically not Essence (which remains completely invisible to the customer).

 One might ask of this example, ‘Which really comes first here, and plays the primary and critical role throughout?’: the knowledge, experience and analysis skills (“wisdom”, if you will) of the consultant OR the Alpha State checklists. Realistically, the critical success factor in this scenario are consultancy skills and knowledge like:

         Listen first – listen deeply and seek to understand

         Start by trying to understand the problem

         Do root cause analysis

         The critical importance of the big initial “buy, build, reuse” decisions

         The critical importance of dependencies on external organizations

         The need to control key risks relating to competitors and IP

         Adopting “need to know” principles in such circumstances as this one

         Knowing the true meaning and role of good leadership 


Put another way – one gets the feeling in this case that Paul would probably have been basically successful here even if he didn’t know Essence, and likewise a less “wise” consultant would not have been so successful even if armed with a pack of Alpha state cards …”

I think this is a great comment which is why I am devoting an entire blog responding to it.   There are four points I want to make in response.

First, it is a misunderstanding to think that Essence remains completely invisible to the customer when used in “stealth mode”.   Let me give a concrete example.

When I use stealth Essence as in the referenced video-blog I don’t tell the client about it upfront because what they care most about is getting their problem solved.  Once we have accomplished this, then they are much more likely to listen and be interested in learning about Essence because it has proven itself.

In the Cybersecurity video-blog reference about nine minutes and thirty seconds into it on slide 10 when my client says,

“I like this approach and I am starting to see how our team can now meet this challenge.” 

This is where I might reply to the client with,

“I was able to help you partly because of my experience. But that is not the only reason.  If you are interested in learning about a framework that I use and could teach your team members to use so they could solve similar challenges themselves in the future we can discuss this further.” 

Often, at this point, my client is interested and this is where I discuss Essence with them more explicitly.  The right time to make a customer aware of Essence and how to use it, is after it has proven its value, not before.

Second, let’s address the issue of the “knowledge, experience, and analysis skills” of the consultant versus the value of the Essence checklists. It is certainly true that when I help my clients I am relying on my experience that I have gained over many years.   But when we developed the Essence checklists many experts from around the world came together and shared their own experiences.  Through numerous discussions over a period of two years (often held weekly) we arrived at what was agreed to be the “essence” of our common experiences which were captured succinctly in the Essence checklists.

Now, when I conduct training and when I work with my clients on specific challenges, such as the referenced Cybersecurity challenge, I utilize more than just my own experiences.  When I use Essence, as I say “in the back of my head”, it isn’t just my experiences anymore, but rather I am accessing the broader community of experiences that were captured in the Essence standard.

Third, let’s address the point of “stealth Essence” not being a scalable model.  Just as the Essence checklists strengthened my own base of experiences that I draw from in helping my clients so can each practitioner use it the same way to broaden their base of experiences they draw from to help make better decisions, regardless of their own level of experience.

Today, I don’t just use Essence to help clients by giving them recommendations based on my own stealth Essence approach.   I use it to coach practitioners in how they can access this same base of experiences in making their own decisions.

I have often said that my primary job as a coach is to “work myself out of a job,” by teaching my clients to solve their own problems so they don’t need me anymore.  This is what I believe all coaches and consultants should be doing.  Our goal should be to teach practitioners how to make their own decisions and how to help their less experienced teammates.  Teach your practitioners how to use Essence as a thinking framework to help solve their own problems and watch how fast it scales almost by itself across your organization.

Fourth, with regard to the final point about my being successful even if I didn’t know Essence, and a “less wise” consultant being less successful even if “armed with a pack of Alpha state cards”.   I do not disagree with this point, but by providing concrete examples, such as the Cybersecurity example, demonstrating how experienced consultants and coaches use Essence to solve problems we can teach others how to do the same thereby raising the competency level of our less experienced team members faster.  And isn’t that the real goal we are all searching for?

As always, feedback is encouraged.

May 16, 2019

Using Essence in “stealth mode” to help solve a Cybersecurity Challenge

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