Discovery and Re-discovery

We’ve been discussing the concepts of ideation and the workshop activities that we do to generate ideas. These activities use the intent behind ‘brainstorming’ – not that I am recommending the common form, let me explain why.

The method that springs to mind when we mention ‘brainstorming’ is for a facilitator to capture ideas onto a whiteboard while people call them out. There are many issues with using the method in this way related to good old human nature such as our tendencies to focus on the first theme mentioned or our tendency to defer to people in positions of perceived higher status.

No BrainstormingThere are many better ways to generate ideas from design thinking and other facilitation approaches such as

  • Silent brainstorming
  • Rapid sketching
  • Surfacing assumptions and generating hypotheses

What if we are working on a big, important goal? There are many questions that we overlook because it’s easy to make the assumption that once was enough and doing a process of discovery again might generate more work than we desire.

  • Should we facilitate only one of these idea-generation sessions with one group of people?
  • How can we know if we have looked at the goal from enough angles?
  • If we should do it more than once, then how many times and how much time between the sessions?

Perhaps this is the original intent behind governance processes. We know that humans are very creative and are likely to learn much at the beginning of a piece of work that leads to more interesting ideas as we proceed. In an idealistic world, the process of governance is a way of checking in with a bunch of smart people to help us identify key decisions and make those decisions in a timely manner.

Those same smart people can also assist with identification of the needs to re-discover – perhaps they have learned something useful from elsewhere that could help us to reach our goal sooner or obtain better outcomes. This new information might be a reason to facilitate another ideation session – but how many of us would want to set that up? It seems much easier to take the new information and simply work it into our current set of tasks.

How can you tell and why should you revisit old ground?

Things change, information is not static and the believed facts can also change with time as a better understanding is developed.

So if we acknowledge this reality then the attitude that we should only plan, then act, denies the fact of change. Imagine a set and forget toy on a table, the inevitable outcome is that it will eventually fall off. This is the very reason why biology, engineering, mechanics and programming are full of feed back loops and reiterations, so monitoring and corrections can be made. It is naive to think our projects are somehow exempt from change.

The size, complexity, number of inter-dependencies all increase the requirements for re-discovery, so we should always be asking ourselves if it makes sense to continue, or to pause and do some form of re-discovery at regular intervals.

Self-Limiting Beliefs

How do we form our beliefs?

We are good at recognising patterns, we are also good at ‘making up’ patterns when they are not necessarily there.

For example – something good might have happened last time we ordered a coffee from a new place, so we go back there in the hope that the good thing will happen again.

Perhaps the self-limiting beliefs are created when the opposite happens.

  1. We try something new
  2. Something ‘bad’ happens
  3. We tell ourselves that we are no good at that thing
  4. And we never try it again

This is fine when the bad thing could cause us injury.

But what if our self-limiting beliefs resulted in bad outcomes for others because we thought we were not able to learn a better way?

Another example – I had a friend once who always cut capsicums (bell peppers) by cutting around the top and pulling out the core. This is great when making stuffed peppers. When I want diced capsicum, I cut the pepper almost in half from the bottom and then when you pull the two halves apart, the core detaches from one half and is easy to pull out. My friend was amazed, she had never thought that it could be done another way.

I think that I am not good at artwork – Steve convinced me to keep trying and I found that I really enjoy ‘buttering’ paint onto a canvas with a palette knife. I even did a picture for an exhibition at work a couple of years ago. It helps to have someone urging us to ‘give it a go’.

Floating Garden Art 1How many things are we doing every day like these? Is there a better way? Can we try it more than once?

Efficiency and Behaviour in Different Contexts

I like efficiency – when I walk into a shop, I want the sales person to help me find what I’m after and process the sale in a business-like manner. I also like to be treated as a person.

The other day, I was getting an ID card and the person serving me took a little extra time to find out about my transport means to the site. She then let me know about an extra public transport service that I wasn’t aware about. This is now saving me 10 minutes travel time each way which is 20 minutes per day. So a little less efficiency in one transaction has resulted in ongoing efficiency for me on a weekly basis.

ID sketchWhen is efficiency good and when is it bad? It’s related to the type of system we are in.

In the obvious domain on the Cynefin framework, we can attain best practice – repeatable processes. Here we can see the cause and effect relationships, observe bottlenecks and optimise the process to make it more efficient fairly easily.

In the complex domain, efficiency is not easy – or is about something very different. Using my ID example, by having a little chit chat with me, the service centre person was able to identify an extra need that I had and supply me with valuable information. The efficiency in that exchange was the use of ‘anticipatory awareness’ – being sensitive to the hints in conversation that could express a need. Great sales and service people are very good at this – if we asked them to document the process they use, it would not be easy. It would not be a step-by-step ‘recipe’ – instead it might be something like a multi-branching if/then/maybe flow chart thing. I’m certain that it would be adapted or added to after almost every interaction.

Another example of efficiency being bad is in farming, Imagine that we created plants that could extract all of the nutrients they needed from the soil and grow until the nutrients in that place were all taken up. This would be a disaster – we could only grow one crop in that space and it would desperately need all sorts of composts and fertilisers before it was useful again. If it can be that bad in a farming sense, perhaps we do not want all of our best practice processes to become super-efficient – it could deplete supplies in ways that we cannot anticipate.

In summary, efficiency can be good when we have processes that sit firmly in the obvious domain and can achieve standardisation and best practice (except if the efficiency leads to resource depletion). In these cases we can save time, money and effort by becoming more efficient. Efficiency can lead to poor outcomes if we try to apply it in the same way to the complex domain – this can waste time money and effort in the pursuit of gains that are not possible. Instead, here we want to sharpen our awareness and improve our methods of detecting small signals.

Natural Flow

I’m a morning person – I like to get my chores out of the way first so that I have more options later in the day. There are others who are night owls, their flow is to stay up later and get things done and then sleep in a little later the next day. These patterns are an example of our natural flow.

Natural Flow SketchFor example, I am writing this post on a Sunday morning because it is the first time this week that I have had the energy and time to do it (after work during the week is harder for me).

How does this impact us at work? When working with other people, how often do we stop to ask them about their preferred ways of working. It might be terrible of me to schedule a 7:30am meeting with someone who was a night-owl – but highly effective if that other person was like me and was able to start early. On the other side, how often would we speak up and say that we don’t do our best focused work after 5pm?

We have natural flows and rhythms of working in many other ways

  • Our conversation habits – the gaps we leave between when we start speaking and others have finished (these are also influenced by our geographic culture)

  • The ways that we perform repeatable tasks (such as filling in time sheets, drafting emails, transport between and to/from offices)

  • Ceremonies such as how we start meetings, where we sit/stand how we make tea or coffee

  • Engagement flows – how we greet people and get started with conversations and work items

We are subconsciously observing a lot of these flows whenever we interact with others, but there is a risk that we are misinterpreting our observations. I have also not given my own natural flows much thought aside from the morning person observation already mentioned. I am about to start working on a few small projects with some colleagues and will try having a conversation about preferred working styles in the next month – a good future topic for this blog.

Validations and Feedback

‘How am I doing so far?’

What a loaded question… When we ask a question like this, are we seeking feedback, or are we seeking validation? Perhaps this is related to the fixed versus growth mindset.

With a fixed mindset, I would be seeking support to validate that I have been doing a great job and that I am considered a superstar.
With a growth mindset, I am truly open to feedback and want to understand how I could improve.

Of course, this then leads us to metrics and the question about how they could be used for feedback and how they might be used for validation.

Rainfall as a metric means that each day we check our rain gauge in the garden and note how many millimetres of rain have fallen in the last 24 hours. This is not feedback – I am fairly certain that the weather systems do not use measurements from our rain gauges to find ways to improve the weather. Instead it is a monitoring metric and we can use it to validate that the mud was slippery outside because we had a lot of rain.

Budgets and tracking the spend against budget looks like a great feedback metric – however, by itself, it is purely for validation. How many of us have been rightly happy that a piece of work we just completed met budget expectations? (Or rightly unhappy if we did not meet the budget expectations?) Remember those feelings for a moment – pride, relief, happiness – or regret, sadness, blame – these are not very helpful if we want to improve how we work and can distract us from seeing other opportunities if we are not careful.

Feedback is when we ask why and how. Back to the budget example, if we ask why we did not meet budget, without blame, we can find out a lot of useful information and opportunities to improve for next time. One of my favourite lean tools is the ‘5 whys‘ – it is fascinating what can be uncovered if we keep asking why (with polite respect, of course). In the case of budgets – it is just as useful to ask why we met as why we did not meet budget – learning what worked well is very useful for next time also.

Validation versus feedback might be one of the root issues with KPI’s – when we are set a target number, it is very tempting to do all that we can to meet that number and then breathe a sigh of relief when we finally meet or exceed it. How many of us have had truly useful conversations about how we did our work, what we learnt and how we can continue to improve in the era of KPI’s? Validation is a very tempting focus and can feel a lot like feedback – but it is hollow praise.

Metrics validation and feedbackIn summary,

  • Validation is when we use metrics to show that we did a good job
  • Feedback is when we ask why or how we got a result

Be careful which outcome we are seeking when selecting and discussing metrics.

Expectations

Imagine a discussion between managers.

Manager A – ‘How do think person X is performing?’

Manager B – ‘Doing a great job – understands what the need is and then delivers the outcome every time.’

Manager A – ‘Thanks – sounds good, I’ll count that as a ‘meets expectations’ in the review.’

Manager B – ‘Well, actually, I think that X exceeded my expectations – did you know that they have 5 years of delivery experience under their belt? I think that we are under-utilising X.’

Manager A – ‘Yeah – but they’re not really leadership material – I don’t think they will ever get above their current level in the company.’

Manager B – ‘That’s not their expectation – X has high potential, depth of experience and took this role to learn more about our part of the company. Have you had a discussion with X about their career goals and experience?’

Manager A – ‘Umm, Yes – but they don’t seem to be leadership material, I guess they will be disappointed…’

A and BThis imaginary conversation contains many examples of expectations – One manager has high and the other low expectations of person X and person X has high expectations of themselves. I believe that people are capable of living up to our high expectations and also of living down to our low expectations and whatever our expectations are, they will sense and comply.

This is an important insight – our expectations are similar to assumptions and can be very tricky to surface. This means that they will become part of our subconscious and we are likely to transmit our expectations in ways that we cannot easily control such as body language, tone and our sentence construction.

So what can we do about it?

Any time we think that someone is doing an average or poor job, take a moment to reflect if it could be a bit of confirmation bias (that we always thought they were only capable of average or low quality and we have been selective in our observations to support this view). If this is the case, then imagine the best performer you have met and that this person has the potential to be just as great. Of course this applies in our non-workplace relationships as well – so we can get plenty of opportunities to reflect and practice in safe environments.

If we are not certain that a major factor is our own expectations, then find a couple of other people and sound them out about the person in question. Be very careful with this approach, because it is very easy for other people to pick up your expectations of others and answer in ways that will add to the confirmation bias.

In summary, expectations could be a major factor in productivity in the workplace – I wonder what would happen if everyone believed that their staff and colleagues were capable of achieving awesome instead of mediocre?

Planning and Focus

Plans are great!

  • They help us focus and align to a goal
  • They demonstrate that we know what we are doing
  • They help us to break up work into manageable chunks so that we can deliver in stages or divide the work up between teams

But…

What if the goal is to achieve innovation or find new ideas?

Let’s take the 3 points above and see how they might be detrimental when we are dealing with complexity as defined in the Cynefin Framework.

Focus and alignment

When we focus we can miss things. Try staring at something nearby now – focus on its attributes and why it is there. Notice that while you are focussed, other things become less noticeable in our peripheral vision, hearing and other senses.

In an ordered environment, where things are knowable and there is a high amount of certainty, focus is a wonderful thing.

In an unordered environment of complexity or chaos it can destroy us in the worst case – and in the best case it will limit our ability to find new ideas and interesting things. We still need to have an idea of what we are looking for, setting some constraints or boundaries – but it is not a laser-like focus.

We know what we are doing

People who use traditional planning methods in complex environments do not know what they are doing. The planning needed in complexity is how to manage constraints, how to identify ‘good’ and ‘bad’ patterns and how to amplify or dampen them respectively. Risk and opportunity management methods are much more appropriate in complex environments and traditional planning is great in ordered domains.

PlanningPlanning

A person who knows what they are doing will use both types of planning/management, mixing and matching as they go.

Unfortunately, people are traditionally rewarded for showing how they executed to a plan and achieved an outcome. In this light, the outcomes achieved in a complex environment can only be described after they have happened. So it can look like random luck and is not generally well rewarded unless the outcome was an astonishing breakthrough or innovation of some sort. In these cases we will backfill the story in a retrospectively coherent way so that it seems the achievement was planned that way all along.

Retrospective CoherenceRetrospective Coherence

Divide up the work

Absolutely the best way to do something in the ordered domains. Break it up, build each part and then assemble it at the end.

When we try to do this in a complex environment we spend a lot of effort trying to get certainty. We also highly constrain the outcome to only that which we imagine is possible at that point in time.

So not only do we spend too much, we also sub-optimise our opportunities.

The better option is to explore the needs using test and learn approaches. Techniques for exploring the ‘fuzzy front end’ from design thinking work well as does prototyping, experimentation, articulation of assumptions and then validation or invalidation of them.

This is where we say that failure is good – let me explain that because many people have issues with such a statement.

When we are in a complex environment we do not know and cannot predict what will happen when we do action ‘XYZ’ and there are many actions that we could do. In order to find out what works and where the boundaries might be, we conduct experiments to see if there are stable and repeatable patterns. The experiments that work are what we are seeking and the ones that fail are outside of what we are seeking. Only by conducting experiments that fail can we be confident that we have found the edges of the space that we are exploring. If we don’t get failures, then we have not gone far enough and have missed opportunities for new ideas that might work.

BoundariesSo safe-to-fail experiments are important and the above helps to explain why we should be designing experiments that we expect to succeed and ones that we expect to fail – when do this we are guessing where the boundaries exist and the experiments confirm those boundaries.

Summary

These 3 examples demonstrate that our traditional planning and focus methods are really only suited to the ordered domains in the Cynefin Framework and that seemingly ‘opposite’ approaches are more effective in the complex domain.

We need more innovation and new ideas – we will not get them using standard planning and focus methods.

Plans are great – when we have certainty and predictability (and not when we want new ideas).

Business Serendipity

Innovation is the current silver bullet to fix flagging businesses and help grow new ones – it’s leading to a lot of interest in ideas like Design Thinking.

Design Thinking starts with observing Customers and identifying their needs – rather than asking Customers what they want (or how they respond to key marketing phrases). Doing this well involves lots of research, taking copious notes and then combining these notes in many different ways to gain insights. It is from these insights that ideas such as the pedestals for front-load washing machines came about at Whirlpool – the video is a great one to watch to see Design Thinking principles in action.

Done well, the research generates hundreds or thousands of notes – these might be stuck on a long wall and grouped together. It is key that different people do the groupings and that individuals walk away from the material for a while and then come back to it later. By doing this, the material is viewed in many different ways and the chances of finding novel ideas are increased.

How does this relate to serendipity in the workplace?

How many of us come into work at the same time each day, visit the same coffee place during our break and speak to the same people over lunch? With such regular habits, the chances of new ideas emerging are greatly reduced. It would be like one person taking all the observations from Customer research, classifying them and leaving it at that. The great ideas come from stepping away and then looking again with fresh eyes. Some of my favourite moments at work have occurred seemingly by chance – resulting in time saved for a project or a better way to design a solution.

The entire premise of serendipity is that it is unlooked for good fortune – so we really shouldn’t try and force it to happen. We can enable it to happen more often by changing our routine, mixing with different people and speaking about different topics with the people we normally work with.

Try something different today…it might lead to a new idea.

Not Perfect First Time

Not PerfectYou’ve spent the last 3 days putting together the deck for the workshop – speaking to the participants to get their input, collating, reviewing, updating and formatting.

Why?

So that we use the time in the workshop in the most efficient possible way.

Right?

Wrong.

A beautifully collated and presented deck is perfectly suited to use in a presentation – so we make the assumption that we should be creating one for a workshop as well.

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that the purpose of a workshop is to do some work – to identify issues, solve problems and get creative. If we start the session with a presentation deck, the participants will immediately focus on the presented content and not move very far from it. We might get some suggestions to fix the spelling, grammar or re-word a sentence – the focus will be on polishing the deck – not generating new content.

It can be a lot more useful to start with a ‘template’ type of deck which reflects the outcomes desired from the workshop and fill it in as the workshop progresses.

Even a template can act as a framing or anchoring bias and restrict the range of thinking – so if we are after innovation, it can be a problem.

So don’t try to get things perfect first time – allow for inputs, ideas and refinement – these things take time. If we do not allow the time, we miss opportunities for innovation and the quality that comes from stepping away and revisiting/reworking a piece later on.

Sound Bites

If you take only one thing away from reading this post – it is a caution to be very careful with taking only one thing away from any interaction.

We are evolved to filter information so that we only need to focus on things that are important to us – that’s why painters can put a few brush-strokes on a canvas and we can interpret it as a person walking on the beach in the distance.

Person on BeachWe filter without realising it – if we did not filter, we would be overloaded with information and find it very difficult to proceed.

When we have a conversation with someone, we imagine that they understand everything that we say in the way that we intended for it to be meant. The only thing that we can be certain of, in fact, is that the person will have interpreted what we said in the way that made sense to them. Of course what makes sense to the other person might or might not be aligned with what we actually intended.

One time, I came away from a conversation wondering why the person had started to debate the pros and cons of scrum when I had been meeting with them about something else. On reflection, I realised that my job title at the time contained the word ‘Agile’ so that person thought that I was only speaking about scrum teams and the delivery process. It was likely that the other person had a very different definition of agile – mine is a very broad one and includes Lean, Cynefin, Design Thinking and many other useful ideas and approaches. Others might define agile as ‘scrum’ and not much more for all sorts of reasons. This means that the other person was filtering my part of the conversation through a ‘Kim is here to talk about scrum’ lens which led to a complete misinterpretation of what I was asking about.

How does this relate to the title of the post ‘Sound Bites’?

We in the Lean and Agile communities have discussed and investigated many concepts and are in the habit of using short descriptions for very complex ideas. Within the community, I can say something like ‘I like to use the Cynefin Framework to help me determine which approaches are compatible with the system that I am working with’ and lots of people would understand what I meant to say. But I have spent a lot of time reading about these ideas, attending conferences, speaking with experts and trying them out so the following terms are loaded with deep meaning;

  • Cynefin Framework
  • Approaches
  • System

These terms are at risk of becoming ‘sound bites’ – the main thing that an audience hears and therefore believes is the main message. They could then try and apply one of the concepts, or an extrapolation of these ideas and end up with a completely unexpected result.

This is not the first time ‘sound bites’ have happened in our human history. For example, Bob Emeliani wrote a great post recently about Frederick Winslow Taylor and how people partially applied his Principles of Scientific Management and ended up with a sub-optimal result.

What can we do about the problem with ‘sound bites’?

We need tailor our conversations to our audience. In a group of deep experts, it is fine for us to use our shorthand terms and jargon – but in a mixed group or with non-experts, it is as if we are teachers providing all the answers to students and not teaching them how to learn – so our words are ripe for misinterpretation.

Now that you have read this post and therefore interpreted it in your own ways, I would be very interested to hear about your experiences with sound bites, or what the term ‘sound bites’ means to you.

Please leave a comment or find me on Twitter: @kb2bkb