The thing that holds the thing that the Stakeholders were holding

So we all know about stakeholders…those people that care about what we are doing and should have a say in what happens.

Are there also people that care about the thing that the stakeholders care about that we would not call stakeholders?

What does the ‘stake’ mean when we refer to the stakeholder? According to Wikipedia, the term originally referred to the person who temporarily held the stakes from a wager until the outcome was determined. Business has since co-opted the term to mean people interested or impacted by the outcome of a project.

Tobbe and I were having burgers for lunch today…they were so tall that they had skewers in them to keep them together. So the chef held the skewer (stake) and we held the skewer when we ate the lunch, but the person serving us never touched the skewer…just the plate that supported the burger with the skewer in it.

That got us thinking about what supports the interests of the stakeholders, and yet, is not a stakeholder of a project or outcome?

It may be what we call governance. The scaffolding in an organisation that ensures that business interests are looked after…ensuring that our burgers arrive safely and without toppling over onto the floor.

Assumption Pillows – Lightning Blog

Expanding the thoughts behind a recent tweet of mine.

‘Pondering….less obvious reasons…generate ‘pillows’ of assumptions…and are ineffective cushions against the sharp rocks of risk below’

Assumptions are like pillows – they are very comfortable and we are not aware of them for much of the time. The trouble is that our assumptions and the assumptions of other people that we are working with are likely to be different. When we don’t inspect our assumptions, we can overlook risks – so that is why our assumptions are like pillows.

It can feel like a waste of effort to inspect our assumptions – there are ways of working them into a workshop facilitation plan – that’s the easiest one to address.

Another way is to be aware of the feeling that something is not quite right in a conversation. Once I was negotiating a contract and almost starting to argue with the other party about a particular point – both of us thought that the other one was being a bit unreasonable. After a short break, we took a moment to clarify what we were discussing and it turned out that we both agreed the point, but had been discussing quite different things before the short break.

The main risk that assumptions cause in projects is delay. If we find ways to highlight assumptions earlier we can save wasted effort in circular discussions, rework or duplication.

It’s better to see the sharp rocks of risk than to cover them with assumption pillows.

LIGHTNING BLOGS – THE RULE OF THREES, OR THE RULE OF THIRDS.

LIGHTNING BLOGS
Welcome to the first in my lightning blog series. This series is for the ideas and observations we all make during our daily lives and rarely share or have time to explore them.

THE RULE OF THREES, OR THE RULE OF THIRDS.


The rule of threes is an observation I made while trying to save energy and money by examining and swapping light bulbs and the mode of generating the emitted light.
Sounds great and very intellectual but as usually happens you do something and then upon reflection realise there appeared to be a pattern. I actually was just trying to swap over to the newer 6 Watt LED bulbs, I had recently found in my local supermarket, to save money because my energy bills are creeping up there and starting to hurt (mother of invention).

I had swapped all the lights in my house with these 6 Watt LEDs, except for the two main lights in my kitchen and the dinning area. The reason these two lights hadn’t been swapped over, was that they were 18 Watt Fluorescent tubes. Well, finally the day came and I had decided it was time to do the swap. When I began to remove the fixtures, I noticed that they were not the original fixtures but had themselves been replacements for the type of light that was there previously. The original light fixtures were actually lamp holders, just like the type of fixture I was installing, great less touch up work.

Then it struct me, when the house was built the dominant form of lighting was incandescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs ranged usually from 100 Watts to 60 Watts in your typical single light fixture for a room. Yes they made smaller bulbs 40 Watts and even as low as 20 Watts, but these were usually the bulbs used for bedside lamps or in chandeliers. The most likely scenario was that the original lamp holder would have held a 60 Watt bulb due to the small room size.

So what we had was a situation where if they had put a smaller bulb than 60 Watts the room would be poorly lite, however at the time, the more cost effective technology of fluorescent lighting would have meant a 20 Watt florescent tube would have given more light than the 60 Watt incandescent for a third of the cost. In fact the florescent tube would have probably given out the equivalent light from a 75 Watt bulb or more.

Now the fluorescent tube I was replacing was in fact, a newer more efficient 18 Watt florescent tube. Yet it struck me that I was now installing a 6 Watt bulb that was one third the wattage of the one I was removing. I also realised that the fluorescent must have been replacing a bulb at least three time the wattage as itself.

The rule of threes or thirds was born.
So did this mean that only when something became three times better or more efficient or used a third of the energy or effort, that we actually muster enough motivation or pressure to change?

Can the rule of threes be seen in other areas or even help us to decide when retooling or changing the way we work is most beneficial?

Like I said observations and ideas only in the Lightning Blogs. Food for thought and I hope the rule of threes or thirds may help in some way to guide you in your decision making.
Yes I know wattages do not equal Lumens but for simplicity, I didn’t go into that.
From Wikipedia : The luminous efficacy of a typical incandescent bulb is 16 lumens per watt, compared with 60 lm/W for a compact fluorescent bulb or 150 lm/W for some white LED lamps.

PS. Careful how you pronounce, The Rule of Thirds, it could be misunderstood as something else.

Complex in Hindsight

When we reflect on a complex event, it often looks predictable in hindsight and this makes it harder to deal with complexity in the future. This post is about complexity in the Cynefin sense – where it is not possible to see linkages between events beforehand – but it is possible to see those linkages afterwards.

The two Cynefin domains that have high certainty are called Complicated and Obvious. The complex events that happened in the past – look like they belong in these domains – when facilitating sessions with people and asking if the past events were predictable, they will often say that they were. It is a good idea to double-check that this is the case – ‘are you saying they were predictable with your benefit of hindsight? Or if we went back in time, is it really an unpredictable set of linkages?’

It is useful to take examples of past events and create a Cynefin Framework from them in order to create a shared understanding among a group of people. The Cognitive Edge Method to do this is called 4-points or 4-tables contextualisation. Once the Cynefin Framework has been created, the labels on the groupings of events become very useful in the future. The group can then say that an upcoming event is like one in the framework, and if it is in the Complex Domain, use an exploratory approach rather than a project management method more suited to the Complicated Domain.

The main ‘gotcha’ with using historical events is this one – that the complex ones do not appear complex in hindsight – so be careful when facilitating that this is not a factor – otherwise, the Cynefin Framework created will have more examples of high-certainty events than actually exist in the environment.

Polar binary paralysis, the current social condition.

So what the hell does that mean?

Well in our modern society and culture we tend to see things in Black and White. There has to be a winner and a looser. We tend to see things in absolutes, all or nothing, off or on always binary. Now if you acknowledge this basic fact about our society then you are closer to seeing the issue.

While a binary view of the world is helpful in decision making and rapid responses, which makes us feel more efficient and therefore superior, it also is a very unnatural state. The world is not binary, yes you can define parts of it that way but when looking at the entire system it is more complex and interlaced. There is rarely a binary condition, physic has understood this and made a branch called Quantum mechanic.

So what is the problem with our binary view?

When we lived isolated and disconnected lives a binary view was easy and extremely helpful but as society becomes homogenised, the binary differences become grey and complex. We enter a Quantum state where there can be complex states, off and on at the same time.

I have always explained that most of us when faced with a decision, consider there are only two option positive or negative (Yes or No) but in reality there is always a third option. The third option is actually what I call a Zero state, so instead of positive or negative we also have a Zero. This zero state can range for “wait and see” to do nothing, yet its very passive nature makes us consider this not an option.

We have been trained to polarise in one direction or another. What this means is that in our modern society there has to be a winner and a looser.

We have all seen it recently with Brexit and the US presidential election. There must be a result therefore one side wins with only a fraction of a percent more than the opposition. The winner seems also to state that they have won with a mandate from the electorate. So our desire to have a winner means we end up splitting hairs to find a winner, Polar Binary Paralysis.

There is no middle ground or balanced view only polar opposites which are often shadows and reflections of the other.

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.

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.

Visualising Certainty in Project Estimates

When we are scoping out a project, we are asked to provide estimates for time and cost to certain confidence levels. At the start it might be +/-100%, then +/-30% and then +/-10% (or fixed price).

What we are doing is spending money and effort in order to learn more about what we are going to deliver before we get started on actually delivering it. Using a blanket level of confidence such as +/-30% could be introducing more risk into the project because most of the things that we work on actually have subset levels of certainty. Even at the very start of a project, when we are asked for +/-100% – some of the work will have +/-10% certainty, some +/-30% and the rest will be a bit of a wild guess (+/-100%). The risk that we are introducing by treating the whole estimate as a wild guess is that we will end up spending a lot more on investigation to get to the next levels of confidence than we really need to spend.

There is another way to express our levels of confidence. Imagine a stacked bar graph that could show the amount of work at the different confidence levels. At the start, and what we would call as a +/-100% level of confidence, it might actually be a very skinny layer at high confidence (+/-10 %), a bit more at medium confidence (+/-30%) and a large amount at wild guess level (+/-100%). Depending on the type of scope falling into the three different sections, we can then make better decisions about the remaining work to estimate the project and whether there is value in starting some of the higher confidence work earlier.

Fuzzy stacked bar graph Even when we have an overall estimate to +/-30%, we will still have subsets of scope sitting at the high certainty and wild guess levels also. By expressing the estimate as an overall +/-30% we are hiding crucial information about the project which could be used to make better decisions, be indicators of untapped opportunities, or risks.

For example, if we are looking at a project estimate that looks like the bar graph on the right in the above picture, we could have a good discussion about the amount of effort required to drive out the uncertainty from the wild guess components. It might be the case that we should start the other components first because that work will inform the wild guess components or completing some of that work will make it easier to determine some aspects of the wild guess work. Without this type of visualisation, we will treat the entire scope as still only having medium certainty and might start some work prematurely or delay useful work and potentially over-invest in effort to gain more perceived certainty.

Managing Constraints

Tasks and activities are easy to manage – we see that a job needs to be done, schedule some time for it and then do it.

Queues are easy to see – waiting in line to pay for some goods when we go shopping – or waiting in line to see a popular tourist attraction. Waiting in queues like these is a good time to ponder about why the queue is there and how it could be better managed. Could the shop hire some more cashiers? Could the tourist venue allow more people through at once by setting out the attraction in a different way?

What about the queues that we cannot easily see such as those in our everyday work?

One thing that seems efficient is a regular set of decision-making meetings such as review and approval to proceed with an activity (like recruitment or a project). There could be a better way to manage these decisions – or are these regular meetings actually the most effective way to do it?

How many of us have rushed a presentation together to get it into the next cycle for a decision meeting? What might happen if the decision could be made as soon as we have brought together the information needed to make that decision? Would we have less of a sense of urgency and take longer to do simple things? Would it take less time because we know that the decision will be made as soon as we are ready for it?

The decision to proceed or not is a constraint – up until that time, we are not certain that the project or other action will go ahead. By holding a regular meeting for the decision-making, we are making efficient use of the decision-makers time – but we are introducing queues into the process. Imagine that there will be 5 project ideas presented at the next meeting – all 5 have different sets of data that they need to gather in order for the proceed or not decision to be made. This data-gathering will have different lead times and each project will actually be ready for the go/no-go decision well before the meeting – so the length of wait-time in the queue will be different for each of them. How many of us record these wait times? Those things that remain invisible cannot be managed – people will be waiting on the decision-meeting before they can do the next set of useful actions. We could have 5 teams waiting on one meeting with senior decision-makers – because that is the best way to use the time of those decision-makers.

5 Teams WaitingConstraint management is hard to do because it is very hard to notice the constraints. We get used to it taking a certain time to do things and waiting for the next decision point – because that’s how it’s done and it appears to be efficient.

There are a lot of other constraints out there waiting to be noticed – the clues are there when our colleagues roll their eyes or complain about something. We can empathise with them and move on – or we can empathise and then dig a bit deeper.

  • Is this a part of a pattern?
  • Do other people also complain about it?
  • How can we measure the things that people are complaining about?
  • If we could measure them, what would we expect the measurements to be in order to validate or invalidate those complaints?
  • If we are not already capturing the data, why?

Next time you are planning work – notice if you are planning activities, tasks or constraint management. Planning some time each week for observation sounds like a good idea – only by looking at something for a while and reflecting will we find ways to improve.

Meetings and Assumptions

Have you ever been in a meeting that went a bit like this?

Workshop to MessSomehow the meeting went off-topic, or a conversation suddenly took over the entire session. What went wrong? Perhaps our conversations were assumption-based rather than fact-based.

Assumptions are very valuable things, they help us to move forward. An obvious example is the assumption that the footpath in front of us is solid, if we doubted this all the time, we would have a lot of trouble walking around, let alone running or jogging.

The less helpful types of assumptions are ones that we make about our own or others definitions of words or level of understanding about a topic. I can remember having 30 minutes of strong debate about an issue a long time ago, only to discover that we were actually arguing for the same thing – just using different terminology.

When planning meetings and workshops, list out the topics that might cause debate or miscommunication and then ask what assumptions we might be making about those topics. Whenever possible, spend some time validating or invalidating those assumptions before the meeting so that we turn those assumption-based conversations into fact-based ones and use our time more effectively.