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.

Comfort and Privacy

How could something as simple as a stand-up be a potential invasion of privacy?

What if someone feels a bit unwell on the day and standing up in the same place for 15 minutes or more is very hard for them to do? What are their options?

They could stay silent – after all, we want to be seen as part of the team and not a ‘party pooper’ by asking to sit down.

They could make an excuse – ‘apologies – I need to dash to another meeting’ – or something like that.

They could tell people what is wrong (which could range from a mild illness to something more severe).

We need to consider this when we lead teams. We should not expect people to share private information – there is no need for us to know some of these things, and in a normal workplace, it’s not a problem.

Many Agile ways of working and workshop facilitation methods, fail to fully consider  diversity and inclusion. When we do consider diversity, we will offer ways for people to opt out of activities in ways that allow everyone to ‘save face’ and maintain their private information.

My ask of the Lean and Agile communities is to take a moment, pause and consider the above – let’s ensure that our ways of working are fully inclusive and not causing discomfort to anyone.

When in Rome…

romeThere was an article about the ‘Tube Chat’ badges that caused controversy in London recently. The article explained that the cultural ‘norm’ on the London Tube is to not speak with strangers. In fact, that speaking with strangers on any train until well outside London is not normal.

So I probably should not have started that long conversation with an American until we had left London and were well on our way to Edinburgh last month – oh well, lesson learned.

How do we discover the cultural ‘norms’ when we join a new group? These ‘norms’ are not something that can easily be explained – except for the extreme ones like dress codes. So we need to observe and deduce what the ‘norms’ might be. Do people have lunch at their desk? Do they go out of the office for coffee? …and so on.

Some are better at observation than others. Is there a way we can compensate for this diversity in observational skills? And why is this topic important?

It is important because the cultural ‘norms’ are what makes relationships easier – they remove friction and provide a level of certainty about how people will behave in various circumstances. If we want to shift behaviour to support improved ways of working, then we need to understand the current cultural ‘norms’. Then we need to work through how these cultural ‘norms’ are enabling or restricting good outcomes.

When we find a ‘norm’ that is restricting, it is tempting to call it out and just tell everyone to do something different.

I tried this a couple of weeks ago on my morning commute. There was a person sitting opposite me watching a soccer game on his phone without headphones. The sound was turned down, but I could clearly hear the ‘….and he scores blah blah blah…..the crowd goes wild….’ whistles blowing etc. It was really annoying. I assumed that he had blue-tooth earphones under his hood and that they might be faulty – he wouldn’t know – so I had better let him know. Because the cultural ‘norm’ on our trains is to keep your sound to yourself. I got his attention and said that I thought his earphones might be faulty because I could hear the sound. He barely looked at me and shook his head and then went on watching the game – he did turn the sound down a little.

I was a bit upset because he ignored me and did not seem to understand that others think it’s impolite not to use earphones.

A young lady then got on the train and sat in the seat next to him – doing her make-up in the selfie camera of her phone.

Years ago, etiquette guides were published to let people know what was socially acceptable. It was also common for people to let others know when they ‘crossed the line’ outside of the cultural ‘norm’ – but recently that is not acceptable. So the cultural ‘norm’ is to not say anything which means that we no longer have a consistent cultural ‘norm’ in society.

If this is true, then shifting behaviours in the workplace by direct methods is going to be almost impossible. Perhaps it is better to focus on more concrete things like processes and policies. These things are acceptable to make explicit and the cultural ‘norms’ will adapt around them. We should still monitor the cultural ‘norms’ in case they are leading to bad outcomes in our processes – but we should not try to change them directly.

Logical Mind and Emotional Mind – the duality of change

A simple yet ignored and overlooked fact is that we all are in two minds. The saying I’m in two minds is actually based in fact. If you think about it we all do it. How many times have you logically known the answer and yet for some emotive reason avoided it. The logical mind often sees what is the actual reason or solution yet the emotional mind may not be ready to accept or even hear it. How many times when an obvious solution or fact is presented, have you heard the statement …Yes… but…. . The but, says it all, the proposal, solution or facts has satisfied logically, yet the person is not yet emotionally ready to accept the outcome.

The home truth is we all do it I know I should throw that out, or get more exercise but I am actually not emotionally ready to implement the change. So next time you hear a ..Yes..but.. take it as a sign that the logical solution or proposal, may not be rejected, only the emotional timing is wrong. Often the emotive mind needs time to move on and embrace new ideas. This is not a bad thing but it is essential that we become aware of the two minds we all have. Sometime we know we should do it but we really don’t want to because of emotive reasons.

Requests Versus Intentions

This is a fairly common occurrence when dealing with others and especially, with customers or even staff. We all filter during our waking life, most of which goes unnoticed by us, as these “auto-pilot” events carry on in the background. This evolutionary strategy frees up our brains to perform “higher” functions such as thought while still enabling us to maintain life functions such as breathing, walking etc.

As humans we tend to go into an auto-pilot state when ever possible, did you pull the hand brake when you parked the car? Did you turn off the gas? This ability to subconsciously perform tasks is highly beneficial, yet our ability to easily slip into it can have consequences.

When talking to someone we often listen just enough, so we can begin to form our next statement. This can be efficient and perfectly adequate for simple tasks covering well defined and commonly known parameters, facts and requirements.

Yet if the purpose of the conversation is to bring into focus the requirements and needs of a customer then the requested items or tasks may not deliver the actual intended outcome expected by the customer. A customer will often ask for a preconceived “product or service” which to the best of their understanding is the correct one. This request is often skewed by the amount of knowledge, time, importance and even ego the customer has.

The basic idea that the customer is always right is greatly misinterpreted by most of us. The customer has obviously the final say as to whether they are satisfied with the final product or the resulting service but that does not imply they are experts that have precise specifications for their requirements and the equipment and skills to deliver said item or service. If they did they wouldn’t need you.

The greatest obstacle to a satisfactory outcome is often ourselves. Trust is key, each party must have each others best interests at heart, we can not expect a free ride but simple pride in ones work and courtesy goes a very long way. The intention of the requested work is often buried under layers of ego, insufficient knowledge, time constraints and “auto-pilot” conversations. The best customers know what they need and your job is to help them get it. The intention of a piece of work is its reason for being, the request is but a starting point and can and should not be considered a precise specification for the deliverable. This is where the value of your input and speciality knowledge is required and essential, if you don’t have all the answers, then be open about it and then find out what extra pieces of information are required. This manages the customers expectations and shows transparency and honesty while protecting yourself as well.

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?

Everyone can learn everything and anything

This has been a source of some debate between myself and basically everyone else. The fact I stand by is that we can all learn anything and do anything we actually want to. This is often disagreed with by most people I talk to. They are firmly set in their ways and as such find it unacceptable that anyone can do anything. Funnily enough they often cite themselves as an example, they are good at maths but are terrible at accounting, they are a good dancer but suck at sports and my personal favourite they can’t do what ever but never really tried. They often will debate citing aptitude and ability but my premise is that we can all do anything if we really want to enough. The results may not be perfection or the best but we can become capable enough to be competent.

I am convinced we are programmed by our experiences and ourselves. This programming often takes place without any real obvious input but by subtle language and even non-verbal communications. Parents, peers, self and even timing can drastically affect the way we see ourselves and our ability to perform tasks. Should we all feel trapped by our existing abilities and environment? Does this mean that we can never evolve or develop skills and techniques we never had? When you begin to state the the concept of ability and aptitude like this, you start to get the idea that many of us treat abilities much like parents treat their children, their youngest child will always be their baby, even when they turn 50 and have children of their own. This attitude means we take a snap shot and rarely revise that image, much like our abilities.

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.

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?