Agile Australia 2017

Melissa Perri at Agile Australia 2017

It’s been two weeks since the Agile Australia 2017 conference in Sydney, it was great to see so many people there and the quality of speakers was very high. Here are a few snippets from the conference.

Melissa Perri spoke about ‘The Build Trap’ and how it is easy to get very good at writing specifications and stories, which is the ‘build trap’. There is more value in understanding the true needs of the Customers and building to those needs. Melissa also had a great way to explain the difference between Product Manager and Product Owner ‘Product Owner is a role you play on a Scrum team. Product Manager is the job’

Sami Honkonen showed us how the Cynefin Framework is one of the building blocks of a Responsive Organisation – it helps us understand why Agile works in a complex adaptive system. Sami also talked about how structure drives behaviour and that it’s not the individuals, but the structure that they are in. I have also found the concept from Sami about designing very small experiments (ones that can be done in minutes) very useful.

Chris Chan at Agile Australia Lightning Talks – ‘Pirate Metrics’

The lightning talks were little nuggets of knowledge and very well attended. The picture above is from the ‘Pirate Metrics’ talk by Chris Chan – his way of explaining AARRR using examples of Pirates going into a bar is engaging. For example – Referrals – one Pirate saying to another ‘Arrr – you should try out this bar, it’s good’

The Deep Dive sessions with the keynote speakers were a bonus – Agile Australia has started doing this in the last couple of years. These give us the opportunity to learn more from the speakers, especially when they cover such interesting and useful items in their keynotes, that leaves us wanting more details.

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.

FEEDBACK, DESIGNED BY COMMITTEE, FRIEND OR FOE

In the modern world, with its sense of image, popularity polls and populous mantra; a more primitive relative may observe this behaviour and trend as wishy-washy and indecisive.

Think about the general trend that has become common place, talent shows like Idol, X factor, Voice; shows like Big Brother where people are voted out. Can you say Bah! We follow like sheep, chasing the populous’s approval, hoping it will lead to our goals of increased sales, profit, reduction of wasteful spending.

These shows are a sign of the times, we want to know our profitability before we even start building. Even when built we do trials to tweak or discard prototypes. Feedback has become the double edged sword that can destroy an otherwise perfectly good idea or “hone it to perfection”. All heavily skewed by general knowledge, biases and experiences of the sampled group, dangerous territory for a cutting edge, revolutionary concept or product. The old axiom “the customer doesn’t know what they want, until they see it”, springs to mind.

For the known domain, where the type of product is well established and only slight variation, in either packaging or product is the goal then feedback is definitely the path forward. All the variables are well known or they follow well defined parameters. In this environment feedback enhances, tweaks and maximises but what about more unknown or unexplored environments? What about original thought?

In these more abstract, uncertain, unknown and unexplored conditions experimentation not feedback is the only true viable option.

Let me clarify. Feedback in this context does not include the information gathered by the investigative experimentation from analysis; even though technically results are a type of feedback.

Feedback is considered here as the third party opinions often collected and given even when not asked for. The designed by committee, too many cooks and option paralysis scenarios, most of us have felt it; when the process becomes too process heavy, that forward movement is but an illusion. The end result is often frustration, depression and often listlessness, we are emotionally like sharks and require forward movement to maintain our happiness.

This double edged sword, feedback is seen, even in our everyday lives, in the auto correct functions of word processors, the GPS navigational aids, calculators and even in programming tools to aid the programer. They all have their place and offer improvements in efficiency, yet they also take and undermine.

How many of us have checked to see that auto correct has “corrected” our spelling in an inappropriate manner, hopefully we catch it before we hit the send button.

Calculators are a useful tool, yet we have reduced or lost the ability to do mental arithmetic, in the pursuit for a rapid answer. People now days find it difficult to mentally estimate the total of their shopping, to see if they have enough money to cover it. Without a calculator the modern world stops.

Programming tools are a valuable tool and offer feedback upon our coding options and are often relied upon, for increased speed and guidance. The problem is that it can become a crutch, undermining and slowing the development of coding proficiency. The easy answer given by tools such as this, tempt us into a false sense of ability and takes from us the opportunities of discovering our own techniques and understanding of the code.

My personal favourite would have to be GPS navigation, I hate this one and therefore don’t have it. The course is plotted and locked into your Nav computer and you prefer to do something different, maybe you don’t like U-turns, it’s a very busy intersection, whatever the case, the GPS get almost annoyed offering recalculations again and again, demanding you comply. Then the pinnacle of folly, drivers that drive off cliffs etc by blindly following their GPS tools.

The reliance upon the feedback, given by an ever increasing number of auto correctional tools has resulted in a stifling of human ability for self analysis. The fundamental flaw with feedback mechanisms is that they often suffer from a static and fixed reference point. The coding tools can only give you the options its developers knew. The GPS navigation is only as accurate as its data and does not know your emotional state or wether you hate U turns, you the driver should be in positive control of your vehicle at all times and not defer part of the responsibility to a disembodied voice.

Feedback should never be the sword used to control or influence our direction or outcome, it’s a guide a sounding board. It should be part of the equation but never the solution.

Designed by committee, how many times have we all suffered through this and option paralysis. It all starts as a good idea if we can get a sense of what is required or in what direction we should head, then things will become clear and we will have a greater chance of success. The irony is that when we defer control to external influences we often lose our way. The reason for this is basic, we’re all different so what others may suggest usually doesn’t gel for us.

Feedback should be a guide, a navigational aid for our endeavours.

Unintended or invisible consequences

Have you ever tried to do a nice thing that went completely pear shaped ? 

Have you ever said something that was taken out of context ?

These are the unforeseen consequences, that surround us every day of our lives. The basic fact is that every interaction is open to misinterpretation. Sounds absurd but I propose it’s painfully true. The fact no one can read your mind or understand precisely what you mean is founded in the variety of life experiences we all have. We all have a “mental rule book” that we inherit/adapt/devise as we live our lives, moulded by our experiences and more importantly, our interpretation and responses to them.

Management and the unintended and invisible consequences

We are a modern culture of goal driven and result focused beings, rushing towards completion. The result is that there is entry level and management and the erosion of the middle.

The loss of the middle
The rush to completion culture, that is modern life, results in an erosion of the middle. Think about it, there is a devaluing and almost loss reflected by the middle layers of our work place and lives. This doesn’t mean that the middle layers don’t exist anymore because they do and if anything there are more of them. What has happened is the middle has expanded all while an erosion of its substance/quality has occurred. The middle has become a waiting room with no intrinsic value, just a place on the way to somewhere else. We are all trying to be/get somewhere else and therefore are focused forward and not in the present. It’s like people who are so busy, thinking of the next thing say, that they actually aren’t listening. They are actually, just frantically scanning /searching for the next sound bite to hang their comments upon. This type of hollowness is symptomatic of the erosion of the middle. This layer has become what I call “fluff” taking up a lot of room but with no real substance. The term busy work, tends to be made for this middle layer. So why has this happened?

Apprentice easy to learn hard to master

I remember buying a backgammon set when I was very young which had an instruction booklet with it. The instructions/rules were rather simple but it ended with this statement “easy to learn but hard to master” this line always resonated with me because I was a moratore’s son and knew that most things are easy to learn but really hard to master. The mastery of a skilled task takes time, time to encounter all possibilities and time to develop responses and reactions to them.

How many of us have learnt things, passed the exams and only years later, does the penny, actualy drop? Only then do we see for the first time what the concepts heart or the true nature of the knowledge was. Maths is littered with these sort of realisations, trigonometry is one.

Trig Wiki
I remember being told by a professor at university, when I was demonstrating and discussing with him how we learn and teach. He replied you only really learn something when you have to teach it, when you first learn anything, it is really just a getting to know you exercise, like a first date. This introduction allows you to pass an examine but really only superficially introduces you to the concepts involved. This initial exposure familiarises you with specific terms and basic concepts, so when you actually need to know and teach that lesson you can find the solution more easily and make it part of you.

The act of learning is greatly enhanced by teaching, why? The answer is simplicity itself. Everyone sees and exists in the world differently, these differences mean that when you learn something and try to understand it, you frame it in familiar and logical steps, for you anyway. When others try to learn and understand the same lesson they will also try to make sense of it according to their life view and understandings. So it’s obvious that when teaching you will find a continuum of how others perceive and try to understand the lesson. Some will think very much like yourself, others slightly differently and still others will need vastly different points of reference to come to terms with and understand the lesson. Good teachers must and can rephrase and explain things in a variety of ways, this necessity is what makes teaching the best way to learn because it stretches us to examine what we “know” from other perspectives and points of view.

The unforeseen consequence of teaching is you learn much more completely. This takes time and understanding.

So why do we rush to “completion” ?
Our modern culture is densely populated with 5 year plans, strategies, expectations, milestones and the list goes on and on. Every minute of every day in our lives is under constant scrutiny both internally and externally. We must develop and attain certain milestones within culturally expected time frames or we seem to be ineffectual or below the curve.

There is no room or time for mastery, we learn and we move on. The modern view is that “the now” is only a stepping stone to a future goal. The worth of the journey seems lost to us and only the allure of promotion and success is our goal. We have become tradesmen, with no patience or will to develop into master craftsmen. Society accepts the passable, to feed instant gratification and speed. The respect and value of craftsmanship and quality has become subservient to efficiency and greed. The attention span of the modern world is framed by sound bites and popularity poles.

Bread and Circus rule the day, with distractions and being seen as cutting edge, objectives in themselves.

Think about your workplace, how many times do we heard “they’ve been in that dead end job for years”, “they have no ambition” these statements maybe true but only partially so. The fact maybe that the worker derives get pleasure and satisfaction in developing their skills beyond acceptable and into the realm of mastery. Yet we don’t acknowledge this, we only see the same person in the same role, and evaluate this as “what is wrong with them?”

The absolute irony I noted while I was working IT, no matter how expert and skilled the programers were they were never “appreciated” as much as management. In fact it was sad to watch true masters of coding, having to become management so they could earn more money and get some appreciation. The actual engine which kept the company in business was devalued because they were content applying their craft. The ironic topper to this observation, was that graduates who had studied coding, just used coding to get a foot into a company, so they could quickly move into the management streams. Does the saying “too many Chiefs and not enough Indians”, spring to mind.

Words of wisdom from my father an old muratore “It takes hardly any extra effort to do a good job than a bad one.” This is very true, when you actually think about it, how much time, effort and money has been flushed down the toilet by bad projects with little or nothing to show for it?

The unforeseen consequence of our modern society is we rush to our goals and loose sight of the reasons and real benefits why we started in the first place.

There seems to be a disconnect between the limbs and the governing body, the brain. The “new talent” needs mentors to help and aid learning of best practises, while the “wiser” and older ones need the vitality of youth to physically accomplish the task and encourage new exploration into possibilities.

Companies are run like the military, chain of command, need to know and follow orders. They should be run as a biological system or organism, where there are feedback systems with more than one way to elicit change, the nervous system for rapid responses (management) and the endocrine system for slower invasive moderation (cultural).

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.

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.

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.

The perils of Sound bites and the human mind.

The human ability to learn, take facts and abstract, invent and then innovate is very impressive. All these possibilities and then more so. We live in a world of information abundance, we google, we search and we condense, all with the goal to assimilate knowledge and be able to function.

The sheer amount of data, facts, ideas and interpretations of data, available to any of us, has had a profound impact upon the way we all function and behave in our day to day lives. The ‘data explosion’ impact ranges from work, socially, ‘family and friend’ and even our own development and the way we see ourselves.

Think about it, the amount of stuff we are exposed to is increasing every year, books added to the web, new research, new facts, new ideas, new concepts etc. etc… The human animal is a marvel but to cope with an inundation of information we fall back on the tried and true method of filtering the incoming data to make sense of it. We all do it and some better than others. The very process of filtering means we, collate, prioritise, group and rapidly make evaluations upon the various pieces of information bombarding our senses. The mind grasps at straws and we often jump to rapid conclusions and interpret the apparent facts according to our own experiences and world view. This is a very efficient way to process information and to be able to make informed decisions. So what’s the problem with this system of behaviour?
Now to answer this, allow me to briefly cover optical illusions.

The classic examples of the brain being fooled by optical illusion such as the rabbit/duck illusion,

IMG_4338
are testimony that we all do it. In an effort to make sense we rapidly jump to conclusions, very handy when trying to pattern match. Evolutionarily speaking one of our greatest abilities.

Wikipedia defines an optical illusion (or visual illusion) as being characterised by visually perceived images that differ from objective reality. Information gathered by the eye is processed in the brain to give a perception that does not tally with a physical reality of the source.

There are three main types:

1) Literal optical illusions create images that are different from the objects that make them,

2) Physiological illusions that are the effects of excessive stimulation of a specific type (brightness, colour, size, position, tilt, movement), and

3) Cognitive illusions, the result of unconscious inferences. The brain trying to understand perceives the object based on prior knowledge or assumptions (‘fills in the gaps’).

Pathological visual illusions arise from a pathological exaggeration in physiological visual perception mechanisms causing the aforementioned types of illusions. A pathological visual illusion is a distortion of a real external stimulus and are often diffuse and persistent.

Physiological illusions, such as the afterimages following bright lights, or adapting stimuli of excessively longer alternating patterns (contingent perceptual aftereffect), are presumed to be the effects on the eyes or brain of excessive stimulation or interaction with contextual or competing stimuli of a specific type—brightness, colour, position, tilt, size, movement, etc.
Optical illusions are often classified into categories including the physical and the cognitive or perceptual, and contrasted with optical hallucinations.

Of all the optical illusions, the ones I wish to focus on here are the cognitive illusions.

Cognitive illusions are assumed to arise by interaction with assumptions about the world, leading to “unconscious inferences”, an idea first suggested in the 19th century by the German physicist and physician Hermann Helmholtz. Cognitive illusions are commonly divided into ambiguous illusions, distorting illusions, paradox illusions, or fiction illusions.

1. Ambiguous illusions are pictures or objects that elicit a perceptual “switch” between the alternative interpretations. The Necker cube is a well-known example; another instance is the Rubin vase.

2. Distorting or geometrical optical illusions are characterised by distortions of size, length, position or curvature. A striking example is the Café Wall illusion. Other examples are the famous Muller-Lyer illusion and Ponzo illusion.

3. Paradox illusions are generated by objects that are paradoxical or impossible, such as the Penrose triangle or impossible staircase seen, for example, in M.C Escher’s Ascending and Descending and Waterfall. The triangle is an illusion dependent on a cognitive misunderstanding that adjacent edges must join.

4. Fictions are when a figure is perceived even though it is not in the stimulus.

Now allow me to put forward the idea that as we become increasingly time poor and information burdened we increasingly begin to filter, even to the stage that we become unaware of it. This is where it can get dangerous.

I’m not talking about optical illusions jumping up at you in the workplace or in your day to day lives but I am talking about the way we all reduce information and events into “byte” sized pieces. Think about it, we dot point things, prioritise, we use jargon and, my pet hate, we make up acronyms. All in the name of efficiency and understanding. We have become a sound bite culture in an attempt to make sense and deal with all this stuff.

So what’s the problem? Well the reduction and filtering is. Think about it, reducing something means leaving something out or changing the original to a more compact form. Filtering means to sort something and then to determine what’s most important and then effectively ignoring other things to varying degrees.

When I was working in a laboratory I was told the story of a technique which was written up in a scientific journal. The Professor in our lab was trying to repeat the described technique and tried repeatedly, only resulting in failure. He followed the outlined procedure to the letter but to no avail. He ended up deciding to ring the parties concerned and found out that they had actually written in their original paper, that after a certain step in the process, they had gone to lunch for 2 hours. The scientific journal thought that this was not needed and removed this notation from the final publication. The irony was that without the 2 hour pause in the procedure the technique didn’t work at all.

Sound bites can be just as dangerous because often you don’t know what has been filtered out and things can be taken out of context.

To highlight just how misleading sound bites can be, consider an ecological study conducted by a friend of mine. He was collecting data on the kangaroo densities in a particular area and some of the variables which he looked at included vegetation type, terrain, lightning strikes etc. Now when he processed the data statistically there was a very strong positive correlation between the number of kangaroos and the number of lightning strikes. We joked that kangaroos obviously sprung up from lightning strikes; ridiculous but supported by the statistics. The real reason was that lightning strikes meant that a tree was burnt or a fire started. This meant that the native vegetation sprouted regrowth, which was tender and plentiful attracting the kangaroos into the area. So without the extra information about fire and Australian ecosystems the data could be misinterpreted.

I propose that in the course of dealing with an influx of information by reducing it to dot points, catch phrases and sound bites, we can filter things to the extent that their true nature can be lost.

I also think that this culture of sound bites can lead to ambiguity, distortion, paradox and even fiction, like cognitive optical illusions.

So next time, you’re making sense of information or trying to convey and teach, remember to check if any of these are possible :

1. Ambiguity – Can your abridged version have alternative interpretations or be perceived in more than one way?

2. Distortion – Are any parameters you’re touching upon, affected by how you choose to focus on them?

3. Paradox – Can your abridged version lead to a cognitive misunderstanding resulting in a paradoxical or impossible conclusion?

4. Fiction – Can your abridged version be perceived incorrectly?

So when you’re tempted to sound bite a concept or idea just remember Benny Hill “Never Assume because you make an Ass out of U and Me”.

Often clarity is aided by multiple perspectives (yes my sound bite).

Sound bites work because the brain is driven to define reality based on simple, familiar objects, it creates a ‘whole’ image from individual elements but this is also a potential problem. This is the reason taking them out of context can be very dangerous and some people do it on purpose to discredit valid concepts or people… a slippery slope.

 

Appendix

Three main types of optical illusions explained:

1) Literal optical illusions create images that are different from the objects that make them,

315px-allisvanity
One of the most well-known literal illusions is the painting done by Charles Allan Gilbert titled All is Vanity. In this painting, a young girl sits in front of a mirror that appears to be a skull. There isn’t actually a skull there, however, the objects in the painting come together to create that effect.

2) Physiological illusions that are the effects of excessive stimulation of a specific type (brightness, colour, size, position, tilt, movement)

IMG_4364
The checker shadow illusion. Although square A appears a darker shade of grey than square B, the two are exactly the same.
IMG_4365
Drawing a connecting bar between the two squares breaks the illusion and shows that they are the same shade.

IMG_4366
In this illusion we see square ‘A’ and ‘B’ as not the same colour, but when the image puts the two square next to each other; they do appear to be exactly the same colour.

3) Cognitive illusions, the result of unconscious inferences. The brain trying to understand perceives the object based on prior knowledge or assumptions (‘fills in the gaps’).

345px-my_wife_and_my_mother-in-law
Cognitive Illusion Image – My Wife & My Mother-in-Law. Do you see a young woman or an old lady?

Wikipedia Optical_illusion
Study.com Lesson What are optical illusions; definition; types
Lecture-optical-illusion-perception
Wikipedia Sound_bite

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.

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Questions as Boundaries

How do we know when we are asking a good or a poor question? One sign of a poor question is when people are spending a lot of effort for seemingly little gain.

Question‘What should we do?’ can be both.

If it’s been done before and there is a predictable, best practice way to do it, then the obvious answer is ‘The next logical step.’

Obvious StepsHowever, if we are exploring complexity it can be a poor question, there are so many possible options that it can take a long time to decide what to do.

Complex SpaceIn order to explore something which has limited certainty, it is better to form a view or hypothesis and test it. This then creates a type of boundary around the thing we are trying to understand to help us make sense of it.

Questions as BoundariesQuestions like

  • Will ‘X’ happen if I do ‘Y’?
  • Is it feasible to achieve ‘X’ for ‘Y’ effort?
  • Will people buy our product?

For example, we often start a project by asking how much time and money it will take to make our idea a reality. This can drive a very large amount of effort to find out – when the project happens to be in the complex domain (as per the Cynefin Framework). If we change the question to ‘Is it feasible to make this idea a reality for $X and Y time-frame?’ it puts boundaries around the initial exploration stage and we can avoid large amounts of wasted and unfocussed effort. An example can be found in my previous post ‘Why do we Estimate?’

Questions on Cynefin FrameworkIn summary, check which type of system the question relates to according to the Cynefin Framework. Then check if the question is helping to drive useful logical work or useful exploration and if not, then change the question.