Sense-Making Machines

Once, on our way to the movies our tram stopped at “Heinrich-Heine-Alley”. It’s a popular tram stop in Düsseldorf, especially for tourists. One such (German!) tourist exited there with his family and remarked: “Ah, Heinrich-Heine-Alley, he was mayor here once.”

That tourist was making sense of his surroundings and “previous mayor” seemed like a reasonable reason to name a street and station after. It is reasonable. It is also wrong. Most Germans (and surprisingly Russians) know that Heinrich Heine was a poet. (I think Heine was born in Düsseldorf, but I don’t really know. I’m just sense-making here ;))

Humans are sense-making machines in search of a narrative. If facts are missing, we’ll often make them up. Once we got the narrative established it’s hard to let go. It’s why we keep going in the wrong direction, despite disagreeing signage. I love this episode as a reminder of how (made-up) context is everything in Usability. There’s no telling where users end up if they start with a warped context and it’s not their fault. It’s surprising to me that a fellow German doesn’t know Heine, but I’m also aware that it’s entirely possible to be smart and live a good life without knowing that tidbit. It’s not essential. Neither are the ins and outs of your software and its context. Be as obvious as you can.

PS: Fact-checked Heine: Yes, he was born in Düsseldorf, died in Paris. He was never mayor 😀

Host Leadership is the better metaphor

Whenever someone mentions “Servant Leadership” it triggers an almost Pavlovian reflex in me to say: “Have you heard of ‘Host Leadership’? IMHO it’s the much better metaphor for Scrum Master work.”Host-Leadership

Part of SM work is enforcing rules. How can you do that as a servant? The metaphor breaks. As a host it makes perfect sense: You have to make sure that everybody is having a great time and not one person ruining it for many. As the host you set house rules.

Despite being a big fan I haden’t even mentioned Host Leadership in this blog, yet. Until now 🙂 If you’d like to know more, here’s the 6 roles of Host Leadership and the official webpage for Host Leadership.

Letting go of decisions

When building self-organizing teams, one of the hardest things for their (former?) managers is to pass power on to the team. Power as in “the possibility, ability and duty to take decisions”. If you pass a decision on, you have to let go of your “solution”. There are infinite solutions out there. Don’t expect the team to pick the exact same one that you would have. The chances are rather slim.

Unfortunately this is how I sometimes see it go down:

Manager thinks: “The solution is obvious. But I’m supposed to empower them, so I can’t just tell them what to do.”
Manager to team: “It’s your decision. Figure It out. You can do it.”
Team goes and figures it out.
Team to manager animatedly: “Look, here’s our solution :)”
Manager: “Umm, no. No, it ain’t. <Some leading questions> It’s your decision. Figure It out.”
Team goes and figures it out. Again.
Team warily: “Sooo. Here’s our solution attempt.”
Manager: “Umm, wouldn’t it make sense to … <Some more leading questions>”
“Together” they arrive at a new solution.
Team is quietly steaming.

This is the opposite of empowerment. Having to reverse engineer a fixed solution by trial and error is painful, disheartening and teaches a terrible lesson. As someone who used to be on the receiving end of this, I’d love for the manager to just straight out say what they want. They are the boss. It’s okay for them to dictate the solution, if there’s no wriggle room. But making teams guess over 3 rounds, because they don’t want to dictate a solution? That achieves the opposite of want they intended. Plus, they blur the line. It becomes harder for teams to tell when they really own the solution and when they secretly don’t.

Sometimes the solution mismatch stems from the manager having more information than the team. As the team, strive to become good at asking questions about constraints.

As the manager pass information on to your team as soon as you notice they’re missing. If it’s classified information, you probably shouldn’t that particular decision on to the team.

And check out Delegation Poker. It can help managers and teams figure out, how much power is really conveyed for each pending decision.

All eyes not on you – Chain Question

As a facilitator, I think it is my job create opportunities for others to speak. I try to keep in the background as much as possible, which isn’t always easy. Participants focus on me more often than I’d like. That is to say, not only when I talk about meta information like instructions, but also when they themselves talk about the subject matter.

One simple technique to connect participants to each other, rather than to you, is to create a questioning chain. This works well when the group forms a circle and there’s a question everyone should answer. As the facilitator you can start it of by asking the question to your neighbour. Then they ask their neighbour on their other side. It works best, when the asker actually waits and listens to the answer 😉

Just like Role Play for One this technique is popular with language teachers. I relearned it in Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka’s workshop on solution-focused coaching.

I hope it’ll help you get attention off of you and on the content your participants bring to the table.

Do you have tricks you’d like to share?

Would you like a coconut?

Last week I attended a very enlightening workshop hosted by solution-focused coaches  Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka. Early in the workshop Veronika introduced a superb metaphor for giving advice that nobody asked for. I’ve written about unsolicited advice before, but the coconut-model does a much better and funnier job.

Let’s start with one of the solution-focused tenets: “Everybody is the expert for their own situation”. Based on our experiences we all see the world differently and can never truly know anyone else’s impressions. We each live on our own island and usually don’t know much about the islands of other people.

Bertram's island and Zili's island

Let’s say there are 2 people on their respective islands, Zilli and Kurti. Zilli’s island sports a glorious coconut tree and Zilli looooves coconut. The meat, the milk, the pina colada – she loves all of it!

Kurti’s island on the other hand has fir trees growing. Kurti has never heard of coconuts in his whole life, let alone seen one. What a sad state of affairs! Zilli wants to share the coconut goodness and saves one of her precious coconuts to throw over to Kurti. What do you think how Kurti will react? Grateful?

Zili throws a coconut

Unlikely. Zilli just attacked him with a big stone. Unprovoked! Why would she do that? Kurti has no choice. He has to defend himself!

Bertram raises the shields

Which in turn will anger Zilli. Kurti lets her gift go to waste! That was an excellent coconut! Pfft, she’s never going to share anything with such an ungrateful person!

Not a good exchange at all. Yet, it often plays out like this when someone tries to introduce change. But Zilli could have done better. She could have asked, whether Kurti is interested in trying coconuts. And if he’s not, accept that. And if he is, all the better! She could have shown him how the crack one. The meat, the milk, the pina colada. Chances are that Kurti would have liked some of it.

Questions build bridges

I plan on using this metaphor a lot in the future. I want to pass on what I learn. I hail from a long line of teachers, I can’t help myself. Heck, this blog is nothing but a big pile of coconuts, so that I have an outlet. You’re here on your own free will, so I hope that’s okay with you. And if we meet face to face and I ask “Would you like a coconut?” you know that I’ve got excellent, excellent ( 😉 ) advice that you didn’t exactly ask for. You can say no. That’s okay. It’s why I ask first 🙂

PS: Thanks to Veronika for the flipchart drawings!

Too much of a good thing? Why you don’t have to take part in every method craze.

This post is written by Petra Wille and only translated by Yours Truly. When I read her original German post, I felt vaguely guilty. I loooove methods! Read about them, try them, create summaries and books about them… I want people to know about a lot of possible solutions so that they can pick one that can help with their problem. But I don’t mean for every one to try each and every new method on the block. Let Petra tell us why: 

Are you sometimes lost in a forest of methods? Don’t panic. We’ll offer orientation and 8 tips for your method tool box and point out why it might be good not to try every new method that comes along.

There are more methods than ever

For a product manager in digital product development there are more method and process models to pick from than ever and new ones are added all the time. Be it Business Model Canvas, Product Field, Personas, Story Mapping, Lean User Research or Design Thinking – just to name a few.

The raw attraction of new methods is still strong. You feel their pull and the need try them. The promises of salvations that accompany them raise the bar even more. Maybe that new method is THE ONE. The silver bullet that solves all your problems. THE ONE that just makes everything easy.

Just fill out the new canvas and *zippityzip* your successful product goes online.

We all know: it ain’t that easy.

Despite the host of methods digital products don’t just create themselves. It is work. Because the main job is: “Find a product that’s worth becoming reality, specify it, implement it, and check its success.” That’s a lot of steps and no tool can lessen that burden. “One swallow does not make a summer” so to speak.

Those methods and processes don’t help at all?

Sure they do. They help us. They are support and guide us in product development.

But I daresay that the multitude of methods on offer distracts us from the actual task. On top of that I daresay that frequently switching methods deprive individual POs of something important: The chance to truly learn and improve.

Because you need to use a methods many times over, in different contexts and for different product ideas, to learn their true strengths and weaknesses. And only given time you can gain important insights and deep unterstanding. “Practise makes perfect.” is not a saying for nothing.

Even if you’re not going to invest the 10.000 hours described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers: The Story of Success”, it makes sense to try a method more than once.

Let’s assume you pick Storymapping. You could start by using it during a discovery phase to structure requirements. With the next product you can use it to create a roadmap or use the storymap for status updates. Little by little you understand what a method can and cannot do, if you like it and if its effect lasts.

For that reason alone it’s not a good idea to drop everything to try a new way. The agile manifesto continues to hold: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” – meaning real work with the team, users and stakeholders should always take precedent before constant experimenting.

I know from consulting in product organisations that it’s not always easy. The latest method is a status symbol to some extent.

But how do you keep the balance? What methods do you really need?

An approach – 8 tips for your method tool box

To guide through the forest of methods I’ve made the following list. It’ll help you figure out whether your tool box is already well equipped or if you’ve got a void to fill.

Starting – building a new product

1. Pick a method das gives a structure and steers you in a certain direction. These methods should help to cover all important steps in product development. Examples: Produkt Design SprintUser Experience Design ProcessProduct Discovery

2. As soon as you’ve set the course you have to ask the right questions. Again, there’s cheat sheets for that – Beispiele: Business Model CanvasProduct Field10-Question-Business-Assessment

Structure – kill complexity!

3. It’s an important PO job to slice complex requirements and sequences until they are doable.  You need a method for that. Examples:  StorymappingJob-to-be-done.

4. Additionally you should choose a method to prioritise transparently. Examples: Priority PokerKANO-AnalysKosten/Nutzen-Bewertung.

Telling stories – Images in our heads

Here I go into detail about why this is important <LINK>. Long story short:  you can only create a vision of your product in other people’s heads if you’ve got one in your own. And that’s the prerequisite to eventually holding a finished product in your hands.

5. To ease the transfer of visions from head to head, it helps to have a method to speak about users as vivid and lively as possible. Examples: PersonasUsertests – the audience: the whole team.

6. Additionally you should make your product palpable. For this you can use: clickable prototypes, designs. Of course these have to be accessible for team members and stake holders!

Track progress

7. Choose a method that helps visualize the current state of the project / product development. What is done and what is still left to design or implement. Examples: Outcome or Output Product RoadmapsTaskboards, Storymaps.

Inspect & Adapt

8. Inspect & Adapt is an agile principle <LINK> and should also apply for your chosen methods: Try it, observe what changes / improves, try it in different situation and choose carefully whether to permanently keep this method in your tool box or to discard it. And when a method proves its merit, it may well stick around for a while.

Conclusion

Properly using a method do not a finished product make and those who want to truly understand a method have to stick with it and use it more than once.

Relax, if you create great products with your favorite methods you can safely ignore most of the latest methods trends.

If you like this post, you can follow Petra Wille on Twitter!

 

Badass – Making Users Awesome – Book Tip

cover_badassOh wow, where do I even start? “Badass – Making Users Awesome” by Kathy Sierra is a truly enlightening read. It contains ideas I’ve never heard before in the very accessible style of the “Head First” books. Sierra makes the case that in order to build a great product and a loyal customer base you have to make your users better in the use of the domain your product is in. If you make a marketing tool, make your users better marketers. IDE? Help them advance their coding craft.

Badass-Master-Any-Skill_Wall-SkillsTowards that end she devotes about half the book to explain how humans acquire skills and become experts. I got so carried away that I condensed it into a Wall-Skills 1-pagers. But it can’t possibly do justice to the book, so read it. It’s very insightful!

 

Strengths are Weaknesses. Weaknesses are Strengths.

The title is not doublespeak, but something I’ve observed a lot lately. Starting this year, everybody at my work gets feedback every 6 months by 3-5 peers. In the conversations I’ve witnessed so far, there’s a recurring theme:

Our biggest strengths from “What you do great” reappear in the “What you could try” column with a cautionary flag. For example, I’m a generalist. It’s probably my biggest strength. I’m fairly good in a variety of roles. The swiss army knife of employees, if you will. My biggest weakness is that I’m not an expert in anything. Two faces of the same coin.

A colleague of mine had the poles “Very structured. Owning and improving the process” versus “Falling too much in love with the details of the process”.

The feedback conversations nicely illustrate the trade off and sweet spot inherent in any of our traits.

Mark Manson observed the same thing for cultures of countries:

The best part of a country or culture is also usually the worst

What is your strength-weakness pair?

Inspiring Organisation: Premium Cola

Recently I got to see a talk by Uwe Lübbermann. He is the “central coordinator” of Premium Cola. He founded and runs Premium Cola with a so-called “operating system”, which he has already exported to other companies. Well, companies is not really the right term, because they all work very differently from what is considered normal:

  • They don’t have any offices or own means of production
  • They don’t have contracts
  • They treat everyone in their eco system – employees, truck drivers, beverage grocers, Cola production, … – as partners and equals
  • All their costs and revenue is public
  • They limit their annual growth

Within the system of capitalism, they manage to do something completely different. If you like the concept of Buurtzorg , Premium Cola’s operating system should be right up your alley!

Here’s an article with more information about Premium Cola.

And if Uwe is ever giving a talk in your vicinitiy, go watch it!

Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that?

After about 2 or 3 years into my agile journey there was a time when I would listen to a talk or read a book and be like “Yeah, it’s exactly like that! I wish someone had told me 3 years ago! It would have helped me a lot! Why didn’t anyone tell me that?”

The specific information provoking that thought was typically something about people, how they behave and communicate, and how change unfolds in an organization.

After even more time I now have the sneaky suspicion that “they” did tell me that. But I wasn’t ready. The factual information didn’t stick, because it was beyond my horizon. I wonder if there are some things you have to experience yourself, mistakes you have to make and only in hindsight you can appreciate the wisdom of others.

Not sure if that is disheartening (I’d rather learn from others than make mistakes myself) or liberating (we are allowed to fail). All I know is that I’m a lot more patient than I used to be. I can now let others make mistakes they need to make in order to learn. And I try to not push advice on others, when they haven’t asked for it. It’s something, I guess 😉