In a recent talk that was awesome for all sorts of other reasons, Dan North observed that, from the inside, it’s impossible to distinguish institutional thinking. He presented a very simple coping mechanism.
When a course of action seems obvious, ask
"Okay, now what if we couldn’t do it that way?"
I’ve been surprised by the power of this simple technique.
Yesterday, I was in a meeting with stakeholders where we were exploring how to deprecate support for logging into webmail through our web hosting control panel login form.
At the start of the meeting, I made a point of saying “As developers, we want to fade into the background of this conversation, so that we can hear what’s important to you.” Stakeholder thinking seemed unshackled. The room was brimming with possibility.
Ten minutes in, and we’d zeroed in on the use of a banner on the control panel login page, to announce deprecation. We’ve used announcement banners effectively before, and the call centre folks were convinced that the impact on call volumes would be minimal.The realm of possibility had collapsed to a pin prick, and the conversation was already down to the level of placement, colour and repetition of the banner.
So I got my Dan on and said, “Okay, great. So we have an idea that’s looking good, but we’ve stopped exploring. Before we carry on, let’s have a quick stab into the unknown. What if we couldn’t put a deprecation banner on the control panel login page?”
After a moment of confusion, the UI guy said we’d have to put a deprecation banner on the webmail system itself. And that opened up a can of worms, in the form of password managers and saved passwords. Suddenly, the impact on call volumes didn’t look so small, because we know that most of our customers don’t know their passwords.
Twenty minutes later, we had a solution to explore, that looks like it’s going to rock. It’s going to be great for customers, it’s going to have minimal impact on call volumes and all the unnecessary complexity it introduces can be jettisoned at the end of the deprecation phase.
For me, this was a triumph over institutional thinking. Announcement banners work. We’ve seen it before. Obviously, this is the right way to do this. No need to discuss anything else, right? Well maybe. After all, the new solution does involve an announcement banner.
But by forcing ourselves to look at the problem from an awkward angle, we surfaced some ugly uncertainty very early on, saving ourselves a little money and a lot of face. Sure, we’d have tripped over password managers eventually. But why wait?
How exciting, that such a simple question can produce so much unexpected value!
The talk in which I discovered this gem, was Dan North’s Accelerating Agile talk at NDC 2013. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re in for a treat. Get inspired!