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!
A significant source of drag in my workplace, is the team’s tendency to remain aligned with management perspectives that were abandoned by management years ago. Seriously. Years ago.
I do it myself. I’m really bad at it, actually. “If only management wouldn’t get in the way of X, I could do Y.” And then I chat to my boss about some tangentially related thing, and realize - nay, remember - that he isn’t hostile toward X at all. He changed his mind about it more than two years ago, and I remember him saying so.
And then I sit there wondering what the hell is wrong with me and my team. And then…
Management must repeatedly communicate and demonstrate a change of heart, or the team won’t believe it.
Now I’m not absolving myself of responsibility for my own thoughts. But I felt that this was a really valuable insight. Not just for management. For anyone whose word carries weight.
If I use the power of my word to align people with my perspective, and then I change my mind, it might take equivalent (or more) power over time (work) to realign people around my new perspective.
P.S. When I told Karen that I planned to share the idea, she humbly observed that the words are her own, but that the idea is prior art. Nevertheless, they’re her words, and she introduced me to the idea, so she gets the brownie point.
- @sheldonh: These are not the Borg you are looking for.
- @JohanVanDyk: You just scissor fucked Star Wars and Star Strek.
We have this custom in our office. Every now and then, someone will exclaim “It’s the X song!” for some value of X, while a song with appropriate lyrics is playing.
For example, Daniel Bedingfield’s I Gotta Get Thru This would almost certainly elicit an “It’s the Documentation At The End song!”. Almost certainly. If that song somehow managed to stay on long enough to reach the chorus.
Today, Bliss’s Monitor Access came on. Arguably, it’s the Refactoring song, because of the “Light that motherfucker up”. But when it occurred to me to name the song, it was in the “I know you gonna dig this” loop.
More specifically, it was in the “Dig dig dig dig” build up. So I called out “It’s the Node.js song!”. See, I’ve been punting node.js hard, and have been saying peeps will dig it. Sadly no dice, because as I said it, the track transitioned into the “this this this” bridge. So my timing was poor.
Rory’s was not. Without a moment’s hesitation, he asked “Because of this?”
- Surely there’s a worthwhile replacement for google reader?
- spook: conversation. it’s awesome
- there actually aren’t that many because Google reader cornered the market so well
- the existing ones are certainly shaping up before sign-off day though
- sheldonh: where is it?
- that’s a shit name since it’s not googleable >:(
- * sheldonh weeps for the species.