Friday, July 3, 2015

Powerful questions leaders can ask

I have been reading David Marquet's book "Turn the Ship Around" which is an interesting story of turning followers into leaders aboard the nuclear submarine Sante Fe. In the weeks before he took over as captain, he spent time with the crew asking them questions in order to understand the current state and possible areas for improvement. Here are some of the powerful questions he asked: (some questions modified slightly to reflect organizations instead of nuclear submarines...)

1. What are the things you are hoping I don't change?
2. What are the things you secretly hope I do change?
3. What are the good things we should build on?
4. If you were me, what would you do first?
5. Why aren't we doing better?
6. What are your personal goals in this organization?
7. What impediments do you have that keep you from doing your job?
8. What will be our biggest challenge moving forward?
9. What are your biggest frustrations about how this organization is currently run?
10. What's the best thing I can do for you?

I'm a big fan of powerful questions that help drive empathy and improvement and I think these questions do exactly that. This set reminds me of an earlier list of questions I wrote about to assess your current process. I've used those questions in a few organizations with great results.

Finally, remember that David began asking these questions at the beginning of his assignment, but had the long term goal of creating a leader-leader structure, and not a leader-follower structure. If you want to emulate what he has done, then eventually your whole organization should be asking these questions of each other.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Effective Brainstorming – tweaking TED’s advice

Effective brainstorming has two basic elements.

The first element is engagement. Getting everyone to contribute and not only those who are most comfortable speaking in a group is critical. Laura McClure recently wrote about this on with some great tips for including introverts. It isn’t enough to simply ask introverts to contribute. When you use effective techniques to engage everyone in the room, you can feel the excitement growing as the list of ideas grows.

The second element is divergence. To find the best idea, you need to start with the widest number and variety of ideas. This is where Laura’s advice needs tweaking. There is an incorrect assumption in her advice that brainstorming out loud will produce more ideas; that hearing a few ideas will kick start the idea generator in our brains.

The overwhelming research on brainstorming
indicates that we should first generate ideas on our own before processing those ideas as a group (see below for links). That is, write down your own list of ideas first, and then discuss and expand on those ideas in a group. There are a lot of social and psychological reasons why this is true, but the resulting advice is consistent. If you want the widest number and variety of ideas to consider, then brainstorm as individuals first before processing those ideas as a group. Diverge, before you converge.

Based on that research, here are some tweaks to her article:

1. Start the session by asking everyone to write down their initial ideas in silence. Her advice to “circulate the question or topic before you start” is great for everyone. But, in the likely case that everyone hasn’t prepared a list in advance, take time at the beginning of the session to give people a chance to write down their ideas. I like to hand out post-it notes and ask everyone to write one idea per note. This also allows us to easily group related ideas later on.

2. Don’t start by listing a few options you’re already considering. Her passive brainstorming techniques sound fun, but don’t start with an email string that lists a few options you’re already considering, and don’t start with a blank canvas. Both of these will lead to priming and will result in fewer ideas. Instead, first hold a brief silent brainstorming session to generate the initial list of ideas before posting them on the wall for everyone to interact with.

In summary, whether you are trying to solve a recurring problem or discover the next great innovation, don't unintentionally limit the number of ideas you are considering. To effectively generate a wide variety of ideas, brainstorm as individuals first before processing those ideas as a group.

Brainstorming Research

Slides and presentations on this topic:

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Journeying Towards #NoEstimates

I’ll admit that until I discovered planning poker many years ago, estimating was not my favourite thing to do. Even though I had experienced some estimating success, there was an underlying realization that every time I estimated, I was rolling the dice. It is probably why #RelativeEstimating through planning poker was such a big relief to me. The game was still rigged, but treating estimates in a relative way allowed me to be wrong early and adjust so that my odds of winning at the end were improved. It was a useful paradigm shift.

The recent #NoEstimates movement has brought increased visibility to an issue that many find contentious. Some assert that estimates are required for any professional software project. Others declare that estimates are harmful enough that we must find a way to reduce or eliminate them altogether. Personally, I’ve found the discussions about #NoEstimates valuable enough that I decided to do some research and then run some experiments of my own in order to move in that direction. Here are the results of two of those experiments:

Experiment #1: Relative Points

For my first experiment, I decided to look at our data. We had already been using planning poker for some time, and we were working with a client who had requested that we track our actual hours per user story. (We don’t always do this for various reasons that are outside the scope of this article.) The question I was trying to answer when looking at the data was this:

Will our actuals hold true to the relative sizes we had assigned them?

That is – if a story worth 1 point has an actual average effort of 10 hours, will a story worth 2 points have an actual average effort of 20 hours, etc. For this project, we used points of 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and 20. The “Actual” hours in the graph below are divided by a number so that the Y axis is similar. Here are the results:

Project 1

So, there it is – we were almost perfect at relative estimating for that project! That belief held firm right up until the next project:
Project 2

That’s right, in “project 2”, our 1 point stories took longer on average than our 8 point stories. Still, the relative actuals of stories with points 2 through 8 weren’t too far off and we held on to some belief that the 1 pointers may have been an aberration.

Enter “project 3”:
Project 3

“Project 3” took away any remaining belief about the accuracy of our points estimating by giving us what looked like completely random results. Roll the dice.

Experiment #2: Points to Count

However, this wasn’t enough to convince me to run away from the data. By this time, there were multiple reports of people comparing the sum of their iteration velocities to the count of stories that were being completed. That seemed like a reasonable experiment, so once again I turned to the data. This time, the question I was trying to answer when looking at the data was:

Is summing the number of points per period just as useful for planning 
as counting the number of completed stories per period?

At this point we already had data for 3 projects so we could start graphing right away. Since the initial results were favourable, the graph below shows data from 8 different projects over the course of more than a year:

This graph clearly illustrated to us that we could stop estimating in points and instead just count the number of ‘done’ user stories for planning and forecasting purposes. It has allowed us to move closer to #NoEstimates by removing one more estimating step. We no longer need to use planning poker to agree upon a number – instead we keep slicing stories until they are ‘small enough’.


In summary, these two experiments didn’t lead us to stop estimating altogether, but they have definitely moved us in that direction. We can still use data to help us forecast and plan, but we are less dependent on estimates to do so. This helps us reduce some of the dangerous effects of estimates, with the additional benefit of getting to spend more time delivering value.

As a bonus, these two experiments nudge us towards continued process experimentation - something I'm happy to endorse.

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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Commitment as a Facilitation Weapon?

I recently finished reading “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Cialdini. The six ‘weapons of influence’ that he describes in the book are fascinating and I found myself thinking about how any influence tool can be used for good or ill.

One of the principles that caught my attention with respect to the work that I do was the Commitment principle. Cialdini describes several ways that people can be influenced using this principle. For example, two groups of people participating in an experiment were asked to donate to a cancer charity. One of the groups donated more money than the other through a simple influence ‘trick’. A week before being asked to donate, that group was asked to wear a cancer awareness button - something simple that they could hardly say no to. However, the simple act of wearing the button for one week influenced their donation habits later on.

You may also recognize this principle in your own purchasing stories. For example, automotive dealerships will wait until you commit to purchasing your vehicle before talking about extended warranties, undercoating, or other extras. They know that asking for these extras after you commit to the larger purchase will increase the chance that you will spend a few more dollars.

However, not all uses of this principle need to be used to gain more sales dollars. I first came upon this principle when I was watching Linda Rising facilitate a retrospective for the planning team of Much Ado About Agile in 2010. She started the retrospective by reciting North Kerth’s Prime Directive and then asked each team member one by one if they would verbally agree to uphold this statement during the meeting. Later, she told me that this simple verbal agreement is an influencing strategy that helps set the right tone for the retrospective. As Cialdini notes, if people commit to an idea verbally, they are more likely to follow through on that commitment.

So, whether you are trying to increase sales, or just set a positive tone for your next meeting, give the commitment principle a try.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Acknowledgment as Motivation

Recently at Prairie Dev Con I gave a talk on #NoEstimates and part of the discussion centered on the practice of using estimates as motivation. Using estimates as motivation *may* be effective in the short term, but in the long term I believe it is dangerous and more likely to negatively affect motivation. As an alternative, in the talk I briefly reviewed Dan Pink's work on motivation that centers on Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Have a quick look at that video if you haven’t already. Today I watched a Ted talk called 'What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work?' by Dan Ariely that provides another angle on motivating through acknowledgment.

In the middle of the talk, he describes an experiment they ran to try and understand the role of acknowledgment in making us feel good about our work. The task in the experiment was fairly straightforward. Participants were given a piece of paper filled with random letters and were asked to find the pairs of letters on that page. For example, in "aswwhggjks", you would find the pairs "ww" and "gg". Participants were paid a certain amount to complete the first page, and then for every subsequent page they would complete, they were paid slightly less.

In the first version of the experiment, when participants handed in their work the experimenter reviewed it from top to bottom and acknowledged the effort with a simple "uh huh" before putting the paper on a pile. In the second version of the experiment, the experimenter did not review their work and simply put the paper on a pile. In the third version of the experiment, the completed work was put straight into a shredder without any acknowledgment at all.

The results of the experiment are displayed in the image - people were willing to work for much less in the first version of the experiment than in the second and third versions. In addition, people stopped working at about the same level if their work was being ignored or shredded. As Dan summarized, "ignoring their performance is almost as bad as shredding it." There is good news and bad news here. The bad news is that if you aren't acknowledging the efforts of your team or employees on a regular basis, it is likely having a negative effect on their motivation. The good news is that there are some simple experiments you can try:
  • Add regular checkpoints with your team members to thank them for some specific contribution.
  • In your regular team retrospectives, start by celebrating the great work you have done together.
  • Schedule time in your calendar to give positive feedback to your team on a regular basis.
  • Schedule in regular demos so that your team can show off how they are delivering value to actual customers
  • Pass on good feedback from your customers to the team.
  • Start using KUDO cards to acknowledge good work.
  • Buy a $2 box of brownie mix, add an egg, some vegetable oil, and bring some fresh brownies to your team as a thank you.

Thanks for reading - I appreciate it.

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