Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Size Does Matter

As a consultant I am often put on the spot for specific answers and decisions for very ambiguous and undefined problems. Sometimes they want the finish date for a project, or a how much it will cost to build some gigantic piece of software. Whenever you faced with taking a stand on something that is very unknown you should address it head on: "I do not know."

Many people have a problem being able to admit their ignorance. One of my mantras is often misinterpreted to mean I always have THE answer (Often Wrong, Never in Doubt). What must be realized is that I freely admit I don't have THE answer. That is not the same as not having AN answer. My answer might often be that I don't know, but you'll get it clearly and quickly when that is the case.

The goal with always having an answer is avoid paralysis and continued chaos. The goal with admitting ignorance when appropriate is to illustrate the care and attention to detail that you should have for your decision-making. It helps to be Articulate, but only if you are first Deliberate. So being deliberate about how you provide answers is critical to keeping credibility and integrity.

In addition to showing that you care for quality of your responses, you can show that you care about the input of others by asking questions to clarify what is being asked or what will make a decision acceptable. Take the time to understand what a good answer would be, how precise or concrete the details must be, what is at stake in the decision. Being able to clarify the factors that go into your answers and responses is important for being able to defend or justify your position.

This technique of acknowledging ignorance and seeking to understand doesn't just help the quality of decisions, it can actually help ensure you are making forward progress. Breaking big issues into smaller ones, dissecting tasks into dependant steps, is a great way to not get sucked into Analysis Paralysis.

Even in your personal life, if you have a challenge that seems overwhelming, start distilling it into small steps and milestones. Then you can move forward by focusing on just one step at a time.

At work on software projects we use 2 hour increments and daily milestones. Anything more is just too big to digest. By using small units of work, we stay nimble and can celebrate victories more often. Instead of assigning work that takes days, I assign work that takes hours. It takes more effort on my part, but my engineers aren't able to procrastinate. The productivity can stay very high and because I have to understand the work at a much more granular level, the outcomes are easier to predict.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Flock of Stupid

There may not be an "I" in TEAM, but there is one in PASSION.

In his book Re-imagine!, author Tom Peters said, "We will win this battle... and the larger war... only when our talent pool is both deep and broad. Only when our organizations are chock-a-block with obstreperous people who are determined to bend the rules at every turn..."

James Surowiecki, is the New Yorker columnist who wrote The Wisdom of Crowds. This compelling book is about how groups of people operate compared to individuals. He sets the context by discussing how many animals and insects increase the sophistication of their behavior by acting in groups. The concept here is that sets of simple interactions following straight-forward rules can produce very complex behaviors. This theory applied to birds is known as flocking. For many insects it is called a swarm.
Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.
-- The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
After going through the background he then illustrates how all these theories break down when you get to homo sapiens. His premise here is that we present the opposite behavior. Essentially, in contrast to the animal and insect kingdoms, the more interactions that are involved in our behaviors, the less sophisticated and less intelligent the behavior becomes.

All this is not to say that groups cannot be intelligent, it just requires that we aggregate the interactions and don't attempt to reach consolidation or consensus. To put this another way, it means that you should take the average of the individual responses or inputs, don't try and work together to formulate a single answer. He goes into great detail with lots of examples that are very interesting.

He doesn't stop there thought but extrapolates several other ideas as well. For example, if you are aggregating input then you can increase the effectiveness of the group by increasing the diversity of the group.
"Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with. Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms--like market prices, or intelligent voting systems--to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think."

Leaping forward from this it becomes clear that team thinking can lead only to incremental improvements, because it will prevent revolutionary ideas, those thoughts which are by definition outside the group norm.

If you want to create a formidable team then you must acknowledge that the mission of the team is to create a supportive environment for a collection of individuals. Team members must have their own unique voices and perspectives. The team is empowered to encourage the individuals to pursue their own ideas, not to force consensus and keep everything warm and fuzzy.

The saying that "None of us is as good as all of us" is crap. My biggest reward from people I mentor is when I hear them say that not only are they as good as their group but they are actually better at specific thing X or Y. Only then will I know they have the confidence and will to head the lemmings off at the pass when they're all heading off a cliff.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Supposing We Presuppose

An experience with my children this past weekend reminded me of a technique that I've used for some time that I wanted to share with you today.

When trying to get my son to dress himself, he keep picking out things and then deciding he didn't want to wear them. To get some traction I tried something different. I chose two shirts and asked "Do you want to wear this one or that one?" He quickly pointed to one and we were on our way towards being dressed!

The technique here is called Presupposition. Essentially, it lays out a concept that must be accepted as true for a sentence to be understood. For example, if I was to say "Paulo drives fast", there a some things that must be accepted for the sentence to even make sense:
  • Paulo must exist.
  • Driving is something done by Paulo.
  • Some measure of how Paulo drives is possible.
This sounds simplistic (as is true of most truly practical things) but consider the presupposition in the sentence "Will that be cash or credit?" This sentence presupposes that you will be paying. What a great way to get the notion of paying to be accepted by a potential buyer!

What makes this powerful is linking a concept that you'd like to be accepted as true, with neutral topics or choices that presuppose the acceptance of that concept.

To demonstrate, let's start with the sentence "Using web services will save development time." Out of the gate, this is a sentence that is easy to argue about. But if we add some presuppositions it softens the blow: "You may be aware of how much development time will be saved by using web services."

The phrasing with the word "aware" enhances the acceptance of this sentence. You may be aware of it or you may not be aware of it, but we've already presupposed that using web services will save development time.

Another great word is "already". Let's improve our sentence even further: "You may already have started to become aware of how much development time will be saved by using web services."

Notice how adding more and more presuppositions can build the pattern of yes, yes, yes as it is understood so that the final yes can just fall right out. Building in presuppositions allows you to get to a state of acceptance quickly.

Of course, none of that matters unless you have some rapport to begin with and the content is ultimately acceptable. In cases where you are stuck arguing about the window-dressing, this will help you get to a real discussion about the cost of the house that much quicker. In cases where you don't want to discuss the house quite yet, this will help you keep the conversation about the window-dressing until you are ready to introduce the cost of the house.