Thursday, 8 June 2017

Using SPIN for persuasive communication

I can recall several occasions early in my career where I became frustrated by my inability to persuade someone to my way of thinking. Reflecting on these conversations now, I can still bring to mind the feelings of agitation as I failed. I thought I had good ideas. I would make my case, sometimes multiple times, to no avail. I was simply not very good at getting my way.

The frustration came from my own failure, but I was also frustrated by seeing others around me succeed. They could persuade people. I couldn't figure out why people were listening to them, but not me. I was unable to spot the differences in our approach, which meant that I didn't know what I should change.

Some years later, in my role as a test consultant, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on the fundamentals of sales. The trainer shared an acronym, SPIN, which is a well-known sales technique developed in the late 1980s.

SPIN was a revelation to me and I believe that it has significantly improved my ability to persuade. In this post I'll explain what the acronym stands for and give examples of how I apply SPIN in a testing context.

What is SPIN?

SPIN stands for situation, problem, implication, and need.

A SPIN conversation starts with explaining what you see. Describe the situation and ask questions to clarify where you're unsure. Avoid expressing any judgement or feelings - this should be a neutral account of the starting point.

Then discuss the problems that exist in the current state. Where are the pain points? Share the issues that you see and draw out any that you have missed. Try to avoid making the problems personal, as this part of the conversation can be derailed into unproductive ranting.

Next, think about what the problems mean for the business or the team. Consider the wider organisational context and question how these problems impact key measures of your success. Where is the real cost? What is the implication of keeping the status quo.

Finally, describe what you think should happen next. This is the point of the conversation where you present your idea, or ideas, for the way forward. What do you think is needed?

To summarise in simple terms, the parts of SPIN are:
  • Situation - What I see
  • Problem - Why I care
  • Implication - Why you should care
  • Need - What I think we should do

A SPIN example

My first workplace application of SPIN was at a stand-up meeting. I was part of a team that were theoretically running a fortnightly scrum process. In reality it was a water-scrum-fall where testing kept being flooded at the end of each sprint.

I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to change our approach to work. Prior to this particular stand-up I sat down and noted some thoughts against SPIN. With my preparation in mind, at the stand-up I said something like:

"It seems like the work isn't being delivered to testing until really late in the sprint, and then everything arrives at once. This means that we keep running out of time for testing, or we make compromises to finish on time. 

If we run out of time, then we miss our sprint goal. If we compromise on test coverage, then we all doubt what we are delivering. Both of these outcomes have a negative impact on our team morale. At the end of each fortnight I feel like we are all pretty flat. 

I'd like us to try having developers work together on tasks so that we push work through the process, rather than individual developers tackling many tasks in the backlog at once. That way we should see work arrive in testing more regularly through the sprint. What do you think?"

To my amazement, this was the beginning of a conversation where I finally convinced the developers to change how they were allocating work.

Did you spot the SPIN in that example?

  • Situation - What I see - It seems like the work isn't being delivered to testing until really late in the sprint, and then everything arrives at once.

  • Problem - Why I care - This means that we keep running out of time for testing, or we make compromises to finish on time. 

  • Implication - Why you should care - If we run out of time, then we miss our sprint goal. If we compromise on test coverage, then we all doubt what we are delivering. Both of these outcomes have a negative impact on our team morale. At the end of each fortnight I feel like we are all pretty flat. 

  • Need - What I think we should do - I'd like us to try having developers work together on tasks so that we push work through the process, rather than individual developers tackling many tasks in the backlog at once. That way we should see work arrive in testing more regularly through the sprint.

In the first few conversations where I applied SPIN, I had to spend a few minutes preparing. I would write SPIN down the side of a piece of paper and figure out what I wanted to say in each point. This meant that I could confidently deliver my message without feeling like I was citing the different steps of a sales technique.

Preparing for a conversation using SPIN

SPIN in a retrospective

As I became confident with structuring my own conversations using SPIN, I started to observe the patterns of success for others. Retrospectives provided a lot of data points for both successful and unsuccessful attempts at persuasion.

Many retrospective formats encourage participants to write their thoughts on sticky notes. When prompted with a question like "What could we do differently" I noticed that different people would usually note down their ideas using a single piece of SPIN. Where an individual consistently chose the same piece of SPIN in their note taking, they created a perception of their contributions among the audience. 

Let me explain this with an example. Imagine a person who takes the prompt "What could we do differently" and writes three sticky notes:
  1. We all work from home on Wednesday
  2. The air conditioning is too cold
  3. Our product owner was sick this week
All three are observations, the 'situation' of SPIN that describe what they see. Though they might be thinking more deeply about each, without any additional information the wider team are probably thinking "so what?"

Similarly, if your sticky notes are mostly problems, then your team might think that you're whiny. If your sticky notes are mostly solutions, then your team might think that you're demanding. In the absence of a rounded explanation your contribution can be misinterpreted.

I'm not suggesting that you write every retrospective sticky note using the SPIN format!

I use SPIN in a retrospective in two ways. Firstly to remind myself to vary the type of written prompt that I give myself when brainstorming on sticky notes, to prevent the perception that can accompany a consistent approach. Secondly to construct a rounded verbal explanation of the ideas that I have, so I have the best chance of persuading my team.

SPIN with gaps

There may be cases where you cannot construct a whole SPIN.

Generally I consider the points of SPIN with an audience in mind. When I think about implication, I capture reasons that the person, or people, that I am speaking to should care about what I'm saying. If I'm unable to come up with an implication, this is usually an indicator that I've picked the wrong audience. When I can't think of a reason that they should care, then I need to pick someone else to talk to.

Sometimes I can see a problem but I'm not sure what to do about it. When this happens, I use the beginning of SPIN as a way to start a conversation. I can describe the situation, problems, and implications, then ask others what ideas they have for improvement. It can be a useful way to launch a brainstorming activity.

Conclusion

SPIN is one facet of persuasive communication. It offers guidance on what to say, but not how to say it. In addition to using SPIN, I spent a lot of time considering the delivery of my arguments in order to improve the odds of people accepting my ideas.

Though I rarely have to write notes in the SPIN format as I did originally, I still use SPIN as a guide to structure my thinking. SPIN stops me from jumping straight to solutions and helps me to consider whether I have the right audience for my ideas. I've found it a valuable technique to apply in a variety of testing contexts.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Katrina, this post is so timely for me. Just yesterday at my organization's community of practice meeting, we talked about the need to change the way we request features of other teams -- instead of dictating the solution to the other team, we want to tell them our situation and problem and let them come up with the solution themselves or work with us to come up with it. This framework looks like a great way to do that.

    I also love the idea of applying SPIN to retrospectives. At my next retrospective, I think I will have my team write their sticky notes as usual, then go back and categorize their stickies with SPIN in mind, and see if new ideas pop out from examining the gaps.

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  2. Good article, definitely SPIN will help team to discuss and focus on specific, valuable points and meetings will be more fruitful...

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