Friday 23 May 2014

How to get feedback on a strategy

In my experience, writing then distributing a strategy document is a fairly limited process to receive input and feedback. The type of critique that you get is generally narrow rather than far-reaching. The number of people who choose to respond is often very low.

As part of my role, I'm responsible for developing strategy. It's my belief that the best way to get people engaged in a specific direction is to get them involved in setting the course. Recently, as part of defining strategy, I decided to run a workshop activity to seek feedback in an interactive way.

The structure of the exercise I used was based on one demonstrated by Adele Graham in a training course that I attended. Adele split the class into groups of four or five people, then gave each group a set of three coloured cards that read:

Adele then made a statement and gave the class five minutes to discuss the statement in their groups. At the end of this time each group had to pick the card that reflected their collective opinion of the statement. There was then discussion among the class where differences existed between groups.

I decided to use this same exercise to get input on my strategic thinking, focusing on areas in which I was uncomfortable about making a decision. By opening these aspects to critique, I hoped that the group would bring forward ideas that I hadn't considered.

I had seen that the best discussion in Adele's session came where the statements expressed a polarity; my language had to be clear and absolute. I worked to frame my statements so that the tester favourite of "it depends" would be abandoned in favour of clear choices, yes or no.

I also decided to intersperse the strategy discussions with those that would give me insight into the existing opinions of those present, to give me confidence in areas that I felt my thinking was sound.

Ultimately, I had a set of four statements for discussion:

  • A mind map is an easy way to present my test ideas to other people
  • [PLATFORM] is the best way to create a [PRACTICE] community at [ORGANISATION]
  • I could do [PRACTICE] in my current role at my current client
  • One hour of training, once per month, is the best way for me to learn more about [PRACTICE]

I had planned to spend 20 minutes on this piece of the workshop. I estimated that I would need to allow three minutes for each individual group to decide, then two additional minutes for wider discussion in the case that there was disagreement between groups.

On the day, I had 23 people at the workshop. For this exercise, I split the attendees into five separate groups based on their current client engagement, in order to support discussions against the third statement.

We began, and agreement was reached on the first statement almost instantly:

This made me a little concerned that the exercise wouldn't achieve what I had hoped!

Fortunately, the remaining three statements created the type of conflict I was expecting to emerge and provided a good catalyst for opinionated group discussion. As a result, I felt that the group understood the types of compromise inherent in these areas.

My expected timing didn't hold true for each piece of the process. In every case the groups had decided well within the three minutes. However the resulting workshop-wide discussion was much more detailed than I had planned, as different opinions were aired. Overall, we hit the 20 minute estimate for the entire exercise.

I was happy with the breadth of thinking that appeared, and the conclusions reached where opinions were varied. I felt that this workshop gave us a strong foundation to begin from, as the strategy should now reflect the agreement reached here.

How do you seek input on strategic direction? Any other innovative ideas?

Saturday 10 May 2014

Washing the blanket

I use Microsoft Paint to save screenshots while I'm testing. When I see something worth keeping, I hit SHIFT+PrntScrn, then paste it into Paint. I can crop out what I want, annotate it, and save it to my computer. This is how I've saved screenshots for over a decade; a comfortable, familiar practice.

I know that there are other ways to do this task. No, not just other ways, better ways. My colleague uses Greenshot. I've seen her capture and save screenshots without breaking her testing rhythm; seamless. It looks so much quicker and easier than how I go about things, yet I am still doing it my way.

I like to think that everyone has some irrational practice that they can't quite shake. The professional equivalent of the ratty security blanket that a child constantly carries with them. Though I know that it doesn't make sense, though I know that there are better ways, I find that I am incredibly stubborn; I don't want to change how I take screenshots. It's a nonsensical resistance, much the same as the tantrum thrown by that same child who doesn't want to see their blanket put through the washing machine.

It is exceptionally frustrating to see people reject a better way of working. As someone who is often advocating for change, I've encountered many people who are determined to continue in their ways. What I recently realised is that these people are just like me. They may already know that what I'm suggesting may be worthwhile. They understand that a different way might be a better way. They just don't want to give up the familiarity of their practices.

When advocating for change, I tend to structure my reasons around advantages and benefits. I like to offer others the opportunity to identify problems then illustrate how they might be solved by adopting a new approach. I try to appeal to the logical mind; my tactics are focused on critical reasoning and common sense.

These attributes are often absent when trying to separate a child and their blanket. A child knows when their blanket is dirty. They know that putting it through the washing machine will make it clean. They don't care! It's uncomfortable to be without their blanket, and they will not hear reason.

If a parent wants to succeed in separating child and blanket, they have to adopt different methods of persuasion. We can use similar tactics in software development teams to create change where reasoning alone does not work.

First, what not to do. Never tease people about their attachment to a beloved practice, and don't insist that they give it up. [1] Instead try to:

  • Agree a set of conditions for when a practice is appropriate, and when it is not. Mandate a different way of working for specific situations only.
  • Schedule time for a new practice. Get people used to working in a different way by having them try it on a regular basis for a set period of time. Only encourage adoption once it is known.
  • Keep the comfort; don't try and change everything at once. Retain plenty of familiar and comfortable practices alongside adoption of new ones.
  • Enlist their help. Make people feel responsible for some aspect of the change, to give them shared ownership of its success.
  • Keep people busy, so that they have less time to wistfully ponder the way things used to be.

I'm going to try and remember that change is rarely received rationally. My persuasive tactics need to go beyond critical reasoning and draw on techniques that allow people time to gradually adjust their emotional response to change. Next time I encounter resistance that I see as irrational, I'll remember that we were all children once.