Innovation: Running Experiments and Learning

Experiment DesignIn my last article on Incubating Innovation, we explored the culture and mindset of accountable experimentation. This article focuses on actionable tools and approaches.

Within agile frameworks, the team retrospective is the primary workshop for planning and evaluating experiments. Yet most team retrospectives I see are broken.

Teams spend too much time recording viewpoints and information—but not enough time reviewing or planning experiments. It is common to see the majority of the time spent gathering what went well, what did not go well, and appreciations. Yet where’s the focus on experiments, the learning process and trials for the next iteration?

To make things worse, some teams do not take the retrospective seriously. Maybe after the potential stress of the sprint review, the largely internal retrospective is a relief. A chance to chill out, maybe share some food, and pat each other on the back. However, innovation and learning take conscious effort, forward planning and accountability.

As I work with organizations, I often sit in on retrospectives. Of all the regular workshops/ceremonies, these sessions are typically the least prepared for and worst executed. I often see lazy retrospectives where a basic lessons-learned format is used, but timings are not managed and the recommendations for the next sprint get skimped as they run out of time.

The pie chart below shows a typical planned allocation of time—and the reality of how time is actually spent:

R1

In these lazy retrospectives, people are slow to start, spend longer on recording what went well than what could be improved, and then try to cram the recommendations for experiments (the most important part) into the last few minutes. As a result, experimentation suffers. Few experiments are scheduled for the next sprint, and those that are run are not evaluated properly.

This is not how agile retrospectives are supposed to operate. An excellent guide to running effective retrospectives is Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. In it they describe a five-step process:

  1. Set the stage – Help people focus on the task at hand; check that people are ready and willing to contribute. Outline and gain consensus on the process we will use. Techniques we can use include: check-in, working agreements, focus-on/focus-off (see the book for full descriptions of these techniques).
  2. Gather data – Create a shared view of what happened during the sprint/iteration. When completed, we should have a common understanding of the observations and facts. Team activities we can use include: timeline, mad-sad-glad, team radar.
  3. Generate insights – This focuses on understanding the implications of our findings and discussions. We need to see the impacts of the problems we are faced with before trying to solve them. Techniques we can use include: five whys, fishbone analysis, dot voting.
  4. Decide what to do – Now we move from thinking about the iteration that just ended to what we should try next to improve things. We identify the highest-priority action items, create plans for experiments and set measurable goals to achieve the desired results. Techniques we can use include: SMART goals, circle of questions, short subjects.
  5. Close the retrospective – Here we reflect on the retrospective process and express our appreciations. We may summarize what we have decided to keep or change and what we are thankful for. Team-based activities we can use include: plus/delta, return of time invested (ROTI), appreciations.

This is a more useful format. However, despite people having access to good retrospective advice, poor implementations are still common. Teams continue to attend late, start slowly and run out of time or rush the agreement on what experiments to run.

R2

The recurring theme is poor experimentation design and restricted learning. Gunther Verheyen summarized the problem nicely in his recent post entitled “Inspection Without Adaptation Is Pointless.” Gathering data and deciding what to do is pointless if it is not acted upon. We are doing most of the preparation work but not getting any of the benefits.

Experiment Design to the Rescue
Fortunately, there are some good models we can use. We need to manage time and effort more effectively and use retrospectives to plan and evaluate more experiments. We should spend only 50% of the available time on gathering information and the remainder reviewing the results of past experiments, making wins part of our process, designing new experiments and learning from inevitable failures.

We can help the time management problem by assigning work to be done in advance. People should be thinking about issues and potential solutions independently. There are benefits of group discussion and consensus gathering on agreed experiment design, but observation and idea generation is best done individually.

The New Yorker magazine [3] describes numerous studies that show how brainstorming groups think of fewer, lower-quality ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas. There have been numerous reports on the downsides of brainstorming ideas as a group. Groupthink and the halo effect stifle idea generation. So, ask for people to come with ideas, then use the group setting to vet and vote for them.

Visualizing the ideas and experiments is an effective way to bring collective attention to them. Trent Hone and Andrew Jarding developed the “Ideas and Experiments board” pictured below. It shows the progression of ideas through experiments and their success or abandonment:

Experiment Board

Ideas and Experiments Board (Image Credit: Trent Hone and Andrew Jarding, MindSettlers)

As discussed in the last article, by design, 50% of our experiments should fail since we are trying to maximize our learning, not validate things we already know. So I would expect to see an equal number of abandoned experiments as successful ones.

However, this format (or a slightly modified version that represents an experiments Kanban board) is a useful tool to bring the focus for retrospectives to the experiments being run and considered. With some pre-work on idea generation and an increased focus on experiments, we can structure more effective retrospectives.

R3

This retrospective format saves some time by assigning idea generation as pre-work; this also helps avoid the groupthink pitfalls. It furthermore places emphasis on the experiments—the inputs for learning and innovation.

I have experienced pushback from teams about the goal of 50% experiment failure. People understand it optimizes learning—but say it sets people up for too much failure. I understand the sentiment but counter with two perspectives.

First, these are experiments; they should be dispassionate explorations, not evaluations of the people undertaking the work. We need to be professional and try to overcome habits of internalizing results. I know this is easier said than done, so also offer a second reason: We need to kill bad ideas early to save time and money for better ones.

In the article “The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures,” Gary Pisano describes how killing bad ideas is critical. He profiles Flagship Pioneering, a Massachusetts-based R&D company. It uses a disciplined exploration approach to run small experiments minimizing expenditure. Instead of running experiments to validate ideas, it designs “killer experiments” to maximize the probability of exposing an idea’s flaws. The goal is to learn what went wrong early and move in a more promising direction.

Other useful ideas from the paper include:

  • Tolerance for failure, but no tolerance for incompetence – Hire the best people you can. Explain the goals clearly and let go of those that do not perform.
  • Psychologically safe, but brutally candid – Encourage frank but respectful two-way dialog. It may feel uncomfortable, but it can prevent issues or concerns from going unreported.
  • Collaboration—but with individual accountability – Encourage discussions, but avoid groupthink and hold people accountable for decisions and outcomes.

These are all great concepts and align with the frustrations I experience when I see teams not taking retrospectives seriously—or following through on conducting experiments. I realized I needed a better model for discussing the problem. Fortunately, I found the field of collaborative problem solving (CPS).

CPS is the study of how we work together in groups to solve new problems, innovate and build products. The innovation process and retrospective workshop fall squarely within its scope. CPS skills are quite separate from individual task-focused skills, meaning people can be great at working individually but poor at working together.

A good introduction to CPS frameworks can be found in the article “Advancing the Science of Collaborative Problem Solving.” One model they feature is the “PISA 2015 Collaborative Problem-Solving Assessment.” Unfortunately, like many academic models, the degree of difficulty goes downward, which may make sense as you read down through more advanced stages. However, I think graphically, so I have redrawn the model to show degrees of completeness and difficulty radiating up and out from a 0,0 origin, as shown below:

PISA 1

Along the X-axis, we see three categories of collaborative problem-solving competencies. These are:

  1. Establishing a shared understanding
  2. Taking action to solve the problem
  3. Establishing and maintaining team organization

Up the Y-axis, we have four categories of problem-solving:

  1. Understanding the problem
  2. Representing the problem
  3. Planning and executing
  4. Monitoring and reflecting

Within the body of the model, each square is labeled with the column number and row letter, and describes the tasks that occur in that space.

The model provides a diagnostic tool for identifying broken and lazy retrospectives. The poor engagement and weak follow-through I see in many Scrum teams is characterized by an incomplete execution of column 1 and only half-completion of columns 2 and 3 (as shown by the red outline below):

PISA 2

Teams are not spending time in “(D1) – Monitor and repairing the shared understanding,” nor are they getting to the “(C2) Enacting plans,” (D2), (D3) and (C3) areas to follow through on plans and hold each other accountable for actions and results.

What we want is a complete execution of all the collaborative problem-solving competencies; only then is the framework complete (along with the feedback mechanisms to keep things in check and moving in the right direction):

PISA 3

Summary
Innovation involves combining the right mindset and philosophy with tools and practical steps to ensure its execution. Motivation and attitude are paramount; people have got to want to do this work, enjoy it and create a pull demand for the tools and process that enable it. Trying to foster innovation with demotivated teams is like trying to push a rope.

When motivated and happy people create a strong pull demand for innovation, we need to be ready with the right tools to support the process and keep the momentum going. This includes designing experiments to maximize learning and killing bad ideas quickly—all while demanding competence, accountability and candor.

It is not easy to master the combination of soft skills and techniques required for successful improvement and innovation. However, organizations that succeed can respond to market changes faster and are poised to exploit new technologies and opportunities. Ideas and inventions are spreading quicker than ever. Learning how to build collaborative, innovative teams has become a critical skill.

References

  1. Book: Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen
  2. Article and video: “Inspection Without Adaptation Is Pointless” by Gunther Verheyen
  3. Article: “Groupthink: the Brainstorming Myth” by Jonah Lehrer
  4. Article: “The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures” by Gary Pisano
  5. Article: “Advancing the Science of Collaborative Problem Solving” by Arthur Graesser, et al.

[Note: I first wrote this article for projectmanagement.com here]


Let’s Rewrite the PMBOK

Future PMBOK
Phew, the wait is over! I have been wanting to talk about this for what seems like ages and now the official announcement is out! If you have ever been frustrated by the PMBOK Guide now here’s your chance to fix it.

We are looking for volunteers to write and review the next edition of the PMBOK Guide. However, this will not be just an update, instead a radical departure from all previous editions aligned with PMI’s new digital transformation strategy. That’s all I can explain for now, but more details will be announced when I can say more.

Meanwhile, we would like people with knowledge of the full value delivery spectrum (waterfall, hybrid, agile, lean, etc.) to participate.

The full details of volunteer opportunities and entry requirements can be viewed at the PMI VRMS site Here.

I will be acting as Co-Lead for the initiative, which is like a co-chair role. However, Chair and Co-Chair sounds too hierarchical so we switched to Lead and Co-Lead role to match the new structures we will be embracing.

If we want to change the future of project management I believe the best way to do that is from the inside outwards by doing the work - not from the outside inwards just criticizing. Longtime readers may recall my 2010 post Raise A Little Hell when the PMBOK v5 Update was being commissioned. Since then we developed the PMI-ACP, PMBOK Agile Appendices, and the Agile Practice Guide.

This is going to be different!

Click here to see full volunteer role details.


Incubating Innovation

InnovationIf success goes to those who can innovate the fastest, how do we nurture innovation? The basics are simple to understand—but difficult to implement and stick with in the face of adversity. We need to create an environment that encourages experimentation while also tolerating, investigating and learning from the inevitable failures.

It may sound easy, but executives and shareholders demand results, not “learning opportunities.” We need an approach that fosters experimentation and learning in a defendable way, with a bias for results. To innovate faster than our competitors, we need to maximize our learning potential. This means that by design, 50% of our experiments should fail since we are seeking knowledge expansion, not validation of things we already know. The trick is keeping people engaged and motivated when half of their experiment time is spent failing.

It starts with leadership and cascades down to a shared mindset of team members. Leaders need to be transparent about their own mistakes and learning moments. They need to model the desired behavior, share what they have learned and their new plan of action.

These can be strategic learnings (“Our European market testing has been poor, we are reworking the price options”) or personal (“Feedback on my presentation to investors indicated I was too technical; I need to find simpler ways to describe our technology”). Until team members see transparency in common use, they will be reluctant to practice it themselves for fear of reprisal or criticism.

We Are in the Maze-Solving Business

Maze 1
Developing new products or services is a maze-solving exercise. Nowadays, it is also a race. We need to find a workable solution faster than our competitors. There will be obstacles and dead-ends along the way, and that is okay. We must not let them demoralize us; we just need to learn from them, not repeat them, and keep going.

The process of learning starts with understanding the knowable and then adding to this through experiments and new learnings. So, we start with smart people who understand their industry domain, technology and the business goals. We then need to create an environment with a dual track of product development and experimental learning.

Organizations that run more experiments and iterate faster also learn faster. Scientists studying inheritance use mayflies because they reproduce and provide experimentation results so quickly. The more experiments you can run in a year, the more you can learn.

Our Mazes are Really Big

Maze 2

Developing a new product does not happen overnight. Outside of movies, rarely do lone geniuses develop a marketable product themselves. Instead, it takes teams of subject matter experts months to create proof-of-concepts and multiple iterations of tweaks to complete a viable product. These teams need support and coordination services throughout the process.

Sponsors, executives and shareholders need plans, projections and updates. Product managers, project managers and team leaders all play an important role in keeping the maze-solving teams motivated and moving in the right direction. They also need to keep funding and support going while providing inputs about changing market demands and conditions.

It sounds a difficult balancing act, but approaches such as design thinking, lean startup and agile provide stewardship models for development with inbuilt experimentation, observation and learning. What gets less attention is motivating teams to persevere despite the many failures encountered when experimenting for learning, not just validation.

The “Success Leads to Happiness” Fallacy
Most people start their lives with the mistaken view that success leads to happiness. Our internal dialog creates a series of “if/then” scenarios:

  • IF I pass this exam, THEN I will be happy.”
  • “IF I get this job, THEN I will be happy.”
  • “IF we finish this project on schedule, THEN I will be happy.”

However, the brain has a knack of moving the goalposts. We might be happy briefly, but then we quickly focus on the next exam, an even better job or a more ambitious project.

While it is good to progress in life, we should not connect achieving a goal with achieving happiness. Instead, we need to understand that happiness is only 10% extrinsic (external things that happen to us, like success) and 90% intrinsic (how we think and feel about things).

A Happy Brain is a Productive Brain

Dopamine

Happy workers are more productive and creative than stressed or unhappy workers. In our brains, the chemical dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for sending reward-motivated happiness signals. Put more simply, dopamine is a happiness chemical—it gets released when we are happy. Interestingly, dopamine also switches on more learning circuits in our brains.

Research [1,2,3] shows that happiness improves work performance. Happy people are 31% more productive, happy doctors are 19% more accurate at diagnosing correctly, and happy salespeople are 37% better at sales.

This intuitively makes sense. When we are unhappy or stressed, the brain prioritizes circuits for survival. If you spot a sabre-toothed tiger, it is probably best to focus on escape rather than contemplating the interplay of sunlight and shadows through the leaf canopy. Yet when searching for an innovative solution, we want all these extra brain circuits engaged. This brings us full circle on the “I’ll be happy when I am successful” logic. It turns out, being happy actually activates more of the brain to help us be successful.

Success Fallacy

Nurturing Happy Teams
So, if the smartest workers are happy workers, how do we make them happy? Well, we don’t “make them happy” at all—that would be trying to force it in externally, using weak extrinsic motivators. Instead, we equip them with the tools to help build intrinsic happiness themselves.

This might be sounding more touchy-feely than you are comfortable with. However, hard economics show that happy workers also persevere with problems longer, take less sick days, quit less and sue for wrongful dismissal much less, too…so let’s suspend the cynicism for a moment.

The good news is that with as little as 30 minutes a day, measurable increases in dopamine levels are achieved in three weeks. So, if we can encourage these behaviors and turn them into habits, we get happier, healthier, smarter and more productive workers.

These 30-minute exercises don’t even require expensive equipment or management consultants. They are simple, backed by research and include:

  1. 3 Gratitudes – a daily recording of three new things you are grateful for [4]
  2. Journaling – recording positive experiences from the past 24 hours [5]
  3. Exercise – increases blood flow to the brain and helps eliminate toxins [6]
  4. Meditation – resets multi-tasking fatigue and helps with concentration [7]
  5. Acts of Kindness - helping others and saying “thanks,” which makes us feel better [8]

Organizations spend vast sums of money hiring smart people and providing them with complex tools and training. In comparison, the cost/benefit potential in investing and encouraging team happiness is extremely compelling. As project managers, team leads and executives, we need to be conscious of the behaviors we model, because people are watching us.

If not already doing so, we can use these techniques ourselves to improve our own happiness and productivity—then share and encourage others to make use of them. A great benefit of intrinsic motivators is that they can be applied anywhere. It does not matter if you work in a toxic environment or report to a jerk. There is likely nothing stopping you making sure the first email of the day you send is to thank someone for their help or contribution. Also, no one will know if you make notes about positive experiences.

People with budgets and hiring authority do know that yoga instructors are much cheaper than labor relations consultants and HR lawyers. Longer lunch breaks and fun team activities may require some explanations, but improved problem solving, fewer sick days and better ideas are definitely worth it.

Don’t wait until project completion to celebrate team achievements. That’s too little, too late—and our brains have moved the goalposts to be thinking of the next project. Instead, celebrate the little things that recognize effort, persistence and displaying a good attitude.

Obviously, it is not as simple as “happy people are the perfect innovators.” There are some concerns that people characterized as “happy” might be less likely to spot certain types of risks. Optimism needs to be tempered with realism. However, given the variable success rates of helping people become happier (“leading horses to water,” etc.), there will still be some pessimists; but on the whole, it creates a positive change that is worth the risk.

Summary
Smart companies know the future belongs to the best innovators. Building and maintaining teams of productive innovators requires investment in tools, techniques and people. We need to have the right tools and be using today’s techniques such as the design thinking, lean startup and agile approaches. Then it comes down to our people. An appreciation of what truly makes us happy—and its effects on success—is a great starting point.

Most organizations are not R&D labs, so we need to balance innovation with everyday production and service. The mindset and changes described here may feel uncomfortable (or even unprofessional) at first. However, a quote from Eric Shinseki explains that “If you dislike change, you're going to dislike irrelevance even more.” It reminds us that the business landscape is changing faster than ever—and that we need to change with it to stay valuable.

References

  1. The Happiness Advantage
  2. The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?
  3. Happiness and Productivity
  4. Counting Blessings Versus Burdens
  5. How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words, The Social Effects of Expressive Writing
  6. Behavior Matters
  7. One Second Ahead
  8. Interventions to Boost Happiness and Buttress Resilience

[Note: I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


Focusing on Results, Not Agile Approaches

Focus on Business Value


Quarter Century

25 Years Agile2019 marks the 25 year anniversary of Scrum and DSDM. I was involved in the creation of DSDM in 1994 and was an early adopter of Scrum and FDD shortly afterward. Now, having been at this for a quarter of a century I am reflecting on where my journey has taken me compared to others.

I am agnostic about agile. I value the mindset and goals more than approaches that preach a single path. This has had mixed blessings for me. I remain agnostic and impartial, but I have not jumped on any of the approach bandwagons.

I received more training in Scrum by Ken Schwaber in 2002 and offered a training role (before they were called CSTs)  but I have never offered Certified Scrum Master training. I would feel wrong evangelizing the singular view of Scrum as the way, or role of the Scrum Master to spread Scrum. That feels too religious to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Scrum is an OK starting place, but I would not recommend only using a Scrum approach - since approaches like Lean, Kanban and FDD have great things to contribute too. Some Scrum practitioners correctly explain that Scrum does not say you cannot add other approaches. In fact, it can be viewed as a deliberately incomplete framework, so organizations have to add their own process to make it successful. Yet this message is undersold as I visit organization after organization that only use Scrum practices with maybe some XP engineering practices. They are missing out on so much more and struggling because of it.

The Scrum community often has a myopic focus blaming implementation struggles on a failure to understand or apply Scrum properly - when maybe something outside of Scrum would better suit the situation.

Likewise, I think SAFe does a great job of packaging and presenting some good ideas for organizations to consider - but its adoption draws too much effort away from developing valuable product. By all means, raid SAFe for valuable content and ideas, but create your own approach with the bare minimum of process. Then continue to ditch that process as soon as it is no longer worth the effort.

 

Take Off

Agile TakeoffIn the 25 years I have been using agile approaches, I have seen companies like LeadingAgile and LitheSpeed form, grow and prosper. They offer Scrum and SAFe training even though they are also agnostic and understand the benefits of various approaches.

I have thought about just sucking it up, drinking the cool aid and offering these courses. I could also explain there is nothing to stop us blending other approaches too. However, then its not really Scrum or SAFe, or whatever I am peddling so it is not a genuine message, which is important for me.

I offer my own training courses in agnostic agile, focussing on the philosophy and tools available for a variety of circumstances. However, like trying to market a healthy, balanced diet, I am first to acknowledge the message lacks the clarity, simplicity or sex-appeal of a single, silver-bullet solution.

People want a “Paleo”, or “South Beach”, or “Atkins”, “Mediterranean”, “Keto”, “Raw”, or “<Whatever>” solution to follow. I can yell, “Stop being lazy sheep and think for yourself”, but the majority of people want recipes and ready-meals, not to learn nutrition and cooking skills.

 

 

Benefits, not Popular Fads / Staying On Track

Staying On TrackThat is OK, I would rather be genuine than popular. I truly believe we are most successful when agnostically taking the most suitable approaches for our circumstances. Then, ruthlessly reviewing, morphing and pruning these approaches as our teams evolve.

We need to focus on the output, the business value, not the process. If wearing purple hats produced better results than agile then I would be all for purple hats and ditching agile. This is one reason I named my company as LeadingAnswers and not a name with the word “Agile” in it. I am focussed on solutions and outcomes, not a single approach. I still believe Agile is our best starting point, but I am always hopeful we will create something better.

As 2019 starts, I am doubling down on my “Yes, and…” commitment. I realize the message lacks the clarity of a single, sexy, (sub-optimal) solution and so it will never be widely adopted. However, my last 25 years has taught me that there are enough people who see the benefit of a balanced, evolving approach.

So, I hope you stick with me as I explore being successful by focussing on delivering business value regardless of approach. I think there is merit in traditional processes in the right circumstances. There are also many underemployed benefits from leadership, emotional intelligence, and industry specific practices that get used in pockets that we could all learn from.

Here’s to another 25 years of delivering the most business value we can through situationally specific approaches.


Hybrid Knowledge: Expansion and Contraction

Knowledge Expansion and ConsolidationExpansion and Contraction

Project management requires the combination of technical skills, people skills and industry-specific knowledge. It is a true hybrid environment. This knowledge and its application also forms a beautiful paradox. Our quest to gain skills is never complete and always expanding, but the most effective tools are usually the simplest. Smart people do very simple things to achieve desired outcomes. Yet, they probably considered fifty alternatives before choosing the most effective, simple approach. You must know a lot to be confident your choice is apt.

Knowledge and experience in project management follows the same pattern. Learning about project management, how to work effectively with people, and our industry domain is never complete. We then use this knowledge to choose the best action, which for ease of understanding and implementation, is usually a simple course of action. I call it Expansion and Contraction, but there is probably a simpler name I will learn about one day.

Learning as a Project Manager

One of the things I love about project management is the opportunity to expand our knowledge. There is so much to learn that is useful and applicable to projects. We also live in an age where there are more avenues for learning than ever before. Like a hungry kid in a candy store, the options seem endless and enticing.

But what should we learn next to make the biggest impact? We could learn techniques to make us more effective or alert us to risks earlier. While earned-value is widely used, earned-scheduling is just getting started but promises useful tools. Alternatively, we will never be done learning how to better work with people. Communication, collaboration and motivation skills are more important than ever now talent is so mobile.  Likewise, expanding our industry and business skills are critical to build credibility with sponsors and useful collaborations with teams.

The PMI Talent Triangle nicely describes these connected but infinitely extending fields of study.

Talent triangle tm

For learning purposes, the Strategic and Business Management segment includes all aspects of your industry. For example, if you work in IT, learning anything your team does or uses would be valuable.

Hybrid Learning Model

We should study topics from each of the Talent Triangle segments. However, it needs be fun to be sustainable. We learn best when we are interested and engaged, not when trying really hard to stay on topic or complete a task. Learning also needs to be balanced with other aspects of our lives. We need to look after ourselves and our relationships. We won’t perform or learn well if sick, depressed or lonely. (See the Project You post for more on this idea.)

When we get stuck, tired or burnt-out on one topic, switch to another after recording what is challenging. Our brains process things in the background. Often the simple act of recording that we are stuck on a topic yields an A-ha breakthrough days later in the shower or out on a walk. 

In addition to a stuck list, recognize all the things already studied. The following Kanban board has columns for To Learn, Studying Now, Stuck On, and Studied Already.

Learning Board

Personally, I try to limit my studying to one topic per Talent Triangle segment at a time. That’s my mental capacity, but I might mix in some short articles alongside a book on a similar topic.

Line Chefs not Eggheads

Knowledge is only useful if we can apply it when necessary. We want people who are humble and smart with a bias for action. When presented with a problem, recalling potential fixes is only half the solution. We then have to select one and try it otherwise we have analysis paralysis. The selection might be done individually or through discussions with the team, but we need to go from many options to a preferred one.

Many people find having too many options with no clear preference overwhelming. Kicking around alternatives is good to select the best solution, but be aware of the anxiety this can cause. So keep it short. Power comes from agreeing and focussing effort on the selected approach. A 40 watt light bulb is barely enough to light a room. Yet a 40-watt laser beam will cut through cardboard and aluminum. It’s the same amount of light energy, just focussed in one direction.

For me, there is an analogy or parallel between learning multiple skills and navigating. Once we know our way around we can create new pathways and connections. I live near the Canmore Nordic Centre. It has> 100km of cross-country ski trails tightly winding through a heavily treed, mountainous park. It also has > 100 km of summer mountain biking trails in the same space.

People describe the trail network and map as confusing as a plate of spaghetti (summer trails) dumped on top of another plate of spaghetti (winter trails). It took me a couple of years of frequently getting lost to become comfortable navigating there. Now knowing both sets of trails allows me to create new loops by tagging trail segments together. It also allows me to get from point A to point B quickly or get back to the Day Lodge swiftly if needed. In short, learning where all the connections are allows us to link elements together for better flow and shortcuts.

Learning as much as we can about project management, emotional intelligence and leadership builds similar skills. It allows us to see connections between ideas, link concepts together like creating a common vision for a project through storytelling.  Or, resolve conflict with empathy and appreciative inquiry.

If we can layer these skills with learning more about our industry, then in the eyes of our sponsors, we go from effective employees to trusted advisors.

When We Get it Wrong

This is all great in theory, but we will inevitably screw-up sometimes. We will assess the options and gallantly blaze our way forward into bigger problems and unintended consequences. This is when being humble and flexible pay dividends.

Just as a lack of direction in the face of uncertainty looks like fear or paralysis, then dogged adherence to a doomed plan looks like blind stupidity. By carefully framing decisions with qualifiers such as “Right now, our best course of action looks like X” or “We have decided to try Y for an iteration and evaluate the results” this way we reserve the right to be smarter tomorrow than we were yesterday.

People are more likely to forgive a mistake and try another approach when it was originally positioned as today’s favoured strategy rather than our only hope. This is not to say we should get into the habit of failing and flip-flopping, just be smart enough not to get preachy about decisions in case the occasional one turns out to be a dud.

So, strive for clarity with options to change direction if needed. We can explain: Here is what we are going to do... but, if along the way we learn of a better approach we reserve the right to revaluate and change direction. In fact, we have a duty to our sponsors to change direction if there ever looks like a better option.

Summary

If we cast the net wide and learn all that we can about project management, leadership and our industries we will never be bored or lacking topics to explore. The beauty comes when topics connect and we make links between subjects. Like always wondering where that unfamiliar road goes only to emerge from it one day and suddenly realize where you are and make the new mental connection.

As we grow in our careers we see how management is really about leadership and leadership really starts with ourselves. Then a simple shift over here makes things go better over there. Project success is a hybrid of technical, leadership and strategic domains. As we grow we see more connections and then achieve more through doing less. It is great when it works but still uncomfortable when it fails so, follow the advice of Patrick Lencioni, and stay humble, hungry and smart.

 

[Note: I wrote this article for ProjectManagament.com first and it can be found here - membership required ]

 


The New Need to be Lifelong Learners

Never Stop LearningWe are a generation who stand with one foot in the outgoing industrial era and one in the knowledge-based future. Training and education that prepared us well for careers in the past will not work in a faster-moving future. Now, we need to be not just lifelong learners, but engaged, active lifelong learners.

The move from industrial work to knowledge-based or learning work can be difficult to see because change does not happen uniformly. Instead, some organizations push ahead, while others lag behind. However, all industries are changing and terms like “Retail Apocalypse” are invented to describe the trend in just one sector.

Some product companies have learned to generate revenue from digital services while many traditional models are disappearing. While I drafted this article gadget store Brookstone declared bankruptcy and Apple became the world’s first publicly traded trillion-dollar company, with Amazon close on its heels. Each are landmarks along the road to a different future and world of work.

People have been through similar transitions before. The Agricultural Revolution moved nomadic hunter-gathers to farmers. They no longer had to wander around in search of food and allowed for permanent, full-time settlements which changed humanity. I am sure there were many people who rejected the new way of working and elected to live out the remainder of their lives as nomadic hunter-gathers. However, the general population reached a tipping point and changed.

Then came the industrial revolution. Many of the dispersed farmers moved to cities to work in factories. Again, a huge change that did not happen overnight, or around the world at the same time. There were some people left farming, but most transitioned. The next stage was known as the Information Revolution. This revolution focused on information and collaboration, rather than manufacturing. It placed value on the ownership of knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge to create or improve goods and services.

We now live in an era dubbed the Learning Age by Jacob Morgan, author of “The Future of Work”. New technologies are evolving so rapidly that company training departments cannot provide all the skills their employees needed to perform their job in an effective manner. Instead, with the rise of internet-based information and learning, workers have the skills to learn as they go. Capacity to learn and a willingness to self-study are the hallmarks of learning workers.

 


MindsetA New Mindset

Becoming an active lifelong learner requires more than just a willingness to self-study. It is linked to a totally new mindset and values structure. Susan Cain, author of Quiet (and presenter of my favorite TED talk with no slides,) explains how each work era brought a new value mindset.

The Agricultural work period valued character and hard work. Role models included Abraham Lincoln and self-help books had titles like “Character, the greatest thing in the world”. Then, the Industrial Revolution moved people from small communities into cities, so they now had to be heard and prove themselves in a crowd of strangers. Qualities like magnetism and charisma became important and self-help books had titles like “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. In the Industrial era role models were great salespeople.

Today knowledge, learning, and experimentation are rewarded. The goal is to quickly test new ideas or products and then profit (if it works), or pivot to something else if it does not. Books like “The Lean Startup” and “Blue Ocean Strategy” have become the new how-to guides for people wanting to innovate. In demand skills are less sales or personality focused and more experimentation oriented. Today’s role models are engineers - who would have thought!

 

FutureThe Future of Work and Learning

Futurist Magnus Lindkvist explains there are only two types of development: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal development involves spreading existing ideas to everyone else. 30 years ago, only a few people had cell phones, now most people in developed countries have them. 20 years ago, online shopping was a small segment of sales, now it is huge. 10 years ago, ride-share and gig-economy jobs were rare, now they are commonplace, etc.

There is a lot of opportunity and work for people spreading ideas horizontally to markets or segments that currently do not have them. According to McKinsey research, more than half the world’s population is still offline. About 75 percent of the offline population is concentrated in 20 countries and is disproportionately rural, low income, elderly, illiterate, and female. This is an example of horizontal growth potential to these 4 billion people currently offline. However, once a market is served the challenge then becomes one of differentiation on price, features, and service. Things get competitive very quickly.

The other sort of development is vertical, creating new markets and products that do not currently exist. This is error-prone and uncertain. Most initiatives fail, but the rewards for the successful can be enormous. Since the cost of communications continues to fall, digital markets are global and expanding as more people get online.

Samsung recently announced it is investing $22 billion into emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, 5G, automotive electronics and biopharmaceuticals as it searches for new products to power growth. Much of this work will be exploratory with high rates of failure, but that is normal in vertical markets.

Workers in these markets are unlikely to have the prerequisite skills since the technologies themselves are still being developed. Instead, the most valuable employees are rapid learners and linkers & thinkers who can take partial solutions from other domains to solve novel problems. 

One such example of linking ideas provided a solution to a rare liver disease in children called Tyrosinemia. The condition prevents the body from processing the common building block of protein tyrosine. Swedish doctors Elisabeth Holme and Sven Lindtedt stumbled upon the results from a failed herbicide experiment in Australia.

Chemicals in the bottle brush plant suppressed competing vegetation, making it a candidate for a natural herbicide. Unfortunately, experiments with mice led to eye issues and the product was abandoned, but the failed experiment was documented along with the plant’s tyrosine processing change. The doctors gained permission to run a small study and the results were dramatic, with liver function returning to normal. The failed herbicide became the miracle drug Orfadin that has saved the lives of countless children worldwide.  

We need to experiment and document not only our successes but also our failures. Who knows they might be useful to others. Ideally, this information should be openly available which will likely be a challenging concept for many traditional organizations. Even encouraging the sharing of positive experiments can be difficult for old mindset companies that rank staff performance against peers and create competition for resources between departments. In such environments, there is little reward for sharing valuable breakthroughs.

Nucor Steel solved this issue with its bonus pay system. Incentives are rewarded one level above people’s span of control. So, as a plant manager, bonus pay is not based on how well your plant is doing, but how well all the plants are doing. This encourages learnings and breakthroughs to be shared with other plants. It encourages global rather than local optimization. The model repeats at all levels, department heads are not rewarded on their department’s performance but a composite of all departments. The same for team leads and individual workers. Rewarding learning and collaboration has made Nucor steel one of the few successful US-based steel companies.                                                         

 


ExperimentsBetter Experimentation Design

If we are engaged in vertical development, we need to overcome our aversion to failure. As professionals with many years of experience, there is a stigma with failure. We are paid to know our field and deliver positive results, not failures. However, this is legacy industrial thinking. As knowledge workers, we need to be designing and executing low-cost experiments to learn more quickly than our competitors.

Paradoxically, if most of our trials and experiments usually work that does not mean we are great developers. It means we are wasteful innovators. By design 50% of our experiments should fail, this is the quickest path to learning and innovation. Failed experiments tell us just as much (and often more) than successful ones. We should not be duplicating confirmed ideas but exploring new ones.

Low cost and fast experimentation lead to more profit-or-pivot decisions. Organizations that can do this quicker than their peers emerge as the new Apple’s and Amazons. Organizations that do not, follow the path of Brookstone and Blockbuster.

 

LearningPersonal Learning

Going forward we need to recognize how people learn best which is through storytelling and visual learning. YouTube’s How-to videos are popular because they combine both elements in a time efficient delivery mechanism.

Checking our ego and embracing humility is also necessary for learning. We might be experts in horizontal development of the known, but no one is an expert in vertical development of the new. Instead, we must learn how to be collaborative problem solvers.

Harvard Innovation Lab expert Tony Wagner puts it this way. “Today because knowledge is available on every internet connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate – the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life – and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge.”

We cannot predict the future and that’s what makes it exciting. We may not know exactly what technical skills to pursue next, but a couple of quotes that seem to apply include: “Once we rid ourselves of traditional thinking we can get on with creating the future” - James Bertrand and “The essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fail” – Edwin Land. So, go forward and experiment boldly.

  

References:

  1. Minifesto: Why Small Ideas Matter in the World of Grand Narratives, Magnus Lindkvist
  2. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Peter M. Senge
  3. The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, Eric Ries
  4. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, W. Chan Kim

 

 [Note: I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here – free sign-up required]


Got Your CSM, Now What?

Credential QuestionPerhaps, like 500,000+ other people, you have some form of Certified Scrum Master (CSM) credential and are looking to distinguish yourself and continue your learning journey. Of course, learning is not tied to credentials, many people are anti-certification and that is an understandable choice. I encourage lifelong learning separate from credentials. However, for credential seekers, this article explores some common credential pathways beyond the CSM.

I want to disclose upfront that I have been involved with the development of ICAgile, PMI-ACP, and DSDM Leadership credentials so I likely have some bias and preferences. However, my goal here is not to recommend specific credentials but instead to explain options and environmental factors to consider, helping people make their own choice based on their own situation.

Also, because there are so many credentials available I will undoubtedly miss out many credentials in this discussion, maybe including your favorite or your company’s. This is not meant to be an exhaustive catalogue of agile credentials rather a thinking or discussion tool for getting the research process started. 

How Did You Get Here?

When people ask me what credentials to get next, I ask how they got where they are now. Did they move from software development into a Scrum Master role? Were they previously a PMP certified project manager who took a CSM class to learn a little about Scrum? The answers to questions like these and the next one: “Where Do You Want to Go?” help ground and orient the decision-making process. If we don’t know where we are to begin with, then a map is unlikely to be helpful.

Where Do You Want to Go?

Credentials may be obtained to help secure a new job or promotion. People also seek them to demonstrate understanding of certain topics, and just for personal achievement. All of these motives are valid and help drive the choice of where to go next. If you are pursuing job opportunities then you should research what hiring managers are looking for. Are they asking for PMP, CSP or PMI-ACP credentials? If so then we are narrowing our choices down.

Alternatively, if you are pursuing a credential more for personal learning, then the curriculum is likely more important than recognition by hiring managers. Maybe there is an online program that very few people have ever heard of but it’s a great fit for your learning objectives. If so, be more influenced by content and quality rather than recognition and opportunity.

This sounds basic, but I’m surprised by how many people pursue credentials just because their colleagues did and they don’t want to be left behind, or it was the next course suggested in their company’s training roadmap. Credentials should be for you. Asking questions like: Do you want to strengthen your current role? Do you want to change roles? Do you want to stay at your current organization? All these issues factor into the next steps to take.

Directions from Here

There are a few obvious directions from CSM that include Down Deeper, Upwards and Outwards. By Down Deeper I mean going deeper into Scrum with an Advanced Certified Scrum Master (A-CSM), Certified Scrum Practitioner (CSP), or Professional Scrum Master (PSM) credential. These are good options if you want to demonstrate a further commitment and understanding focussed just on Scrum.

Upwards refers to scaling Scrum for large projects, programs, and enterprise transformations. There are several popular Scaling frameworks available including SAFe, Nexus and LeSS. All offer training paths and credentials if that is the direction you want to pursue.

The Outwards direction means broader than just Scrum. Due to the popularity of Scrum people sometimes forget there is a rich wealth of complementary approaches outside of it. Lean, Kanban, Leadership, and Emotional Intelligence are all topics that agile teams can benefit from. Certifications like the PMI-ACP and the ICAgile suite of credentials provide coverage and demonstrate knowledge of these topics. Also, I class Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) here rather than a scaling framework since it is more pragmatic and deals with more than just agile and scaling.

How to Decide: Personal and Environmental Factors?

So, knowing how we got here and a little more about where to go next and why, we can start to create some pathways.  Shown below is a sample flowchart for someone interested in pursuing agile approaches further and wondering what to consider next.

Flow Chart

However, maybe you are not interested in agile and want to pursue risk management further. That is fine, use these personal and environmental factors to create your own framework. Maybe a PMI-RMP (Risk Management Professional) credential fits the bill? My point is that with a wide variety of experiences, goals, motivations and credentials to choose from there will be a huge array of possible decision trees like this.

The purpose of this article is not to recommend a single path for the half a million CSM’s in the workforce, rather explain a framework for evaluating your options. Don’t be pressured by peers or corporate training roadmaps, instead honestly evaluate why you may want to obtain a new credential and then which would best fit your development goals.

[I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]


The Importance of Focus

Edison BulbI have an old-fashioned Edison bulb desk lamp. It’s to remind me to focus (and because I like steampunk, industrial design). A 40-watt incandescent bulb will barely light a room, but a 40-watt laser can cut through aluminium, leather, and wood. It is the same amount of light energy, just focussed instead of being diffused.

The same principle applies to our attention, work and teams. Diffused and scattered there is not much impact. Focussed and concentrated that energy is very impactful. Removing distractions and focussing on a single deliverable at a time allows us to complete our work faster with fewer defects.

Aligning a team to a common vision and purpose directs their energy towards it. No longer diffused to fulfil a dozen competing demands, effort is channelled to the shared goal. Distractions come in many forms. Fancy tools, cool architecture, requests from different groups. If we do not pay attention to focus, our laser beam team becomes an Edison bulb, it is busy and glowing, but not very effective.

So, be cautious of distractions. Monitor time and energy directed to the project goal compared to energy directed to peripheral activities. Work life is like a greased pole with a 40-watt Edison bulb at the bottom and a 40-watt laser at the top. We must always be striving upwards to focus because as we relax we slide down towards distraction.

(Also visible in the picture is my “Do The Work” Post-it. another reminder to focus and a pointer to work on the same topic by Seth Godin and Stephen Pressfield. I guess I could get a 40-watt laser too, but that would scorch the cat rather than amuse it. Plus yes, it is snowing here and yes, my windows are old)


Inverted Classrooms

Inverted Classroom 2My last article on why We Should All be Learners explained how today’s knowledge worker projects are all about learning effectively. This article explains how new technology can deliver a more effective and enjoyable learning experience.  So, whether you are studying for your PMP credential, cramming on blockchain technology, or learning conversational Spanish, blended learning is something you should be aware of.

Blended learning combines online resources with in-person instruction. Both approaches have been available for many years, but their combination has recently given rise to what’s called Inverted Classroom Model that is both new and very effective.

If you have ever experienced painfully slow or incomprehensibly fast lectures, or the problems of trying to coordinate group activities outside of class then blended learning with an inverted classroom model might be just the ticket.  It works like this:

Lecture materials are made available online outside of class time and people consume them at their own pace, whenever they like. If you already know something, just skip it, if its difficult or mind-boggling pause it, repeat it, or access additional resources. You control the delivery speed of lessons, how much time you dedicate to it, and you also control when you consume it. So, if you are an early bird use the mornings, a night owl then use the evenings, it's all up to you.

Then, and here’s the clever part, during class when lectures would normally be delivered, this time is used for assignments and group exercises.  So, you attend lectures at home and do homework in class. It is all reversed – hence the inverted classrooms name.

Inverted Classroom

This brings several advantages. Students move at their own pace, on their own timetable. Also, instead of classes being spent on passive listening, they are now dedicated to active work which is more engaging and enjoyable. Trying or organize group work outside of class when people are busy can be a logistical nightmare, now everyone should be available to take part in group work during the regularly scheduled class times.

In addition, the instructor is available to facilitate group work if needed and shift their focus from getting through the material at the appropriate speed to helping students in the areas they need. It is important that people still get face to face time to interact with peers and the instructor. However, in the inverted classroom model, that time is spent applying knowledge not trying to absorb it at a standardized delivery pace.

The approach is not without its own challenges. The technology for consuming material online must be effective and easy to access. Instructors and students must also buy-in to their new roles. Students are now curators of their own content consumption and need to make sure they have understood the required topics before showing up to the next class, whether it took them 2 hours or 20.

Instructors must also switch roles, moving from narrator of wisdom to facilitator of group activities, troubleshooter, and coach. They also need to make sure the students really are consuming the course materials, not just turning up to class and coasting a free-ride on their peers. Good content management systems can track content consumption and test basic recall with tests and quiz questions.

When the technology is in place and roles understood, blended learning and the inverted classroom model can deliver a very engaging and enjoyable way of learning a new topic. It combines Goldilocks pace (not too slow, not too fast) along with engaging group activities without the logistics issue of scheduling busy learners. So, for that next credential or must-have skill, you may want to investigate a blended learning environment with an inverted classroom model.

[I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com under the title Flipped Classrooms here]


We Should All Be Learners

LearnersKnowledge work is learning work.” That was the message delivered by Dianna Larson’s keynote presentation at the Agile on The Beach conference held in Falmouth, England earlier this Summer. Dianna explained that anyone involved in today’s collaborative, problem-solving projects such as new product development need to be learners. We all need to learn how to learn new topics effectively and get used to lifelong learning to stay useful and relevant.

Technology evolution and disruptive business changes are happening at such a high rate now that we can no longer rely on the theories and techniques we gained at university to see us through our professional careers. Instead, we must learn on the job and in our own time to stay current. How much we learn and how quickly we can learn new skills become our competitive advantage.

“Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.” – W. Edwards Deming

By learning new skills, we increase our adaptability and usefulness in the marketplace. It creates resiliency to becoming obsolete and provides more career options. Like many things, this is not a zero-sum game; it is not just about us learning things faster than other people to stay employed. If we can increase our team’s ability to learn also, it will be more successful and so will our organization.

For on-job learning to occur, we need three attributes:

  1. Courage
  2. Compassion
  3. Confidence

To be effective leaders and help promote learning in our teams and organizations, we must embrace and model these desired behaviors:

1. Courage: It takes courage to be okay with not knowing something. It takes courage to be wrong and fail as we try to gain and apply new skills. It requires a willingness to be curious and a willingness to tolerate the messiness of trial and error that comes from learning. So check your ego at the door, get over yourself and admit what you do not (yet) know.

2. Compassion: We need a safe space to learn. Also (and this is a surprise to some people), the transparency of showing what we do not know is motivating to others. When leaders learn out loud, it creates compassion toward them. So, create a secure place for people to learn on your projects. Provide psychological safety and encourage learning by doing it yourself in public.

Since we learn in the direction we ask questions, we should frame work as a series of learning problems, not execution problems. For example, instead of explaining the task of porting a system from .NET to Android, explain that our success is linked to our ability to learn Xamarin, our selected tool to port .Net to Android. Clearly explaining we want people to learn new skills is often the approval enabler they need to dedicate themselves to being more useful.

3. Confidence: We need confidence to try and we need to understand our confidence levels. When we learn anything new of significance, our confidence will likely move through the stages depicted in the Satir Change Curve. Think about when you learned to drive, play a musical instrument or learn a foreign language. First, our confidence is high at the prospect of gaining independence, becoming a rock star or traveling with ease. This is illustrated by the initial high score of confidence/comfort at point 1 on the graph below:

Satir

Then we start our learning and we quickly realize that driving, playing the guitar or learning Spanish is difficult and we are not as good at it as we are at all the familiar things we do every day. This is the confusion/loss period of the Satir Change Curve shown as point 2. Many adults who have not had to learn significant new skills for many years find this very uncomfortable.

Next, comes the “groan zone” of turmoil and despair, where some days go well and some days go bad and you seem to be moving backwards (point 3). Understanding that this is perfectly normal is a great relief for many learners. It is helpful to just point to the graph and explaining it is okay to feel bad because they are in the turmoil/despair phase of learning a new skill, and it will be followed by growth and confidence if they just stick with it.

Finally, with perseverance and practice, we acquire the new knowledge or skill and our confidence and comfort rises above our original level (point 4) along with our usefulness.

Summary
Learning and the need to learn are not identifiers of a junior employee anymore. They are the hallmarks of the professional knowledge worker. We need to move beyond the stigma of not knowing all the answers and embrace the learning path that comes with not knowing, making mistakes and asking for help.

When leaders model the learning mindset of curiosity and the courage to learn out loud, they pave the way for faster organizational learning and increased competitive advantage.

[I wrote this article first for ProjectManagement.com here]