The bus and the beach

“And what if that person was run over by a bus” is the standard question for eliciting whether they are a ‘key man dependency’. If that person was taken out of the system, would the system be able to continue.

Talking about being run over by a bus isn’t the most pleasant language to use.  In a workshop today I heard a far more palatable question.

“What if that person’s six lucky numbers come up? What if they won the lottery. What if Monday morning for them was sipping Pina Colada on a palm fringed beach rather than supporting your obscure system…”

Learning to love the uncomfortable silence

Nature doesn’t like a vacuum.  It rushes to fill the void.  Silences are similar.  They are uncomfortable.  They urge someone to break them.  A good negotiator, a good sales person, a good facilitator knows how to handle silence, to feel comfortable with it.  The first step is becoming conscious and aware of the silence.  The next step is to actively resist the temptation to fill it.  And the final step is to enjoy the silence and use it to your advantage.

This much I know

The Observer magazine has a feature titled “This much I know“. It takes an interview with a celebrity who “share the lessons life has taught them” and distills it down into a number of key statements. There is probably some milage in this as an innovation game to play when you are looking for ideas and insights, hopes and fears from a newly formed team.

Ask team members to write statements “this much I know” on post-it notes with Sharpies (because you can’t write many words like that) and see what you get.

For structure you may consider using different coloured post-its to represent PEST themes: Political, Social, Environmental and Technical, or how about CRIT:

  • C: Competitive landscape
  • R: Return on investment
  • I: Internal politics
  • T: Technology.

So for example…

This much I know

Acme.com recently redesigned their website. The  forums and twitter were full of positive comments (C)
People will pay for content. It’s just got to be priced right, relevant and timely to them and easy to pay  (R)
Getting things done here is a nightmare. The process to get approval for any new project is designed to be hard (I)
We’ve got problems with our CMS. Our license is due to expire and the vendor is trying to get us to upgrade. We don’t know what to do (T)

Getting these ideas on the wall will help participants articulate their thoughts and provide a framework for understanding the current reality and mining for new ideas and opportunities.

Innovation games

Innovation games are a great way of engaging stakeholders, getting them to collaborate and think creatively around solutions to problems. Here are a few I’ve recently used. Introducing a persona helps focus the attention.

What happens if?
Ask participants to construct a back story for the persona. What have they done in the last year. Describe each touch point they have had with your brand or product. Now introduce a crisis moment. Lost a job, got a terminal illness, won the lottery. What happens? How does the experience with each touch point change?

Build a widget
Again, give the group a persona to help focus their attention. Now give them half an hour to build a widget that would solve a problem the persona has. Give them paper, post-its sharpies, coloured pencils. This is agile right. Now present back – They get two minutes to provide the context, pitch the product. Then one minute to demonstrate how the widget works. Open the widget to questions. How will it work….

You’re all crooks
<Insert your industry> are crooks. What new laws would you introduce to clean up their act? (OK, this feels uncomfortable but it may help get people thinking about how consumers perceive the industry and how the customer experience could be improved. For example you are crooks because you hide details in small print, introduce a new law on transparency. What would that mean you would change?)

Kill the sacred cows
Every business has sacred cows or elephants in the room; things that are done because they’ve always been done, not to be challenged, considered immune from criticism or are too risky or dangerous to change. Ask participants to identify these, putting them on post-it notes. Now imagine that they no-longer exist. What could you do now that you couldn’t do when the sacred cows were in place?

Fear of focus groups

I was recently talking to some IT professionals.  We were talking about customer journeys and understanding the customer needs.  They were second guessing these, making assumptions about what is important to the customer how how the customer would best interact with the application.

“How about running a focus group with customers?” I suggested.  Blank expressions.  “Not sure” came the response, “we’ve never done those before”.

But you have done that before.  Every time you run a workshop with the business, that is a focus group.  The listening skills are the same.  Effective facilitation, and using stimuli to promote debate, elicit opinions and test ideas- they are the same.   You just have a different audience and call focus groups something different.

IT should have no fear of talking to real customers, end users.  Getting them together in workshops is something that should come as naturally to IT as it does to the marketeers.  Let’s get focus groups into the vocabulary of any IT project.

Words are slippery things

Want to prove it? Take a sheet of paper. Tear it in half (under the table so I can’t see).  Now show the two halves.  You tore it in half side-ways didn’t you.  I tore it length-ways.  Same instruction, same materials, completely different result.

Paired introductions

Starting a meeting or workshop with new people will almost certainly commence with introductions.  Usually I will ask participants to say not only who they are and what department they are from, but also why they think they are at the meeting.  If someone is not sure, or says “because my boss told me to attend” there might be an issue.

Last week I attended a workshop run by a couple of our developers from China.  Because paired programming is a fundamental practice to what we do, they asked the participants to do paired introductions.  Participants paired, were offered a minute to talk to each other and then introduce their colleague.  Because the team already knew each other, they didn’t need the minute to prepare.  As each participant introduced his colleague, he emphasised the persons strengths and good points.  At the end of the introductions there was a tremendously positive vibe in the room which set the meeting up for success.  It might have taken a little longer than just doing the straight introductions, but the value was clear; get people to introduce their colleagues – it breaks the ice, promotes the positive (and as a facilitator gives you another hook by which to remember people).

It’s how you ask it…

Prioritising requirements

You’re running a workshop and the group have come up with a bunch of new propositions. You want them to vote on which ones to take forward to the next stage. Or maybe you’ve identified a bunch of functionality and features and you want the group to prioritise what they’d like to see built first. What question you ask the group next is critical to the answer you will get.

You need to frame the question appropriately and make it clear to the group the criteria by which they are making their vote…

Do they need to be thinking about “do-ability”, the ease to implement, or do they need to be focussed upon the innovation and the idea itself. Should they be considering the cost to implement, time to market, return on investment, or should they be thinking about the art of the possible; the “blue sky”; the destination, regardless of the journey to get there.

Which line of thinking they should use will depend upon where you are in the process. Get them thinking about practicalities of implementation too early and you are likely to dilute the vision. Too late in the process and you will have candidate propositions or features that by their complexity or uncertainty will never the light of day.

So two tips. Before you ask the group to vote, or to prioritise, clarify the objectives and the critiera by which they are to decide. Maybe ask them to assume a ‘persona’ and vote in the way they’d expect the persona to vote, for example a customer will have different priorities to a developer.  Whose vote is it anyway?
And after they have made their vote make sure you manage the group’s expectations. Don’t let them leave the room thinking what they’ve decided upon is final and binding. It rarely is.

System Obituary

Talking about workshop icebreakers with Prashant and here’s an idea: participants write their own tombstone or obituary. “Here lies Jack. A life spent comparing numbers on an excel spreadsheet”…. You could even use Tombstone Generator to bring them to life:


Hmmmm, maybe not the strongest icebreaker (indeed it could kill your workshop before you’ve even started… If you don’t consider cultural sensitivities you could receive some rather blank looks, if your audience doesn’t have a dry sense of humour or doesn’t “get it” you’ll be in trouble…)

So maybe it won’t work so well with people, but how about systems? If you are looking to understand the current system landscape, why not ask the participants in your workshop to list out all the systems they can think of and ask them to write the inscriptions that would appear on the tombstone.

For example…


Customer System RIP

Dearly beloved wife of Position System and bastard child of Excel spreadsheet (1991-date).

Threw tantrums and refused to give the right answers when it really mattered
Grew bloated in size due to unwanted change requests
Lost self worth due to non-business value changes
(Died in the loving hands of Indian Outsourcing Company)

She will not be missed


Here Lies Position Reconciliation Spreadsheet

Father of Every Conceivable Problem

A real handful to manage but usually got there in the end
Local resident of Sarah’s Desktop, he never got out much
Prone to occasional lapses of judgement that were rumoured to cost the bank millions

He has gone to a better place (recycle bin)

And why restrict this to the current state. It could be a useful exercise in understanding what benefits a new system could be remembered for…


Here lies New System

Saviour of the Back Office

Banished reconciliation breaks to history
Defeated the multi-headed Legacy Dragon, bringing peace and harmony to the Ops team
A single voice of truth
Beautiful to look at, easy to get on with, she gave such joy to customers and added such value to the business

Without her Ops can no longer function

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