Sunday, January 12, 2020

Chicken Sandwich Showdown

This is my comparison of the Chick-Fil-A Chicken Sandwich vs. Popeyes Chicken Sandwich; what historians are sure to call the defining question of our times.

The Uproar

Unless you're been fast asleep in the hen house, you're no doubt aware that 2019 had quite the brouhaha over Chicken Sandwiches. I consider myself above such nonsense. Thus, I did not go near a Chick-Fil-A nor a Popeyes Chicken during the ensuing Twitter Feud, massive crowds, car wrecks, stabbings and other violence. In addition to all that, it's clear from social media that some people hold rabidly-strong opinions about favoring one establishment over the other because of their misguided political leanings. Sigh. This is not the way to get along, America.

I said I consider myself above such nonsense, but I am curious. I have a detached-observer-technologist's interest in watching social media turn humanity into lemmings, driven by FOMO of whatever minor phenomenon becomes viral. Truly the majority of the US population can no longer be considered sane nor polite. Nevertheless, now that things have calmed down slightly, I thought I would try each sandwich and make a non-agenda-driven attempt to determine which was the better sandwich.

Prior Chicken Sandwich Experience

The Popeyes sandwich is the newcomer that sparked the Chicken Sandwich Wars, but it's not quite accurate that Chick-Fil-A invented the chicken sandwich as some claim. I know this because I have been eating chicken sandwiches since the 70's. In my teens and early twenties, my brother and I tended to hang out a lot at the local Burger King. One of my favorite things to get there was the BK Chicken Sandwich: an oblong processed chicken patty on a bun with mayonnaise. This sandwich was always a gamble because the amount of mayo applied by the fast food worker was the defining factor in whether the sandwich was a success. Today we set our sights a lot higher: both of the modern contenders for the Chicken Sandwich throne are superior in every way.

In more modern times, I continue to love chicken sandwiches, but I don't usually buy them from fast food restaurants. My wife makes amazing Cajun Chicken Club Sandwiches and my family loves them. It's not possible that some fast food offering will ever unseat them from being my favorite.

Prior to this showdown I'd never had the Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich nor the Popeyes chicken sandwich, but I have had other food from both places. My family likes Chick-Fil-A a lot, and I'm partial to their nuggets, sauces, and excellent Mac and Cheese. I did try the spicy chicken sandwich a few years back and found it too hot for my liking.

I started frequenting Popeyes when I did consulting in Washington D.C. for a year. I'm partial to Popeyes for their boneless buffalo wings, sauces, and excellent Cajun fries. The town I live in now has a local Chick-Fil-A and Popeyes Chicken, fittingly across the street from each other.

Do I enter this judging with a bias? I do love Cajun food, and that may give me a slight inclination toward Popeyes. I'm doing my best to be unbiased. As a manager I have had to take training at work on Unconscious Bias and I am counting on that to help me in this taste test.

Purchasing a Chicken Sandwich at Chick-Fil-A

At 4:28pm on a Saturday, I pull into the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru. This was built recently and is new and clean. The drive-thru has a dual lane, and in prior visits when things have been really busy Chick-Fil-A staff are out working the cars with tablets. Right now is less busy though. There are half a dozen cars ahead of me in the drive-thru.

When asked for my order, I am greeted by a friendly voice. I ask for a Chicken Sandwich. "Regular or Deluxe?" I am asked. I automatically say Deluxe but later wonder if that makes the comparison unfair. I am then asked if I want any sauces. I'm not sure if the sandwich comes with a sauce or not so I ask for some Chick-Fil-A sauce. I also order a large Mac and Cheese because it's really good.

I receive my food at 4:40pm. Elapsed time in the drive-thru: 12 minutes. I was charged $4.99 for the sandwich. On to Popeyes!

Purchasing a Chicken Sandwich at Popeyes

I pull into the Popeyes single-lane drive-thru at 4:45pm and there are no cars ahead of me.

As Popeyes' sandwich is the newcomer, and is a hit, they understandably are working to capitalize on it. A poster on the outside of the building proclaims "I'm Back", referring to the sandwich being sold out for weeks after its pilot introduction.


When asked for my order, I am greeted by a friendly voice. I ask for a Chicken Sandwich. I also order Cajun fries because they're really good. At the payment window, I am asked if I want a sauce. Unsure if the sandwich comes with a sauce, I ask for Mardigras Mustard sauce.

I receive my food at 4:50p. Elapsed time in the drive-thru: 5 minutes. I was charged a combined amount for the sandwich plus fries, but looking online the sandwich alone is $3.99.

I head home to taste both sandwiches. On the drive home, it smells really good in the car.

Taste Test: Chick-Fil-A Deluxe Chicken Sandwich

It is now 5:00pm, 20 minutes after getting my sandwich. The Chick-Fil-A bag is perfect and unwrinkled. Inside, the Chick-Fil-A sandwich comes in a container box. I like this kind of packaging because it provides a place for fries, if you're having fries.


Opening the lid reveals the sandwich which has an appealing look. Fast food often fails to come close to the pictures used in ads and posters, but this looks attractive. I again wonder if I've done the comparison a disservice by ordering the Deluxe version of the sandwich, which adds cheese, lettuce, and tomato.


A few bites in, I'm enjoying the sandwich but have realized it doesn't come with a sauce. I spread some Chick-Fil-A sauce on the bun and continue on. I could in fact have asked for any of a dozen sauces; sauces at Chick-Fil-A are free (ahem) unlike Popeyes which is a miser about giving you any extra sauces.

The bun is just what I want: soft, but not so soft that it gets squished and doesn't survive the length of the meal. I find the chicken moist and delicious. I love the thin crunchy breading on the outside.

I finish my sandwich and think, "that was a very good chicken sandwich."

Taste Test: Popeyes Chicken Sandwich

The Popeyes bag is in sad shape. Although I've come to appreciate the food at Popeyes Chicken, the restaurant itself always seems run-down and the bag exemplifies the feeling. It's in stark contrast to the tight ship that is Chick-Fil-A. But on to the sandwich. The sandwich is in a foil bag that loudly proclaims "love that chicken (sandwich)."


Opening the foil bag reveals the sandwich which looks a little different than I am expecting. After a few bites, I realize I am holding the sandwich upside down and I correct matters. That is why the picture below shows a half-eaten sandwich. Even so, the sandwich looks a lot less like advertisement pictures than the Chick-Fil-A sandwich did. In fact, it looks like the sandwich was dropped and stepped on.


While the sandwich had a kind of squished appearance out of the bag, the sandwich is good and I am enjoying it. It comes with a mayo so I am not needing to add a sauce. But that's okay, the Mardigras Mustard sauce will be delicious with my Cajun fries later on. Did I mention that Popeyes is a miser when it comes to sauces?

The brioche bun is delightful and survives the meal. I like the chicken, which is juicy, but I expected the Cajun flavor to be more prominent. It is very different from the Chick-Fil-A chicken: the buttermilk batter is reminiscent of what you would find on fried chicken. The biggest thing I notice about the chicken, though, is how much of it there is. There is definitely more chicken on the Popeyes sandwich. This is not to say that the Chick-Fil-A sandwich didn't have enough chicken.

I finish my sandwich and think, "that was a very good chicken sandwich."

Which One Wins?

It's at this point that I'm expected to declare a winner, but as I finish the second sandwich I am at a loss to pick a favorite. They were both good, but nothing pushes me toward one over the other. Which one would I like to have again? At the moment, neither! I have just finished a double meal and I am full. Really, it's too close to call. If I was marooned on a desert island and you told me I could have either sandwich, I would close my eyes and say "Surprise me."

Conclusions:

1. Both places offer an excellent chicken sandwich.
2. My wife's Cajun Chicken Sandwiches remain #1 in my heart.
3. If it's a Sunday, go to Popeyes. Chick-Fil-A is closed.
4. If you're going to photograph the food, I'd go with Chick-Fil-A.
5. If a lower price or more food for the price is your main concern, Popeyes has the edge.
6. If you're a lover of sauces, go Chick-Fil-A.
7. These are just chicken sandwiches, not reasons for a new Civil War or acts of felony violence.

There you have it. You really can't go wrong with either sandwich, and there are now enough sandwiches for everybody... so your chances of getting one without violence and name calling are excellent. All you militant Chicken-Twitter people can just chill. Can't we all get along?















Saturday, January 11, 2020

Review: Moto Z4

This is my review of the Moto Z4 phone from Motorola.


Buying Decision

About 3 months ago when my 2016 original Pixel XL phone starting losing its battery life, I initially compensated by bringing my phone charger to work. After a few weeks, though, even that wasn't sufficient to keep my phone charged all day and I knew it was time to replace it.

Whenever you have to replace a phone, the first thing that goes through your mind is how good or bad the experience with your last phone was. I had pretty mixed feelings about the Pixel: while it had worked fine for the last three years, it was a pricey phone at $1000—made all the worse when Google botched my fulfillment, charging me full-out for the phone even though I had arranged Financing.

Price

Price was going to be a key factor. Although I have always purchased top-of-the-line premium phones for myself, nowadays I'm on a campaign to reduce my living costs without heavily compromising lifestyle. I vowed to find a phone I could live with that cost no more than $500.

Like most tech professionals, I use my phone frequently and it's essential to have one you can count on. There are some very low cost phones out there, but I wasn't quite ready to move from top-of-the-line to the bottom and was hoping to find an affordable mid-range phone. I also wanted a new phone: while we've bought refurbished or last-year's-model phones for our children at times, an Android phone tends to only get updates for a few years, not perpetually.

Display Size

In addition to my cost objective, I had two others: display size and bloatware-free-Android. My older eyes need a larger-size phone I can see clearly, which is why my last phone was a Pixel XL. Of course, larger-size phones cost more which comes up against the lower-cost objective.

Stock Android

Avoiding Android bloatware is difficult, as any phone obtained through a carrier is sure to have altered and non-removable vendor apps including Contacts; so no carrier-sold phone for me. Even with an unlocked phone, many vendors may customize Android far more than you'd like: would you rather use Google Assistant or Samsung's Bixby? Although Samsung is the dominant phone manufacturer for Android with a ton of models for every budget, their non-stock Android is a deal-breaker. The two best phone brands for stock Android are Google (of course) and Motorola.

Design

Perhaps one final objective has to do with recent trends in phones that give me pause: the display notch and the camera bump. I don't have direct experience with either because I've avoided them. Taking away part of the display for a camera offends my design sensibilities, yet so many phones are doing it now. What if that notch hides a critical part of an app? Even it it doesn't, it seems to me it would be a constant irritant. The camera bump equally offends me: it suggests my phone won't lie flat which I'd hate.

Given my other objectives, I suspected I might have to give in on the notch or the bump. I decided to have an open mind and to handle any prospective phone in-person at a Best Buy before making a decision.

Pixel 3a XL vs. Moto Z4

With these parameters established, I soon narrowed the field to two possibilities: the Google Pixel 3a XL or the Motorola Moto Z4, both costing just under $500 for an unlocked phone.

The Pixel 3a XL is nearly half the price of the Pixel 3 XL, but what are you giving up? Both have the same award-winning rear camera, memory, design, and Android version. The 3a has a polycarbonite unibody instead of glass-and-metal, so it feels like a cheaper phone. It also has a lesser processor and a lesser front camera.

The Moto Z4 seemed to have a lot of what I was looking for. Thinking back, one of the best phones I ever owned was a Moto X, with an attractive design and stock Android. When Google bought Motorola, I was jubilant about the future; but after extracting what they wanted from the company and selling it off to Lenovo, I was less so. Still, perhaps another look was warranted. The Moto Z4 reviews mostly agreed the Z4 was a decent mid-range phone with the features I care about; but most of them also recommended passing on this phone because the Z4 didn't offer anything especially new or exciting. The Z4 has a lesser camera than the Pixel, but would likely give me an acceptable overall experience.

The Moto Z4 also supports Moto Mods, which are accessories that clip on as second backs to the phone. There are mods for 360 camera, video projection, photo printing, and longer battery life. But, most reviews describe Moto Mods as an idea that didn't catch on.

If you research the Moto Z4, some of the review headlines will certainly give you pause: The cheapest 5G phone you can buy but shouldn't; It’s Time to Move On; The Moto Z4 is tragically boring and behind the times. For my criteria, however, the Moto Z4 topped the list and it's what I picked.

Experience

I bought my black Moto Z4 from Best Buy and it came with the 360 camera Moto Mod included. I added a Metalllic Slate case from Tudia. I haven't really done anything with the Moto Mods, but I'm very happy with the phone.

Now that I'm a few months in I have no regrets about the Moto Z4: it does everything I want in a phone. I haven't minded the camera notch after all. The battery lasts a really long time and is typically at 80% when I get home from work.  It looks and feels great and is a pleasure to use. This is a phone I recommend.


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Scrum is a Methodology, not a Buffet

Q. What’s something everybody does, but nobody does the same? A. Scrum!

In today's post we'll debate this question: Is it important to fully adopt Scrum as a software methodology, or is it sufficient to just use the parts that seem useful?


I’ve wanted to write something on this subject for years now, but I’ve hesitated given how explosively charged Internet debates on software methodologies can be. Let me state at the onset that I am neither a Scrum Worshipper nor a Scrum Hater: I wrote quality software before Agile existed and now I write quality software using Scrum. I value what we have gained with Agile methodologies, but I also bemoan what they've cost us.

ScrumBut: We Do Scrum, But Not All Of It

Without question, Agile Scrum has taken over as the software methodology of choice, just as Github has taken over as the software repository of choice. Scrum's pervasiveness ought to mean that when a developer who knows Scrum joins a software organization using Scrum they can hit the ground running. In my experience that's hardly ever true, and one of the common reasons is the lack of consistency in how teams apply Scrum.  

Over the last 12 years I've consulted with and worked with lots of teams that practice Agile Scrum. That includes 5 years as a national consulting practice manager, so I've had exposure to a great many customer projects beyond the ones I contribute to personally. When the customer controlled the process, the majority of those teams didn't really follow Scrum, they practiced ScrumBut: as in "We do Scrum, but not all of it." Do some online research and you'll find plenty of others reporting the same; ScrumBut is a well-recognized phenomenon.

Here are some of the things I’ve personally seen teams drop from their practice of “Scrum”:
  • We do Scrum, but we don’t do sprint reviews
  • We do Scrum, but we don’t do sprint planning meetings
  • We do Scrum, but we don’t do the daily stand-up meetings
  • We do Scrum, but we don’t have a product owner
  • We do Scrum, but we don’t have a scrum master
  • We do Scrum, but we don’t have a product backlog
  • We do Scrum, but the product owner assigns work to team members
Some of you reading this are Scrum champions who only work with teams that rigorously enforce Scrum and are shaking your heads. Perhaps it’s your job to see that Scrum is followed well. That’s great, but I assure you such teams are the minority. Understanding why and whether it's always a negative is important.

Why does ScrumBut happen? After all, Scrum is a lightweight methodology. It doesn’t ask much. It only has a few roles, artifacts, and ceremonies. I’ve identified four reasons:
  1. Human nature. If you’ve ever listened to a debate over a political issue or a point of religion, you’re well aware that even people who share common values can disagree endlessly on the finer points. Not everyone is going to weigh things the same way.
  2. Software is a vast realm. There are many kinds of software and many kinds of developer, with a wide range of skills, maturity, and experience. Developing a web site is way different from creating a video platform or working on an operating system. Expecting one methodology to work equally well across that spectrum is rather optimistic.
  3. Agile itself is partly to blame because its underlying message is often misinterpreted as “you don’t have to do everything”. It seems the effect of Agile trimming away practices deemed to be of secondary importance may have encouraged people to just keep doing away with things.
  4. Distrust. Older generations are more likely to place implicit trust in a system and give it a chance, but the younger generation is less persuaded.
Let's consider the case for doing full scrum (following the methodology) and the case for doing only some of it (buffet-style) with an honest attempt to be open-minded about the question. 

All or Nothing: The Case for Full Scrum

I'll fully admit my own inclination is to use full Scrum. The line of reasoning here is that Scrum is a methodology: that is, a system whose various elements are designed to support and complement each other. When you don't apply all of the parts, you're removing legs from the chair that holds you up. Dismantling parts of a system undermines the system. Will it still work? Maybe, but not as well as when it's complete.

Imagine you have a friend with an alcohol problem and you bring them to an AA meeting. Here’s what you would not hear: “We have a very successful 12-step program; which steps do you feel are right for you?” Of course that wouldn’t happen: the program is only effective if it’s taken as a whole, with all steps being done in the intended order. We recognize that it’s a system. There’s a second point to be made here: the person with the alcohol problem is not an expert on how to recover and is hardly in a position to design their own treatment. In the same way, a software methodology should be viewed as a system to be adhered to.

It needs to be acknowledged that even among those who do full scrum there are differences between how it is practiced. Some organizations overdo Scrum, becoming what is sometimes referred to as a Church of Agile. We should always keep in mind that the team does not serve the methodology: rather, the methodology serves the team. Like anything else popular in the computer world, Scrum is also subject to the hype cycle which accessorizes the methodology with inflated services, certifications, self-important titles, expensive software packages, condescending attitudes, and a sometimes crazy obsession with points and charts. In The State of Agile Software in 2018, Martin Fowler calls this the Agile Industrial Complex and calls for its dissolution. Full Scrum can be over the top if it is obsessed over and becomes the objective rather than the means.

If doing full Scrum is critical to project success, there ought to be some clear evidence that full Scrum tends to work and partial Scrum tends to fail. While I’ve encountered plenty of Scrum champions with that opinion based on their own experiences, I’ve yet to discover objective results that conclusively support this conviction. For all the personal examples you or I could cite, that’s not statistically meaningful. If I reflect on my own experiences, yes I’ve seen software projects fail where oftentimes a lack of discipline (including a poor understanding of Scrum) is an ingredient; on the other hand, I’ve seen projects succeed where ScrumBut was applied. 

Why Is It Useful? The Case for ScrumBut

Partial Scrum is far more common than Full Scrum by every measure I can make. I’ve noticed ScrumBut teams fall into two distinct categories: those who don’t know any better, and those who consciously choose partial Scrum. I’ll call them the Naive Scrumbutters and the Intentional Scrumbutters.

Naive Scrumbutters

The Naive Scrumbutters are those who don’t know any better. A great many teams and organizations will proudly tell you they are practicing Scrum, and in their minds they are. Sadly, they suffer from a superficial understanding of Scrum. We're holding a daily Scrum meeting, therefore we're doing Scrum

Scrum naivete is rampant. I’ve seen these kinds of activities go on regularly which indicate a poor command of Scrum principles:
  • Sprint planning is where the executive tells the team what they will work on that sprint
  • The sprint has started but the stories aren’t ready yet
  • The product owner decides in advance who will work on what
  • We have to get all of this work done this sprint because that’s the deadline
  • Software written this sprint isn’t tested until a later sprint 
  • We can’t wait for the end of sprint, we need to release software sooner
Naive ScrumBut occurs particularly often when a high-ranking person in the organization with a shallow knowledge of Scrum sets the ground rules; no one is willing to challenge them. It also results when roles are oversimplified or combined or omitted. Scrum works best when everyone involved understands how it is supposed to work, and much of its value is lost when the product owner or scrum master lack the understanding or willingness to perform their role properly.  

Naive Scrumbutters are the ones likely to have many project problems. They’ve removed too many of Scrum’s underpinnings, and they don’t even know it.

Intentional Scrumbutters

The other group, Intentional Scrumbutters, knows full well what Scrum entails, but have decided to leave out some of its precepts. This approach views Scrum more as a list of potentially useful practices rather than as a system whose parts reinforce each other. They treat Scrum like a buffet, taking only the items they like. Reasons given by organizations for skipping some elements of Scrum include the following:
  • Someone in control of the process thinks they know better.
    I’ve seen [what we do here] work time and time again. Trust me.
  • Someone in control of the process doesn’t see value in some of its elements.
    Our roadmap for the rest of the year is already defined. We don’t need a Product Owner.
  • Team members don’t see value in some of its elements.
    Why is a sprint review meeting useful? I don’t think it’s a good use of my time.
  • There are difficulties carrying out some of the elements.
    Everyone here has freedom of schedule, and some of the team live in other states or countries. There’s no way to realistically schedule a daily stand-up meeting.
  • Skepticism
    There’s no point in having a sprint retrospective, because nothing is ever going to change around here.
“Why is this useful?” is a question I am often asked by younger developers when I ask them to start doing Scrum ceremonies they are not used to—even about Sprint Planning and Sprint Review meetings. Well, that’s always a fair question to ask, but it reveals something about the person doing the asking; clearly they do not put trust in the system they’re being asked to follow. Perhaps they will after they’ve seen it work.

While many Intentional Scrumbutters are clearly making questionable decisions when they tinker with Scrum, it’s not always the case. I’ve seen Silicon Valley tech companies practice ScrumBut with spectacularly successful results, consistently producing quality software over and over. However, I believe these are the exceptions rather than the rule. These companies have very experienced engineering leadership and capable and committed developers across the board, and I suspect the omissions from Scrum are compensated for by other engineering practices. This article is worth a read: Why Scrumbut Shouldn't Be a Bad Word.

SlimScrum: An Alternative to ScrumBut

As we’ve seen, ScrumBut happens a lot. For a variety of reasons, some of them valid, organizations sometimes jettison elements of Scrum. This results in ScrumBut, which is dangerous because now the system is incomplete.

What can you do if you are part of such an organization and would like to practice full Scrum? Depending on your position and situation, you may or may not have the standing to make changes. If you can’t authorize outright changes, there is an alternative to ScrumBut which I call SlimScrum.

SlimScrum means you find a way to include all the roles, artifacts, and ceremonies of Scrum—but are willing to be flexible in how they are implemented. To my thinking, having all the elements of Scrum (even if reinterpreted somewhat) is far preferable to leaving some of them out altogether. Let's consider a few examples.

If it’s truly impractical to get everyone together for that short daily stand-up meeting, consider using Slack or an equivalent enterprise social network. In fact, I find it so useful for team members to list what they worked on yesterday / plan to work on today / blocks on Slack that I like to have it even when teams do have a daily stand-up meeting.

If long meeting times are given as a reason to not do full Scrum, consider how long sprint planning and sprint review meetings really need to be. Do you need a 4-hour sprint retrospective meeting if no one thinks anything needs to be discussed? I am not suggesting arbitrarily shortening these meetings, but I think there is room to adjust them based on how your team engages and whether anything useful is being accomplished.

Missing Scrum roles is perhaps the toughest omission to deal with. How do you make up for not having a product owner? If you’re unable to fix that problem in the organization but your immediate team is onboard with trying to solve it, have someone in sprint planning and sprint review meetings assume the role of product owner. Using a proxy can work if that person can reach out to stakeholders between meetings to stay informed. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than being directionless. You can do the same with the scrum master role.

In Conclusion

Scrum consistency is a widespread problem: you run into ScrumBut all over the place. We’ve identified some of the reasons for it, and looked at both the naive and intentional Scrumbutters. Naive Scrumbutters need to be educated about what Scrum actually is. Intentional Scrumbutters are advised to consider what they might be missing. Even if tinkering with Scrum works for you, it still puts a barrier in place for new hires trained in Scrum which is inefficient.

I urge teams to treat Scrum (or any methodology) as a system to be followed completely, not a buffet where you only take what you like. You’ll get a lot more out of the system if you give it a chance to work for you.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Open Your Eyes to Technology Blindness in Your Decision Making


If you make or recommend technology decisions, you've probably seen your share of good and bad ones with both expected and unexpected outcomes. Technology decisions are tough, and one of the reasons is a kind of blindness we have about technology. In this post we'll examine some different types of technology blindness and what you can do to prevent them from steering you in a wrong direction.

Solving the Wrong Problem


"If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions." ―Albert Einstein

Asking the wrong question can derail the decision-making process from day one. Imagine you work in auto sound systems and are asked to make the speakers louder. If you take the request at face value and start working on making your speakers louder, you could well be solving the wrong problem. Instead, you should probe into what the real problem is by inquiring what the impetus was for the request. If you investigate, you might discover the real issue is that the car has poor soundproofing (nothing to do with speaker volume). Or perhaps someone is hard of hearing and the solution to their problem is a hearing aid, not louder speakers. It's critical to understand the actual root problem and not be swayed by someone's suggested solution.

The XY problem is a well-known phenomenon where someone asks "How can I use X to solve Y?" when they should have been asking "How do I solve Y?" The emphasis on a proposed solution throws all the attention in the wrong place (X), the root problem doesn't get studied, and other potential solutions never get considered (quite possibly including the best solution). You want to understand the real problem at hand and not have a decision colored by an initial suggestion.

The XY problem is something we're all probably guilty of, but once aware we can stop it from continuing. The XY problem is particularly difficult to contend with if it comes from a high-ranking person in your organization that no one is willing to challenge. Sadly, you may at times run into the XY problem not out of ignorance but deliberately, because someone stands to gain something if decision X is made.

If you suspect an XY problem, approach it constructively by asking the right questions to get your group to understand what the real decision question is. From there, you can consider multiple solutions in addition to the one that was originally advanced.

Be sure you're asking the right question, and steer clear of the XY problem.

The Bright Shiny Object


"It is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that." —Neil Postman  

A bright shiny object is anything we're enthralled with. Whether as children or adults, when human beings are fascinated with something they look through rose-colored glasses. Whenever we're shown new technology with some obvious benefits, we tend to focus on the positive and not think very much about negatives. The history of technology is full of examples of things we've rushed to embrace, only to later discover they also come with consequences, sometimes disturbing ones.

The automobile provided many benefits, including freedom to travel; the ability to work and shop beyond walking distance; and they were fun and cool. When automobiles started to be widely embraced in the 1920s, the public was focused very much on those benefits. There were secondary benefits, too: mass producing the automobile led to jobs and manufacturing innovations like the assembly line. Despite all these benefits, there were also consequences but they went unrealized for a long time. The automobile also polluted; led to traffic jams and highway deaths; and dissolved the traditional practice of multi-generational families living close together.

Television's huge popularity has given us a multitude of ever-increasing programming for decades, some of it quite good. However, it too has negative repercussions. It's been a huge contributor to obesity; has been shown to have negative behavioral effects on children; and also can't be trusted to be truthful. In the book Amusing Ourselves To Death, author Neil Postman explores what television has done to public discourse and our ability to think and debate critically. Television's nature means entertainment and ratings are king; any other considerations such as truthfulness and accuracy of content are subservient to those top considerations.

Today we hear a lot about "fake news", usually associated with social media. When social media started getting traction, people were focused on benefits such as being able to stay in touch with friends and family far away; and re-connecting with people from your past. Other benefits followed: a relative could see pictures or video of that birthday or graduation they were unable to be there for; and we can now check lots of reviews before we decide to purchase something or go somewhere. Among all the good, we're only now becoming aware of the downside: social media lets people spin what they share; encourages addictive behavior through dopamine-rewarded interactions; distracts drivers (sometimes fatally); and channels our attention on things that go viral. Of course there is fake news on social media: the fundamental nature of these platforms promote this behavior, whether intended or not.

The good and bad effects of examples like these are obvious in hindsight but much harder to realize at the time you are confronted with a new technology. That's why it's so important to be on the lookout for them. When you consider any new technology or product you should evaluate it as fully as you can. Not having the full picture means you may have missed a significant negative or not accounted for its true cost.

Recognize that every technology is a double-edged sword that comes with consequences as well as benefits. Identify them so you are making an informed decision. If a technology is so new there isn't much known about its consequences, ask yourself if you're really willing to risk those unknowns. If your company culture encourages you to take risks or make big bets and you're looking to use a new or unproven technology, you should at least anticipate that there may be unintended consequences and have a fallback plan.

Get the full picture on any technology, product, or platform you're considering. Make an eyes-open decision that takes into account consequences as well as benefits.

Success Blindness


"If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it." ―Peter Drucker

So, you've made a decision. Was it a successful one? You'd think the answer to that would be fairly obvious once some time has gone by, but you'd be surprised how often a decision's effects are less than clear. On more than one occasion I've watched leaders paint a decision as successful when there is no basis for that claim, and it's a sad form of self-deception. On top of that, some people just won't admit to failure and will lie about the state of things to their superiors.

Don't be deceived and don't be dishonest: know exactly where you stand and have the courage to honestly evaluate the success or failure of your decisions.

Success blindness is almost guaranteed if you haven't devised a way to measure the success of your decision. Without measurement, it's too easy to find something positive in the state of affairs and attribute it your decision without knowing if there's any correlation. Be aware that it's rather self-serving to come up with a success measurement after the decision has been put into effect, so be sure to address measurement early on.

If you want to get better at decision making, technical or otherwise, you need to get in the habit of measuring the success of your decisions. You made that decision in order to bring about a positive result, right? Then there should be a way to measure that result. If you're unsure how to measure the effects of your decision, you can learn how to measure well. I recommend How to Measure Anything: Finding the Intangibles in Business by Douglas Hubbard.

Overcoming Technology Decision Blindness


Solving the Wrong Problem, Bright Shiny Object Syndrome, and Success Blindness are common afflictions that plague technology decision making. Technology blindness is something we are all susceptible to; overcoming it requires acknowledging it. Start with yourself by taking a hard look in the mirror. Seek to uncover your own blind areas and decision biases. Then influence others to do the same.

Constructively ask the right questions in meetings and documents to focus on the real problems you need to understand and shed light on blind spots as you consider solutions. With awareness, you and your colleagues can make more successful decisions with confidence. With measurement, you can get better and better at it.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Using Mind Maps for Brainstorming and Idea Refinement

Mind Mapping is a very effective technique for getting teams to brainstorm and refine their ideas. I'd like to share where I learned the technique and how I use it today.

My Introduction to Mind Mapping


The year was 2005, and at the time I worked for Microsoft on the product team that was developing "Indigo", later to be known as Windows Communication Foundation. We were a large team of 400, and I'd been invited to attend a meeting called by Oliver Sharp, our General Manager who led the overall team.

What followed was a fascinating meeting where I observed how to get people to brainstorm and refine their ideas quickly and effectively. It's too long ago for me to remember the exact details (nor would it be appropriate for me to share them), but I'll recount the basic way it proceeded with some generalized content.

We were slated to release WCF later that year, and Oliver wanted a program defined to focus on fostering customer adoption of the new technology. At this meeting we needed to take the raw notion of a "Customer Adoption Program" and turn it into something tangible. I and several dozen others had been invited to this meeting.


Oliver shared his screen, which appeared to show a virtual whiteboard. At the center was "Customer Adoption Program". And then he simply asked everyone to chime in. He wanted to hear ideas about what that should include. As things were suggested, he rapidly incorporated them into what I learned was a Mind Map diagram. If someone suggested the need for samples, a spoke went out labeled Samples. If someone else mentioned the need to support migration, a Migration spoke went up. Most suggestions, unless there was group dissent, went on the board initially. Some remained, while others were later removed or combined with something else.


It wasn't just adding spokes. Some spokes, upon being identified, led to offshoot ideas. As ideas were articulated, he asked refinement questions: was this idea right or wrong? what would it entail? Were we considering alternatives? His skillful questioning forced us to think things through and round out our ideas.

As more things were suggested, it was necessary to revise the diagram. After Announcements and Blogging were on the board, we realized these were both types of Customer Communication; so the diagram changed. The Mind Mapping software he was using (MindJet MindManager, I think) made these kinds of reorganizations and moving of whole branches around quick and easy. This allowed the mind map to keep up with the pace of discussion without being onerous.

As more spokes were added, conceptual grouping continued. Convention Sessions and Code Camps were events, so they were incorporated into an Events category; and once the category was up there, other types of events came to mind such as training sessions at local field offices. Samples, documentation, and migration guidance became Resources. Whenever a concept had to be inserted or branches had to be moved around, the Mind Map software made this effortless. Ideas were being shouted out left and right and concepts were forming and being refined quickly. Some items were dropped. Some were combined. Some morphed into their own category with sub-items.


It really was a marvel to behold how seemingly random ideas were herded and coaxed into a cohesive plan, because a skillful leader let the ideas flow from his team while in command of a powerful tool for organizing thought. When it comes to planning and ideation, I've tried to operate in exactly the same way ever since. Thanks Oliver!

How I Use Mind Mapping Today

Mind mapping is powerful, but don't get the idea it's something I do every day or every week. Although I do sometimes use mind maps to organize my own thoughts ("What questions might I get at this upcoming meeting?"), mind mapping really shines in a group setting. It's a technique I regularly employ when I need to need to lead a team through product design or annual planning or making a decision.

A mind map is not the end product in itself but rather a means to an end. You should think of it a device for organizing your thoughts and developing them. For example, I might employ mind mapping in annual planning but my actual deliverable might be a document or spreadsheet, not a mind map.

If you consider how a creative meeting would go without mind maps, you'll have to capture ideas in a document or on a whiteboard. That's far more limiting when it comes to developing ideas, and tends to make people hesitate to share ideas if they're not fully confident about them. In a mind map exercise, people are encouraged to share ideas and put them up there even if they're only half-baked at first. As the group considers and refines these ideas, the right things will happen to them and the half-baked ideas will become fully-baked. I suppose one could use post-it notes for this kind of exercise, but given there are very affordable software tools for this purpose I recommend using them.

Mind Mapping Tools

Today, there are many more choices for mind map software. I recently joined a new organization with a new team, and I took a fresh look at available tools. If you Google "mind map software" these days, you'll find there are many to choose from in addition to originals like MindManager. There are two basic categories: mind map add-ons and templates for general diagramming products; and software specifically designed for mind maps and other conceptual diagrams.

The first category (adds-ons and templates) is tempting because you can leverage a tool you already know well, such as Visio, MS Office, Google Docs, LucidChart or Draw.io. However, I've found this approach is too burdensome when you're trying to keep up with a brainstorming session. There tend to be too many clicks needed to add items and connections; and very limited support for inserting nodes and moving around whole branches to another area of the diagram. For example, I've been a PowerPoint user for decades, but I wouldn't try to use it for a mind map session: it would just be too cumbersome to insert new concept nodes and move things around. You really need something that can capture what's happening at the speed of a creative exercise which might include pivoting all your groupings and connections after a moment of epiphany. You also want to avoid a tool that will distract you from being a participant yourself. Personally, I think you're far better off with something designed to facilitate this kind of dynamic activity.

The second category (software designed for conceptual diagramming) is the better option and also has many choices. You of course should take advantage of free trials to evaluate some of them and decide which features you value the most. You may care most about unlimited canvas size, while someone else may care most about what kind of files can be attached to a diagram. Cost and license models vary: some of these tools are one-time purchases; others are subscription-based or even free. Some require an Internet connection, others don't.

For myself, I ended up settling on Coggle this year. Coggle is nominally free, but if you want privacy of your diagrams you're well-advised to pay the $5/month (or $50/year) for a subscription; that's not much for what is turning out to be a very usable tool. For this low price, you can invite others in your organization to co-edit your diagrams without having to purchase any additional subscriptions.

Here's an example of a mind map in Coggle, one that shows how a spell check feature for a (fictional) web site might be analyzed to get consensus on the best design. Things I value about Coggle include it's attention to usability, it's support for collaborative co-editing of your diagram with others, and that it doesn't overwhelm you with too many choices.

Coggle: Mind Map to Get to Consensus on a Site Feature Design Decision

Here's another example in Coggle, a personal one. I was discussing vacation ideas with my teenage son this morning, and here's our initial mind map. This map will no doubt change considerably when I add my wife and daughters to the conversation. Since some destinations appeal on more than one category (Hawaii rates on both Scenic and Fun Activities, Las Vegas rates on both Food and Fun Activities), this might require me to cross-link some items to multiple categories, but that could get messy. Or perhaps graduate to a different visualization or use a spreadsheet, the mind map having done its job to identify important categories and potential candidates. It's best to use tools like this where they shine, and to not force fit them into applications they aren't right for.

Coggle: Where to Go on Vacation?

In conclusion, mind mapping is a technique and toolset you ought to become acquainted with if you're ever in the position of hosting a brainstorming discussion. Compared to taking notes or just using a whiteboard, mind mapping both invites more ideas and equips you to refine those winning ideas and find consensus. The resulting clarity will be eye-opening.