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 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.