Looking forward

Posted by Doc
Mar 17 2009

A colleague of mine (Sharlene McKinnon) called me today. She has been asked to facilitate a meeting, and wanted to brainstorm with me.

Her challenge is this: some software has been developed, and the users are extremely unhappy. I know this was done by an agile team, so I wondered how they’d gotten to this point.

I asked what seemed the most obvious question: “Was there a product owner representing the users?” While the answer was yes, it seems that this “product owner” hadn’t spoken with the users, and therefore the team hadn’t engaged with them. No user experience or interaction design, as far as I could find out. No input from the users on what they need from the software, how they’ll use it, or what it means to them day to day.

My colleague’s question was “I’ve been asked to facilitate a meeting that includes the users, the product owner, the Director, a user experience expert, and one or two others. How do we make this work so it’s not just a bitch session?”

Good question.  Before I get to what I suggested, let me share another incident that also came up today.

A different colleague called me to ask about a similar situation. Well, similar in that there’s a group of people who are being negative. And similar in that my colleague wants to figure out how to bring these people together and generate some positive action and attitude.

He wanted my suggestions.

The short answer to both of them has three parts: figure out where we are, look forward, and give them a sense of ownership.

Sound too easy?  Too trite?  Too mushytouchyfeely?

Maybe it does, but it’s not.

In the book Agile Retrospectives, Diana Larsen and Esther Derby have organized the activities that they offer for agile team retrospectives according to type of goal. One of the types of goals is data gathering. From my perspective, data gathering is the backward-looking activity that allows a team to look forward. While I’m a forward-looking kind of guy, I firmly believe that sometimes you have to know where you are to know how to go from here.

Yes, I said “know where you are,” not “know where you’ve been.”

Where I am may be unhappy, dissatisfied, frustrated, elated, anxious, anticipatory, angry, concerned, confused,… Whatever it is, I like to get it out on the table, give it a name, and stare it straight in the eye.

After all, if my goal is for things to get better, I have to know better than what.

Now that I know where we are, I can ask the BIG question: how do we make it better? It doesn’t matter if it’s software, teamwork, family, ergonomics, or pretty much anything else. What does matter is the “we!” How do WE make it better?

That little word is so important. My approach in these situations is to figure out where we are (issues, challenges, frustrations, whatever), look at what might be done to improve the situation, and then share the ownership.

I find too many people who believe that they have to take ownership of making things better for others – their staff, their team, their family. Unfortunately, starting from the best of intentions, they end up disempowering the people they’re trying to help.

Whereas if I ask “How are you/we going to make this better?” I put the opportunity, commitment, passion, and responsibility where it belongs – with the people who have the largest investment in seeing the situation change.

And, at the same time, make it a challenge. Not “tell me what to do to fix it” but “tell me what you’re going to do to fix it, and where you need my help.”

Look around, look forward, and give them the opportunity.

Simple, right? 😉

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