Late Again, Thinking About the Cost of Delays

It’s Wednesday morning, and I’m on the train heading to Stockholm. The train is late, and it’s not the first time.

One reason delays annoy me so much is that they break my expectations. I’ve made my plans to fit with the train company’s timetable, and now they are not upholding their part of the commitment.

Then again, when it comes to riding the train from my hometown Uppsala to Sweden’s capital – Stockholm – delays are such an integral part of the experience that I’m no longer surprised when they happen. Curiously, they still annoy me. Maybe it’s because the company running the trains couldn’t seem to care less about the problems the delays are causing me. Somehow, they still manage to act like every single delay is a big surprise to them. I take comfort in the fact that I get some extra time to read and write, as long as I’ve found a place to sit on the train – but that’s another story.

Anyway, while a train delay may not seem a huge thing to fret about, consider its less obvious effects. When I don’t make it on time to my networking meeting, I miss out on information and networking that would be valuable to me.

Intuitively, we know that being late costs us, but we easily focus on only one narrow part of that cost: the increased cost of working on something for a longer time. We forget that we also push the rewards into the future, and that might be costing us even more.

In general, I find that a concrete cost today is easier to grasp than a probable loss in the future. Maybe it’s because we find it hard to think about loosing something we never really had in the first place. I guess this is one of the reasons we make short-sighted decisions.

If you want to learn more about understanding your cost of delay, Donald Reinertsen’s books are a good investment: Developing Products in Half the Time, Managing the Design Factory and The Principles of Product Development Flow.

Johanna Rothman to Stockholm, May 30, 2012

Author, consultant and teacher Johanna Rothman is coming to Stockholm on May 30, this year. She will be leading a one-day workshop about the agile project portfolio. The course will be in English, and I highly recommend you check it out if you need some inspiration on how to manage in a situation where you have multiple projects going on.

Here is the course page (in Swedish, but remember, the course itself is in English): http://www.citerus.se/curriculum/724094-agile-project-portfolio-management

If you haven’t heard Johanna talk before, there’s an interview with her on InfoQ. Watching it is time well spent.

Vision and Execution: Apple’s Plan to Kill The Mouse

I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a fanboy. Maybe not so much an Apple fanboy as a software fanboy. My fascination with software goes back to the very first time I had a computer demonstrated to me as a kid, and today, Apple is probably the only company whose products give me that feeling of joy. It’s also an interesting company to follow if you’re interested in product development in general. So let’s have some fun and speculate a little bit about what might be waiting around the next corner.

A few years ago, Apple acquired a company called FingerWorks for its user interface technology. I thought the Fingerworks stuff looked really cool, and I’ve wondered why Apple hasn’t been moving forward more agressively with the acquired solutions. Now, I’m not an industry analyst, but that doesn’t mean I can still have a little theory about the approach Apple is using to introduce into the mainstream a new way of interacting with desktop computers.

Apple has an uncanny ability to both dream big and execute. I think Steve Jobs saw the potential of the Fingerworks approach immediately. I think Apple has been methodically at work moving towards what we will soon see, at least since 2005.

Right now, Apple is gradually introducing some needed changes in their operating system. They are preparing their software platform for the introduction of new hardware that lets us interact as directly with desktops and laptops as we now do with their tablets.

At the core of the changes to the user interaction in OS X is the building up of a language of multi-touch gestures. This and a slew of other changes seem to herald the coming of  mouse-less interaction: scroll bars are disappearing and the scrolling direction has been reversed (we now scroll by “pushing on the content”), full screen apps can be flicked between with your fingers, and so on.

By letting us practice with the new features for quite some time, Apple is making sure we’ll be ready to use the new hardware once it hits the stores. By then, we’ve also helped Apple debug the software.

I think the current “magic trackpad” is a simple device compared to what’s waiting around the corner. The mouse is old, and Apple is working to get rid of it once and for all. We’ve seen the revolution in interaction design that’s come about because of tablets and their support for gestures. Of course Apple wants us to be able to use what we’ve learned to do on the iPad on the laptop and desktop as well. After all, Apple’s success is based not just on building cool products, but on creating and evolving an entire system of products, channels and behaviors.

There’s been some speculation about touch screen iMacs. I don’t think that’s where Apple is going next. Touch screen desktops and laptops remain a bad idea for ergonomical reasons, unless a way can be found to work around those problems. A new kind of input device that rests on the desk and is big enough to fit two hands seems like a more healthy alternative. Of course, I wouldn’t cry if it turned out that Apple was developing a huge multi-touch screen like Jeff Han’s. I just think it’s less likely as a next step.

But what about typing? If we have both our hands on a big trackpad, where would we put the keyboard? Integrated into the trackpad would be really cool, if we could still get keys that depress enough to get a good writing experience. Writing on just a piece of glass is quite awful compared to a real keyboard. A likely first steps on laptops, though, might be a more advanced touchpad placed below the keyboard. Or, Apple might turn things around, and move forward with plans to build a keyboard with multitouch support. In fact, it turns out a combined keyboard and touchpad was one of the products that Fingerworks used to make, even if they lacked the design prowess of Apple. I’m guessing the visionaries from Fingerworks, John Elias and Wayne Westerman, are hard at work as we speak, overseeing the final steps of the resurrection of their concepts from almost a decade ago.

Well, enough speculation. Now we’ll just have to wait and see. Maybe I’d better run out and buy a spare mouse or two, while they’re still available.

Speaking of vision and execution:

  • Is there a unifying vision at play in your company?
  • If there is a vision, how is your current project taking you towards it?
  • What’s in it for you?

Systems Thinking Applied to Management with Russell Ackoff

If you’re a student of Russell Ackoff’s teachings, you should rapidly click yourself over to the Ackoff Center blog, where you will find a link to a rich set of video lectures with Ackoff himself:

“When the course was announced the registration requests were so high that a lottery with random drawing had to be established to admit the 25 graduate students who could attend.  The course ran for 3 hours per week for 12 weeks.  Russ was 84 years old.”

Release More Often Without Risking Anything

Joakim Holm has written an awesome post about breaking through the wall of conventional thinking, smashing a dilemma into pieces, and finding a third option along the way.

One day soon they realize that “Hey, we’re pretty good. We can take advantage of that and release more often without risking anything.”

via Breaking through the Wall of Release Mediocrity « The Blogging Terrier | Den bloggande terriern.

Experiential Learning (No More “Silentium”)

15h Century Classroom - teacher, students, and wall inscription reading silentium, or silence.

Over the last five years, I’ve taught lots of classes to lots of people. If I knew it before, I’m convinced of it now: lecturing is not the most effective way to help others truly learn.

The problem with lecturing is that it doesn’t really do much to change someone’s behavior, at least not in a lasting way. So what? Well, I believe learning is more than just collecting new pieces of information. Learning also means enabling new behaviors.

One thing is for certain: lecturing is satisfying, at least for a while. It makes me feel smart, and many of my student’s love it, because they get to lean back and enjoy the ride without expending too much energy on their own, until they finally fall asleep, or worse, just tune out. A great lecturer can stay interesting for longer, of course, but I’m afraid most people leave even a great lecture only to go back to doing whatever they did before.

Lecturing isn’t all bad – it’s just that too many expect too much from it.

Sometimes I get sucked into lecturing mode, even though I don’t want to. Maybe it’s an effect of my academic schooling.

I remember one of my university teachers well. In the first lecture of his course, he displayed a cartoon of a poor fellow in a chair. Attached to the fellow’s mouth: a hose. The other end of the hose was attached to a faucet, labeled “Knowledge”. My teacher proceeded to explain the picture.

– “I’ve recently been to a pedagogy course. They taught us not to try and stuff knowledge into our students in the same way you fill a sausage. I definitely agree”, he continued, “but then again, this is an advanced level class”. With that, he started lecturing.

The first few weeks of the course were indeed stuffy. We were expected to mechanically fill out answers to five hundred questions presented in a booklet given to us. Before you’ve done this, the teacher explained, you’re not really ready to enter into meaningful discussions on the topic.

Once the first part of the course was over, the style of teaching changed dramatically. Group work and seminars were substituted for lectures and answer hunting. I liked the second part better, but the first part was useful too.

I suspect fewer would pay to come to my classes if I required them to answer hundreds of questions beforehand. In just a couple of days, I want to help the participants in my classes discover new and more effective behaviors. How do I do that, if lecturing delivers such weak results?

My chosen path has been to learn about experiential learning. In experiential learning, the idea is to create a situation where students can construct new knowledge on their own. As a teacher, my work is to design the right environment for learning to occur, and to help the students make sense of what they discover.

I’ve always designed my courses to be very interactive, but there’s one key thing I’ve learned as I’ve started to study experiential training: debriefing is key. While experiential training builds extensively on exercises and simulations, the real learning seems to happen during the debrief. This is when the group works together to reflect on what just happened, and to build up their new knowledge. Debriefing often takes as much time as the exercises themselves.

Experiential training is not always welcome. It can happen that participants who did not quite know what they were getting themselves into are unpleasantly surprised by the format, which is the complete opposite of the archetypal classroom situation, where the all-knowing teacher is at the front of a silent crowd, lecturing from his book of clear cut answers.

For some, this format is different enough to create an uncomfortable confusion. For others, the amount of insights and emotions turn out to be an overwhelming surprise. For many, it leads to lots of learning. Whichever the case, it is my responsibility to make sure participants know what will happen, and that participation always is optional.

When was the last time you really learned something new – something that changed you? What conditions made that learning happen?

PS. If you want to experience experiential learning in a workshop setting, try to get a (highly coveted) place in one of Jerry Weinberg’s, Esther Derby’s and Johanna Rothman’s “Problem Solving Leadership” workshops. If you’re interested in this topic, you will learn as much about this style of teaching as you will about yourself during one intensive week.

Common Pitfall: Planning Alone

Many organizations forget that planning is all about the planning. You’ve probably heard the saying: “The plan is nothing, the planning is everything”. For me, that means that the process of planning itself is, to a large degree, what creates belief in and understanding of the plans. The plans will break anyhow (we’ll still do our best to create them), but the more we participate in creating them, the more we believe in them, the more we take ownership for them, and the greater is the chance that we will reach our goals.

It’s both easy and hard to do this. The easy part is what typically needs to happen. The hard part is gaining acceptance for it, and facilitating the process effectively.

Gather all the people in a room. Let someone who understands the business side of things start out by explaining what needs to be achieved. Invite everyone else to ask questions. Make it safe to do so. Use your tricks of the trade to make the interactivity happen. Silent brainstorming is one powerful technique; ask participants to silently write down their questions and comments on cards, then work through these together. If you’ve ever presented something to a large group and then asked “any questions”, only to be met by compact silence, you know why a technique like this can be very useful.

With the high-level goal presented and discussed, and with questions clearly captured on flip charts on the wall where everyone can see that their concerns have been captured, go ahead and work together on the plan.

By now, there are many techniques in the agile community to make this easier. Collaborative story writing, planning poker, silent sorting, and story mapping are all popular. I’ve just started to learn about system anatomies, which seem to be a powerful way of working together on other views of the work to be done. Whichever techniques you choose, make sure to use them in a collaborative way. Therein lies the key to success.