Knowing the Cards

March 6, 2019

After nearly 350 blog posts you’d think that I’d have some idea about whether something I write will be popular or whether it will be consigned to the ignominy of the internet dustbin. In my case, a single post tends to be about ~600 words, so if I’ve got my math right, I’ve managed a whopping 210,000 words so far. I should be an expert on what words work by now.

The thing is, I’m not. To this day, I have no idea what posts will be popular and which will be total duds. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “This is total genius!” Only to have the amassed minds of the internet return a collective, “Meh…” Other times, I’ve posted something that I thought was total dreck, hardly worthy of the effort. Only I find that it is very popular and highly recommended by others. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t know whether something I’ve written will be well received until after the fact. I guess I’m a slow learner.

Now I think I understand the dilemma of the product developer a bit better. Because I’ve been one and I know that “This is going to be a brilliant product!” feeling. Only to find that no one really gives a damn. And I’ve even worked on products that I personally thought were total crap (at least the code was) and nevertheless the crazy money just kept right on pouring in. It can lead to a certain sense of cynicism. The market is stupid. People don’t know what quality is. No one appreciates GENIUS! OK, maybe that last bit was a little too much Pinky and the Brain, but I think you get my point. There are entire books written on this dilemma.

I’m increasingly convinced that there is no writing or product crystal ball that will tell us what people will or won’t like in advance. So what is a poor blogger to do? Well, I suppose I could take a long hard look at the analytics. That’s feedback of a sort. I can identify the posts that get the most hits and try to emulate those. The problem is, I’ve looked at the analytics and I really can’t tell why people keep coming back, other than perhaps due to some rather idiosyncratic links from more popular websites.

Of course there is an obstinate part of me that really just doesn’t give a damn. What I write is in some sense more for me than it is for you. You know, it’s not you, it’s me. Those words are just bubbling up within, bursting to come out. Whether or not you read them or not is of secondary importance. I’d like to think they are useful, but I really have no idea. When I’m writing on orders from within, I’m able to keep up a prolific level of writing. When I’m letting the beast have full reign, I don’t even feel like it is work. Tom really isn’t there, he’s just channeling the beast. I feel drained afterward. Somewhat used up. That’s a good feeling.

The other thing I can do is look at the people who respond to my writing. They’re riding their own beast of a sort. And apparently my beast sings to their beast. To those folks, at least the ones not trying to cross sell some weird product, I feel very grateful. To put words out into the internet and have someone respond to them is a very powerful thing.

Thank you.

Leadership Practice #3 – Envisioning

April 22, 2011

If you are going to be a leader within an organization, then you need to be able to clearly communicate a compelling vision. The communication part is relatively easy to practice, but the vision part is worth practicing too.

There are two primary mechanisms for team communication that we can practice easily: Speech and Writing. We can practice speech by participating in groups like Toastmasters. We can practice our writing by using tools for text analysis and review.

Both mechanisms have the benefit of providing very rapid feedback and the feedback can contain lots of fine-grained detail. These are two critical attributes of practice. The feedback needs to be almost immediate(the sooner the better) and the feedback needs to be very detailed and specific so that we can fine tune our performance in a meaningful fashion.

When it comes to vision, one reliable place to start is with a clear statement of the problem you want to tackle. Coming up the problems is the easy part: ask the customer, ask the team, ask the project stakeholders. If you get that far you should have a list as long as your arm. Here’s a pro tip: keep those customer problems at the top of the list. Coming up with that list of problems is an important skill that can be honed and refined. There are places that you can go to look for problems that may be hiding in plain sight: recent communications from customers, defects, impediments. Keeping an updated list would be great way to practice.

Now unless you are very lucky, most of your problems will be vaguely stated and unclear. One of the best things to help you clarify the problem is to actually see it and experience it for yourself. Go to where the problem is. In the lean world this is often referred to as “Going to the Gemba.” The Gemba is the place where the work gets done.

Seeing for yourself will give you the rapid, high quality feedback you need to assess the nature of the problem. You can use techniques like The 5 Why’s to help get at the underlying causes of a problem. Often times the refined problem statement that you end up with looks nothing like the problem statement that you started with. Now these techniques are great for refining the problem statement, but what we are really after here is a vision – the possible solutions to the problem.

Fortunately there are a wealth of different brainstorming strategies that you can use to help discover a set of possible solutions. Here’s one technique that I use (taken with some minor modifications from the wonderful book Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko):

  1. State the challenge
  2. List your assumptions
  3. Challenge your fundamental assumptions
  4. Reverse each assumption
  5. Record differing viewpoints that might be useful to you
  6. Ask yourself how to accomplish each reversal

What you end up with at the end of this exercise is a list of potential solutions to your problem. Pick one. Now all you need to do is to communicate it!

The thing that I really want to convey is that many of these techniques can and should be practiced. With practice we will improve our communication techniques and our problem solving techniques. Put the two together and you have the recipe for someone who can communicate a compelling vision.