The Lateral Lens

Lateral thoughts on project management, product design, and business strategy


Posts


Agile vs. Waterfall (And Other Obfuscation)

Intro Agile vs. Waterfall—it’s a discussion that never seems to progress as much as it continues to confuse. This hasn’t stopped countless organizations from spending staggering sums on “Agile transformations” which never seem to increase, well, agility. The stories of such transformations are now notorious, with Southwest Airlines being but the latest. In this post…

Industrial Revolution Org Cultures

Intro Reading Peter Scholtes’ 1998 The Leader’s Handbook should today cause some reflection. His assessment of most modern org cultures is in no way positive and, one can say with confidence, no less accurate than it was a quarter century ago. Scholtes contrasts two general org cultures, similar to McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y,…

Meetings Are Design Products

How many meetings are you in where the same few dominant personalities do most of the talking? Or that tout the importance of “inclusiveness” while still being punishingly brutal for introverts? Or where you’re not sure why you’re there, the agenda is only sporadically brought up, and the meeting unerringly runs over its scheduled time?…

From Frames to Upholstery

Miernik believes that romantic composers prepared the ground for totalitarian politicians: both deal in illusions, knowing that the illusions people have about themselves as individuals and as nations are stronger than reality. —Charles McCarry, The Miernik Dossier It’s easy to be self-congratulatory when delivering something requested. Sometimes that is as it should be. This does…

Agile and Science (and Politics?)

Agile is, fundamentally, an evolutionary mindset. Perhaps this is what makes it so controversial. Perhaps this is what makes it so hard to do right. To see why, we need to dig into what exactly it means for something to be “evolutionary.” Here let’s not turn to any work on Agile, product work, or org…

Stories as Filters

Intro Last time we discussed the Narrative Fallacy. Today we will look at five topics that might not seem all that related at first glance. Together, however, they all serve as important lenses showing us the many and profound ways that narratizing can lead us astray. In this post we will discuss sensemaking, projection, pluralistic…

Monty Hall, Storytelling, and Planning

In this post we are going to take two fascinating topics, the Monty Hall Problem and the Narrative Fallacy, and see what they can teach us about product planning. Enjoy! 1. Let’s Make a Deal A lot has been written about the Monty Hall Problem, a famous version of Bertrand’s Box Paradox from 1889. If…

Just How Related Is Usability to User Satisfaction?

There’s no shortage of wonky assertions in the field of UX, specious claims based on bad methodology, spuriously supported by voodoo statistics. Jakob Nielsen, one of the biggest names in the field, isn’t immune. Perhaps most famously, the “five user-assumption,” which he originally proposed with Rolf Molich, has since been rather thoroughly debunked by Molich’s…

The Rock and the Wrapper

I was recently chatting with Vicki Amon-Higa, who runs a Customer Experience consultancy. She was telling me about “the rock and the wrapper.” The “rock,” she said, is your technical product offering or service, whatever it is. The “wrapper” is everything else that goes into offering this to customers. She said she’s noticed that even…

Influence Mapping (Part 3)

This post concludes a three-part series on influence mapping, comparing it to a game of chess. In Part 1 we covered the opening, creating the map. In Part 2 we discussed the middlegame, which is how to work the map to evolve the influence landscape to your benefit. In this post we will look at…

OKRs and OKRA

OKRs. Objectives and Key Results. I can’t believe I’m writing a post on this. But here we are. It’s but one of the latest viral concepts to be wildly misused. Like Agile, OKRs could be a good thing. Alas, once a large enterprise gets its hands on the latest buzzword, well, it’s bound to end…

Influence Mapping (Part 2)

This is Part 2 in a three-part series on influence mapping. In Part 1 we went over how to create the map. In this post we will cover how to work the map to evolve the influence landscape. In Part 3 we will look at some more examples and summarize the principles covered in this…

Influence Mapping (Part 1)

In this three-part series we will go over my take on influence mapping. In this post, Part 1 of the series, we will look at some of the principles involved and explain how to create the influence map. In Part 2 we will cover how to work the influence map to evolve the decision landscape.…

Listening Creatively: Killing Giants and Catching Shapeshifters

Today we’ll be looking at Between People, a little book that uses metaphor to generate insights concerning one-on-one communication. The author is John A. Sanford, who was an Episcopal priest, a Jungian analyst, and one hell of a writer. Throughout the post, specific active listening skills will appear bolded. Playing Catch A theme throughout the…

Systems as Mental Interfaces

In today’s post we’ll be discussing Dr. Edward Martin Baker’s amazing little book, Scoring a Whole in One. Credit is due to Sean Murphy, of SKMurphy, Inc., who reached out and asked if I’d like to collaborate on something based on Baker’s book. I said yes, and we each did a post on it. Below…

Strategy and Outcomes

Today we’ll cover an approach I’ve used for running strategy workshops. First, we must discuss what definition of “strategy” I have in view. Second, we’ll go through the 8 steps of the workshop itself. Intro: Strategy In his book, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, author Richard Rumelt argues that organizations tend to confuse strategy with goals. As…

Agile’s Ethical Dilemma, Decision Distribution, and the Trojan War

The Trojan War Consider that the story of the Trojan horse is a story about war; and, in certain respects, it offers an apt metaphor. In many organizations a battle of sorts is being fought, even if largely unstated. In this version of the story, the Greeks don’t offer the gift and pretend to sail…

Revisiting “Intelligent Failure”

It’s important to go back and read the old stuff sometimes. When ideas get popularized, often parts get left behind that are just as interesting and important as the parts that catch on. Today we’ll take a look at Sim Sitkin’s “Learning Through Failure,” from Organizational Learning (1996), which introduced the concept of “intelligent failure.”…

Bureaucratic Blunderland

How about an irreverent respite? In today’s post we’ll look at the 1973 book, Malice in Blunderland, by Thomas L. Martin, Jr., once the Dean of Engineering at the University of Arizona and later the President of the Illinois Institute of Technology. We’re all familiar with “Parkinson’s Law” or the “Peter Principle,” but, Martin argues,…

What Is Incentivized Is Policy—All Else Is Lip Service

Morton C. Blackwell was a delegate for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Following Goldwater’s dramatic defeat by Lyndon B. Johnson, Blackwell and other conservative strategists started to think hard about why they had lost so badly. He later wrote about these learnings as President of the Leadership Institute. One of the things to…

The Men in Grey and Addictive Designs

Sebastian Deterding thinks the field of User Experience (UX) has a lot to learn from a children’s book called Momo. In the book, and the movie based on it, Momo is a girl with an amazing gift. She can make people feel better just by listening to them. (But, you might ask, don’t we all…

House of Communication

You want to influence someone. What should you focus on? Should you focus on making your case, on the data that support your position, on laying out an airtight argument? You do need to know your stuff, sure, but this isn’t enough. A good lens for answering this question is Michael Grinder’s House of Communication.…

Estimating Cost of Delay

You can’t apply concepts you don’t have, and this is definitely one you should want in your toolbelt. The concept comes from Don Reinertsen, who argues, “If you only quantify one thing, quantify the cost of delay” (Reinertsen, 2009). If you’ve heard of if but don’t know what it is, or if you sort of…

Donkeys and Elephants

Sorry political junkies, this is not a post about Democrats and Republicans. This is a post about egos and drama. It’s a post about meeting effectiveness. Consider, how do you tend to relate to others in meetings, while working, or even just in day-to-day life? Are there certain interactions that leave you feeling disappointed, not…

Why Agile and UX Still Don’t Get Along

Agile is sort of an odd beast. It’s not a field, like UX. It’s not a framework, like SAFe. It’s more an umbrella term centered around a manifesto. The Agile Manifesto, though, is just that—a manifesto. It’s a set of values and principles. As such, it’s brief. What it doesn’t say is voluminous. What it…

Increasing Options with Teeter Totters

An old saying proclaims that “cooler heads will prevail”. Zen Buddhist Takuan Sōhō wrote that when you feel insulted, you had already lost rightmindedness prior to the offense. Colloquially, we speak of someone “getting your goat”. In each case, the message is the same. In-the-moment emotion often sabotages decisions. When things get heated, when emotions…

The Shape of Strategy

Today we’re going to take a look at Robert Keidel’s book, The Geometry of Strategy (2010). Keidel is a Professor of Management, a consultant, and former senior fellow at the Wharton School of Business. In his book, Keidel argues that we can improve the content of strategy by paying closer attention to its form. By…

Stories and Risk

People make sense of the world in the form of stories. We all have stories. You have a story. Your team has a story. Your customers have stories. Companies have stories, which they spend great sums of money crafting and managing and protecting. Customers have opinions about company stories, which is largely what brand perception…

Strategy and Ghost Stories

Two Types of Bias When we say someone is “biased,” often we mean that his stance is showing, that we know his view on some matter (and usually that we disagree with it). This sense of “bias” has to do with WHAT we think. Interpretations must be made from some point of view. Meaning does…

A Word on Coaching

Certain popular business terms cause an awful lot of confusion. We use them like they have a single clear meaning when they really don’t. “MVP” is a great example. Others are “value,” “Agile,” and “leadership,” each of which are confusing for different reasons. Unpacking Suitcases If I say “customer,” do I mean external purchasers? Users?…

How Are Soft Skills Soft?

It’s now common to hear org leaders stressing the importance of “soft skills.” This is good, of course, but also a little odd. How did this end up becoming something that ever needs stressing? Part of the problem might be the term itself, which comes from the U.S. Army; and, more to the point, probably…

Avoid Arguing About Agile

Arguing about Agile is like trying to run in quicksand. You can’t. You’ll just get sucked down into the bog. There are two big issues at play here: clarity and scope. First let’s talk clarity. We all agree we need to be “Agile.” The problem is, what does that mean? The Devil is in the…

Is CD3 the Golden Key?

Don Reinertsen refers to Cost of Delay (CoD) as “the golden key.” CoD is the opportunity cost (in terms of profit and loss) per some unit of time (usually per week) of not achieving something. For example, if achieving a particular outcome will save $50k a week, then a six-week delay in achieving it has…

Some Thoughts on Design Research, Agile, and Traps

Design is not about creating things. It’s about making decisions to solve problems. Design research is about fitting the right learning tools to the right kinds of questions, doing the smart thing to “derisk” the decisions made. As designer Erika Hall puts it, the decisions we make and the constraints we set up front are…

The Potential Cost of … Zugzwang?

Comparisons have long been made between chess and business. Kasparov (2007) wrote a whole book about it. Here I’d like to apply an old chess concept specifically to product work. In doing so, this is not to suggest that product work is a “game,” no more than discussing product strategy should imply it’s “war.” I’ll…

Paying Attention to Group Formation Dynamics

In this post let’s look at some of the brilliant work of nonverbal communication expert Michael Grinder. As Grinder teaches, when doing facilitation work, whether running a workshop, delivering a training, or giving a talk, an important variable to pay attention to is how FORMED the group is. Let’s start with a couple vignettes. Imagine,…

Inferring Causality: Why You Can’t Just Ask Why

A very prominent UX Researcher, who shall remain unnamed, presented at a conference recently. It started off a little rocky and then got worse…and then I stopped listening. When UX Researchers lecture others on research while spreading misinformation, it doesn’t help the rest of us in the profession. Here we’ll only discuss two issues with…

Lipton’s Twin Scientist Problem

Here is an interesting conundrum from Lipton (2005). Let’s call it the “Twin Scientist Problem.” The Twin Scientists Once upon a time there were identical twin scientists. They looked so similar it was hard to tell them apart. One day you run into them at a conference, where they are standing next to their respective…

Some Tricks to Deal with Stress and Anxiety

Anxiety disorders now affect around 1 in 5 adults in America. Anxiety seems to be on the rise in the West, with millennials now being called the most “anxious” generation (Newman, 2018). The American Institute of Stress website reports that the leading cause of stress, far and away, is occupational, with stress induced by job security skyrocketing…

Red and Blue Work: Agile as Skeuomorphism

In his new book, Leadership Is Language, David Marquet (2020) contrasts what he calls “red” and “blue” work. The distinction does a beautiful job illustrating what’s wrong with many Agile transformations. The Red and the Blue…. Red work is DOING work. It’s about execution and reducing variability. Blue is THINKING work. It’s about discovery and…

Agile Light and Dark, and Becoming Value-Driven

A lot of what people call “Agile” is anything but. It’s faux, like fake stitching on fake leather. It’s skeuomorphic empowerment. Orgs bring in some consultants, check some boxes, and hope to see the old top-down Waterfall sped up. As a result, Agile experts spend a lot of time talking about “Dark Agile.” Take SAFe,…

When Your Data and Research Are BS

As part of our jobs we make decisions that impact the lives of coworkers, users and customers, not to mention the bottom line. Decisions are made in various states of uncertainty, which is why we seek data. Often, however, we want data even when it will not produce better decisions. We want it for psychological…

Cleaning up Your Questions: A Handy Tool

Last week I attended a class taught by the amazing April Mills. In one exercise, we were divided into groups of three and took turns playing roles. The Talker was given a topic to speak on for three minutes. The Listener was to ask questions to keep the Talker talking. The Referee was to call…

Agile as a Zombie…Noun

In their book, Mind Lines (2005), Hall and Bodenhamer observe that the more language veers from the sensory-based data from which it’s derived, the more “meta” and confusing it tends to become. To abstract you must generalize, often deleting and distorting the underlying specifics that were ultimately the basis of your claims. (Image adapted from…

Design Thinking as Decision Framing

Design Thinking is an increasingly hot topic in the corporate world. Organizations should find this as exciting as designers likely find it humorous. It’s exciting because it brings with it skills and techniques people at all levels of an organization can greatly benefit from. It’s humorous because Design Thinking is nothing new. It’s like they…

Facilitation as Wizardry: Outcomes Elicitation

The goal in product work is not to build products. It’s to create value—value for users and, ultimately, for the business. This is done by changing the environment in ways that allow for new, value-adding behavior. These changes could be coded product, or redesigned workflows, or improved policies, or…whatever you can think of. (Why limit…

Dealing With Conflict Without Drama

There is a house where all conflict takes place, and if you are in conflict, you are in this house. The front door is labeled “Right/Wrong,” and beyond its wide foyer there are only three rooms in Conflict House. Room 1 is the “What happened” room. Here you compare stories and see where your views…

The Birds in the Bush

There is an old saying, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The idea is the bird in your hand you actually possess, whereas the birds “in the bush” are mere possibilities. This could well be the slogan for most Scrum teams: “A solution in the hand is worth five in…

The Agile Trap

“Agile is dead.” People keep saying that. But then they say, “We’re just kidding.” They meant the way YOU do Agile is dead. And stupid. But “real” Agile isn’t. It’s just that everyone does Agile “wrong.” So I guess real Agile is, you know, Agile in “theory.” Even I have done this. And you know what? I’m sick of doing…

Making Better Comparisons to Create More Value

Say a team’s customer wants it to software-enable a process. Doing so will save around $20k a month. Maybe the team does it and the customer is happy. Very happy. The team is even featured in the IT newsletter and gets lots of praise. All is well and good…. Exactly. What if it turns out…

Drama Part 3: Nine Ways to Deal with Drama

In Part 1 of this series we discussed Karpman’s Drama Triangle. In Part 2 we looked at the roots of this concept in Berne’s Transactional Analysis. In this, the final post in this series, we’ll discuss nine(!) ways to help you steer clear of drama and games and their negative effects. This will be a…

Words Matter: Unpacking “Iterate”

I recently misquoted Ron Jeffries as saying that iterating just means you’re repeating increments. He corrected me. Agile consultant Rob England also (rightly) took issue with what I’d said. So did, for that matter, Agile consultant Neil Killick, pointing out that it’s the inspecting and adapting you should be repeating (iterating), not the increment. The…

Drama Part 2: Games

In the first post in this series we looked at Karpman’s Triangle and how drama often leads to games. In this post we’ll talk about games as defined in Transactional Analysis (TA). TA, again, was developed by psychiatrist Eric Berne in the 1950s and 60s, and popularized by his 1964 bestseller, Games People Play. Berne’s…

Three Tips for Demonstrating Value

Are you expected to demonstrate the “value” of your work? Do you have to continually justify your existence? If so, know this is a thorny, multifaceted issue. First, let’s just face it, it’s usually the designers who are asked to “demonstrate their value,” and it’s often a trap. As Alan Cooper (2018) points out, “What’s…

Drama Part 1: Recognizing (And Avoiding) Drama

You may have heard of the book I’m OK — You’re OK. It was all the rage in the late 60s and is still popular today. It’s about Eric Berne’s theory of Transactional Analysis and his concept of games, but added to the dialogue the idea that drama and games largely stem from an underlying sense…

Agile Spaghetti Hurling Velocity

Last week I was speaking with my friend April Mills. She was talking about how velocity doesn’t really accelerate value. In her words, it doesn’t improve one’s “value-waste ratio.” This made me sit up straight. It reminded me of Tufte’s famous “data-ink ratio.” It’s a great concept that might help us arrive at an interesting definition of waste.…


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