Chapter 2: Step 1, Deciding what to do

Getting Ready

I was thinking about my previous consulting gigs, I usually did not do things. My job was to come and observe how companies worked and develop digital products. Then I would either give them a report identifying areas of improvement, based on state-of-the-art research and then I would observe how the changes produced improvements. When a company wanted to create a new product, I would either give them a lecture on a particular methodology, or I would do 1-on-1 coaching where they tell me what they had done and I would give them pointers or areas of improvement.

But during my meeting with Sam, and the invitation I got for the follow-up meeting, I am getting the feeling that she wants to do something… she wants me to do something. That is making me feel a bit uncomfortable. I know how to learn new subjects and build knowledge upon them. I can do academic research, which I sometimes call applied research, and then write a paper with the results. But what Sam is asking me to do is way more hands-on that I have done before. I know the material and best practices of course. But still, it is daunting. I could easily say no, but there is a bit of pride in me that does not let me reject this project. Internally, I want to show that there is no real difference between the “real world” and the “academic world”. Externally, I also want to show off to my friends. Sam is one of the rock-stars of my generation, and I would like to think that I am too. Bailing out is not an option.

My leg is falling asleep and I suddenly remember where I am. So I quickly stand-up and continue with my bathroom routine. As I am showering, I decide I need to search for alumni who are now deep into Product Owner or Manager positions to get some tutoring. I guess it is time to turn the tables and ask for some advice, I am happy that I did not burn any bridges with my former students. Or at least I think I did not.

— “Well, it is everything you thought us, but then you have to make decisions, all plans go out the window, and then you need to adapt. But still, at the end of the week, I try to bring things back to the yellow-brick-road.” — Tells me, Alex, after I asked how did he bring what he learned in University to what he know does as CPO of a medium-size company building good products.

Alex was one of my best students, not because of his grades, which were usually top of the class, but because of his vision. Besides taking my classes, he was also a member of my research group.

“Look, don’t overthink things. When you make a decision, you only have the available data to justify it, you rarely have time to wait until you get all the information that you need, as we did when we were running your experiments and if you didn’t like something, we would need to run more experiments or wait for more data. You also usually have to be ahead of the problem, keep updated on methodologies, frameworks and trends. You can not say, oh, I will go and review the bibliography and come back to you. A lot of concepts that you know from your research are used in industry, usually watered down, without worrying too much on the whys, rather on the what. Sometimes people use a different name. For example, a control experiment might be called A/B Testing. Finally, don’t even think about writing your long reports, if you are lucky people will see your PowerPoint presentation, most likely, they will look at the first 3 slides.” — Tells me, Alex, as I heard him chewing on the phone. “If you officially ask all the above to someone, they will deny it and pretend they do read long documents and that the best decision overall are always made, not the best decision at a given moment, but they will be lying to you.”

Lighting Decision Jam

Because of the pandemic affecting the whole world, we had to move our meeting from in-person to using video-conferencing. I am not the biggest fan of online meetings, but we needed to do our part to contain the virus.

The objective of the meeting was to “Align all our Ducks in a Row”, that is how Sam had named the meeting in the invite that we all got. There were 9 people invited to the meeting overall, I did not know who were the other 7. I felt like I was either in a blind date or about to be mauled by lions in the coliseum.

After a few minutes of connecting and make sure we could all hear and see each other, Sam started firing shots about how she had been investing in this project for a long time without seeing any results and asking for heads to roll.

The 7 Unknowns started pointed fingers at each other and Richard, who was not present as he quitted after his encounter with Sam. Suddenly Sam turned to me and asked my opinion.

“Well, I have no idea what you are talking about, what is the objective of the meeting besides aligning ducks in a row, or who I am talking to. And for that matter, they do not know who I am.” — I said, actually feeling a bit frustrated, and for the first time showing off my lecturer chops to Sam.

Before she could say anything, I proposed a small agenda:

  1. Introduce all the participants
  2. Sam tells us exactly what she expects as the outcome of this meeting.
  3. Define how we could deliver that outcome

Then I reminded them that the meeting is only scheduled for two hours, and then I had other activities directly after this meeting. So there was no space to overrun it. To keep things under control, I proposed using a collaborative online tool that I knew. There was no need to share the screen, as we can all use our browsers and it worked in real-time. I also took over as facilitator of the videoconference, meaning I can mute the other participants.

“It is like having a whiteboard, and we all get a chance to either write on it or add sticky-notes with our ideas. It is very useful for this type of situations, in particular with the framework I want to use to run this meeting. It is called Lighting Decision Jam (LDJ), and to the best of my understanding, it was created by a design agency called AJ&Smart based in Berlin, Germany. So don’t worry, it is very hands-on and there won’t be a boring lecture explaining why it works.” — I added to conclude my remarks.

After the initial minutes of everyone opening the link and finding their bearings with the app, we got down to business. We were going to use the app to introduce ourselves. It was a cool trick to get people to learn to use the app while also delivering some results to the meeting.

Besides me, the facilitator and product and UX expert, and Sam, the force behind this project, there were 7 persons in the chat, all of them were members of Sam’s enterprises on different roles:

Snapshop of the collaboration tool used to introduce all of ourselves during the meeting.
  1. Simone: an education expert who was in charge of the capacitation programs that Sam had in her company. She had worked with Richard on the previous app.
  2. Abraham: the CFO of Sam’s enterprises. If you needed money, then you need Abraham. He was utterly mad about all the money already spent on this project with 0 results.
  3. Sylvia: She is in charge of sales for one of Sam’s enterprises. She had no idea what StG was.
  4. Juan: Head of Marketing. He had invited Sylvia to the meeting. He worked very close to Sam and, like Abraham, had a hand on several of Sam’s companies.
  5. Liz: IT Leader. She was the previous boss of Richard. Their IT department does not do development, they mainly install software, configure it and tailor it to make sure the company can work. She is kind of the CIO of the organization, but not officially.
  6. Ramiro: He works for Liz. He makes sure there is internet, telephone, and takes care of the customer service. He was here in case something breaks down. It seemed he was involved in all projects, but he had no saying in any of them.
  7. Maria: Sam’s daughter. She had the idea about StG after inviting her mom several times to talk to her classmates about women in business. She was the one pushing her mom to get this done.

Then I asked Sam to add a note defining the objective of this meeting. She was going to start talking again but I immediately cut her off and told her to please just do it, she was the decider, no need to democratize the goal. She obliges and we had two goals:

Objectives of the meeting.
  1. Create StG.
  2. Understand where we are. Can we re-use what we have?

Maria was about to give a speech on the importance of the app but I had to stop her and muted everyone for good.

“No talking, please, let the framework speak for itself. If at the end of the meeting you are not happy. Well, then you can go back to your old ways. But remember, we are here because we want to do things differently, and deliver value to the company. Which did not happen the last time.”

I just asked Maria to add a note clarifying the objective of the app. And then we were ready to start using the LDJ. Before starting, I asked everyone to please take a five-minute break and go to the toilet or make phone calls or check their email or Tiktok. I needed their full attention to what was coming next. I only Maria laughed about Tiktok, everyone else just looked puzzled.

Step 1 of the LDJ. Identify what is working and what can be improved.

“We are going to be doing a series of activities to prioritize what we will work on next and meet the objectives that Sam proposed. Each activity has a strict time limit, we have the advantage that the app we are using automatizes some of the procedures. During each activity, please no talking, which again is easier due to the videoconferencing, I will just mute everyone. I will also play some music while you are working, so you can concentrate, plus you know the connection is still going on” — I told them as soon as they came back to the conference. I was already showing the initial screen that LDJ normally uses to kick-off the process.

“We are going to identify now what is working in this project. I want you to create as many notes as possible, writing just one item on each post, focusing only on the positive. It is a numbers game, so don’t hold back. You have 4 minutes.” — I finished my sentence, put everyone on mute and play some music I found under the playlist “Design Thinking”

It was the first time that I was running this particular exercise remotely, so I was thinking fast on my feet. I knew the LDJ well enough, I used it my classes and thought it to all my students. But I was still jittery.

After 4 minutes the integrated timer of the app buzzed off. I then gave one minute to each participant to summarize the good aspects. Even though they had used the first 15 minutes of the meeting to bicker, they found a lot of positive aspects. Sam was a common element, they all liked the idea, and they liked what they bring to the team. But none of them talked about the app that was previously implemented.

“OK, Step 2, and as you can see from the screen. We are now focusing on what can be improved. Again please only one issue per post, it is a number game. Oh, and don’t blame people. We want to find a solution. Blaming people does not lead to anything positive. You have five minutes”.

Once the five minutes finished. I explained to them that it was time to prioritize the problems. I gave each of them 3 votes, which they could put in 1 or 3 of the posts. They were free to vote for their posts. Again, the App helped me with the prioritization of the issues.

Snapshot of the positive aspects and what could be improved. Also showing some of the votes.

The results showed that they did not know how to transform the idea into an app. That was the issue with the most votes.

The next step is then to transform this issue into an addressable challenge. Which I summarised as follows:

HMW create standardized mentorship to develop an App

Sam, interjecting for the first time after I had muted her before, wrote in the chat. “Hey, what does HMW mean? and what about the other issues?”

I just clarified that HMW meant: “How Might We”, a useful technique to phrase problems into an addressable challenge. The next steps of the framework required us to focus on only one challenge, but I could rephrase the other with the most votes, maybe for the future, or just to keep them in mind. So, the other two were:

HMW use our knowledge-based set of questions and answers to make into an enjoyable app.

HMW allocate time for this project.

The next step was to propose solutions based on the existing challenge. Sam, Maria and Simone were happy and ready to start. But the other participants all wrote almost at the same time that they had no idea about mentorship. They were finances, sales, marketing, IT and networks.

“Don’t worry if it is not your area of expertise. You are still part of the team. And we need your ideas and solutions. You might do sales, but you know what you need to sale it, same for marketing or finances. Just let your imagination run wild. We worry about it later. Just keep the challenge on your head. Come up with as many solutions as possible, and you have 6 minutes to do it.” — I told them, I am not sure if they bought it. But they started creating posts as soon as the timer started. I reminded again that it is a numbers game, and to think about other domains were interesting solutions could be used for this case.

As I saw them creating a lot of posts, I saw a common topic that they were not properly writing. Plus, I knew that they needed to test the solution before any implementation is done, otherwise it would be another chaos. So, I also proposed my solution. I added:

Create an example and show it potential users

After they were finished, I gave them each 6 votes to select the solution. Again, they could vote on their solution, gave all their votes to just solution, or distribute it among 6 solutions. And they had again a limited time to vote: 4 minutes.

Once they were done I picked the three solutions with the most votes. Not surprisingly, at least to me, the one with the most votes was the one I had proposed. The other two were: develop a taxonomy of mentorship, and the third one was to use machine learning and chatbot.

The next step was to decide to do next. This was the step I was dreading, as I was not sure how it would work online. This step involves me holding the solution in the middle of an Impact/Effort chart and then asking the participants to tell me if higher or lower.

Impact/Effort Chart used to prioritize what to do next.

Amazingly, the process worked well also here. I opened the microphones and explained that they were only allowed to say higher or lower with regards to impact and effort.

I started with the solution I had proposed. I put in the middle and asked them for the impact. I went up and up, and then I asked for the effort and it went to the left and left. In the end, the solution was placed on the first quadrant of the chart (upper left).

The solution that involved the taxonomy end-ed up in the third quadrant (bottom right), and the machine-learning/chatbot ended up in the fourth quadrant (upper right).

I then showed them what each of the different quadrants meant. The solution I had proposed was placed in the “Do now!” section, the one about the taxonomy was in the “Save for later”, and the “Machine Learning” was to be made into a project.

Using the Impact/Effort chart to prioritize what to do next.

I then asked Sam, the decider. Do you agree this is what we need to do next? She completely agreed but was not sure how it would work.

I told everyone — “ OK, we can do a workshop to do this. Let me schedule it with Sam, but I would need you full time for a couple of days. Maybe not all of you, but this is something I can arrange with Sam. In the meantime, I need to get going because I have another meeting right now”.

I just agree that tomorrow morning I will talk to Sam to arrange the next steps and tell her more about this workshop. I promise everyone to send later that day a summary of the results, and the steps of the LDJ:

  1. Write things that work — 10mins
  2. Write things that can be improved — 5mins
  3. Prioritize what can be improved — 3mins
  4. Reframe problems as HMW (How Might We) — 3 Mins
  5. Ideate Solutions — 6 mins
  6. Prioritize Solutions — 5 mins
  7. Decide what to execute next — 10 mins

As I was sipping my beer later at night, I was chatting to Alex. I was not so happy about the LDJ. I had forced the next step into what I knew it would work, and pretty much I was back in the same place as after my breakfast with Sam.

“Don’t overthink it! Also, all of you are now in the same place! That is a great place to start. Better than you being there alone.”

Before going to bed, I got a message from Sam:

“You cheeky bastard, somehow you managed to tell us everything we already knew, but now we are all looking forward to the next steps. I loved the LDJ, you are new to working with me, but usually, every meeting involves a shouting match between me and Abraham, and you managed to avoid it. Also, I know we will be working on what you proposed, again, you cheeky, but the other problems are also important. In particular the one about allocating time for this project. Talk to you tomorrow. Thanks a lot!”

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