Friday, July 29, 2011

A Universal Starting Point for Problem-Solving

By popular request, I'm going to hold my next Change Artist Challenge until next week to give some of my readers a little more time to catch up.

This essay should also be helpful to change artists, who often have to start their work by defining or redefining a problem that's presented to them. It's adapted from Chapter 5 of Exploring Requirements 1: Quality Before Design.

How can we reduce the great variety of potential starting points to a single solid platform for exploring requirements? A possible solution is to regard every design project as an attempt to solve some problem, then reduce each starting point to a common form of problem statement.

A problem can be defined as
a difference between things as perceived
and things as desired.

[For a full discussion of problem definition, see Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg, Are Your Lights On? How to Know What the Problem Really Is.

Figure 5-1. A problem is best defined as a difference between things as perceived and things as desired.

This definition can serve as a template measuring each idea for starting a development project. If the idea doesn't fit this definition, we can work with the originator to universalize the idea until it does.

Universalizing a Variety of Starting Points
Let's see how this universalization process can be used to reduce six different starting points to a common form of problem definition.

Solution idea
Perhaps the most common starting point is thinking of a solution without stating the problem the solution is supposed to solve. In other words, the idea doesn't say what is perceived (and by whom) and what is desired, so it doesn't fit our definition of a problem. Here are a few examples we've experienced.

1. A marketing manager told a systems analyst, "We need sharper carbon copies of our sales productivity report." Rather than immediately begin a search for a way to produce sharper carbons, the analyst asked, "What problem will sharper carbons solve for you?" The manager explained that the carbons didn't make very good photocopies, so the salespeople had trouble reading them. "So," the analyst confirmed, "you need one clear copy for each salesperson, and you're now making multiple copies of the report we give you?" Eventually, through such give and take, the problem was redefined as a need to provide timely and clear comparative information to a sales force of four hundred—something readily accomplished by slightly modifying an existing on-line query system. The final design didn't have sharper carbons. It didn't have carbons at all. Not even paper.

2. In another case, a university dean said, "We need a way to attract more students." The dean never said why they needed more students, and each faculty member hearing the statement formed a different idea. Some thought "more students" meant getting more outstanding students. Some thought "more students" meant being able to support more teaching assistants in certain departments. Still others thought "more students" meant the dean wanting to fill the vacant dormitory space.

After arguing for months about the best way to get more students, the faculty finally learned what the dean really wanted: to create the impression in the state legislature that the school was doing a higher quality job by increasing the rejection rate of applicants, so the university appropriation would increase. Once this goal was understood, the faculty approached a solution in several ways, none of which involved an increase in student enrollment.

Technology idea
Sometimes we don't have a problem in mind, at all, but literally have a solution in hand: a solution looking for a problem. When tearing off those perforated strips on computer paper, have you ever felt there ought to be something useful to do with them? The perforated strips are the solution, and the problem is "What can we use them for?" After thirty years of searching, Jerry bought Honey, a German Shepherd puppy, and suddenly he discovered the problem his solution was looking for. Computer paper edges, crumpled up, make perfect litter for puppy nests!

When a new technology comes along, it's often a solution looking for a problem. The Post-It™ note developed by 3M is a conspicuous example. The semi-stickiness was originally just a failed attempt to produce an entirely different kind of adhesive. Instead of simply discarding it as another failed project, the 3M people thought of problems for which such semi-adhesive properties would provide a solution. They created Post-It™ notes, but the solution-to-problem process didn't stop there. As soon as Post-It™ notes appeared in offices, thousands of people began seeing problems they would solve.

Some of the high-technology companies we work with are dominated by this kind of solution-to-problem starting point. In effect, their problem takes the form of the following perception and desire:

Perception: We own a unique bit of technology, but others don't want to give us money for it. For example, a chalk company buys rights to a new vein of chalk that has exceptional purity and strength. To most people, however, chalk is just chalk.

Desire: Others will pay us a great deal of money for the use of this technology in some form. For instance, if the company can create the idea of Superchalk in the public mind, the unique purity and strength become an asset of increased value.

Such a problem statement allows the technology to become a kernel around which many designs can be built. Without it, technology firms often make the mistake of believing that "technology sells itself." Although this slogan may be true in certain cases, usually it's an after-the-fact conclusion. Want to turn a solution into a problem requiring it? Ordinarily, you'll need an enormous amount of requirements and design work. For example, how will you make teachers believe they can't really teach well without Superchalk?

Many product development cycles start with a variety of metaphorical thinking—a simile, or comparison, as when someone says, "Build something like this." Although the customer may emphasize "this," the job of the requirements process is to define "like."

For instance, Maureen, the leader of a software project, told her team she wanted a new user interface "like a puppy." "First of all," she elaborated, "people see a puppy and are immediately attracted to it. They want to pet it, to play with it. And they aren't afraid of the puppy, because even though it might nip them, or even pee on them, puppy bites aren't serious injuries, and puppy pee never killed anyone. Also, you can't really hurt a puppy by playing with it."

Although the team couldn't yet build a system with this requirement, playing with the simile did inspire them to ask probing questions. "How about housebreaking and obedience training for the puppy?" a teammate asked.

Maureen thought a bit, and said, "Yes, the interface should be trainable, to obey your commands, so it becomes your own personal dog."

"Okay," asked someone else, "will it grow up to be a dog, or remain a puppy?"

"That's easy," said Maureen. "It will stay a puppy if you want it to be a puppy, but if you prefer, it will grow up to be a real working dog doing exactly what you say."

"What kind of working dog?"

"A watchdog, for one thing. It should warn you of dangerous things that might happen when you're not paying attention."

Someone else got into the spirit by asking, "What about a sheepdog? It could round up the 'sheep' for you, and put them safely in the pen. And guard them from anyone stealing any."

By this time everyone was involved, and the requirements process was running like a greyhound, though not necessarily in a straight line, as when someone asked, "How about fur? Should it be a longhair or a shorthair?" Nobody could figure out what fur meant for an interface, though the question did lead to an extensive discussion of touch screens and other interface hardware they had never previously used. Eventually this tangent was clipped by someone observing, "Our tail is starting to wag the dog."

The simile is excellent as an idea-generation tool, but eventually the requirements group has to groom their ideas into prize-winning form, which requires some idea-reduction tools. You know when the simile has become a bit dog-eared when you can no longer make fruitful connections between it and your product. It's important, though, to keep it going a bit past the point where it becomes ridiculous, just to be sure you've generated enough ideas.

Many people do not consider themselves metaphorical thinkers, believing they think more concretely. In the requirements process, they would more likely say, "Here is a chair. Design a better chair." or "Here is ordinary chalk. Design a superchalk." In fact, the norm is also a metaphor, seeming literally "close" to the thing desired. The great danger of using a norm is the constriction on our thinking once we identify what would almost satisfy the customer.

Another great danger is making one big leap in logic to the end result. Instead, starting with a norm and working by increments tends to protect us from the colossal blunder. The Wright brothers, for instance, were bicycle builders, and they used many of the norms from bicycle construction to create their success at Kitty Hawk.

A third danger is starting with the wrong norm, which could prevent us from making a great leap forward when one is possible. Orville and Wilber Wright did use a rail to launch their plane, but they didn't become the first heavier-than-air fliers by putting wings on a locomotive (Figure 5-2).

Figure 5-2. Don't let the norm dictate the form. If the Wright brothers had been train builders, they might have specified a plane that looked like this hybrid, which might have been on the right track, but would have had a hard time getting off the ground.

Suppose we agree to use a chair for a norm. Unfortunately, your mental picture of a chair may be very different from mine. A mockup is a way to protect against this ambiguity by providing an actual scale model of a product. Moreover, we can benefit by using the mockup to demonstrate, study, or test the product long before the product is actually built.
A mockup serves as a norm, when no norm exists, or when none is available. As such, it has all the advantages and disadvantages of a norm. It also has the advantage and disadvantage of being a fantasy product. When we use a mockup, we aren't restricted to what exists, but on the other hand, we can easily mock up a product that could never actually be built.

In printing, and in computing, for example, the mockup is often in the form of a layout of printed matter, or material on a screen. The customer and users can point to the layout and say, "Yes, that's what I want," or "No, what's this doing here?" What we are actually testing with the mockup is the customers' emotional responses—their desires. In effect, a mockup says, "This is what we think the product's face will look like. Let's see how you react to this!"

Many ideas for design projects simply begin with a name: Create Superchalk. Build me a table, chair, pencil, clock, elevator, steering wheel, speedometer, or bicycle. Although the name provides a quick and common connection for all participants to grasp, names also come with a large baggage of connotations. As we've seen, each word is worth a thousand pictures, and each connotation of a name may introduce implicit assumptions.

For instance, Jerry spent thirty years searching unsuccessfully for a use for computer paper edges largely because the name itself narrowed his thinking unnecessarily. Our colleague Jim Wessel observed that his four-year-old daughter isn't so limited. She cuts these strips into smaller pieces and calls them "tickets." We would do well to emulate the four-year-olds who have little trouble making up names for objects lacking conventional ones.

 Further Reading

The Exploring Requirements books can be obtained from a variety of retailers. Go to my website and chose your favorite source of books or eBooks.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Change Artist Challenge #5: Being The Catalyst

Look abroad thro' Nature's range.
Nature's mighty law is change.
- Robert Burns

Although change artists often work as prime movers, they more often work through understanding natural forces and creating slight perturbations of Nature. In this challenge, you will practice facilitating the change projects of others, using various ways of empowering from the position of catalyst. In chemistry, a catalyst is a substance that added to a reaction accelerates that reaction by its presence, without itself being changed by the reaction.

A human catalyst is someone who rouses the mind or spirits or incites others to activity with a minimum of self-involvement—in other words, by empowering others. For people to be empowered to change their organization, the MOI model tells us that the following ingredients are required:

• self-esteem
• a value system and a vision held in common
• a sense of difference between perceived and desired

• mutuality of support, based on personal uniqueness
• a plan for reducing the perceived-desired difference
• a diversity of resources relevant to the plan

• a systems understanding of what keeps things from changing
• an understanding of empowerment versus powerlessness
• continuing education appropriate to the tasks

Often, only a single ingredient is missing, but the person who doesn't know which one it is can feel completely disempowered. The recipe suggests which ingredient might be missing. A change artist who supplies that missing ingredient can catalyze change with minimal effort.

The Challenge

Your challenge is to facilitate other people's change projects, approximately one per week, for at least two weeks. You should attempt to be a catalyst, for change, not the prime mover for change. To be a catalyst, you should involve yourself

• as effectively as possible

• in the smallest possible way

• without depleting your capacity to catalyze other changes

If possible, use each ingredient of this recipe for empowerment at least once. Keep notes in your journal and be prepared to share learnings with the group you are catalyzing.

1. A group in the shipping department asked me to help them run their planning meetings. I said I would do it if they enrolled two people in our facilitation class, and that after taking the class, they would work alongside me. After one meeting, they are now facilitating their own.

2. I led a technical review of the design of a very controversial project, and apparently I did a good job because I got three other invitations to lead difficult reviews. I did lead two of them, but I decided to try being a catalyst on the third. I told them I wouldn't lead the meeting, but I would play shadow to a leader of their choice and we would switch roles if their leader got in trouble. She didn't.

3. One of my groups wasn't using—or even attempting to use—the new configuration control system. Ordinarily, I would have ordered them to use it, with threats of reprisals. I thought about the minimum thing I could do—with no force and no blaming—to get them moving. I decided to call them in for a meeting and give them the problem of how to get them moving. They told me they just didn't have time to switch their partially developed project to the new system. I asked them how much time they would need. They huddled and came up with a two-week extension to their schedule. (I had been afraid they would say two months.) Since they were off the critical path, I said they could have the two weeks, but only if they switched to the new system. They actually did the job in one week, and in the end, they made up four days of that—partly, at least, because of using the better tool. I've now used this consultation method several more times. "What would you need to give me what I need?" turns out to be a great catalyst. I like being a catalyst much more than being a dictator.

These challenges are adapted from my ebook, Becoming a Change Artist, which can be obtained from most of the popular ebook vendors. See my website <> for links to all of my books at the major vendors.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Change Artist Challenge #4: changing a relationship

Your fourth challenge will be to undertake changing a relationship. The purpose is to apply some of your learnings about congruence and conflict.

The Challenge
Choose one relationship you have with another person that's not all you would like it to be. It could be a good friend with whom there's one thing that annoys you but you've suppressed it, or something you like that you'd like more of. It could be a work associate with whom you're not on the terms you'd like to be. Again, don't start by tackling the most difficult relationship you have. If you finish changing one relationship, you are free to do another, and another..., so don't worry that it's too small.

As before, find an interested change artist, or associate, or some willing person, meet with the person and explain the change you want to make. Seek assistance in planning how to go about changing this relationship—assistance with ideas, in checking your ideas, and possibly in practicing in a role play. Then carry out your plan with the actual person.

This challenge will especially give you a chance to confront the difficulties you have in the presence of strong (or potentially strong) emotions in others. After all, you won't know in advance how the other person will respond to your attempt to change the relationship. They might cry, or go into Chaos, or get involved in a conflict with you over it, or become incongruent in a variety of ways. How will you handle yourself in those situations? Will you fail to take a risk because you anticipate one of these reactions?


1. I decided to get to know my boss better as a person, and not just as a "boss." I asked her to lunch. She was a bit taken aback, but once we agreed it would be Dutch treat, she was okay with it. We found out that we both have a passion for softball, but play in different leagues. That gave us a lot to talk about, and since then I've given her the benefit of the doubt when she comes out with some edict I don't understand.

2. I'm responsible for upgrading all the Mac software for my department, and one of the users has been a pain in the derriere for me ever since I got this job. I decided to sit down with him and ask him how he felt about the service he'd been getting. He said that people seemed to avoid him when he had problems, and he was pleased that I'd take the time to sit down with him. I was able to show him a few things that prevented trouble, and cured some things he hadn't even bothered to complain about. He's still a pain, but just in the neck, and I can deal with it. At least it's a little higher up. (smiles)

3. I have an employee who drinks excessively. I had been avoiding the topic because I didn't really know what to do. I paid a visit to our employee assistance program, and they gave me some booklets and some coaching. Next time he came in to work drunk, I knew what to do, and didn't pretend it wasn't happening. He had to confront the impact he's having on his job, and he's now working with employee assistance. He may not solve his drinking problem, but if not, I can handle it.

4. I did this a little backward. I decided to change a relationship back to what it was before. Grace and I worked together for a couple of years, and were very good friends. Then I took a transfer to a different project and moved to another building. I guess I was feeling guilty, like I deserted her—which isn't the way a good friend should behave—so I avoided seeing her or even calling her. I decided just to go over and pay her a visit, like we used to do when we were in neighboring cubes. She wondered where I'd been, and we're back to being great friends. All "her" feelings about me "leaving" were in my imagination.

5. I'd been playing golf with our hardware salesman for a couple of years—him taking me to his country club almost every Saturday. I never felt good about it, like it was somewhat unethical. So I told him that I couldn't play with him anymore unless I paid my way. He objected, saying it wasn't costing him anything, since his company was paying for it. I told him that was the point. He said okay. Now we still play golf, but I feel a lot better about it.

6. I'd been locked in a struggle with Harmon for almost a year over which CASE tool we should use in the organization. I decided to approach him from the point of view that our conflict was only helping those reprobates who didn't want to use any CASE tool. We made a pact that we would join forces to get some CASE tool going, somewhere. We actually flipped a coin to see who would help whom. I lost, so I swallowed my pride and helped him sell his team on using the tool he liked. Once we joined forces, they were a pushover. He was going to help me sell my team on the tool I liked, but by this time I like his tool just as well—actually a little better.


Remember, these challenges are taken from my book, Becoming a Change Artist.

I've wanted to put up a cover picture, but nothing I've tried seems to work with Blogger.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Readers Pay, but Kindle Doesn't Pay Authors

One good reason many international readers should buy my books through Smashwords—save lots of money.

Amazon Hold Back The Growth Of E-Books Around The World

Writers often wonder why the growth of e-books is so much slower in the rest of the world.

There are a number of reasons for that, but one big factor is the $2 surcharge that Amazon levies on all e-books in most international countries.

This charge is levied by Amazon, and kept by Amazon, and has nothing to do with taxes.

This charge is applied whether the user downloads e-books through their Kindle or not, and whether the user even owns a Kindle or not.


Thursday, July 07, 2011

The future of book publishing

Kris slices up yet another repetition of a stupid old prediction.

Masterful writing and thinking, as usual from Kris. If you're interested in the writing/reading business, you should follow her blog. Absolutely.

Amplify’d from
The Business Rusch: Slush Pile Truths

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Why am I calling Felten’s piece ridiculous?  Aside from the fact that he says the same thing writers from places like NPR to The Daily Beast have been saying for two years, he shows no understanding of the book business whatsoever.  If he actually gave the subject some thought and did a little research, then perhaps he would have come to a different conclusion.

His premise is pretty simple: without book publishers, readers won’t be able to find the good stuff in the middle of all the crap.

Jeez, dude.  Those arguments were old one hundred years ago when reading ceased to be the right of the rich and well educated, and trickled down to the masses. Anyone ever wonder why we ended up with a divide between “high-brow literature” and “low-brow crap”? It was because the cognoscenti no longer controlled what people read, therefore the cognoscenti lost a great deal of their power, so the cognoscenti had to make up words to distinguish between the “approved” books and that stinky genre stuff.


Sunday, July 03, 2011

Change Artist Challenge #3: Changing Nothing is Doing Something

Of course I am idle, but I am not idle by nature; I simply haven't yet discovered what I can do here...  - Sophie Tolstoy
The purpose of the next challenge is to find out what's driving you to change things, and what happens if you don't respond to that drive in the usual way.

The Challenge
Next time you're part of a team or group effort, sit back, listen, and observe. Your job is not trying to change anything. (You're not trying to prevent change. If the others want to change something, just let it happen. Otherwise, you'd be trying to change what they're attempting to do.)
Take particular notice of your urges to change things, and what happens when you don't do anything about those urges.

Here are a few experiences of other change artists who accepted this challenge to do nothing at all.

1. Wow! I couldn't do it! I lasted almost three whole minutes. I resisted the temptation to open the window, or to ask someone to do it. I resisted the temptation to move the flipchart so everyone could see it. I resisted the temptation to move over one seat to make room for a latecomer.
But when Jack stood up and grabbed the marker pen (AGAIN), I couldn't resist suggesting that someone else should take a turn. It was out of my mouth before I knew it! But I just HAD to say it!

2. (The same woman as the previous experience.) After my first miserable failure, I decided to try again, the next day. I got through the mechanics a lot more easily—the window and the flipchart and the chairs—and with somewhat more difficulty, I let Jack grab the pen again. I was on a roll, and I managed to keep it up for almost fifteen minutes. When I finally did say something about the direction the meeting was taking (I just didn't notice what I was doing), the other people reacted as if I was the President of the United States. They gave me their full attention, let me finish everything I had to say, and then did exactly what I proposed.
I think there's a clue there for me. (duh) I'm working on it, and I'm going to try this again.

3. I didn't think this would be very hard for me. I would just sit in the meeting and do what I usually do—keep my mouth shut and observe. I was doing a good job of this when all of a sudden I realized that I was changing things in my mind about once every thirty seconds. Then I said nothing about any of them, and I found myself getting angry that nobody else was doing anything about them.
Aha. Were they doing exactly what I was doing?

4. (The same man as the previous experience.) Armed with my new insight, I worked out a plan for the next meeting. I sat in my usual way, quietly fanning my smoldering anger and frustration. When I got to the proper amount of emotional heat—not so much that I wouldn't be able to control it—I said a sentence that I had written down and practiced: "Is there anything about this meeting anyone would like changed?"
The reaction was instantaneous, and the changes poured out. The rest of the meeting went very differently from our usual meetings, though I didn't say another thing.

5. This was a pretty boring exercise for me, so I had to do something to occupy my mind. I decided to try to observe emotional reactions, because I had always thought our meetings were rather flat and unemotional, but our consultant told me they weren't. I noticed lots of things that I never saw before. For instance, two of our folks were really suffering—I didn't know from what, so I asked them about it after the meeting.
Was that a violation of the assignment? If it was, I don't care, because I learned some things I had never even suspected before, and the quality of my relationships with two members of the team have gone up several notches.

The Meta-Challenge
Here's a challenge about the challenge:

When you take this challenge, I'd love to read about what happened and what you learned. Hundreds of readers would like this, too. Besides, it will probably do you much good to sit down for a few minutes and recall your experience. Good writing practice, too.
     For more about Becoming a Change Artist, you can read the book and try the entire sequence of exercises.