Showing posts with label cognitive psychology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cognitive psychology. Show all posts

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Design thinking: A New Approach To Fight Complexity And Failure


Photo credit: String Theory by Michael Krigsman

The endless succession of failed projects forces one to question why success is elusive, with an extraordinary number of projects tangling themselves in knots. These projects are like a child’s string game run amok: a large, tangled mess that becomes more convoluted and complex by the minute.

IT projects fail all the time. Business blames IT, IT blames the system integrator (SI), who then blames the software vendor. After all this blaming and shaming, everyone goes back to work on another project without examining the project management methods and processes that caused the failure. And, so, they fail again.

There’s no one definition of design thinking. It’s a mindset and set of values that applies both analytical and creative thinking towards solving a specific problem. Design thinking is about how you think and not what you know; it is about the journey and not the destination.

Having followed Michael Krigsman’s analysis of IT project failures, it became evident that design thinking can play an important role in improving enterprise software development and implementation. 
The design thinking approach offers a means to address the underlying causes of many project failures — poor communication, rigid thinking, propensity toward tunnel vision, and information silos.

I have distilled important lessons from design thinking into six principles that can help stop project failures. Along the way, we will draw comparisons with Agile development, since that distinction is often a source of confusion when discussing design thinking.

These six principles, based on design thinking, can help any project team operate more successfully.

1. Put a multi-disciplinary team in charge

You can’t pin down project failure on one person or one topic and yet we continue to use a person-centric method to manage projects. No one on a project team wants to fail. If you collectively put responsibility of the failure or success on the shoulders of the team and get them trained and motivated to think and behave differently you will mitigate much failure.

Multidisciplinary teams champion the user, business, and technology aspects of a project in a more comprehensive manner than would otherwise be possible. Typically, an IT team talks to business stakeholders who then talk to end users, which creates communication gaps, delays, and inefficiency. Far better to create a single team that includes participants from all areas, creating a single unit that includes multiple perspectives.

Try to staff your project team with “T-shaped” people, who possess a broad understanding and empathy for all the IT functions, but who also have deep expertise in one domain to champion that perspective. This approach can ensure that your solution is economically viable, technologically feasible, and delights the end users. A more balanced team also humanizes the project and its approach. Stay small and resist the temptation to set up very large teams. If you believe the “two-large-pizza-team” rule, those projects are team-driven and tend to be more successful. Start-ups can build something quicker because they are always short on people. As your group get bigger and bigger, other people tell you what to do and team members feel less connected to their work as it relates to the outcome.

2. Prepare for failure in the beginning

I recommend kicking off the project with a “pre-mortem workshop.” Visualize all the things that could go wrong by imagining that the project has failed. This gives the team an opportunity to proactively look at risks and prepare to prevent and mitigate them. I have sat through numerous post-mortem workshops and concluded that the root causes of failures are usually the same: abstract concepts such as lack of communication, unrealistic scope, insufficient training, and so on. If that’s true, why do we repeat the same mistakes, causing failure to remain a common situation? Primarily because many people find it hard to imagine and react to abstractions, but can relate much better when these concepts are contextualized into their own situation.

3. Be both vision- and task-driven

Design thinking emphasizes storytelling, shared vision, and empathy towards all stakeholders involved in a project. On many projects, participants focus exclusively on their own individual tasks, thus becoming disconnected from the big picture.

While design thinking strives to connect participants to the larger vision, Agile development can be very task-driven. Everyone gets a task without necessarily understanding the big picture, or vision, or even seeing the connection between his or her tasks and the final outcome. In this situation, a project can fail and people may not understand their role, thinking they failed due to someone else’s work. If participants don’t realize their tasks contributed to a failure, they won’t try to learn and change.

On the other hand, vision-driven approaches are very powerful. People perform their tasks, but the story and vision persist throughout the project; the same story gets told by different people throughout the lifecycle of the project to avoid that big picture fading away. All the tasks have a bigger purpose beyond their successful execution. Even good project managers miss this point. At review meetings, it is important to evaluate what the team did right but also revisit the vision and examine how recent outcomes fit the overall story.

4. Fail and correct then fail again

Design thinking contradicts other methodologies that focus only on success. In design thinking, failing is not necessarily a bad idea at all; however, we fail early and fail often, and then correct the course. In many projects, people chase success without knowing what it looks like or expecting to fail; therefore, they do not learn from the process.

One of the challenges with traditional project management is the need to pick one alternate and run with it. Turns out that you don’t know everything about that alternative and when it fails, due to the irreversible decision that you made, you can’t go back. Far better to iterate on a number of alternatives as fast as you can before deciding which one will work. This approach requires a different way of thinking and planning your project.

5. Make tangible prototypes

Agile proposed creating unstructured documentation as opposed to making structured requirement documents. But, unfortunately, that is not enough to solve many problems. One of the core characteristics of design thinking is to prototype everything, to make a tangible artifact and learn from it. The explorative process of making prototypes makes people think deeply and ask the right kind of questions. It’s said that “computers will never give a wrong answer but it will respond to a wrong question.” The prototypes encourage people to focus on what I want to know as opposed to what I want to say. This is very important during the initial design phase of the project.

One of the biggest misconceptions about prototypes is that people think they are too complex to make and are overhead or a waste of time. This isn’t true at all. Prototypes can be as simple as a hand-drawn sketch on a paper or as complex as fully functional interactive interface. The fidelity of a prototype is based on what kind of questions you want answered. People tend to fill in gaps when they see something raw or incomplete whereas hi-fidelity prototypes can be too complete to solicit meaningful feedback. As I already mentioned, most people respond better to an artifact as opposed to an abstract document. Prototypes also make the conversation product-centric and not person-centric. They also help to get team members on the same page with a shared vision.

6. Embrace ambiguity

One of the problems with traditional project management methodologies is that they make people spend more time in executing the solution and less time on defining the problem. Design thinking encourages people to stay in the problem space as long as they can. This invariably results in ambiguity, which is actually a good thing.

Ambiguity fosters abductive thinking — a mindset that allows people to explore what is probable with the limited information on their hands without concerns about proving or concluding that it actually works. It helps people define a problem in many different ways, eventually letting them get to the right problem they eventually should focus on.

This also supports the emergent approach that design thinking advocates as opposed to a hypothesis-driven approach. In a hypothesis-driven environment, people tend to focus on proving a premise created by a small group people. Rushing to a solution without defining the problem, and having no emergent framework in place to include the insights gained during later parts of the project, certainly contributes to failure.

ORGANIZATIONAL BARRIERS TO SUCCESS

Even the best methodology requires organizational commitment to success. For design thinking to work, it is also necessary to address these common organizational issues, each of which can impede progress and limit successful outcomes.

Lack of C-level commitment: Although design thinking is applicable at all levels in an organization, executive management must bless it by publicly embracing and practicing design thinking. Top down initiatives and training only go so far.

When the employees see their leaders practice design thinking they are more likely to embrace and practice it themselves. The same is true with adoption of social media and collaborative tools inside an organization. The best signal to your employees is by showing them a firm belief in the method by practicing it firsthand and sharing positive outcome.

Resistance to change: People in any organization are usually fundamentally against change, even if they believe it’s a good thing. They don’t want to get out of their comfort zone and therefore practice the same methods that have resulted in multiple failures in the past. Changing behavior is difficult but fortunately design thinking can help.

One of the ways I have taught design thinking is by taking people away from their primary domain and have them solve a very different kind of problem such as redesigning a ticket vending machine or a fast food restaurant. My team was hugely successful since it was a completely different domain and it didn’t interfere with their preconceived notion of how a project should be executed. People’s reservations are tied to their domain; they are willing to adopt a new method and new way of thinking if you coach them outside of their domain and then encourage to practice it in their comfort zone.

Lack of industry backing: Despite being informal, undocumented, and non-standards-based methodology, Agile experienced widespread adoption. I would attribute this success to two things: a well-defined manifesto by lead industry figures and organizations publicly committing to adopt the methodology. Design thinking lacks these attributes.

Even though industrial design companies such as IDEO has evangelized this approach, there’s still confusion around what design thinking actually means. This also makes it difficult to explain design thinking to a wider audience. If a few organizations publicly endorse design thinking, create a manifesto, and share the best practices to gain momentum, many of the adoption hurdles will go away.

Lack of key performance indicator (KPI) frameworks: Design thinking faces the same challenge that most Enterprise 2.0 tools face: lack of measurable KPIs.

For number-driven leaders, lack of a quantifiable framework to measure and monitor the impact of a new methodology is a challenge. Some leaders are good at adopting new ways of doing things and others are not. In these cases, isolate a project that you can’t measure and start small. Contain the risk but pick a project that has significant upside, to keep people engaged and motivated. You may still fail, or not achieve a desired outcome, but that’s what the design thinking is all about.

It’s worth noting that Agile, as a software project methodology, has well defined quality and reliability KPIs such as beta defects, rejected stories during a scrum cycle, and the delta between committed and delivered stories.

Fail early and course correct the next time. Remember that adoption and specific practice need correction and not the method itself. Don’t give up.

FINAL THOUGHTS

During my extensive work on design thinking - practicing, coaching, and analyzing — I often talk with people who believe that design thinking is merely a methodology or approach for “visual design.” This view is a false perception. Design thinking comprises a set of principles one can apply during any stage of the enterprise project lifecycle along with other project management methodologies. This approach is valid for the CEO and executive management all the way to the grass roots.

Another common point of confusion is the distinction between design thinking and Agile methods of software development. The primary difference is that Agile offers a specific set of prescriptive processes while design thinking encapsulates a set of guidelines and general principles. Although not the same, the two approaches are highly complementary (even on the same project), because both recognize the benefits of using iterative work cycles to pursue customer-centric goals.

Always remember that real people work on every project. The best methodologies are inherently people-centric and help participants anticipate likely causes of failure. Visualizing failure early in a project is an excellent means to prevent it from occurring. We’re all human and may make mistakes but certainly no one wants to fail.

Design thinking can make potential failure a learning tool and not a final outcome.
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I had originally published this post as a guest blog post on Michael Krigsman's IT Project Failures blog

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Continuous Passive Branding During Economic Downturn To Change Customers' Opinions

The current economic downturn has forced many CIOs to significantly reduce the external IT spending. Many projects are being postponed or canceled. This situation poses some serious challenges to the sales and marketing people of companies selling enterprise software. Many argue that there is nothing much these people can do. I would disagree.

Marketing campaigns tend to rely a lot on selling a product using active aggressive marketing that may not be effective under these circumstances since many purchase decisions are being placed on hold. However these circumstances and poor economic climate are ideal to build a brand and paddle concepts with continuous passive branding exercise. The branding exercise, if designed well, could change buyers’ experience around a concept or a product and evoke emotions that could be helpful when a product is actively being sold. Guy Kawasaki points us to an experiment that studied the art of persuasion to change people's attitudes. People should always be selling since the best way to change someone's mind is to sell them when they are not invested into an active purchase decision, emotionally or otherwise.

GE’s green initiative, branded as ecomagination, is an example of one of these passive branding exercise. Last year Climate Brand Index rated GE No. 1 on green brands. GE published a page long ad in a leading national magazine introducing their new green aviation engine. Instead Jeff could have picked up the phone and called Boing and Airbus and said "hey we have a new engine". Instead GE paddled their green brand to eventually support their other products such as green light bulbs. Climate change is a topic that many people are not necessarily emotionally attached to and have a neutral position on but such continuous passive marketing campaigns could potentially change people's opinions.

Apple’s cognitive dissonance is also a well known branding strategy to passively convince consumers that a Mac, in general, is better than a Windows. Many people simply didn’t have a stand on a laptop but now given a choice many do believe that they like a Mac.

The art of persuasion goes well beyond the marketing campaigns. Keeping customers engaged onto the topics and drive the thought leadership is something even more important during this economic downturn. The sales conversation is not limited to selling a product but also includes selling a concept or a need. The marketing is even more important considering the customers are not actively buying anything. The leaders should not fixate themselves on measuring the campaign to lead metrics. Staying with the customers in this downturn and help them extract the maximum value out of their current investment would go a long way since customers don't see their opinions being changed by a seemingly neutral vendor. When the economic climate improves and the customers initiates a purchase that sales cycle is not going to be that long and dry.

The leaders should carefully evaluate their investment strategy during this economic downturn. The economy will bounce back, the question is will they be ready to leap frog the competition and be a market leader when that happens. Cisco's recently announced their 2009 Q1 results. John Chambers made Cisco's strategy in the downturn very clear - invest aggressively in two geographies: the U.S. and selective emerging countries since emerging countries will be a steady state of growth as the countries grow and be prepared to sell in the western countries since they are likely the first ones to come out of this downturn.

“In our opinion, the U.S. will be the first major country to recover. The strategy on emerging countries is simple. Over time we expect the majority of the world’s GDP growth will come from the emerging countries. In expanding these relationships during tough times, our goal is to be uniquely positioned as the market turn-around occurs. This is identical to what we did during Asia's 1997 financial crisis.”

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Exprimental economics helps solve complex business problems

How do you predict demand from your distributors? Would you try demand simulation, predictive analytics, or a complex mathematical model? Try experimental economics. Wired points us to a story (found via Techdirt) of Kay-Yut Chen who is an experimental economist at HP solving the complex demand forecast problems.

http://www.yunying1001.com/search/label/cognitive%20psychology
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One of Chen's recent projects involved finding a way for H.P. to more accurately predict demand from its nine distributors, who collectively sell as much as $3 billion worth of H.P.'s products. The problem? Its distributors' forecasts for demand were frequently off by as much as 100 percent, wreaking havoc on H.P.'s production planning.

Chen's solution to the planning problem, which H.P. intends to test soon with one distributor, was to develop an incentive system that rewarded distributors for sticking to their forecasts by turning those forecasts into purchase commitments. In the lab, the overlap between distributors' forecasts and their actual orders using this system increased to as high as 80 percent. "That's pretty astonishing given that the underlying demand is completely random," Chen says.

The human beings are terrible at making rational decisions and the complex problems such as demand forecast cannot really be solved by complex modeling algorithms or predictive analytics. Applying the economics of incentives to such problems is likely to yield better results. Freakonomics explains the creative use of economics of incentives in great depth. Dan Ariely writes in Predictably Irrational about people predictably making irrational decisions and how it breaks the rules of traditional economics and free markets that are purely based on demand and supply ignoring the human irrationality.

There is a lesson for an enterprise software vendor to design human-centric software that supports human beings in complex decision management process. Good news is that I do see the enterprise software converging towards social computing. Topics such as security that have been considered highly technical are being examined with a human behavior lens ranging from cognitive psychology to anthropology of religion.

I would welcome a range of tools that could help experimental economics gain popularity and dominance in the mainstream business. For instance behavior-based AB testing can be set up in a lab to test out hypothesis based on experimental economics and the results of the experiment could be directly fed to a tool that reconfigures an application or a website in real-time.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Alaska Airlines expedites the check-in process through design-led-innovation

Southwest airlines is known to have cracked the problem of how to effectively board the aircraft and Disney specializes in managing the crowd and long lines. Add one more to this list, Alaska Airlines. Fast Company is running a story on how Alaska Airlines has been designing the check-in area to reduce the average check-in time at the Anchorage airport . This is a textbook example of design-led-innovation and has all the design thinking and user-centered design elements - need finding, ethnography, brainstorming, rapid prototyping, and end user validation. Alaska Airlines visited various different places to learn how others manage crowd and applied those learnings in the context of their problem supported by contextual inquiry of the check-in agents. They built low fidelity prototypes and refined them based on early validation.

The story also discusses that Delta is trying a similar approach at Atlanta terminal. Passengers see where they're going. The mental rehearsal or mental imagery aspects of cognitive psychology have been successfully applied to improve athletic performance. There have been some experiments in the non-sports domain, but this is a very good example. Imagine an airport layout where a security check-in process is visible from a check-in line. This could make people mentally rehearse a security check while they wait for their boarding passes so that they are more likely to complete the actual security check much faster.

What makes this story even more compelling that they managed to satisfy customers by reducing the average wait-time and yet saved the cost and proved that saving money and improving customer experience are not mutually exclusive. The innovation does not have to be complicated. They also had a holistic focus on the experience design where a customer's experience starts on the the web and ends at the airport. Some people suggest airplane-shaped boarding areas to expedite the boarding. This is an intriguing thought and this is exactly the kind of thinking we need to break out of traditional mindset and apply the design-thinking approach to champion the solution. I am all in for the innovations to speed up the check-in and boarding as long as I don't have to wear one of those bracelets that could give people debilitating shocks!

Friday, July 6, 2007

Innovation and design

"How can I do Apple"? I liked Cordell Ratzlaff's quotes in this Business Week article. "The most successful products I was a part of at Apple started with only a few people with no formal structure or hierarchy and little corporate oversight." Cordell managed Apple's Human Interface group in 1990 and now he is a director of User-Centered design at Cisco. He also says "Democracy works well for running a country and choosing a prom queen. The best product designs, however, come from someone with a singular strong vision and the fortitude to fend off everything and everyone that would compromise it." Yes, we all know and I agree that Steve Jobs is the king. To "do an Apple" you can either hire Steve Jobs or you ask your C-level executives to do what he does. Apple does not sell products, it sells user experience and apparently they are doing a good job marketing and selling this experience. We all can learn from Apple and understand the connection between innovation and design.

Apple has made mistakes in the past that resulted into some failures. Many people have blamed Apple for causing cognitive dissonance that resulted into bad design but Apple at least believes in design and gets it. Design-led innovation is not just about interaction, sensory, or information design but it is about design thinking. Apple does get a lot of credit for providing design a first class seat in their organization and enjoys the halo effect or cognitive bias to certain extent. The Business Week article talks about designers sharing the same philosophy and thinking long after they left Apple and this is a good thing as long as the designers don't introduce self-referential design. You want all the people in your organization to believe and practice design-led innovation but you don't really want to copy Apple when you "do an Apple".