Is group chat making you sweat? — Signal v. Noise

Jason Fried has writen an incredible post about the benefits and the pitfalls (mostly the latter) of group chat after ten years of experience at 37signals and Basecamp.

I think he is fundamentally right in giving ‘attention’ so much importance as a precious resource. I’ve come to realise that the ability to singletask is the one skill that most people are lacking in their working lives. It is certainly the thing that I would like to get better at.

At my place of work we have been experimenting with Mattermost over the last few weeks and are on the cusp of implementing it for the whole team. I look forward to implementing Fried’s recommendations on how to make that a success.

I believe attention is one of your most precious resources. If something else controls my attention, that something else controls what I’m capable of. I also believe your full attention is required to do great work. So when something like a pile of group chats, and the expectations that come along with them, systematically steals that resource from me, I consider it a potential enemy. “Right now” is a resource worth conserving, not wasting.

Group chatSource: Is group chat making you sweat? — Signal v. Noise — Medium

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How to Use Twitter to Become an Expert on Any Topic

Twitter

Sometimes you need to quickly immerse yourself in a new field. You might want to gain expertise or quickly gauge what the current issues are around a particular topic. One way of doing this is by creating a dedicated Twitter account to follow a topic. Below some instructions on how you could do this.

Setting up a Twitter account with the right settings

Twitter sign up page

Twitter sign up page

  1. Go to Twitter.com.
  2. Create a new account by filling in a name, password and email address. Unfortunately the email address needs to be unique. If you have an gmail account, then this limitation is easy enough to get around.
  3. In the next step you get to pick a Twitter username, this is the name that will be displayed in front of the @ sign.
  4. Twitter will now ask you to go through a set of steps designed to give you a good first user experience. You can ignore most of these steps. Probably the quickest way to continue is just navigate out of the welcome screen by going to the Twitter main page. Twitter will also send you an email with a confirmation link that you will have to click on.
  5. After getting your account sorted, click on the “settings wheel” in the top right corner and click on “Settings”. In the left menu click on “Email notifications” (or just click here when logged in).
  6. If you don’t want to receive a lot of emails from Twitter, then turn most of these notifications off.
  7. Make sure that “Email me with Top Tweets and Stories” is turned on and that you have picked “Sent as a daily digest” in the dropdown menu.
  8. Since we are doing research it makes sense to tick the box to receive “Suggestions based on my recent follows”.
  9. Press the “Save changes” button at the bottom if you have changed anything in these notification settings.

Finding the right Twitter accounts to follow

  1. Start by typing your topic in the Twitter search field.
  2. Find a tweet that interests you.
  3. Click on the user name of the account that tweeted this tweet.
  4. See if the biography of the user and their other tweets also are interesting to you. Also check if they have at least some followership (although very interesting sources could still have very few followers). If they are interesting click on their username once more.
  5. Click on “Follow” to follow the user.
  6. Twitter will suggest some users that might be interesting too, you can follow up on these later.
  7. In the left menu click on “Lists”, then select “Member of” (find the link in the center of the page). See if there is a title of a list that speaks to your topic. Now you can start at step 2 again or you can select “List members” in the menu on the left and restart at step 3.
  8. Continue with this loop (and occasionally backtrack) until you have at least 50 sources.
  9. Keep adding sources as you find them, make sure to revisit this process once in while.
Click to see a full example of the digest (PDF)

Click to see a full example of the digest (PDF)

Final step: getting the most out of it

Here is some advices on getting the most out of your dedicated Twitter account:

  • Don’t be too picky at the outset. Include any Twitter account that is remotely interesting. You don’t have to be precise. The time deliberating on whether you should include an account is probably better spent finding other interesting account: just follow them.
  • Pay attention. The daily digest is full of the links that the network of people you are following found most interesting (things that have been retweeted a lot for example). Follow the links, see if they lead to new websites you’ve never heard of (sign up if they are interesting) or new people you don’t know. You should spend quality time on reading and processing the digest.
  • Cull accounts with high influence and low relevance. Some Twitter accounts have a lot of influence: links that they share show up on most days in your digest. Ask yourself if you like those links. If you don’t, then unfollow that Twitter account. This might enrich and diversify your digest.
  • Ask the Twitter accounts that have helped you the most for more help. Something like: “@usefultwitteraccount I have really appreciated your tweets over the last couple of weeks. Any suggestions of who else I should follow?” will usually get a helpful response.

Let me know how you get on!

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An Innovation Manifesto

Innovation

Over the last few weeks I collaborated with a few people to write an innovation manifesto for an IT function. I think the following statements are a pretty good starting point to becoming more innovative:


We prefer outside-in over inside-out
You can start by looking what issues we have internally and then find solutions for those issues. You can also look at what issues are worked on externally and try to bring solutions to those issues inside. Organization will continue to be good at doing the former, that is why we prefer to focus on the latter.

We share the responsibility
We are all responsible for innovation. Each of us tries to work on their own discovery skills (associating, questioning, observing, experimenting and networking) and the discovery skills of others in the team.

There is always business involvement
For each experiment (proof of concept) that we do, we will have somebody in the business working with us. We don’t innovate by ourselves and realize that innovation requires multiple businesses and functions to collaborate.

We shape expectations
We build informal coalitions of people who work on an opportunity. Together we explore where the value lies. We encourage ambition without creating expectations that can’t be met.

We are user-centered, not technology-focused
The user does not care about the intricacies of IT, they just want things to work well. We take a user-centered perspective when looking at problems and solutions and regularly sit next to our end-users. We recognize that technology is not always the innovative solution in all cases.

We have a bias to “yes”
Saying “no” to ideas and plans is easy. We aim to say “yes, let’s investigate” and then work on trying to make it happen in a way that is cost-efficient and addresses any risks.

We focus on the achievable
Everything we do should have a do-able plan and sit within our sphere of influence. Organizations are good at big strategic initiatives already. Our efforts are nimble and have a shorter timeline, while keeping the bigger plan in mind.

We leverage what is already there
We reuse what has been done elsewhere in the business. We allow our suppliers and vendors to help us use their products better. We are good citizens in their customer communities.

We are experts in our domain
Our knowledge in our domain is deep and extends from internal processes and technology to the external market in all its dimensions. We invest heavily in our own expertise.

We accept and embrace change
Innovation starts with a willingness to accept change.


I am sure many innovation gurus wouldn’t agree with all the points above. Some people would argue for example that expertise can be a hindrance to innovation or that you should aim for what isn’t currently achievable. I am very curious to hear your thoughts.

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How To Chair a Socratic Webinar

Socrates
Socrates, CC-BY-SA licensed picture by Eric Gaba

The Man

Webinars are usually dreadful affairs. There is wise advice from Donald Taylor and there is the webinar manifesto (slightly too commercial: “Never design, deliver or sell lousy webinars again”) that will help you do a better job. I would like to add a completely different way to run a webinar. I call it the Socratic Webinar.

A Socratic conversation is a philosophical method where the participants trust their own thinking, rather than accept the expertise of somebody else. Questions are the starting point. The conversation is explicitly not a discussion, instead you try to listen as the group thinks their way towards an argumented answer. They do this by reflecting on their feelings, their thinking and their actions.

Chairing a Socratic conversation requires some skills. These suggestions are based on my experience and should help you on your way.

Preparation

Traditionally a Socratic conversation would start with questions that are raised by the participants. The chair of the conversation is a guide for the process and doesn’t need to know anything about the questions. This is different if you are asked to host a webinar. The webinar will likely have a topic and you are often seen as the expert.

Start by thinking of questions that you would like to ask the audience. Ideally these should be questions that are very open (or even philosophical) in nature. They will start with “What is”, “Is”, “Why” or “Should”. Questions that begin with “How”, “Can”, or “Will” are less interesting.

In a webinar you can work through one question every 15 minutes or so. So if your webinar lasts an hour, you can address 3-4 questions.

You will not share the questions with the participants in advance.

There is a limit to the number of participants in a Socratic conversation. Ideally you have between 5 and 15 participants, but it should work with up to 30 people. Socratic conversations are great to listen in on too. If you are working with large numbers, then you can invite some to join the conversation and have the rest listen in.

At the start of webinar

It is important to frame the Socratic conversation in the right way (your participants will not be used to this approach). Start by telling the participants that you will be having a Socratic conversation and read them the following rules:

  • This is not a discussion. It is an exploration in which we try to build on each other’s ideas.
  • Only one person can speak at a time. You can ask to speak by raising your (virtual) hand. I will give people the floor.
  • You are only allowed to speak if you are capable of repeating what the person before you said and if you are capable of summarizing the last 15 minutes of conversation. Often we are so intent on making our own point, that we forget to listen. Listening is important in Socratic conversations.

Ask whether there is anybody who can’t agree to the rules. Usually everybody agrees (legimitizing you to remind rule-breakers later on of what was agreed). If somebody has a problem with the rules, then either resolve those problems (convince them the rules are fine or change the rules) or ask them not to participate.

During the webinar

Start the exploration by showing the first question on screen. Ask who would like to say something about the question. Most webinar platforms (like Adobe Connect or Microsoft LiveMeeting) allow people to raise their hand or change their status to a different colour. You can then sort the participant list on this status and can instantly see who would like to say something. As soon as somebody “raises their hand” you can give them the microphone (sometimes this requires you to make some clicks in the system).

When the person finishes you ask the other participants whether somebody would like to build on that point. It is important to be a good facilitator of the conversation. Sometimes you need to summarize what was being said and rephrase the point in a generalized way and then ask for people’s reactions.

Occasionally nobody will come forward to speak. Don’t be afraid of the silence and just let it be for a little while. Soon enough somebody will not be able to tolerate the awkwardness and will step forward to say something. This always happens.

You will find that even a small audience is capable of creating by themselves most standard (or historical) arguments around any particular topic. Only if the participants have exhausted their lines of thinking and you as an expert still know another angle they have not explored, can you bring in your expertise and maybe some good stories and references. Don’t go overboard with this: the participants should be speaking at least 80% of the time.

Now move on to the next question.

Don’t let one person monopolize the conversation by constantly raising their hand or by very lengthy contributions. Say that you now want to hear from somebody who has not spoken yet. Once again: wait through the silence. If you do this well, you will get way more participation and interaction than in any other webinar. People love to be able to talk!

Ideally you will write notes during the session. These should capture both the arguments that the participants created and explored and the stories and references that you brought into the conversation.

After the webinar

If you have taken notes during the session, you can format these nicely and share them with the participants. Because they’ve been active participants in the exploration, they will have a much stronger connection with the material.

Give people the option to continue the conversation with you: share your contact details and how people can connect with you.

I realize that 99% of the webinars are about selling people a product you might have. If you purpose is different, you want your audience to really think, then it is worthwhile trying the Socratic version. Do let me know your experiences with the methodology.

I need to acknowledge my indebtedness to Humberto Schwab for being my philosophy teacher (about 20 years ago) and for showing a Socratic conversation at Picnic 2012. I have done my own interpretation of the process, so blame me for anything that is wrong with this write-up of the methodology.

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Out-Innovating the Competition

 

Best Practices are Stupid

Best Practices are Stupid

Stephen Shapiro from 27-4 Innovation was plugging his latest book Best Practices Are Stupid – 40 ways to Out-Innovate the Competition at an event I attended today. His focus is on how to speed up or accelerate the rate of innovation.

He started with an exercise where he pretended to measure how fast our brains were. He did this by shouting out different numbers in a very quick fashion. We had to capture those numbers. He would then give us assignments in the middle of it. Like “Write down the name of a genius.” Because we were under such time pressure we had remarkable little differentiation in our answers  to these challenges.

Shapiro says that this is because “Expertise is the enemy of innovation”. The more you know about something, the more difficult it is to come up with new and interesting perspectives on it. When we find a solution we tend to stop looking.

He then gave us a little mathematical puzzle that showed that the way you phrase a question has a profound impact on how you work towards a solution. One of his favorite quotes is from Einstein:

If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem.. and one minute finding solutions.

Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has far more eloquently stated descriptions of Shapiro’s examples of the biases in our thinking.

According to Shapiro asking better questions is at the heart of doing better innovation. You have to frame the question in a way that makes sense. He calls this the Goldilocks principle: the challenge needs to be defined exactly right, meaning not too abstract/broad, but also not too detailed. Or another way of phrasing it:

Ask the right question…
the right way…
to the right people.

This means that you have to move away from generic idea generation tools towards challenge based innovation. The added advantage of that is that you might avoid a common pitfal of crowd-sourcing, something Stephen names “mob-sourcing”.

A quick way to catalyse your thinking is to find someone who has already solved a similar problem. When members of a team are cut from the same cloth… you don’t see many failures, but you don’t see many extraordinary innovations either. Innovation is not invention: it is taking something that already exists from a different domain and adapting it.

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