If you ask your users what they want your collaboration technology to do, they’ll probably come up with something like “improve collaboration” which doesn’t tell you much. This may be because they hear these kinds of platitudes way too often in technology projects (more on that topic later).
The more likely explanation is that they probably don’t know what they want. Yet… Don’t worry, they’ll get there eventually. With some help from you of course.
To get your users to tell you what they really want, you’ll first need to understand a bit more about how their minds work. Brace yourself!
Cognitive Learning 101
Very few of us learn in a linear fashion. Despite this, there are a lot of methodologies that suggest following an orderly process is the best way to work. You begin by understanding the problem which might involve gathering and analysing requirements from customers or users. Once you have the problem specified and the requirements analysed, you are ready to formulate a solution and eventually implement that solution. Very neat and tidy.
Many project managers, cheque signers and just about every program management office around will try to operate this way because it promises order, certainty and control. And fair enough when your performance is being judged by getting stuff done to an agreed time and cost. There is only one teeny issue. For some scenarios, it simply doesn’t work.
Most of us follow a much more non-linear learning style. Especially when a problem is new or novel.
Let’s say you are researching why the sky is blue, something you know very little about. Would you go to the library, read all the books you can find on the subject in order of date published, formulate a solution and write it? You are probably more likely to read something, follow a reference to somewhere else, speak to someone researching the same thing and get scared because you’ve realised you’ve focused on the wrong thing, drink a whole lot of coffee, do a bit more research and slowly, solutions begin to emerge.
This diagram from Dr. Jeffrey Conklin, an expert in collaborative technology research, shows the difference between these two patterns of problem solving:
If a problem is new and it’s unclear what hurdles you might encounter along the way, like most technology implementation projects often are, people’s understanding of the problem is probably going to change along the way. And this is going to keep happening.
People will go through a cycle of looking for solutions to help them understand the problem, and as they discover these, their understanding of the problem changes. You might hear your users say “actually now that I think about it, the real problem is x”. They are merely following the green line as they figure out what their real problem is.
The most important lesson in all this is: don’t punish people for trying to improve their understanding of them problem. If someone changes their view of the problem and you hit them with the metaphorical baseball bat known as the scope change, they will eventually disengage from you. A pity your solution will go away with them but hey, it was in scope right? This constant change may be frustrating for you, but keep in mind this is a natural part of problem solving. Your users aren’t changing their mind on a whim, nor are they trying to punish you.
Here’s how to cope with your users changing path without ending up huddled in the corner.
- Involve stakeholders from the start and throughout the project. After all they are the ones that have to live with the result and their take-up is presumably a key success criteria.
- Expect fluid requirements and scope change. Try to be adaptable and put yourself in their shoes.
- Expect resistance and pullback – people put more value on what they’re going to lose than what they’re going to gain.
- Get a shared understanding of the problem through techniques like dialogue mapping (more on that in this eBook)
If you follow this advice, you will soon start to see your users’ behaviour change, and hopefully for the better.
Here are some positive changes you might see which are key indicators you’re doing something right:
- You might start to notice your users’ questions are more informed – this is a reflection of their increased knowledge as well as your ability to teach.
- Then your users might start asking you questions you don’t know the answer to. Before you panic, don’t worry, they won’t expect all the answers from you. Most great working relationships are great because they are two sided – so your users starting a dialogue with you just shows that you have started to create a collaborative partnership.
- And finally your users start teaching you stuff. Like what they have done with your collaboration technology that you have never done or didn’t know you could do.
Once this starts to happen, don’t be sad your users don’t need you as much, be happy you’ve helped them.
Remember, don’t fight the green line. When we ask users to define their requirements from the outset and make it difficult for them to change their mind along the way, we are asking them to conform to a style of problem solving that just isn’t natural for them.
Paul Culmsee is an IT professional and sense-maker with over 21 years’ experience. He’s well-known for his strategic focus on digital collaboration technologies and for his blog Clever Workarounds.