Friday, May 20, 2011

The Big Wall of "Why?"

I submit for your consideration - The Big Wall of "Why?"

We all love a good rant from time to time. It's cathartic. The most impassioned rants tend to be born of truly knowing a problem and its causes. Unfortunately, verbal rants are ephemeral. They go in one ear and out the other. Even if they were to be recorded or written down, they're not really accessible for a wide audience to consider. They they carry too much detail.

It struck me that many folks in our organization held vital knowledge which just never quite crossed the threshold into common knowledge because of difficulty in articulating and socializing the information. As a result, the information tends not to be taken into account when forming organizational strategies.

One day, about 6 weeks ago, I was listening to a colleague's rant about our build processes. It was like drinking from a fire hose. As I strained to listen, I could tell that he was supplying important details, but I couldn't quite parse it all into my understanding quickly enough. I grabbed a deck of Postit sticky notes and stopped him in mid-flow. Thinking of tweets and Haiku, I tried to summarize his current point on a sticky, since the size of the sticky would force us to really get to the essence of his problem. I put it on a board. I then asked him "Why?" He gave me that answer to that and I summarized it on a second sticky. Pretty soon, we'd got to the end of his chain of reasoning. I could tell he looked visibly relieved that someone else had "got it".

I left the board up in a corridor along with instructions (which I've rephrased below) so that passers by could contribute:

1. Grab a pink sticky, write something that is making your job hard.
2. Grab a yellow stick, write "Why?", include an arrow.
Repeat steps 1 and 2 until you run out of pink stickies, or complications.

Grab a purple sticky if you want to challenge whether a complication you see written on a pink sticky is still true. This signals that we might be able to unravel that particular chain of misery.

Grab a green sticky in case you know of a candidate solution to a complication written on a pink sticky.

The anonymity of the stickies and the accessibility of the format really seemed to catch on. The size constraints of the stickies forced concise descriptions of the complications. Every time I walked past the board there were more stickies, describing more issues and their causes.

Tantalizingly, we also started to see purple stickies challenging whether complications were still true and green stickies proposing solutions that would collapse these chains of blocking complications. Over time, you could see the organization discover, debate and form consensus on our main problems, their common causes and possible solutions. We even started to see additional norms develop, for example the use of blue stickies denoting JUMP and LABEL for linking stickies in different parts of the board.

Since erecting the Big Wall of "Why?" I've showed it to a number of friends who all seemed to like the idea. Why not give it a try in your organization? I'd be interested in hearing how it turned out for you and what you learned that you didn't expect.


slamdunc said...

Genius. Love it... I'm going to try this with my next client. Its always a struggle to get people to start describing an issue if they think its 'just too complicated' to explain.

Stuart Blair said...

Thanks Dunc. Let me know how it goes. It'd be interesting to see how well it does in different cultural settings.