Teach people to ask “Why?”


Schools kill creativity. From a young age students are taught to listen to the “expert” and believe everything they’re told. Very few lessons focus on teaching young people to form an opinion, or question the facts being presented.

As adults we join workplaces that have strong hierarchies. Information and policies flow down from the top and everyone underneath is expected to follow along without causing a fuss.

We attend conferences, read books, and hear people tell us the right way to do things all day, every day.

But really good teams are formed of people who can work together and push each other to be better. They’re formed of people who respect each other, listen to each other, and then question the ideas. Pooling our collective experiences allows us to be greater than the sum of our parts and working together allows us all to learn and improve.

For most people having to justify themselves, and explain the thought-process they went through to drive at their argument helps them be better. So often we decide things instinctively, without examining our own biases or influences. It can be easy to design something, or build something for the wrong reasons, and it is easy to do because we generally don’t have to explain ourselves to anyone.

To change things we need to start teaching everyone to question decisions regardless of where they come from. When someone proposes a new way of doing something I expect them to present their argument with the pros and cons of adopting the change. When we reflect back on things, that have either gone well or not so well, we should take the time to think back over the pros and cons we identified. Were we right? What did we miss? How can we better next time?

Successfully changing people’s decision-making requires time and consistent expectations. As leaders we should encourage everyone in the team to question others on their thinking. Changing the format of meetings to encourage upfront prep, and discussion time before we get to the decision making can help. Making sure we have a safe space to allow everyone to actually have a voice is critical.

When we present decisions or direction we should set an example and present the options we saw and the advantages and disadvantages we can see from the route we chose. Invite others to question your ideas and tell them if they successfully help you change your mind. We should celebrate having input from others.

It can be hard to change the way people work, and we can seemingly be making our own work harder by inviting everyone to have an opinion on it, but questioning and justifying decisions is essential for team health.

Default to Good

Our behaviour is shaped by many things; our experiences, our values, the environment around us. At work we have to make decisions about things we may not fully understand. We have to explain our decisions, and convince others to join us even when we’re not sure of the way.

Sometimes things are easier, maybe you work for an ethical company that’s clearly doing things to make the world a better place. Working somewhere like this, I imagine, would easily lead to good choices.

For the rest of us things are more blurry. You might work for a fantastic company for the wrong reason. You might work for a friendly company that don’t make the world a better place. You might work for a downright bad company for very good reasons.

As you go about your job, and life, you have to make decisions. If you’re a manger some of those decisions will be about how other people should live and work. You oversee goals, objectives, promotions, and pay rises. You might make decisions about hiring or letting people go, re-locating teams or ending projects, These things can be hard. The right decision might not always feel good, maybe people are being made redundant, or you’re forced to u-turn on a hiring decision. Generally decisions like this come after a long, well-considered period of evaluating the options. There are laws and guidelines to make sure we do the right things in these circumstances even if they still feel nasty.

But not all decisions are so big.

As we go through our day-to-day life we make decisions about all kinds of things. Many of these decisions are made with little data, or even very little consideration but they can have big implications. You might need someone on your team to do some additional work, or work late in the office. Maybe they need to stop what they’re currently working on, or join a different team.

Sometimes it can feel even more minor, maybe someone wants to leave early for an appointment, or work from home. Even if we don’t have a full picture when we make these decisions we can make the right decisions by simply doing what’s right as a human. We can make sure they understand what we’re asking, and why. We can give them space and time to articulate their concerns or questions, in the format that best suits them.  We can trust them.

When asking people to do something different or new we can remove a large workplace stress by simply making the priorities clear. Adding more work to a busy workload is a common and unfair practice. We should clearly state out expectations of where this fits into someone’s work, and if we don’t know what else they’re working on we should make sure to find out before deciding to allocate more work.

As managers we will often have more context on situations and are well placed to drive direction through a team but we should treat that context as a privilege. People choose to work with us, and by taking just a bit of time to work with them we can remove so much of the work-place frustration and stress.

Three easy ways to maintain momentum

A lot of work involves other people, and more specifically depends on other people doing something. Decision-making with a group of people can be frustrating, it takes time and you can end up feeling like everything would be much easier if you were doing this alone. However teams don’t work that way and successful changes generally only come about when everyone involved feels like they contributed to the decision.

Maintaining momentum is one of the easiest ways to keep people engaged in the process. Context switching is hard; it takes time, and it takes energy. You can help people to stay engaged in your project by avoiding the long delays between context switching. It is much easier to compete a task with a small amount of work, often, rather than a large chunk of work, followed by a slump, and then another large chunk of work. Even without the challenges of scheduling in large chunks of work the later approach is painful because of the energy needed to re-start on the task after the gap.

That doesn’t mean hassling them (too much!), but instead focus your efforts on keeping things moving at a steady pace so that the rest of the group doesn’t need to expend a huge amount of energy to re-engage with the project.

Here are three easy ways to keep things moving:

1) Share documents with the correct sharing settings
How many times have you turned to a task only to discover that the document you’re meant to be editing or commenting on has been shared with ‘view only’ settings? Now think about how long it took you to get the correct settings, if you ever did, and the impact the delay had on your responsiveness. I’d bet that not having the correct settings on the document meant you left it until later to complete, maybe you never got around to completing it.

2) Respond to questions quickly
When you’re working with others on a task it’s normal to expect some clarifying questions. They might be wondering if they have the right document, or double-checking they understand what you need them to do. Delaying your response is a sure way to kill their engagement.

Recently I was working on a group presentation and asked a quick clarifying question to the organiser. It took two days to get a response. Two days. In those two days I’d become involved in another, better defined task. I eventually returned to the presentation but not until another day later. The delay in getting my clarifying answer ended up being the time to get an answer plus some additional time due to a perceived lack of interest from the organiser. Respond quickly. Show that you care about the task.

3) Be clear about what you’re expecting people to do
Ever had a document shared with you without comment? Did you do anything with it? Even the most dedicated team player will struggle with uncertainty. If you need someone to do something then ask them. If you’ve asked them face to face and are sharing the document at a later date drop in a note to clarify that this is the document you were asking them to complete. Don’t assume that the other person understands or remembers everything you’ve said.

What tips do you have for maintaining momentum in your teams?

It starts with a change

The person you are at 35 is not the person you were at 25. No one really explains that as you grow up you change. You start to like different things, and maybe even dislike things you really liked when you were younger. Life experiences can open new doors, or scar you beyond all hope of recovery. Maybe most surprisingly you just get bored.

After many years of enthusiastically testing, re-testing, and hopefully overseeing smooth releases it’s time for a change. I’m still an avid fan of great testing, and will always love the incredible testing community that now contains a number of very good friends but my interests have changed. Right now I’m excited about working with, and supporting the teams who build the great products.

My original blog will remain up, and may even see a new post from time to time, but this is my new home. Follow along for thoughts on managing people, hiring, building great teams, and spreading happiness at work.