CoP – How to get one up and running

Communities of Practice are a solid way to help experts in their field stay on top of the latest in their domains. They also help managers and leaders create a collaborative learning culture.

A CoP is a forum where experts meet together on a periodic schedule to share and learn from each other. It can be a one hour event every other week or from time to time, a mini-conference using an open space or trade show format.

I like to see managers or leaders shepherd or curate CoPs. A CoP needs care, feeding, and leadership to get off the ground and remain useful. The best CoPs I’ve experienced have the following characteristics: Continue reading



Given the blistering rate of change, increasingly savvy consumers, and a noisy market, businesses must change the way they engage customers, particularly for new product innovation. Here, the requirements are nebulous, ever-evolving, and customers have as vague a notion of what they really need as their suppliers do. There are tools for navigating this grey-zone of ambiguity. One of them is co-creation.
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C-Minus – How far are you from your customers?

When was the last time you had a conversation with a customer either on the phone, or in the flesh? As a programmer, if you view your test team as your customer, you’ve got it wrong. I’m talking about customers that buy what you build–those fine folks who ultimately pay your salary.

As an employee, are you concerned with how far you are from the CEO in the hierarchy? Do you count levels to measure your relative importance in the corporate food chain? Try this instead. Count the degrees of separation between you and your customer.

  • C-minus zero means you have direct contact with customers (real end-users of your product or service).
  • C-minus one means you are one step removed from direct customer contact, and so on.

It may not be feasible, nor desirable to have frequent direct customer contact for everyone when you have projects that are huge, with hundreds of engineers spread around the world. Customers would balk as well. However, there is nothing more valuable or powerful than getting direct feedback from customers, especially for the builders of the product.

If you have many degrees of separation between yourself and your customer, find ways to reduce this even if it is infrequent. Bring your customers in for a “Demo Day” and have them meet the engineers. You can do this on a schedule cadence that makes sense in your context. The frequency will vary depending on:

  • The project’s importance
  • The number of people involved in development
  • Geographic dispersion of teams relative to the customer
  • The depth of innovation in your project

What’s your C-minus? How can you reduce it?

Bad Decision Making

I tried an experiment with a few colleagues over the past couple of months based on Karl Popper’s famous experiment for confirmation bias. The results have big implications on how we can easily head down the path to making bad decisions.

The experiment goes like this. The experimenter gives the subjects a 3-digit pattern, “2 4 6” and asks them to write the rule that makes any other pattern conform to the same rule. The subjects may ask questions in the form of another pattern. For example, a subject may ask if the pattern 1 2 3 conforms, and the experimenter will answer either yes or no depending on whether or not the pattern conforms. After several attempts, the subjects write their “rule” for the pattern.

For example, subjects may ask:
“Does 4 8 12 conform?” The answer is yes.
“Does 6 8 10 conform?” Yes.
“Does 3 6 9 conform?” Yes. And so on…

Confirmation bias guarantees that you will ask more questions that get answered with a yes than with a no. The reason is that you start to build a model in your head of what the pattern conforms to, and you go about proving that you are right.

The answer to this puzzle is that the numbers must be increasing in value from left to right. (a < b < c). All someone has to do is offer the question “Does 2 3 1 conform?”, and you quickly start to converge because the answer is NO. One of my colleagues supplied negative integers (-2 -4 -6) and the answer was no. This led to some debate among the pair and they were far faster at converging than when they got yes answers.

I did the experiment with a pair of programmers and another pair of people, a programmer and a tester. The programmer-tester pair won. Why? Testers have the mindset of disproving rather than proving. Programmers like to prove their design works. Testers like to break features. Ironically, two testers in a pair don’t always do as well as a designer-tester pair. The diversity of the pair is what helps create the conditions for rapid convergence. Try this simple experiment yourself and share the results. The experiment is described in detail at the Developmental Psychology web site here.

Confirmation bias implies you filter and interpret data to support a belief you already have. The debate on Gun Control is an example of how the same data is interpreted different ways by people with differing perspectives. To increase government spending or reduce taxes to stimulate the economy is another debate where confirmation bias plays a role. There are huge implications for decision making. Human beings try to fit data to support their beliefs. Forcing yourself to disprove a hypothesis is powerful.

If you are responsible for delivering high quality products, what are the implications of confirmation bias on how you work? What can you do to create healthy team diversity and conflict which leads to better collaboration, and ultimately, better products?

Software – Artistic and Innovative Expression

Creating great software is a lot like creating great music. Both require skill, practice, and technical knowledge. Both require creative thinking, collaboration and involve good judgment. Both have an end-customer. Both have a user-experience.

As software professionals we have deadlines. So do musicians. I think about being in a studio, engineer behind the console, producer on the clock, and you gotta create. Pressure… You often hear about the emotional war that takes place between band members, in many respects similar to what software teams go through. You want to add that great new riff you invented, and you search for a place to insert it but sometimes, you just have to save it for another day because it adds weight without value. Similarly, code bloat also occurs because a team member wants to make something cool happen in the code that does not add value. We often hear the words that musicians should “check their egos at the door”. This was made famous by Bob Geldof during Band Aid, the huge Ethiopian famine relief benefit. Bob insisted that the event was not about the musicians, but about helping those in need. As software professionals we can all take a page from that book. Set our egos aside. Create something of value for our customers. Celebrate the success together. Learn from our experience and make the next one even better.

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Collaborative Innovation with Customers

About a year ago I watched a TED talk on collaborative innovation by Charles Leadbeater. I just watched it again. It’s good to be reminded of the roots of great ideas that turn into markets for millions of consumers. Does it pay to collaborate with your customers?

Users define the experience they want. The experience emerges from what appears to be a disorganized band of consumers who work with each other, and with collaborative suppliers to cobble together the experience they want from a product. It starts with dissatisfaction with what is currently on the market, and the desire to scratch that itch. The biggest payoffs in innovation come from ideas with the biggest uncertainty. In large companies, the incentives for these high risk-high return ventures are limited. Companies that want to profit from innovation need to understand that collaboration with Customers is the key to generating the next killer product. This goes to the heart of Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation from the Agile Manifesto. The first iterations of these new product ideas become full-fledged commercial products over time. Leadbeater cites a few examples in his talk including SMS and mountain bikes.

If you work in a large corporation, start asking yourself how you can engage dissatisfied end-users and start a dialogue that leads to collaborative co-design. Traditional large organizations are not set up to work this way. Leadbeater explains why. If your R&D is far-removed from your customers, you’ll struggle to have this experience.

One of the reasons I champion Agile methods in my company is the highly collaborative and interactive experience I have had over the past five years in the Korean market. My Korean customers demand face time, interaction, collaboration, and co-development. What we learned in Korea has helped us build better, more robust wireless telephony networks for our other customers around the world.

Watch the talk, and then ask yourself, where’s my itchy Customer?

The Marshmallow Challenge

This week we had an R&D workshop in Paris. It was a chance for us to do some deep thinking and preparation for some of the initiatives we are launching this year. At the end of the first day we did the Marshmallow challenge. One of our teams built a 27 inch tall structure – the clear winner. Not only was this activity fun, it also revealed the nature of collaboration and how we think about design. At first everyone was focused on building their own structure until I started to point out what others were doing. The competition started to heat up and you could see eyes darting back and forth across the table to see what the competition were building.  I had a large timer projected on the screen in the room, counting down the 18 minutes. We’d call out the time remaining to help keep the pressure on. What a blast! If you have never tried the Marshmallow challenge, you are missing a great opportunity for team building and learning. Everything you need to know about it is here. At the end of the challenge, we showed Tom Wujec’s video which is available on the same link.

The challenge for me was finding marshmallows in Paris. Not a common item here. However, Auchan in Velizy has them in the “Produits du Monde” section of the store. I was worried I might have to use little mini camemberts instead!

To my colleagues who took the challenge, thanks for participating! We all learned something valuable.