Author Archives: Dan Merriman

The importance of asking the right questions

The management of a project is one of those situations where, when it’s done right, it barely looks like it’s happening at all. Requirements are gathered, work is done, outcomes are achieved, all with a cheery smile on our faces and a song in our hearts. Effective project management is built on a foundation of thorough planning, open communication, and disciplined adherence to mutually agreed processes.

However.

Life is imperfect, projects are imperfect, and people are imperfect. Uncertainty is ever-present, change is inevitable, and the Rumsfeldian triangle of “known-knowns, known-unknowns, and unknown-unknowns” threaten us at every turn.

Luckily, I arrived into project management already well versed in the flawed nature of existence. This has meant my project management journey has been less about overcoming existential crises and far more about how, despite the relentless yoke of disappointment, we can still ensure projects are completed on time, on budget, and with minimal loss of life.

In my experience, the strongest weapon we have against projects going awry is honesty combined with a healthy supression of ego. Project management is usually seen as a problem of logistics and organisation, and I don’t doubt that this is a large part of it. However, my view is that managing the creation of complex digital products is, more than anything else, a problem of personal psychology.

What do I mean by this?

Our clients are experts in their own domains, whether it’s healthcare research or education funding or something else entirely. The first step in my being able to help them is to honestly explore what I don’t know about their domain, and work with them to fill in knowledge gaps that might otherwise lead to incorrect assumptions. In other words, I start the process by embracing my own ignorance and communicating that with our clients.

This approach is counter to a lot of day to day practices. If someone asks me a question, I generally think about what I do know, rather than what I don’t know. I am, after all, the product of an education system that typically awards points for regurgitating memorised facts over challenging received assumptions. I feel uncomfortable when I don’t know the answer to a question, because I have learned to associate this feeling with failure. When it comes to the sheer range of domains our clients cover, however, it is inevitable that I will bump up against the limits of my existing knowledge base on a regular basis.

It can feel risky to expose a lack of knowledge. Naturally I want a client to have confidence in me, and displaying a lack of domain-specific knowledge can feel counter to that goal. The biggest psychological hurdle to get over, then, is the acceptance that not knowing the answers at the beginning is a normal state to be in; embracing that it signifies opportunity rather than failure, and that the sooner we accept what we don’t know, the sooner we will be in a position to help our client achieve their goals. This is part of the reason we generally recommend a Discovery phase at the beginning of a project. It is during this period that we attack the Rumsfeldian triangle head on, embrace the things that we do not know, and build the foundation for the success of the project.

Encountering something new and unknown can be scary and intimidating.

This is ok.

In fact, this is more than ok – this is exactly what I love about managing projects at a company like Isotoma.

As a company we are experienced across a range of domains, and the knowledge does not all sit within one individual. We have a collective memory and level of expertise that allows us to meet the challenges that we face, an institutional memory of past problems and proven solutions. There will inevitably be times where we just don’t know enough about a domain to know the path forward instinctively, but by being honest about our limits and sharing a commitment to overcoming them, we grow as individuals and as a team.

It is tempting to think that we deliver great products because we always know the right thing to do, but I don’t think this is the case. In my view, we are good at what we do not because we always know the answers, but because we ask the right questions of our clients and of each other.

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

Needs, Empathy, and Ghosts in the Machine: Reflections on Dot York 2017

Last Thursday I spent the day helping out at the hugely anticipated Dot York 2017 conference. It was an early start and a (very!) late finish, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

The success of a conference lives or dies by the quality of the speakers, and this year the bar was raised yet again, ably compèred by Scott Hartop. Each talk provided enough food for thought to fill this blog a hundred times over, but I’ll restrict myself to discussing a few of my personal highlights from each session.

Adam Warburton changes our perceptions about competitors

The opening session of the day concerned User Experience and Needs. Adam Warburton, Head of Product at Co-op Digital, gave an illuminating demonstration of how seemingly unrelated products can end up as competitors when viewed through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Who would have thought, for instance, that online supermarket shopping and Uber are actually competitors within this framework, and how does this challenge the way we think about our own products? Adam went on to discuss how, by framing your business and the needs that you service in this way, you can force entire industries to transform for the better. The Co-op is not the most dominant supermarket chain in the UK, but Adam argues that their business goals have actually been met – by championing Fair Trade products and ethical business methods, they found that consumers valued these aspects of their business and so forced competitors to adopt their practices. For them, that was how they measured success.

Ian Worley speaks of getting stakeholder buy-in in a difficult environment

The second session, Business Before Lunch, saw four insightful talks from experts, innovators and entrepreneurs looking at the decisions we make and how we make the right choices for our own businesses. Ian Worley kicked us off with a talk about his time as Head of User Experience and Design at Morgan Stanley. Ian spoke with eloquence about achieving stakeholder buy-in by a) being brave about your expertise, and b) finding the right arguments for the right people. In the conservative world of banking, efficiency gains and improved bottom line were persuasive where aesthetic values and improved user experience were not. As Ian described his experiences, I thought about the broader question of value alignment: what do your clients value, what do you value, and what do you do if you can’t find common ground? At Isotoma I am fortunate to work with a broad range of clients, some offering exciting technical challenges, others that provide opportunities to do real social good. Very few of us in this industry can fully separate our work identities from our personal ones, so the importance of doing work with clients who share at least some of your values cannot be overstated.

Hannah Nickin’s talk highlighted for me how destroying capitalism isn’t just a slogan..

Following quite the best conference lunch I’ve ever had (with many thanks to Smokin Blues!), we heard four presentations on Building Better Teams, with Hannah Nicklin providing a dramatic reading of her ethnographic experiences amongst games development collectives. Hannah’s talk highlighted for me how destroying capitalism isn’t just a slogan, but a praxis – the intersection of place and behaviour where we challenge orthodoxies. We probably can’t overthrow systems of exploitation overnight, but we can problematise convention and test alternatives. As a business, Isotoma works hard on cultivating an environment that works for its employees, and not simply operating as an entity for converting labour into ‘stuff’. What works for you may not work for me, and that’s ok, but the crucial thing is to challenge the received assumptions of what your business is for, and the value that it brings to the world.

Natalie Kane talks about how easily human bias can creep into development of advanced software

We rounded out the day’s events with a panel on Being Human, with an emphasis on empathy, self-care, and our responsibility towards others. Natalie Kane, the Curator of Digital Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum, delivered an intriguing talk concerning so-called ‘ghosts in the machine’, and how easy it is for the advance of technology to be embraced, unchallenged, as an unimpeachable good. Our ethical obligations do not begin and end with our good intentions, she announced, but require our constant and active engagement. Natalie argued that such ‘ghosts’ serve as a reminder that technology is not neutral, and we have a responsibility to keep a critical stance towards technology and how we use it. To paraphrase Jurassic Park, just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

I cannot wait to see who we book next year!