The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Real Options

Real Options with Sticky Notes

I’ve been a big fan or Real Options since I heard about them a few years back. It gave me a better way of calculating the Last Responsible Moment. I look at decisions very differently now, recognising when we need to make decisions now, and when we can defer those decisions until it is too risky to make them.

Looking at the agile toolkit of index cards and sticky notes, I’ve come to realise using these during facilitated discussion is a great way of implementing real options when it comes to organising ideas.

Compare this situation:

Situation 1: The team sits in a room with a facilitator helping the team brainstorm ideas to a problem they have. As a team member thinks of an idea, they call it out, waiting as the facilitator kindly writes it up on a flipchart using a permanent marker. The facilitator then looks at the flipchart, inviting people to make observations. They comment about seeing a pattern, so the facilitator uses a different coloured pen to start drawing lines between ideas. They try crossing out ideas, rewriting them closer to places that seem more relevant. As more discussion ensues, the board becomes covered in more lines, rewritten words, and the facilitator becomes flustered with people changing their minds all the time. Out of frustration, the facilitator stops the group and asks them to make up their mind for the final time.

Situation 2: The team sits around a table in a circular format, each with a pile of sticky notes and markers in front of them. As each person thinks of an idea they write it down on a single sticky note and put them into a pile. The facilitator takes the sticky notes, and starts to arrange them on a wall. The team notice a pattern, moving certain sticky notes closer to each other. More discussion ensues and everyone suddenly helps moving, grouping, sometimes ungrouping ideas as they experiment to best find how the ideas relate to each other. The facilitator stands back at the end of it, and takes a photo to share as the outcome of the meeting.

Deferring commitment using sticky notes
I love using index cards and sticky notes as they let you capture ideas and move on before needing to classify, categorise and relate them to each other (somethign you can spend a lot of time on). They let you experiment cheaply seeing structures in the ideas by moving them around. Rather than being restricted by a piece of paper (flipchart), your only restriction on experimenting is the time you spend on rearranging and looking for patterns. Sticky notes (or index cards) allow you to defer the commitment of linking ideas together in a model. In my experience, even if you substituted a whiteboard, you spend more time rewriting (recapturing) ideas than finding ways to relate them to each other.

Support multiple models

As I gather more experience (i.e. get older) I’ve discovered every model has a breaking point. What does that mean and why should you care? Accepting that models break is the first step to understanding and identifying their limitations. More importantly, because models have a breaking point, you should be actively discovering other models that help you better communicate and grasp new concepts.

Sounds easy right? Unfortunately my experience in life proves the opposite with most people wanting to only hold a single “valid” model that manages to explain and justify everything. I see this as a consequence of western education guided by Socratic thought and a Platonic ideal but that is a post for another time. In real life, this desire to hold onto “one valid model” translates to arguments over the merits of a particular model and often the basis for justifying a position. Note that I have no problems arguing for the sake of testing and discovering the boundaries of a particular model.

What do you do about it?

Accept that models are simplifications of sometimes complicated, sometimes complex systems. Be open to exploring the boundaries of a particular model, uncovering where one model excels at explaining certain characteristics of a system. Seek out and invent new models that provide a different point of view, or that emphasise and highlight different aspects for that system.

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