Starting From Solutions: When a customer requests a solution

Gerald was leading a discussion on a feature. The customer asked to have a specific system behavior added to the system. He wrote down what the customer said and submitted it as a requirement. The architect soon intervened to let him know that what was requested wasn’t possible. Gerald was confused. The customer had requested that solution. He thought the request was the requirement.

When the customer requests a solution

I’ve been part of meetings where a customer expressed a need as a solution like in the example above. If left unanalyzed, this can set expectations that cannot be met by the system. The customer is telling you how they would experience the solution; however, assuming the behavior is the requirement can create solutions that don’t solve the problem. More exploration is needed when this happens.

But “Don’t talk solutions” is a bunch of malarkey

There’s a camp of purist analysts and designers who will tell you “don’t talk about solutions” when you’re discovering needs. I am not in that camp. I recognize that some customers will tell you the solution they want but not realize they’ve offered one. We should meet our customers where they are. (Check out my post on The Difference Between Hearing and Listening on how to do this) That is, we should start the requirements discovery from how they might see this problem solved. Note that that is not the same thing as assuming their solution is the requirement.

Striking a condescending tone (“I don’t think you really need a drop-down.”) or being abrupt (“We don’t need to talk about solutions”) will make the conversation awkward and could damage your relationship with the customer.

What do I do if the customer tells me how they want it coded?

First, assume the customer is sharing a future state with you. Your job will be to help them unpack it by asking smart questions that identify their real needs. Do that by retro-engineering how they got to that vision and start your discussion from there. The customer can correct or elaborate further on what you’re asking. This gets the discussion out of the design realm and back into a discovery mode.

Here’s an almost real-life example:

Customer: I want a drop-down on the page that includes the form number and name.

Me: How would showing both identifiers help you?

Customer: I wouldn’t have to keep a list of the form names on my desk when I’m writing a policy.

Me: OK, so you need the ability to know which form you are selecting when you are writing a policy? And you’re just picking one form at a time?

Customer: No, I can select one or several forms for that policy but I need to see their names to make sure I’m picking the right ones. (note to reader – this confirms that a drop-down might not be the right implementation).

Me: I see. You need to be able to multi-select forms as well. And can you pick any form in the list?

Customer: No. I can only pick certain forms based on the policy type. I have to keep that list on my desk too.

Me: Got it. You need the system to ensure that you only see the forms that you can pick for the type of policy.

Customer: Yes, that’s right.

The takeaway

Notice that I’m not taking the conversation forward to elaborate further on the solution provided by the customer. I’m taking the conversation backward by asking probing questions to find out how she got to this future state vision. I’m not committing or disagreeing to the solution either.

If I had just walked out of the room with the “I need a drop-down” statement, I wouldn’t have fixed the problem AND I might not have uncovered additional needs. That’s why we can’t assume that the request as phrased by the customer is the requirement. But, because we started the conversation from where the customer was, we could use her vision as a way to explore her needs.

Bottom line – don’t discount how can use the customer’s vision as a starting point for requirements discovery.

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Virtual Team High Five: A COVID Friendly, Remote Technique!

I’m back with another remote meeting technique to add to your catalog (check out my last remote technique Take Five to Socialize: A Remote Technique!). It’s the Virtual Team High Five. Nothing says team spirit more than high fiving but social distance and plain ‘ol distance makes that impossible for remote teams these days. Read on for what a Virtual Team High Five is, how to do it and why it works!

What is a Virtual Team High Five?

Back in the “old days,” people would slap their hands together to celebrate, to greet each other or congratulate someone. Those days are behind us but we don’t have to give up high fiving! Just flatten your palm, stretch out your arm and give your camera a little tap. See below. Puppy cuteness is optional.

What’s the history?

A million years’ ago I had a boss who loved to give live team high fives. I thought it was dorky but it made me laugh every time he did it. “TEAM HIGH FIVE,” he would yell. One day years later I was on a web call. Excited about our team’s progress, I instinctively reached out to the camera and yelled “VIRTUAL TEAM HIGH FIVE!” I got a laugh and a few high fives back. Done-zo! Into the virtual facilitation bag ‘o’ tricks it went.

How do I start?

The key to virtual high fiving is sincerity, a willingness to be a bit of a goofball AND your cameras must be on. Find that moment in your meeting where the team is feeling good, having a virtual “moment” as it were, then reach out and tap the camera with your open palm. Don’t forget to yell “VIRTUAL TEAM HIGH FIVE” so folks don’t think you’re trying to swat a bug away or something.

Why does this technique work?

At its core, high fiving is a gesture of togetherness and positivity. It simulates a human touch and therefore conveys a physical connection with others. That’s what many of us need right now and it’s COVID-friendly.

But there’s also a physical energy to it – reaching out quickly to bop the camera – that can transcend the camera and flow to our colleagues, sending them good vibes and positive feelings. Plus it just makes people laugh which gets them to relax and have a little fun.

So the next time you’re looking to celebrate with the team, forget the stuffy “Thank you” email and give them a virtual team high five!

I’d love to know if you’ve incorporated this into your virtual meetings. How did it go? Let me know at susan@thevirtualbacoach.com!

Take Five to Socialize: A Remote Technique!

Being remote means never having water cooler moments. The moments where you chat with your colleagues. I don’t really miss being in an office but I do miss those “in real life” encounters where you learn something about your colleagues. I’ve coined a phrase –Take Five to Socialize – that describes how I build social moments into my virtual interactions with colleagues and customers. (I talked about this in my post Coaching the Remote Product Team) I’m not sure how much of an actual technique Take Five to Socialize really is but let me tell you about it.

What is Take Five to Socialize?

This is my lingo for remembering to take five minutes at the beginning of a remote meeting to do a little socializing! Nothing fancy here. The purpose is to NOT talk about work in those 5 minutes.

What’s the history?

Funny you should ask. Prior to COVID, most of my team was remote but our customers weren’t. We would start our virtual conference and wait for those in the office to get into their room, fire up the equipment and join. We had time to kill at the top of the meeting. Not wanting to sit in silence, I just started telling a story or doing a little show and tell. I would do anything to get the group already online talking and having a little fun while we were waiting. Participants joining a little late arrived in a meeting with lots of chatting, laughing and good vibes. Who doesn’t want to join THAT meeting?! It became a great way to start what was usually going to be an otherwise dry topic.

How do I start?

Don’t overthink it. And don’t use the same topic each time.

Weather. Boring! What you did over the weekend? Snooze. Politics. NO WAY!

For fun, I went back and listened to a few recordings where I kicked off with this “technique.” Here are few ways that I started the fun:

  • “Hey, (participant name)! Let’s see the new kitten!” (ulterior motive: gets the participant to turn on the camera).
  • “(participant name), I see you’ve got a snazzy button on your jacket. What is it?”
  • “A deer gave birth under my deck! Here’s a picture of the baby. I named her Celery!” (true story)

I considered adding a list of topics to start with but that felt . . . contrived. This technique is all about being genuine and having real interactions. I don’t come prepared with a topic. I let things unfold as participants join.

This technique has an emotional intelligence element to it. It involves reading the participants’ body language and facial expressions (or lack of a face, if their cameras aren’t on) to gauge how they are feeling. It’s a virtual way of “warming up the room” as the Masters of Ceremonies say.

Why does this technique work?

This works because we’re humans and not robots! On a deeper level, this technique works because it builds trust and camaraderie. In this virtual world, people still want real interactions. This technique helps to build in those moments.

I’d love to know if you’ve incorporated this into your virtual meetings. How did it go? Let me know at susan@thevirtualbacoach.com!

Plan Your Best Meeting: When Your Participants Aren’t Ready to Work

It happens to us all. You’ve prepared for your workshop, sent out the pre-work and then your participants aren’t ready to work. It can sometimes be hard to get participants ready to work because they are usually the ones who are running the businesses we’re supporting. How much more can you really ask of them? Here are a few things I’ve tried over the years.

Changes you can make to your workshop

The first thing we can do is use all the levers that we can control like:

  1. Giving appropriate time to do the pre-work
  2. Being respectful of the amount of pre-work we give. Or break up the pre-work into more consumable chunks across multiple, shorter meetings
  3. Checking in with the group to explain the importance of the pre-work before sending it and, if necessary, adjusting the meeting schedule to times when they can commit to being ready
  4. For longer workshops, create a working agreement with the group about pre-work before you start workshops. I often dangle the “we can get done faster if you’re prepared” carrot in front of them as incentive to get ready.

Help the participants help themselves get ready

Sometimes these levers just don’t work so we have to get creative. If the group isn’t ready to participate:

  1. I’ll ask if they’d like to use the time to get themselves ready. I give back the time or I leave the meeting so they can do prepare together.
  2. we’ll decide together when they can be ready and I’ll reschedule the meeting based on that commitment.

Ultimately, my rule is that I will not read documents to my participants so the options above might seem a little a draconian. These might impact my timeline but, honestly, no more than having to extend meetings because participants aren’t prepared.

Have you had this happen to you too? What did you do to get your group ready to work? Drop me a note at susan@thevirtualbacoach.com

Plan Your Best Meeting: Preparing Your Participants

In the prior posts we’ve put together our agenda and identified our participants. In this post, I discuss how to prepare ourselves and participants to achieve meeting or workshop objectives.

Pre-Work Sounds Like Work

I have danced for most of my life. Practice and preparation are as important as the performance. That’s how I think about pre-work for meetings. Everyone who will be part of the meeting should be as ready as possible to do their part. That involves some level of pre-work to help them understand what they will be doing.

What is pre-work?

Pre-work for meetings are usually some type of materials that are shared with participants in advance of the meeting. These give the participants an idea of what will be worked on or discussed. Pre-work should be:

  • relevant – the material needs to be relevant to the scope of the meeting. Participants need to understand how the pre-work ties to the objectives and how it will be incorporated into the session.
  • valuable – pre-work shouldn’t be busywork. Pre-work should build engagement for what will be discussed. Ideally, portions of the meeting will move more quickly because participants have already seen or provided feedback on the pre-work.
  • active – if possible, have the participants do something in preparation for the meeting. This will be enthusiasm and accountability for its output.
  • imperfect – pre-work is a starting point; therefore, its purpose is to show a potential deliverable without the group’s effort. Don’t get caught up in trying to make a perfect draft. Share the head start and let the experts take it from there!

Pre-work can be everything from drafts of materials and reference guides to lunch menus and instructions to get to the conference space.

How much time will participants need for pre-work?

Your best sessions happen when you have the right participants ready to work. To do that they must have time to prepare. I have a 24 hour-per-hour meeting rule. Thus, for every hour we will meet, I need to give the participants at least 24 hours notice. The longer the meeting, the more preparation the attendees will need and therefore the longer the lead time need for them to review the pre-work materials.

Does every meeting need pre-work?

Think you don’t need pre-work? Guess again. I consider a meeting purpose and agenda pre-work. Send the invitation with the agenda no less than 24 hours before the meeting.  I guarantee your attendees will always appreciate a heads up about what will be discussed.

Meetings of all lengths and sizes must have purpose and preparation to achieve their outcomes. Putting time into developing pre-work will serve the entire group by having participants that are ready to achieve the meeting objectives.

Meetings vs Workshops: Workshops are for Working

I chuckled recently when I heard 2 colleagues discussing the purpose of our workshop. “What’s a workshop anyway,” asked the colleague. “Workshops are the new meetings,” responded the other. It’s a great question but one that got me thinking about the differences. Despite sounding like the same thing, they are not.

Simply put, meetings are about getting people together to “meet” while workshops are about working. There is a correct time and use for each. In this post I explore six key differences between these two methods of getting a group together for a purpose.

Difference #1: Meeting Leader vs Workshop Facilitator

A leader is the person that runs the meeting. This person may be a manager or a person in charge.

Workshops are run by a facilitator who is a neutral party that ensures the group stays on track and meets their objectives.

Difference #2 Purpose

Meetings involve exchanging information. Their purpose is to communicate with an audience.

The purpose of a workshop is to discover and create information collaboratively. They are highly collaborative by design and involve a group specifically selected to perform work.

Difference #3: Decision Making

A meeting may share results of decision-making or announce that decisions will be made but those decisions are not made in the meeting.

Decision-making is an expected product of a workshop. Participants with the authority to make decisions are specifically invited when decisions are needed. Workshop planning should determine how decisions are made. (Check out this great blog by Ellen Gottesdiener on deciding how to decide) The facilitator then guides that decision-making process.

Difference #4: Pre-work and Preparation

Meetings may have an agenda or may have no preparation other than an invitation.

Workshops take time to plan and often run longer than meetings because they include a number interactions between the participants. Key features of workshop preparation include:

  • Selecting participants carefully for their expertise or decision making authority who can perform the work (see my post on how to select participants),
  • Planning activities that produce the intended results or outcomes,
  • Drafting materials in advance that will be used as inputs or outputs,
  • Sending pre-work to participants in advance of the workshop to prepare them for the work

Difference #5: Interaction

Meetings have some interaction between participants. The leader and/or the participants may present status or information to the attendees.

Workshops use a variety of interactive methods and tools to achieve their goals. Interactive components may include:

  • activities performed by the whole group, sub-groups and individuals to perform work and develop trust and teamwork while solving problems
  • games that break up the work while having fun and building team purpose
  • visual methods for capturing and sharing information (whiteboards, post-its, visual models)

Difference #6: Deliverables

The takeaway from a meeting is generally the information that was shared but additional outputs may include notes or action items.

Deliverables are always expected to come out of a workshop. Some of those are tangible, such as drafts of documents or models but they can also be intangible, such as decisions, trust, and teamwork.

Workshops and meetings have appropriate uses. Consider these differences as you plan which you will need when you meet with a group.

Plan Your Best Meeting: Identify the Right Participants

In the first post in this series Plan Your Best Meeting: Purpose and Agenda, we focused on the meeting purpose and tying it to your agenda. Next, we’ll identify the participants needed to help us achieve our meeting purpose.

meeting participants
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It’s like stakeholder analysis

When we start a new project, we do stakeholder analysis to determine who needs to participate in a project. This is based on what they do, whether they make decisions, and so on. We need to do the same activity on a smaller scale each time we plan a meeting to identify the participants. If you have a stakeholder matrix, use it as your starting point. Check out my Workshop Participant Planner if you don’t have one.

Start with roles first

Start with roles (not job titles) when thinking about who to invite. Consider the types of roles that will need to be represented to achieve your meeting outcomes. This is my standard list:

  • Facilitator – The organizer is often the facilitator. For larger meetings (more than 6 participants) having a separate facilitator will keep the meeting moving, giving the analyst the chance to analyze in real time.
  • Scribe – The scribe takes notes and manages time. I sometimes ask someone to perform this role if I’m facilitating and wearing an analyst cap. Having a scribe for larger meetings is essential. (Or, better yet, hit the Record button on your meeting software for a complete record of your meeting!)
  • Decision makers, SMEs– Decision makers and subject matter experts are the engine that will make your meeting run. These are the people from whom you are getting information or decisions.
  • Observer – Observers can include team members who need to understand content but don’t need to contribute. Include observers sparingly. Too many observers can get meetings off topic when they go “rogue.” Participants in this category must understand what they are there to observe and why.

Other meeting participants to consider (or not)

Avoid inviting Optional attendees people who will not contribute to the meeting’s purpose. Every person invited must have a stake in the outcome of the meeting. Send meeting outputs to people that want to be kept in the loop but who don’t need to attend.

I have a “phone a friend” category for participants who have subject matter expertise but aren’t needed for the whole meting. Many folks are happy to be on stand-by. It also shows that you respect their expertise AND time. Reach out to those folks in advance and ask them to be available for a quick instant messenger or email in case you need them.

I also include a category for Delegates in my planning. Some required participants, such as executives, can’t attend every meeting. The organizer and required attendee should identify delegates up front and then always include them when inviting those required attendees.

Fill out your participant planner

Now, fill out your participant planner with names of people you will invite. I recommend doing a quick brainstorm with your lead or a colleague to ensure you a solid list.

But you still aren’t ready to send that invitation! Nope. Next, we think about how to get those participants ready to participate (and that includes you too). That’ll be the next post in this series.

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Plan Your Best Meeting: Purpose and Agenda

In the first post in this series, I proposed five principles to make your meeting planning  effective. Now, let’s apply those principles to our meeting planning. First, let’s look at how to plan our agenda by developing the meeting purpose.

people planning a meeting agenda
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Do I really need a meeting?

Start your planning by asking “do I really need a meeting?” As analysts we have other ways to get information. Too many meetings are a drain on productivity so consider alternate methods whenever possible. Other ways to get decisions or collect information include:

  • Emails
  • Phone calls
  • Collaboration tools such as Jabber or Slack
  • Asynchronous collaboration methods such as a shared Wiki or Confluence page
  • Data collection methods such as surveys or document reviews

Modeling these methods in your organization can help others see alternate ways to get things done without assuming they need a meeting.

What’s the meeting purpose? 

Meetings must always have a purpose. We are asking people to take time away from their work so we should be clear about how this meeting time will result in a benefit to them (or the organization). Get clear on its purpose by thinking through the outcomes you want to achieve. Here’s an example of a purpose statement:

The purpose of this meeting to discuss the feedback we received on the website changes and prioritize the user experience issues that need to be resolved. 

A well-defined purpose will help you:

  • define your meeting objectives,
  • identify topics to discuss or decisions to be made, and
  • determine the inputs and outputs of the meeting

When you have these items developed, you will be able to plan your meeting agenda and have put a plan together to help your attendees prepare.

Now, plan your meeting agenda

I find that planning the meeting agenda is the most common missed step in meeting preparation. Here are some reasons I’ve heard when I asked meeting organizers why there was no agenda:

  • “It’s just a 30 min/1hour meeting. We don’t need an agenda”
  • “The meeting title will help participants understand what we’ll discuss”
  • “I was asked to schedule this meeting. I don’t know why.”

Have you heard these before? Bluntly put, I think meetings with no agendas are a disrespectful invasion of people’s time. The organizer assumes that the invitees have no better use of their time than to attend his or her meeting. It also implies that the invitees are ready to speak on whatever comes up (I refer to these as “improv meetings”). This is a recipe for meeting dysfunction. When you plan the meeting agenda and include it in the invitation, it shows that the organizer is prepared and helps the attendees to prepare as well.

Planning the meeting agenda gets you ready. The next step is to help your participants get ready. Before you can do that, you’ll need to put some thought into who needs to participate to help you achieve your purpose. And that’s the next topic in this series!

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Dealing with Change Saturation

I was talking with a friend recently about how things were going in quarantine. Things were overwhelming, to say the least. There was getting the kids setup with online schooling. Adjusting to a new normal with work. Stocking up on food and other items. Navigating the world with in a 6 foot bubble. The things that she loved doing had to be put to the side. It was enough to make even the most patient person cranky and she was over it. I heard frustration and annoyance and I also heard change saturation.

What’s change saturation?

Change saturation is the point at which the amount of change exceeds the capacity for change. At an organizational level this can result in errors or disengaged staff as they attempt to keep up with the pace of changes. At an individual level, it can present as frustration and fatigue. Everyone’s- and every organization’s – capacity for change is different. But they all have their limits.

We as Product professionals design and build products and services that help our customers. We often use that term “delight our customers” (I hate that term) but the cost of those new products and services is that our customers must change to adopt them. Too many new things and adoption goes down and frustration goes up. This is a recipe for deployment delays or product failures.

How can Product Managers help overwhelmed customers?

Here are some keys to identifying change saturation and how your role is best positioned to lend a hand.

Be aware of all the changes your customers are going through.

This is just sound product planning advice. Many times there are process, training, and even resource changes that are happening at the same time as your product changes. These together can make the impact of your change overwhelming. Make sure you stay looped into what’s happening with your customers so you can be attuned to potential change saturation.

Use your active listening skills

You’re on the front lines with customers. You hear and see what’s happening. Ask customers and their staff how they are doing. Listen to what they say so that you can be aware of the subtle (or not so subtle) signs that indicate that they may feel disengaged, overwhelmed or anxious about what’s happening . (For more on active listening check out my post on The Difference Between Hearing and Listening)

Use your emotional intelligence

Change is hard. Show your customers empathy. Remember to be sensitive to the fact that they are trying to do their “day job” while attempting to keep up with all the changes. Find ways to show that you hear them and feel for them. And above all else, be genuine in your concern.

Activate your servant leader role

A servant leader “shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” People in Product roles are servant leaders by definition or by association. Model this behavior by leaving your agenda at the door (is it really necessary to meet your dates if your customer isn’t ready to use what you’re building?) so that you can be there for the customer. Empower and uplift the team by finding ways to serve them. Actions, rather your words, matter in this role.

And, finally, be their advocate

If “delighting customers” is a Product responsibility then so is tending to their displeasure. Think of the impact of change on your customer journey map and then think big picture. What’s the collective impact of all the change on your journey map? If (or when) you encounter that point of saturation, make sure to bring this to your project allies to get some help.

In conclusion, product team members are on the front lines of what’s happening with their customers. Use your relationship with them to identify early signs of change saturation and advocate for their needs. This will help you build products – and customer relationships – that last.

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The Difference Between Hearing and Listening

I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of listening to product professionals lately and had a recent experience that brought that point home for me.

A co-worker and I were talking about our notes from a recent meeting. She pulled up her OneNote and read back to me word-for-word what was said. My notes looked like an art project (I use a sketch pad for note taking). I had scribbled down some models. I wrote objectives. I made lists of pain points. I documented how someone felt. I furiously underlined things that appeared to be important to them. Our note taking was very different and I realized it’s a great example of hearing vs listening.

She was hearing the words that were being said and documenting them. I was listening to what was being said and attempting to identify their source – pain, opportunity, money concerns. I was documenting things that were unsaid that could help my customers “get real” with their actual needs.

As product professionals, we must move past just hearing what our customers say. We must listen to what and how they are saying it. As coaches and managers of product professionals, we must help our teams build skills that help them go beyond simply hearing a request and taking action on it. Anyone can follow instructions. The value of your product team is to design and deliver solutions that delight (ok, I hate that word) customers. We do that when we listen to what they aren’t saying so we can help them identify the real problems to solve.

Happy listening!

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