Keeping ideas open

Most people I know want to improve things, and many have ideas about how to do that. In presenting these ideas it’s easy to become possessive of them, however, and that’s not a good thing.

When presenting ideas it’s common they come under scrutiny. Even if you’re a very senior individual people will want to question them (in all but the most authoritarian organisations), and when this happens it’s easy to get defensive—it’s as if our hard work is under attack (maybe we feel we are under attack), and it can be natural to fight back.

However, in these circumstances I like to listen carefully to the questions and concerns, and use it as a chance to explain (and explore) the ideas more thoroughly. I like this scrutinisation because it helps me think things through more clearly, and get to the heart of the intent. Usually I find the discussion helps me understand those ideas more thoroughly, even when I was the one who suggested them.

Importantly, treating the original ideas objectively, without any personal attachment, allows for improvement.

Some time ago I was working with a team plagued by inappropriate expectations, part of which came from very precise estimations. A piece of work might be estimated as, say, 34.5 hours and they got a hard time if it turned out to take much more than 35 (which somehow they managed to track). As part of the solution I proposed simplifying estimation, so that any task was labelled just small, medium or large. This would avoid the very particular expectations, as well as making estimation easier.

But although the team felt positive about the change we got into a tangle about how to define small, medium and large. Eventually someone suggested that even this was too complicated: why not just decide if something was small enough to do, or not? This was even more radical than my original suggestion, and even simpler. We adopted the approach (and much else besides) and things went well.

No single person claimed a prize for the ideas we adopted. The result was that the team worked much more effectively, with much happier stakeholders. And that’s what it was all about.

Photo by Nottingham Trent University