Marty, chief technology officer for a mid-size startup, Christopher, founder of a small-but-long-lived startup, and Patty, director of engineering for a large corporation, were talking over lunch at a leadership workshop. Although they each had different titles, they were each had ultimate responsibility for their respective software engineering organizations.
They were also discovering they were each struggling with the same problem.
“This is my second time at this workshop,” Christopher explained. “My first time through sold me on its precepts of focusing on what I love and divesting everything else. I’m back this time to understand how to do that.”
“How to focus on what you love and divest everything else?” Patty asked.
“Well, not exactly,” Christopher temporized. “I understand how to do that myself. However, I’m uncertain how to scale that across my entire organization.”
“I’ve been wondering about that myself,” Patty replied. “I can imagine doing that for my immediate team. That’s only six people. I’m having trouble imagining expanding that to the seven-hundred-and-some people under them.”
“I have that same question,” Marty piled on. “And, I have an idea how to start.”
1) Perfection Game Team Activity Review
“I’ve been experimenting with applying the Perfection Game to my teams’ activities,” Marty explained.
“We’ve tried retrospecting on our activities,” Patty said. “We never get far. We always bog down in disagreements over potential changes.”
“We had that problem, too,” Marty affirmed. “The Perfection Game stopped it in its tracks.”
“Tell us more,” Patty requested enthusiastically.
“Create a grid with the team’s activities down the first column, one per row. Then, give each team member a column to the right of that list of activities. Next, have each person add their rating for that activity. If you don’t have any specific, concrete suggestions for improving the activity, you must rate the activity a 10. Rating an activity a 5 means you have a specific suggestion for making that activity twice as good.”
“And so, a rating of 1 means you have a suggestion to make that activity ten times as good?” Christopher inquired.
“Exactly,” Marty confirmed.
“I see how this wouldn’t take very long,” Patty said. “We could even do it live, right there in the meeting.”
“That’s what we did,” Marty agreed. “Even with ten people and thirty or forty different activities, we didn’t take more than half an hour or so.”
“I think I took part in a similar exercise once, years ago,” Christopher said. “It was a little bit different, though. In addition to the rating, we had to describe what specifically we liked about the activity. Also, we explicitly could not describe what we disliked.”
“That would take longer,” Patty noted.
“A little bit,” Christopher allowed. “I don’t remember it taking much longer. Although, that group of people did tend to be succinct.”
“That extra information would help focus the discussion on what’s working well, even as we consider ways to make it even better,” Marty supplied. “I think I’ll try that next time.”
“It’s clear how this would help me finetune my team’s activities,” Patty said. “I’m less clear on how this helps me redistribute my team’s responsibilities so that each person does only what they love. Not being able to talk about what they don’t like means people will rate things they hate a ten just because they don’t have a way to improve it.”
“I have a thought about that,” Christopher said.
2) Never Would I Ever
“This comes from my kids, actually,” Christopher divulged. “After my first run through this workshop, I decided to apply the do only what you love and divest everything else approach to our family chores. After explaining the concept to my family, my teenager suggested we get started by playing Never Would I Ever.”
“Oh, I remember playing that,” Marty exclaimed. “Oh…wait…I guess it’s Never Have I Ever that I played.”
“Yep,” Christopher said. “Never Have I Ever is what gave my daughter this idea. She pointed out that none of us wanted to do any of the chores. So, she suggested we instead start by declaring what we ‘really really really don’t want to do,’ as she put it. Hence, Never Will I Ever.”
“How did it work?” Patty inquired.
“Great,” Christopher declared. “We built a grid for our chores, just like Marty described for the Perfection Game Team Activity Review. Then, we filled every cell in the grid with color. Finally, we each cleared the color from the cell in our respective columns for the chores we ‘really really really didn’t want to do.’”
“Brilliant,” Patty exclaimed. “You could see in a glance who was willing to do what.”
“And which chores no one wanted to do,” Marty added with a chuckle.
“There were a few of those,” Christopher agreed, grinning.
“Some of my people would be put off by the ‘focus on the negative,’ as they would put it,” Patty said. “Nevertheless, I think it’s worthwhile. And, I have an idea for a complementary exercise.”
3) Please Don’t Throw Me In That Briar Patch
“We flip the focus from what each person ‘really really really’ doesn’t want to do to what they ‘really really really’ do want to do. Call it Please Don’t Throw Me In That Briar Patch, maybe,” Patty suggested.
“After Uncle Remus?” Marty asked.
“Yep,” Patty replied.
“So, start with the empty grid of activities and team members. Then, have each person color the cells for the work they’d love to do?” Christopher asked.
“Yes, exactly,” Patty confirmed.
“You described this as complementary to Never Would I Ever,” Marty said. “That implies you’d do both. Why not just focus on the positive and do only Don’t Throw Me In That Briar Patch?”
“Because some activities may not be briar patches,” Christopher interjected before Patty could reply.
“Oh, right,” Marty agreed. “We need both.”
“Are those two all we need?” Marty continued.
“Yes,” Patty stated with conviction. “Go down the list of activities. For each activity, Don’t Throw Me In That Briar Patch tells you who would love doing it. And, Never Would I Ever tells you who would hate doing it. From that, you can also tell who is indifferent about the activity.”
“The Perfection Game Team Activity Review would add another layer of richness,” Marty added. “That might be especially helpful for activities everyone is indifferent about.”
“Or when everyone rates a particular activity Never Would I Ever,” Christopher added.
Work bottom-up or top-down, your preference
“Christopher, you started this discussion by asking how to scale focus on what you love and divest everything else across your entire organization,” Marty recalled. “How are you feeling now?”
“Much less uncertain,” Christopher said. “I won’t feel confident until I’ve tried this out a few times. The approach seems solid and to cover all the bases. I’m eager to give it a try.”
“And you, Patty? How are you feeling about applying this to your seven-hundred-and-change team?”
“I’m with Christopher,” Patty said. “Our plan seems reasonable. I’m uncertain whether it quite fits my organization. I’ll start with just my immediate team. Then, if that goes well, I’ll have each of them do it with their immediate teams. And so on until it either stops working or we’ve covered my entire organization.”
“What about you, Marty?” Christopher asked. “How are you feeling?”
“I’d like to do this with throughout my group right from the start. I doubt every team will Please Don’t Throw Me every activity they’re responsible for doing. Over my entire group, though, I’m sure we have everything covered.”
“That’s an interesting idea. And an interesting problem,” Christopher said. “I’m curious about what you’ll discover.”
“Me, too,” Patty said. “Another lunch in a month or two seems in order.”
“Indeed, it does,” Christopher confirmed.
“Absolutely,” Marty agreed.