Tuesday, June 24, 2014


In my last post, I introduced Challaboration as a core team value.  A second core value is learning. Within this are two elements: being adaptable and courage.

Requirements, technology, business environments all change.  A person (and by extension, a team) will have limited success solving new problems only using past solutions.  If you are unwilling to adapt and don't have the courage to find help from others, you will not expand your set of tools to solve problems.

When you explore new approaches and tools, you learn.  For example, around 2011, my company made a reasoned decision to shift some of its product stack from .NET to Java.  Quite a bit of our team (who we hired as .NET  developers) were faced with a choice: continue as .NET experts or become novice Java/HTML/JavaScript programmers.  Every developer made the transition.

It would have been easy to leave.  After all .NET is the dominate programming platform in Nashville. Because they chose to adapt, they expanded their toolkit (learning a new language and front end technology).  It was a tough road. In the beginning, we wrote a lot of C# code masquerading as Java.  Over time, the team grew into first-class Java developers.

By adapting, the developers learned a valuable lesson:  Their excellence is based on their critical thinking and design skills, not language competency.  More importantly, they
not to define themselves by the technologies they know.

Our team is a mix of veteran and junior developers.  We have experienced healthcare providers and seasoned QA who have never provided direct patient care.  You would think the knowledge flows from the "older" to "younger" generation.  That is far from the case.  Junior developers show veterans how some of the new technology stack functions.  In turn, veterans share hard-fought learnings from years of production software.

What our team has in common is not knowledge or skill level.  It is their courage to say, "I need help" or "I don't know."  This simple acknowledgement creates the possibility for learning. 

The dynamics of healthcare IT demand constant learning. A willingness to adapt and the courage to ask for help creates an environment where everyone learns from each other.  As a team, we adapt to changing demands and have the courage to rely on each other to learn how to solve problems. In other words, we win and lose as a team. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Bad idea filtering

Some teams seem to consistently end up with better decisions.

While not downplaying individual contributions, I believe the way the team brings ideas to life (or kills them) matters most. It isn't about starting with more good ideas.  It's about creating a culture where good ideas are refined and bad ones are eliminated quickly.  In other words, they have a better Bad Idea Filter, and the means to make mediocre ideas good (or great).

I've found two factors to influence idea quality: challenge and collaborate.  They are blended; so much that my team coined the phrase Challaboration.

We challenge practically everything.  If you propose an idea, you will defend it against technical, business, workflow, and visual design critiques.   One person is unable to consider a variety of consequences, barriers, and alternative solutions.  A team of people with varied experiences can. If the idea cannot be defended, then it doesn't survive - even if it is mine.

With multiple solution paths explored, the resulting decision is more resilient.  It draws from improvements to address previously unforeseen aspects of the problem, while minimizing weaknesses (or at least making them known).

If challenging is behavior, then collaboration is motivation. Team members receive and provide critiques to the idea, not the person.  This isn't about scoring points; the desire must be to reach the best decision the team can make.  When I challenge a design, I do so to make it excellent. I want the other person and the team to be successful.  Thus, I challenge.

The motivation for the critique matters.  If the motivation is to increase quality results, better ideas emerge.  If the motivation is to show personal intelligence or to score points, bad decisions slip through.  Worse yet, idea generation itself shuts down. 

Your team gains confidence as they struggle with criticisms and pursue alternatives.  When external groups and customers provide input, frequently it has been considered in depth.  Your team is prepared to acknowledge inputs and explain how they were considered, enhanced, or rejected.   In turn, your team's confidence provides confidence to the customer.

Challaboration is a core value of our team.  Each person has a responsibility to assist in crafting a better solution.  They also have an obligation to identify weak ideas and prevent them from harming the team, product, and customers.  These are key, since our team doesn't start with more good ideas than most teams.  It just has a pretty darn good Bad Idea Filter.