How To Succeed By Figuring Out How To Fail

TRIZ

“We’re not just going to learn about these techniques today, we’re actually going to use them. And since it’s easier to talk about something if everyone has some experience in it, we picked a shared, real-world topic that all of you should know something about.”

Every seat was taken 15 minutes before we were scheduled to start. It was well beyond standing room only, as people flooded out into the hallway.

Our break-out session at the Lean Washington Conference was absolutely overflowing (Maybe it was because I hid the “Session Full” sign).

“In this workshop, we’re going to focus on this conference – the one we’re at right now! The theme for today is: How can we make this the best conference possible? No one knows the answer to that question better than you all – the people attending this conference!”

Wonful had been given 50 minutes to speak at the Lean Washington Conference in October. 2700 Washington State employees came together for a two day conference to learn about Lean, Kanban, process improvement, Agile, Pre-Agile, and the latest in getting work done better. Instead of talking at our audience for an hour, we decided to run a much more interactive session.

“Okay. Everyone ready to start designing the best conference we can? Lets start with an exercise called TRIZ. In a moment, we’re going to ask you a question. Call out your answers, and we’ll write them down on the whiteboard.”

“Everyone ready for the question? Okay.”

Question #1:
“What is everything you, or your fellow attendees, could possibly do to reliably guarantee… (there was a dramatic pause here)… that this is the worst conference you’ve ever attended. That this was a massive waste of time, you were miserable, and you didn’t learn a single thing the entire two days.”

The room was silent. This definitely was not the question they were expecting. After a moment, people started laughing nervously. Someone finally broke the silence:

“I could spend the entire conference checking my email instead of paying attention to the presentations.”

The whole room roared. Not because it was funny – but because it hit home. Everyone does that. This opened the floodgates, and answers poured in:

“I could skip sessions to talk to my friends in the hallways.”
“I could wear earplugs and a blindfold all day!”
“I could not take notes.”
“Heckling speakers!”
“Pulling the fire alarm!”
“Leaving sessions early for lunch!”
“Disagreeing with one thing a presenter said, then tuning out the rest of the time!”

Once the room quiets down, we have a list of twenty or thirty behaviors on the board. Some ridiculous and silly, but many realistic ones as well. Instead of thinking about what they could do to succeed, the first phase of TRIZ gets people thinking about all the behaviors they could engage in to ensure failure.

Question #2:
“Okay. Time for phase two. Next question – Which of these behaviors have you either personally engaged in, or seen others do, at this conference so far?

People called out behaviors they’d engaged in, or seen others do over the last day. As people called them out, we circled them on the board. More than half of the words on the board were circled.

The answers to this question can be really surprising. People never realize how they’re actively engaging in so many behaviors that hurt their own chances of success. By calling out and identifying them, people are a lot more aware of them when they happen.

If they see someone else – or notice themselves – checking their email during a session, they understand the consequences. After all, they just acknowledged the connection between “checking email during a session” and “making this the worst conference ever.”

Question #3:
“Last question. How can you stop engaging in these behaviors?

One person decided to stop bringing she phone into the conference center, so she physically couldn’t check email. Someone else wanted to stop dismissing presenters just because they said one thing he disagreed with. Another person said he would stop leaving home without a notebook and pen.

These are all behaviors people acknowledged they currently engaged in, and pledged to stop. If someone notices they have their phone in their pocket as they’re getting out of the car, they can put it in the glove compartment. If another attendee notices themselves getting upset at a presenter, they can check in with themselves and keep listening.

It’s important to notice something. You are not starting new behaviors.

I’m going to repeat that because it’s very important: You are not starting new behaviors. You are stopping old ones.

Phase three of TRIZ is all about calling out what you should stop doing. Organizations often put new processes in place to stop something bad from happening.

A bus driver must stop to rest every six hours.

A bus driver must get 8 hours of sleep the night before a drive.

A bus driver must eat a healthy breakfast that morning.

A bus driver must have water, snacks, and caffeine pills to keep them awake.

The rules keep stacking up. After all, it’s really important that the bus driver doesn’t fall asleep while driving a bus full of people. But at some point, there are too many rules. Even the most well intentioned bus driver forgets Rule #17.

If you work in a large, or old, organization – you can probably relate. There are so many rules around some processes, it’s almost impossible even for the well intentioned to follow them all.

But, if one of the answers to our first question was “Bus drivers drive when tired,” what if the rule was “Do what you need to do to stop driving while tired.” We can erase ten other “you must do” rules by simply encouraging people to “you must not do” a single behavior. This reduces the complexity of the rules, the complexity of the overhead of managing those rules, and encourages more innovative ways to accomplish the ultimate goal.

So to recap, use TRIZ to brainstorm behaviors that ensure the failure of a project or task. When they’re brainstorming behaviors, encourage them to get silly and ridiculous (even the silly ones, like “wear ear plugs and a blindfold,” can have roots in reality).

Reword these the three questions as necessary, but keep the fundamentals of the question the same:

1. “What is everything you can do, personally or as a group, to reliably guarantee that [a bad thing happens]?”
2. “Which of these behaviors do you see happening around you today?”
3. “How can you stop engaging in these behaviors?”

 

If you enjoyed this post, sign up for our newsletter: Innovation At Work. We’ll send you content like this every two weeks. So sign up right now, and you can start learning how to build better products today!