When COVID hit, we had to figure out a way to train people how to use the Rapid Learning Cycles framework virtually, when up to this point, I had only delivered face-to-face workshops and strongly recommended that teams only do face-to-face kickoff events. One Key Decision in that process: what collaboration tools will we use for the workshop?
This is a classic case of a Key Decision generating several different types of Knowledge Gaps: what is already known (best practices for running virtual collaboration meetings), what I’d have to discover for myself (how to adapt those techniques for a Kickoff Event), developing options (what tools are available?) and evaluating those options (what features are most important to us?).
The answers to the questions would not only help us make a good decision about which tool to adopt. It would also give us the ability to make the process work even better as the tools got better. The questions you ask in the context of a Rapid Learning Cycles project should also help you make good Key Decisions and generate knowledge for this program — and for the next program.
The Right Questions Build Knowledge
This is important because a Rapid Learning Cycles driven project is all about answering questions to gain better knowledge to make better decisions — and it’s difficult to answer a question that is vague, too broad or overly constrained. A question that is too open will lead to time wasted on knowledge that does not contribute to the project — or any project. A question that is too constrained will lead to knowledge about just this project — and no other project.
Both Knowledge Gaps and Key Decisions are formulated in the form of questions. We do this to help the team shift its mindset from a focus on doing stuff to a focus on learning stuff — answering questions — and making decisions that stick. It’s a lot easier to make that mindset change if the questions are well-formulated.
Elements of a Well Formulated Question
Well-formulated questions have these key characteristics:
- Focused: A well formulated question is focused. You want to be able to close a Knowledge Gap.
- Answerable: A well-formulated question has an answer. You may not like the answer very much and you may have difficulty getting the answer. But nevertheless, the question can be answered. The answers to Key Decisions come from decision makers. The answers to Knowledge Gaps come from the activities you perform to close those gaps.
- Relevant: A well-formulated question has direct relevance to the project. In projects using the Rapid Learning Cycles framework, we always have more Knowledge Gaps to close than we have time to investigate. Any question that does not make a difference to the project is one that is not worth a minute of time. This should always be from the teams’ point of view.
- Does not pre-suppose an answer: In general, we are looking for open-ended questions that do not presuppose a solution. We want to build knowledge, not just for this team but for future teams with similar decisions to make and questions to answer. Open-ended questions drive us to explore alternatives and understand the design space more thoroughly.
How Do You Know You Have a Key Decision or a Knowledge Gap?
When a Rapid Learning Cycles project goes off-track, it’s usually because the team did not ask good questions. Instead, they mixed up Knowledge Gaps, Key Decisions and Activities. There is a fundamental difference between these three elements that well-formulated questions bring into focus.
- Key Decision: A Question That Represents a Choice. Key decisions have answers that you choose: “Which material shall we choose for the new cabinet?”. You may not like the choices you have by the time you’ve closed all your Knowledge Gaps. Your only choice, in fact, may be to close the project because you have no acceptable alternatives. But nevertheless, you do have a choice, which means that you have a decision to make. Key Decisions often — but not always — start with Which, Who Shall, Where Shall, What Shall or How Shall?
- Knowledge Gap: A Question With An Answer. Knowledge gaps always represent questions with answers: “Which material gives the best trade-off of cost vs. appearance and durability?”. We know how to answer that question: run experiments to help us understand durability, make models to see how the materials work aesthetically and get cost estimates from suppliers. Even the squishy questions that have to do with aesthetics and other sensory attributes do have answers, even if those answers are hard to find. Similarly, Knowledge Gaps around market adoption rates, Total Addressable Market and sales forecasts have answers, even though those answers come with a lot of measurement error. Knowledge Gaps often start with Why, How Does, Where Does, Who Does, What Does? They tend to be open-ended instead of closed questions, simply because we gain more knowledge when we try to close a Knowledge Gap that is in the form of an open question. For example, “Which materials will last five years in our application?” will generate more knowledge than “Will parts made with the X100 Resin last five years in our application?”.
- An Activity: Something You Do. Activities are things you can write in the form “Verb – Object” such as “Test the samples” or even “Conduct a Design Review.” We do these activities to answer questions: “Which sample gives the highest performance?” or “What are the most important Failure Modes to prevent?”. You may find that an FMEA session — especially as most companies conduct such a session — is not the best way to find the most important Failure Modes. You might find that you need a different test to answer the question about performance.
This may seem like a fine distinction but it is important for supporting the most difficult mind shift that companies have to make when they are using Rapid Learning Cycles for the first time: the transition from Doing Stuff to Learning Stuff.
Good Questions Support the Change from Doing to Learning
Good questions make it easier to see when the activities don’t match the Knowledge Gaps. In a RLC-driven project, no one does anything simply because it is on the plan. If the experiment, test or analysis is no longer relevant, or isn’t the best way to answer the question, it is up to that person to stand up and say so, rather than waste his or her time on something that won’t contribute to the project. If there is a better, faster way to learn the same thing, the Knowledge Gap owner should be empowered to do that instead.
This is a major change for people in some organizations, who are used to being told what to do by their managers or project leaders. They may also normally share only the results of their investigations, without recommending the next course of action. Their attempts at Knowledge Sharing look much more like Status Reports, with a lot of emphasis on What Was Done, and not much about What Was Learned. Well-formulated questions help them make that transition by giving them a specific answer to seek.
From Doing Stuff to Answering Questions
Product developers like to Do Stuff and I am no exception. I signed up for demo accounts for a number of tools, including ones you’ve probably heard of like Mural and Miro, as well as the free whiteboard options that come with Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and a few lesser-known options, and dove into experimentation.
But the research I had already done had shown me what was important: the ability to replicate sticky note brainstorming — with metadata about each item. With the right tool, we wouldn’t lose the advantages of having one idea per sticky note, and the ability to move that sticky note from one place to another. Metadata (the owner, the rating of a Knowledge Gap, its location in the Learning Cycles plan) would make it easier to work with the sticky notes during the event and afterwards.
The aesthetics were less important, as long as the user interface was clean and easy to learn without much training. After all, we were replacing hand-written sticky notes on large blocks of flipchart paper, hung with blue tape. It’s effective but not pretty.
That led us to our final decision to adopt Cardsmith as our tool of choice for workshops: it treats each sticky note (“card”) as data, and it has the ability to handle all the layouts we need easily, and save them as templates. Meanwhile, some of our clients have gone on to use other tools. Everything we learned in answering our questions about virtual Kickoff Events is also valuable as we support our clients in using these other tools.