What and Why skills vs How skills

John Cutler asked a great question on Twitter; how do we describe less visible skills like qualitative research in comparison to technical skills like software development?

Initially I was intrigued by the parallels with translation vs interpretation in linguistics. I can see similarities between a software developer translating requirements into code. And a design researcher interpreting customer interviews to help produce the right software requirements.

I also liked a response by Tiffany Chang suggesting that one skill is more concrete and the other more abstract. That resonated with human centered design approaches for me. And the idea of not jumping straight from problem to solution:

HCD abstract concrete understand create quadrants

(ref: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/human_centered_systems_minded_design)

So in some ways perhaps we are really talking about the difference between skills to understand “what” (we need to do), and “why” (we should do it), versus skills in “how” we do it? And unfortunately perhaps it is natural for many people to see and appreciate “how” skills above “what” and “why” skills. When you’re cold, fire lighting skills are more immediately appreciable than skills to uncover that we need to move the tribe to a different valley.

Depth vs breadth

In a recent sprint review we were asked how our findings, which were based on a relatively small number of customer conversations, could be meaningful. Were they statistically significant?

I’d got used to our stakeholders being familiar with the background to qualitative research and how we don’t try to quantify it as such. And that the selection approach / recruitment matrix mean that we can have confidence in the insights. However staff had come and gone and so it was a good reminder to address the common concern that a survey would have been better and more statistically significant.

To address the concern we touched on the draw backs of surveys in terms of being sufficiently well designed, depth of understanding and subjectivity. Example – rate our service from 1-10, with a follow up question of why did you pick that rating? If a customer answers “efficient service” what does efficient really mean? Obviously quick and easy right? Well maybe not. I’ve had cases in more in depth conversations where I asked  “Can you tell me a bit more about what efficient meant to you?” and the answer was not what most of us would expect! A survey can you give you breadth but not necessarily depth of understanding. And it’s unlikely to tell you why efficiency is important to customer X.

We also talked about some of the science behind qualitative research: getting your recruitment matrix right, and the concept of saturation and diminishing returns after speaking to a relatively small number of customers. We felt we were close to that point of diminishing returns. And interestingly we’d already identified and highlighted the key drawback of our selection approach in this situation, which was that we were gaining understanding of customer experience across a reasonably narrow time frame – very much “point in time” insights.

Still it is hard for some to trust the insights from what seems like a small number of conversations. My final persuasion is to ask stakeholders to think about some data we have – e.g. the number of times a customer has logged into a help portal. It’s tempting to say that those logging in most are the ones that need the most help and others are doing great without the need for help. But are they really? Maybe they’re struggling on, tapping a colleague on the shoulder and asking for their help instead. The data (in this case) cannot tell you that. A conversation can.

Leading with questions

I was preparing for our company celebration of CX Day 2018  on Tuesday and was reminded of this great interview with Warren Berger on the IDEOU site. The interview drills into the power of questions, and how the right question can lead to a breakthrough and real innovation. The bit that sticks out for me is the question that led to the Polaroid instant camera:

One of my favourite questions is the question that led to the Polaroid Instant Camera back in the 1940s. The four-year-old daughter of the founder of Polaroid asked: Why do we have to wait for the picture? One of the reasons why four-year-olds are good at asking questions is because they don’t have a lot of assumptions and they look at things with a beginner’s mind … Many things begin with a question. It’s this catalytic force. When you arrive at an interesting question and take ownership of that question, it can lead you to innovation.


My take away: when you’re leading a group of creative people, you don’t need all of the answers; you don’t need your assumptions or your preconceived options for a solution; often you just need a really great question!

“Yes, and”, Cirque du Soleil and innovative design

On a recent holiday we got to go to a Cirque du Soleil show. The show was “O” and you should seriously consider checking it out if you ever get the chance. Absolutely amazing! Aside from being thoroughly entertaining, for me the show reinforced some recent experiences around innovation and creative leadership that I’d picked up from companies like Empathy Design and IDEO.

I’m not talking about design frameworks or methods of research – although those will pay you back too! I’m talking about the power of two simple words. They’re easy words to say in your head, but not always as easy in practice. If you’re interested in hearing more, feel free to read on. Or pop over to one of the websites mentioned above if you want to learn from the experts!

Cirque du Soleil “O”

If you’ve ever seen a show like Cirque, then you’ll know the general approach: a storyline weaved through a show of live music and acrobatics. It encapsulates a feeling of “wow!”, is immersive and generally involves the audience to an extent. This one was no exception but did have one difference – it was above a pool of water. So instead of landing on a stage, trampoline or safety net, the performers could plunge into the water:

Cirque du Soleil O 1

It was easy to imagine a design thinking style process where the performers had a conversation that went something like this:

Performer 1: “We could leap into the air and spread our limbs out for great effect”

Creative director, doesn’t say “but we always do that” instead they say Yes, and could we build up some momentum on a giant swing, so that we can fly higher and longer than we’ve done before?”

Performer 2 contributes: Yes, and instead of having to land on a stage we could plunge into a pool of water so that we can hold our pose for longer!”

Few people would argue with the commercial success of Cirque du Soleil and that this success is based on an ability to immerse and delight their customers. I couldn’t help but think that the end result of delighted customers stemmed in part from “yes, and” style thinking.

Of course “what ifs” and “buts” have to be addressed too. So whilst we were seeing this:

Cirque du Soleil O 2

What was actually happening was like this:

Cirque du Soleil O 3

(this is really what was happening … they even show you the scuba divers at one point in the show)

Creative leadership and innovation

What I didn’t know when I was thinking the above on our way out of the theatre, was that Cirque du Soleil have indeed been used as a poster child for innovation, design thinking and creative leadership.

People that know me well, will know that I’m more of a “what if” kind of guy (some pretty strong monitor evaluator preferences in there for those familiar with Belbin!). But the lesson for me is clear, innovation comes from a “yes, and” approach.

Applying “yes, and” in principal

A “yes, and” approach works really well during ideation. When leading a group through idea generation (e.g. in an ideation workshop) you’re after quantity, and you want your participants to defer judgement on quality (“no idea is a bad idea … for now”). A positive approach to take is to encourage the group to build on each others ideas. Ask people to put away any tendency to say “but that won’t work” and instead try starting their thoughts and comments with “yes, and”. Doing this is a great way to facilitate building on ideas.

If you can get the group to the point where they’re eagerly awaiting each others ideas, pausing to consider and then saying “yes, and we could …” then you’re halfway there!