This is a transcript of episode 314 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Use a shared language to ensure good ideas for your product or team aren’t crushed before they get a chance to live.

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Butterfly Ideas

Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: So, Jeffrey, I think you have an article you read and are excited about. And the article has something to do with butterflies.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s right, it’s butterfly ideas. And actually, it’s an article you sent me, so I was glad that that that you sent it my way.

Squirrel: Oh great! Well, good for me, I know I didn’t read it, so you better tell us about it.

Jeffrey: Sure. The idea is one that appeals to me for a couple reasons. And the idea here, the idea of a butterfly idea is one that’s newly birthed and not quite ready for the rigors of intellectual combat. And the idea of a butterfly idea is by labeling it such, you can make like a common language to say, ‘hey, please don’t stomp on this right away. You know, let’s let this grow and develop a bit more before we start attacking it and testing it.’

Jeffrey: And I think that’s sounds fantastic for, for many reasons. And part of which is because I have the kind of friends where we love to get into that kind of intellectual combat that can be really stimulating. But not every idea is ready for that. And that just seems like such a useful idea, for me personally. But it also made me think of a lot of valuable applications within the workplace, and therefore I thought it’s something that our listeners might like to hear and think about how they might apply it as possibly a keyword they could use among their collaborators in the office. So that’s that’s why I thought it was worth discussing. Any immediate thoughts come to mind for you?

Squirrel: Oh, well, that kind of shared language is something I’m always trying to help set up with my clients. I’ve got a story I can tell later, but, what you need really is a kind of story. To pull it together, you need something that everyone can refer to and you can tell new people. So they will say, ‘oh, yeah, now I know what you mean. When you talk about butterfly ideas.’ It’s a bit of jargon that needs the backing of a story. So what’s the story here?

Jeffrey: Well, I think the story is like an analogy, which is, you could imagine like a newly hatched butterfly. And you can imagine showing that to your friend and saying, ‘hey, look at this beautiful butterfly that, you know, that can fly’ and the your friend, instead of appreciating what you’re trying to show them, just grabs the butterfly, crushes it, and then points to it and says, ‘what do you mean? Butterflies don’t fly? Look, it doesn’t fly. It could never fly. Look how bad its wings are!’.

Jeffrey: You’re like, ‘agh,’ this is a very visceral kind of reaction for me. It’s sort of the sadness of what just happened. And I think that’s what can happen. I think that’s why it resonated with me, is sometimes you can have these ideas that you are very excited about they show something and you just emotionally feel there’s promise here… And then they get crushed and you’re just like, ‘well, that could have gone somewhere.’

Squirrel: And I can think of a more inventive, more innovation related example, less evocative, less emotional than the butterfly. But the one that strikes me immediately is, if you’ve ever seen pictures of the Wright brothers first airplane, you could imagine picking it up and crushing it, right? It was not terribly robust in the face of, you know, a stiff wind and it often crashed. So if you got on the Wright brothers plane and said, ‘hey, wait a minute. I don’t have a movie to watch here.’ That would be kind of crushing it or, you know, this is going to survive a flight over the Atlantic. Well, of course not. It wasn’t ready.

Squirrel: And in the same way, a newly birthed butterfly is is not ready for the the vicious predator to come along and attack it. But that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t got something valuable in it. And I imagine this happens to product people often when they have new product ideas, or feedback from a customer that isn’t quite digested. Happens to salespeople, I imagine, as well, when they come back from a customer and say, ‘hey, the customer would love to have this,’ and somebody says, ‘yeah, we don’t support that.’ That’s a way of crushing the butterfly. As soon as you’ve heard something important about your technology, about your software, and I imagine our listeners are all thinking to themselves of stories like that, that they’ve encountered.


Listen to this section at 04:28

Jeffrey: Yeah, and it could be self-referential that since we recently I spoke with Gene Kim and he was talking about Wiring the Winning Organization. And one of his ideas in there, one of the principles was amplification. And I really like the idea, to me, this really resonated, this idea of amplifying weak signals and that sometimes these butterfly ideas are of that nature. They’re something that you actually can’t quite put into words. But you kind of think that there’s a ‘I have a feeling about something and this seems worth investigating this, this seems worth spending time on’ or ‘I have I have vague concerns about this area of the architecture or what happened during this incident.’

Jeffrey: That’s worth exploring. And maybe you can’t quite defend it yet, but there’s something valuable there to explore. And that that’s one of the things that came to mind for me. And not just that, but also the idea. And I’m in the position of wanting to bring the ideas from from the book, Wiring the Winning Organization, to people. And I’ve often had the case sometimes when I want to introduce ideas, there’s some immediate resistance. And this idea of, ‘hey, can we have some space to explore this first before we make a go/no-go decision?’ And I think partially it’s that rushing to judgment, people want to, if you have a proposal, people immediately want to say yes or no. And, you know, either it appeals to them or they’re like, no, it’s just not worth it. And it’s to me, this language of butterfly ideas is like, hey maybe we can be gentle with it and explore it a bit, see how it develops before we make that decision. And that just seemed super valuable.

Squirrel: And if we want to use ideas from somebody else, Kahneman in the book Thinking Fast and Slow, which we refer to very often, has all kinds of neuroscience about exactly that, rushing to judgment that is so natural for humans because it served us very well in the wild, when we might get eaten by a lion. Not quite so adaptive in a knowledge based organization. And what you want to do is get what he calls ‘system two’ working. It takes more calories, it takes more work, it’s more effort. If you’re trying to lose weight in the New Year, you might consider getting on a diet consisting of not being coherent, not using your initial reaction to things, and pointing out butterfly ideas and not crushing them right away might force you, might help you to get into that more reflective, harder, more calorie using, but much more valuable for a new idea, way of thinking.

Jeffrey: You know, as you kind of reminded me, we’ve talked about a couple of different ideas in the past on the podcast that I think have some similarity to this and this idea of using a keyword to with a shared definition to, to shape how people are going to approach something. And the two examples that came to mind is, you reminded me of six thinking hats, as a somewhat similar approach, where this is parallel brainstorming. So you get people working in the same direction rather than coming with ideas back and forth at each other. You know, reacting, saying, ‘no, what about this idea?’ ‘No, that’s bad for this reason’ the dynamics there seemed kind of similar.

Squirrel: Indeed. And there’s part of the six Thinking Hats exercise where you do crush the butterfly, where you’re trying to think, I think it’s the black hat that you wear and you’re trying to come up with a negative ideas. But part of the point of the exercise is to make sure you use all the different ways of engaging with an idea, and one of them is exactly this.

Squirrel: Don’t crush it right away.

Jeffrey: Yeah, exactly. You get the hat where you explore the idea first, and then later you can all go try to crush it together, but that is, you’ve made it something that you’re ready to reall discuss and interrogate first. And that’s actually for Elizabeth, the author of The Butterflies Ideas blog post, link in the show notes, she was saying that some of her best ideas, you know, they started at this early state and then later they were ready to then, you know, go into and be improved by testing from people.

Jeffrey: But it just it’s a question of being ready for that place. The other example that really kind of reminded me about having these kind of keywords, and this is something we talked about a long time ago on the podcast. So long time listeners might remember the Brene Brown phrase, ‘the story I’m telling myself’. And-

Squirrel: Of course.

Jeffrey: -I’ve always liked that as a way of saying, ‘hey, I have this story. It’s a story, and I acknowledge that it may not be correct,’ but that framing allows me to share it in a way that’s different from saying like, ‘here’s what I think is happening. Here’s what you’ve done wrong or here’s the way the world is.’ You can say, ‘no, this is a story I’ve put together.’ And that kind of allows people to handle it more gently. And, I think I felt a lot of resonance with that concept, with this butterfly ideas one.

Squirrel: Yep. And someone could still come along with the story I’m telling myself and say, ‘well, your story is all wrong,’ and someone could still crush the butterfly even if you say it’s a butterfly idea, you’re not guaranteeing that that won’t happen. But you’re certainly increasing the odds if you create this shared story, if you create this shared language that allows you to, in a sort of shorthand, say quickly, ‘hey, wait, this might be a good way of approaching this.’.

Emoji Indicators

Listen to this section at 09:55

Squirrel: It reminds me of how I helped some of my clients figure out this situation, this problem. It’s not exactly this challenge, but the challenge for them was that they would get into an intellectual debate, a vigorous discussion, on Slack. And so they’d be exchanging these low bandwidth textual messages. And they found that that that did not lend itself to reasoned debate and generating new ideas. That tended to get more shouty and they would get more angry with each other, because they didn’t have the bandwidth in which to accept somebody else’s idea and probe it and work on it with the other person.

Squirrel: So what they would do is, and I can’t remember what emoji they used, I think it might have been a telephone, but it might also have been a bomb.

Jeffrey: Hahaha

Squirrel: I don’t remember which. But it was a was an emoji they would use in slack, which would say, hey, wait, we should get on the phone. This was in the middle of lockdown, so they couldn’t go meet in a in a pub or something, but they wanted to get higher bandwidth. And so they’d jump on a video call, probably in slack and thrash out whatever the topic was. But that really helped them not to have these unproductive slack debates, but to have more interactive, productive conversations.

Squirrel: And that’s the sort of thing our listeners might want to do. If you’re finding that this happens to you a lot, you have to set it up ahead of time. But you might identify an emoji, the emoji of a butterfly, an emoji of something else, something that you can use in language or in text or somewhere else that lets you refer back to this stoy, this example in this idea and say, hang on we need higher bandwidth here. We need more genuine questions. We need to look at this in a different way. Could we do that?

Jeffrey: Yeah. Clearly this idea of of having symbols or indicators that would modify the protocol of how you expect people to behave, this is something I think is a very general pattern that people can apply in different scenarios. And I’m sure that many of our listeners have probably done that. And I would actually love to hear from some of our listeners, you know, have you done this? Have you put together some sort of signal in your language or writing or in your chat messages that tell people, ‘hey, you know, here’s how you should interpret this,’ or, ‘hey, let’s change the way we’re operating’ and ‘let’s change this conversation in some way.’ Have you had, you know, butterflies or telephone emojis or whatever it might be to tell people how to behave in the conversation? I’d love to hear those examples. You know, so that would be, I think, a fantastic thing to hear and share among the different people in our audience.

Squirrel: That would be indeed fantastic. We always like to hear people’s views. Of course the other way to keep in touch is come back again next Wednesday when we’ll have another edition of Troubleshooting Agile. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.