This is a transcript of episode 307 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick, Douglas Squirrel.

Tech teams operate best with clearly defined “negative space” that’s not in scope - and leaders are more receptive to defining it than they think.

Show links:

Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.

Negative Space

Listen to this section at 00:14

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

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel. And I’m really excited because I heard that you’re going to give us a little art lesson today.

Squirrel: Well, I think that’s far too strong of a statement, but, uh, I’ll do what I can. My my wife, of course, is an art historian and knows a tremendous amount about art. And so I tag along to art galleries and learn tiny amounts about art by just osmosis. And a long time ago, I went to the Tate Gallery here in England. And in the Tate Gallery is hanging a one of several hundred paintings by a guy named Klein. And what Mr. Klein did is he discovered The Blue, the particular shade of blue that represented perfect space or something. This is the part I don’t understand. And he painted these amazing paintings which consist entirely of that color. So you can imagine a typical canvas and you just cover it entirely. You could imagine taking a paint roller and doing this, although I’m sure he did it in a much more artistic and meaningful way, and it’s just completely covered in this blue. That’s the whole painting and-

Jeffrey: -Monochromatic.

Squirrel: Monochromatic!

Jeffrey: No shading, nothing.

Squirrel: You got it. So one shade of painting, that’s the painting and you think, wow, you could just crank these out! It sounds like a great money maker! This was not his thinking, and he had a whole lot of other theory about it. Now, the reason this might be interesting to our listeners is that some of them at least have heard me talk about negative space, which is about the only other art thing I know about, which is when you’re painting, say, a vase of flowers.

Squirrel: You’re painting a normal painting not like crazy, Mr. Klein, and you’re painting a vase of flowers and the flowers, if you sort of cut them out of the painting, would make a space. There’s the part you didn’t paint, and that might have a little bit of background in it, or it might just be black, or it might be the plain canvas, whatever it is, that negative space is really important for the symbolism of the painting. It might make a triangle on one side and a square on the other, and that represents the Republic of Eritrea or whatever it is that happens artistically, but that has tremendous importance for product management of software teams.

Jeffrey: Okay, right. Negative space. Product management. Okay.

Squirrel: Yep.

Jeffrey: How so?

Squirrel: I thought you might ask that. So the reason it’s important is that product management is the really the art of defining negative space. It’s much more important what you decide not to do in your software product than it is what you do do. And-

Jeffrey: Right, okay.

Squirrel: -The successful teams that I see are really clear about that. Sometimes they’re less clear about whether it’s a vase of flowers or someone’s head. They’re not as sure about exactly what the product is. They know where they’re experimenting and they’re learning about it, but they sure do know that they are a product for farmers and not for shippers, or they’re a product for teachers and not for administrators or something like that. They have a very clear sense of what their product doesn’t do, and they communicate that clearly, internally and externally.

Jeffrey: Right, exactly, okay, so now I get this. You’re defining your product by the borders of what it does and doesn’t do, even though there are things that might be related, you know, you can kind of see like this is these are similar things. So maybe they could serve two markets or actually, because this reminds me a bit of a conversation I had this past week, I was in Hong Kong and talking to someone who was actually has an internal assignment to come up as kind of a training exercise with a product proposal. And I was describing something similar, which is, you know, you could think of all the things that might be useful for the person or persona you have in mind, but it’s going to be really important what you choose to focus on that. And and you can’t focus on everything because you’re focusing everything would be, you know, kind of doing everything, filling the whole canvas. And that’s not where you’re going to start. You need to find those things that make the biggest difference for what you want to achieve. Is that is that related? Do I have something right there?

Squirrel: It certainly is. And some of our listeners will be saying, but hang on a second. There are people at my company or in my organization or in my engineering team that don’t understand this. And they think they’re Yves Klein. They think that you should paint everything and you should include everything, and there shouldn’t be any negative space because, gosh, if you could just capture this entire market, if you could sell to to farmers and shippers and retailers and everybody up the whole supply chain, suddenly your business would be even more successful.

Jeffrey: Right, why would I want to shrink my market?

Squirrel: Yeah, right! Why would we want to make it unattractive to some people. So what did you tell your friend about that?

Jeffrey: Well, what I said was, this is a great temptation because actually I said, this is a very natural thing to do because you come up with this giant list of all the things we could do for these people. And they’re all good ideas. I think this is the challenge, is that all these things are useful, beneficial value add. But they’re not all equally valuable.

Kano Model

Listen to this section at 05:29

Jeffrey: And I introduced which is where I often start with new product managers, which is the Kano Model, which is a way of organizing features into different categories. And it makes a difference between ones that are in a kind of incremental, you know, linear, the more you add, the better. And then these ones that are very non-linear in the diagram of the Kano Model, which are called delighters, ones that really set you apart.

Jeffrey: And my point I was saying is you’re much better off focusing on a few of these delighters, these unique things that you can do that no one else can have, that if you have them, then you suddenly become a necessity. Like once these things become possible, it’s like, well, we have to have it because they, you know, they have this thing that without which we really, you know, couldn’t solve the problem in a different way. And I said that a lot of features are not like that. A lot of things are sort of, you know, yeah, it’s better, it’s better to have this than not. But you’re not really making a massive difference to that persona.

Squirrel: And I really think that’s valuable and can be very useful to some of our listeners. So have a look in the show notes to to check out this Kano Model. Am I saying it right, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Yeah K-A-N-O. That’s right.

Squirrel: Okay, fantastic. It’ll be in the show notes if you’re driving. Don’t don’t try to write it down, you know, wait. Wait till you get somewhere. It’ll be in the show notes. You can check it out there. There are however some folks who would come back to that. And I have a couple of these in my portfolio right now. People that I’m working with at the moment who would say, ‘well, hang on, I agree that we should have delighters and all over this canvas everywhere for this whole market. We’re going to delight everyone. There are just an awful lot of things, and we want to delight lots of people.’

Squirrel: And I think one of the most important messages, which is sometimes hard to capture, is that what you want to do, you know, one person’s delighter is another person’s annoyer or detractor or, you know, something that would make them hate it. And you do want to polarize your community in that way, not because it’s better for them. There are people who won’t like whatever it is that you’re doing. You could, for some reason have a kind of teacher example in my mind, I don’t know why, but you know. If you’re building something that makes something very good for maths teachers that that might, you know, with exact right answers, and it checks down to the seventh decimal point, that might not work so well for English teachers, right? They’re not going to want to check the answers in the same way.

Squirrel: And so something that’s good for one might be bad for the other, but it’s very helpful to define which one you’re going to do because it is usually not always, but usually outside your reach to try to satisfy everyone in your entire market. And surprisingly, the people who are, who think they are Yves Klein, once they start to see it this way, actually tend to convert in my experience, that they they tend to start to see, well, prioritization really would help me get to a result faster. And when they see that it’s getting to a result faster, they convert. They say, ‘okay, fine, we can we can skip some of the painting here. We don’t have to cover everything. Maybe we’ll come back to that. But we’re going to prioritize for this one first.’

Jeffrey: And I agree, and I think this is interesting because I know when I talk to engineers there’s often a feeling like, ‘oh, you know, the leaders we have here, whether they’re product managers or founders or CEOs or whatever it might be, are totally unreasonable. And they’re always asking us to do everything all the time.’ But my experience is more like what you said, which is almost always when we talk about trade offs and kind of the laws of physics. That and then the value of prioritization, I almost always find the product leaders open to that. But that’s not the perception of engineers, very often. It seems to me that they’re often feeling, ‘nope, these people are totally unreasonable. They give us unreasonable deadlines to to finish everything, and it’s totally dysfunctional. And there’s no way people will ever change.’ But that’s rare in my experience. And I wonder if you if you agree or if you think no, you encounter this all the time.

Squirrel: Um, I’ve worked with or encountered, uh, three psychopaths in my entire career, 25 years working with over 200, 300 different companies. So and they really were psychopaths. I mean, they really were not able to accept the laws of physics and the reality that their team encountered. And maybe we’ll do another podcast on what to do with psychopaths if we have enough folks who ask us about it. But but that’s extremely rare that just almost never happens.

Squirrel: But the number of people who imagine that somebody in the organization is behaving in a way that is reality-denying, reality-bending is much greater. So the imagined number of psychopaths is a lot higher, in my experience. And the gap, the gap is difficult conversations. Guess what a shocking surprise! You and I would wind up there, but the thing that I always do when I encounter someone who thinks that and I may think it as well. There’s certainly a couple of folks I’m working with now who sound this way, but what I find consistently is that if you have a conversation with them about their thinking about their goals, there actually is an implicit prioritization.

There’s Implicit Prioritization

Listen to this section at 10:50

Squirrel: There is something that they want to do more than something else. They want to start at the upper left of the Klein painting and you say, great, you know, could could we start? We’ll paint there first. And that means we’re not going to paint the rest of the painting, and they’re usually very receptive to that.

Squirrel: We can have a beachhead in this part of the market. We can start with this kind of feature. And as long as they’re seeing results, then they’re willing to accept that one of the biggest dangers, one of the biggest breakdowns I see is somebody who’s acting that way because they haven’t seen results and they say, well, we better try everything because we don’t get very much. So we better start throwing paint at the at the canvas. We might as well, you know, we better start building all the features because maybe we’ll get one. And if they can see concrete evidence that they’re actually getting a result from greater focus, that usually has a very salutary effect.

Jeffrey: Yes. And, you know, I think it’s because what you’re saying matches my experience as well. And I think it’s a lot of times the engineering group never engages in the conversation, right? They never engage, because they’ve decided ahead of time that the person isn’t reasonable. They don’t try to have a conversation about reasoning, because why? Why would you ask about the reasoning of someone who’s unreasonable? But when-

Squirrel: And they think they have lots of evidence, they they think, gosh, every time we ask, the person tells us to do more stuff. So therefore they they must not be able to reason, but they’ve never asked.

Jeffrey: That’s right, that’s right. And often what I find is, if I can go in and understand someone’s reasoning and they might be asking for, ‘look, we just we need this whole thing blue and we need it all blue right now, you know, the whole do the whole thing.’ And I say, well, you know, what I can find is like, let me understand the reasoning why you want it all blue at once. And very often it’s like, well, this is, you know, we this is we have this vanishing opportunity. Like they have some, some often correct reasoning for why it’s important to get all this done. ‘If we don’t do it, someone else will.’ Whatever, whatever it might be, they see this window.

Jeffrey: And if we can say, great, I understand your reasoning and but I think right now, again, laws of physics come in. We can do whatever you want first, you know. So we’ll start with that upper left corner. And then, having done the left corner we can paint somewhere else. We can go to the next place. And if you want us to just go out from there, we can keep expanding until the whole thing is done. Fine. But it’s the plausible promise that we’re not going to stop with the left hand corner, and also that we understand the reasoning. Would love to do it. Would love to, you know, do the whole thing all at once. I don’t know how to do that. I’m not sure anyone knows how to do that. Maybe someone else does, but I don’t. So, you know, here’s the options that I can see us doing. Which would you like to choose?

Squirrel: There you go. So if listeners are interested in not painting the entire canvas blue, there’s there’s some things for you to try. Go and find that person who seems completely unreasonable and listen to them. Listen to their reasoning first. If you want to read more about that, that’s in chapter three of our book, for example, on the trust conversation, how to make sure you understand someone else’s reasoning before you start trying to take an action, before you start trying to change anything. And the trick is there, there are techniques for doing that that are somewhat more involved and, and, uh, really more skilled than you might think. And that might be what’s holding you back if you feel like you have Yves Klein as your CEO. Keep in touch with us, come back again next Wednesday when we’ll have another episode of Troubleshooting Agile. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.