The High Level Issue

In my post about Interests vs Positions,  I alluded that the parties involved in my fictional example could also have improved their outcome if they had widened their options – but that that was another post.  Well, this is another post.

Widening one’s available options is a great technique to improve the outcome of many situations – day to day decisions, major life decisions, actual “negotiations” with other parties, etc.   For purposes of this post, when I use the word ‘option’, I mean a potential way to achieve one’s goal.

It is yet another interesting phenomenon of human behavior that we tend to restrict ourselves to a very small number of options for meeting our goals.  The biggest pitfall is restricting yourself to the dichotomy: “do x or don’t do x“.  Slightly better but still pretty bad is: “do either x or y.”

Usually, there is a whole array of options available in a given situation.  Our instinct, though, is to focus exclusively on the first one or two that occur to us.  This is a huge mistake.  The first option(s) that you consider will likely have significant drawbacks.  They might not even really accomplish your goal.  You will likely end up agonizing over, fretting over, and debating these trade-offs (even if just with yourself).  Even if you don’t, there is likely a much better option available to you that you are ignoring.

Back to Bob and Alice

Consider the example of Bob from the last post.  His goal was catching up on sleep.  His plan (option) for achieving that goal was to get to bed early.  His plan (option) for that was getting home from the movie early.  His plan (option) for that was getting to the movies quickly.  His plan (option) for that was making a decision about which movie to see quickly.  And, finally, his plan (option) for that was to have a suggestion ready to go when he and Alice discussed it.  Unfortunately, Bob didn’t actually lay it out explicitly like that – even in his own mind.

Instead, Bob’s mind (like everyone else’s) was too clever by half, as they say.  His mind immediately leaped all the way back to the beginning of the process (the making a decision step) and came up with a way to speed it up.  In a sense, Bob’s mind skipped over the forest and went straight to thinking about the trees.  This issue of not stepping “outside” of a process before trying to improve it, though, is another post 😉

If Bob had paused and enunciated – even just to himself – that what he really wanted was to catch up on sleep, he could have gone further.  He could have thought creatively about the problem and widened the options available to him.  For instance, catching up on sleep doesn’t necessarily mean getting to bed early.  He could also accomplish that by getting to bed at his normal time and then sleeping in.  Perhaps that would require him to rearrange his schedule for Saturday morning.  Perhaps that’s no problem at all.  Perhaps it is a problem – but the point is that he didn’t take the time to explore the option.

Instead, he conceived of the problem very narrowly.  There was a process – going to see a movie – and he had to speed it up.  The fact that he devised this plan independently (without consulting Alice) only compounded the problem.  But that’s another post…

To be fair, there is something to be said for trying to make a decision easy for someone else – especially when you believe you’re working in their best interests – or, at least, not against them.  In this case, though, Bob didn’t know what Alice’s interests were.  At best, he assumed that Alice had an interest in seeing a movie tonight – but he didn’t confirm that assumption or check to see whether there were other interests at stake.

How to Widen Your Options

It’s one thing to point out that someone should consider more options when charting a path to a goal.  It’s quite another to actually be that person and be able to recognize or generate more options.  In subsequent posts, I’ll describe some of my favorite ways of widening options based on my experience and some of the popular literature on the subject.

Stay tuned 🙂

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Interests vs. Positions

27 August 2014

The Story

Imagine a couple, Bob and Alice.  Every Friday, they go out to see a movie.  Today is Friday.  They have yet to choose which movie they are going to see.

Bob doesn’t have a strong opinion about which movie to see but would like to make a decision quickly.  Thus, he suggests to Alice: “I was thinking we could see Die Hard tonight.”

Alice responds: “But you picked the movie the last two weeks in a row.”

Somewhat taken aback, Bob replies: “Um, yeah, but you picked all four weeks before that…,” implying he was still behind rather than ahead.

“But that’s only fair.  You spend every Sunday afternoon watching sports.”

“Wait.  What does that have to do with anything?  You always say that that’s fine since you have other things to do.”

“That doesn’t mean I like it!”

“But you’ve never said anything about not liking it!  Even if you had, what does that have to do with who gets to pick the movie?”

And so on.

The tragic thing here is that, somewhat unbeknownst to both Bob and Alice, neither one of them cares who chooses the movie tonight.  Bob only cares about making a decision quickly since he would like to be home early because he’s low on sleep.  Alice’s only concern is that she doesn’t want to see an action movie.  She really doesn’t care what they see – so long as it’s not an action movie.

Despite that, both Bob and Alice are now heavily engaged in an emotional argument about the equitable distribution of weekly choices in general, who gets to choose tonight, why, what other considerations tip the scales, AND (at least implicitly) what the right way to communicate is.

They’re going to miss the movie.  They’re going to end the day pretty angry at one another.  They’ve opened a whole can of worms that did not need to be opened.  And all they cared about was a) choosing quickly and b) not choosing an action movie.

How did they get here?

Recognizing and Refining Interests

First, neither one of them took a moment to reflect on what their interests were – at least, not enough to be able to enunciate them.  Bob never paused to enunciate “I just want to make a decision quickly.”  Further, he never bothered to ask himself “why?”.  If he had, he might have refined it to “all I really want is to catch up on sleep.”

Enunciating Interests

Bob’s next misstep was that he never bothered telling Alice about his only real concern: catching up on sleep.

Up until now, Bob had made several mistakes – but they were still contained and easily fixable.  For instance, if Bob had started the conversation with “I’d really like to make a decision quickly so I can catch up on some sleep tonight,” the conversation could have gone very quickly and his plan would have worked.  Alice could have then responded with “No problem – all I care about is not seeing an action movie.”

The key is that, for the conversation to be salvageable at this point, Bob needed to enunciate his interest.

Responding with a Counter Argument

The next misstep was Alice’s.

It’s a funny thing about human nature but we assume that we need to respond to everything rationally – which often means “with a counter argument.”  In Alice’s case, all she had to do was say “Actually, I don’t care what we see but I’m really not up for an action movie this week.”  Interestingly, we humans tend to think that that is not a “valid” answer – at least, not when we’re the ones saying it out loud.  Bob would have considered it a perfectly “valid” answer.  After all, he wants them both to enjoy the movie they’re going to see.  That’s the whole point.

In Alice’s mind, though, Bob has offered a proposal – Die Hard.  Since she doesn’t want to see Die Hard, the “rational” thing to do is come up with an objective line of argumentation that will culminate in them not seeing Die Hard.  If she can convince Bob that she should really be the one to pick this week, she’ll just pick something else.  She really doesn’t care if she picks this week – perhaps she would even prefer not to be bothered with picking this week.  But she foregoes all of that in a snap decision about how to preserve her interest which seems endangered.

Taking Positions –  Hook, Line, and Sinker

Unfortunately, Bob falls into the same trap.  Alice just made an argument about why he shouldn’t pick this week.  He really doesn’t care about picking this week.  But human nature takes over and he can’t help but respond to Alice’s argument, which he finds flawed, with one of his own.  All of a sudden, his interest in making a decision quickly is not foremost in his mind.  Several other things have now become urgent, including the issue of what is an equitable distribution of weekly choices and just winning a debate.

Both Bob and Alice have now taken positions – and then proceed to dig in and defend.  Alice’s interest is not seeing an action movie – but her position is a combination of several things all hinging on who should get to choose and why.  Bob’s original interest has now been crowded out by several other interests and his position is that it’s only fair that he choose this week.

Unfortunately, it would now be pretty difficult to get Bob and Alice back on a smooth track.  They’re both firmly planted in arguing about their positions rather than their interests.  Neither one of them really cares about the positions.  Their interests are perfectly compatible.  They could have had a great evening.  Instead, it’s going to be rather unpleasant.  And it all hinges on interests versus positions.

Interests are what you really want or need.  Positions are just the arguments you think will achieve or preserve your interests.  Always focus both on your interests and those of the other parties.  Don’t worry about positions.  They’ll just make things worse.

Getting to Yes

The Interests vs. Positions distinction was popularized in the book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton.  While the situation presented above might not seem like a “negotiation” in the typical sense, it is a situation in which multiple parties have different interests and need to work together to achieve them (either by necessity or because of circumstance).  The book goes into far more detail about how to navigate the waters of interests and positions, truly difficult negotiations, and other related topics.  It’s an easy and worthwhile read.  I recommend it.


In addition to focusing on issues rather than positions, Bob and Alice would have benefited from widening their options – but that is another post.

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Our company has been in the habit of doing periodic EPPs (Employee Performance Plans).  We’ve evolved from doing them once a quarter to once every four months to twice a year.  We’ve gradually lengthened the amount of time an EPP covers because of the overhead involved in putting them together and reviewing them.

When the Engineering department moved to Scrum, we obviously had to change the way we conceived of an EPP.  As usual, the problems we encountered weren’t caused by Scrum – just highlighted by it.

The main problem we encountered was “how can we say we’re planning on doing anything since we don’t set our own priorities?”  In the past, this didn’t seem like a problem because we just subtracted the amount of time needed to complete our EPP objectives from the amount of available time for “PM-sponsored” projects – or we built in the fact that we wouldn’t be working 100% of the time on those projects.  Either route is a problem because it reduces visibility into what the team’s priorities and capacity are.

Another problem was “how can we claim to be agile while putting together six month long personal plans?”

The latest problem we’ve encountered had to do with personal/career/team development, e.g., writing more unit tests, peer reviewing code, experimenting with peer programming, networking with peers outside the company, etc.

I feel like we’ve addressed all three problems fairly well.  Here’s how:

Regarding EPP projects, we realized that engineers making themselves personally responsible for entire projects was simply the wrong approach.  Granted, we wanted to get these projects (mostly technical debt reduction projects) done and granted they are important, but cutting out the rest of the team and the Product Owner is simply not the best way to accomplish them.

We realized that we should not be focusing on the whole project but simply that piece which is under our control.  Thus, we are now adopting EPP goals such as “Advocate for refactoring product X” – with objectives such as “educate Product Management about the costs and potential benefits” and “submit requested user stories and Definitions of Done to our Product Owner”.  In this way, we’re doing everything we can to see that these projects get done without sacrificing the prerogative of the PO to set priorities.  We’re also doing what only we can do: identify, explain, and plan to reduce technical debt or capitalize on new technologies.

Regarding the fact that we’re using six month EPPs, we are very explicit that EPPs – like all plans – should not be written in stone.  Thus, we’ve taken the approach of having quick, monthly reviews of our EPPs to see if there is anything we want to add, remove, or change given our evolving situation and knowledge.  These reviews sometimes only last five minutes; sometimes they last 30.  The point is that they don’t introduce much overhead and they allow us to course correct fairly frequently.

Regarding personal/career/team development goals, the problems we were running into regarded how to measure success.  If we had an EPP goal to “ensure unit tests are written,” what defines success?  What do we say at the end of six months if we didn’t write as many unit tests as we could have for the first month or two, then were pretty good for the rest of the period until the last week when we again may have missed some opportunities for tests?

We realized that we were not focusing on the real issue.  At the end of the period, we didn’t so much want a code coverage percentage as we wanted to be able to say that we had adopted or internalized certain practices.  That is, that we had developed certain habits.  Thus, at the end of the period, the question we ask ourselves is not “what is our code coverage like?” but rather “have we developed the habit of always writing unit tests?”  While this is more subjective, we feel it is still more valuable and it more accurately reflects what we actually want to do.


  • Plan to do those things where you add unique value – bearing in mind that no one person can tackle an entire project alone and, therefore, should not be solely responsible for that project.
  • Review the plan often, making changes as necessary.  The plan is not written in stone.
  • Don’t be seduced by “vanity metrics” like “how many units tests have I written per story?”  Rather, focus on those habits or practices that you want to develop or internalize and then judge yourself against how well you have become the engineer you want to be.
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Spring Conferences

26 February 2010

I’ll be attending Agile Coach Camp 2010 – a bar camp for agile practitioners being held in Durham, NC, March 19-21.  I and a colleague will be able to be there for the entire weekend and hopefully meet up with another co-worker who is based in NC whom we haven’t seen in a while.

I’ll also be attending the Lean Software and Systems Conference in Atlanta from April 21st through the 23rd.

I’m really looking forward to these conferences and meeting anyone else who might be attending these.  If you’re planning on attending, drop me a line and perhaps we can arrange to meet up.

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Guaranteed Failure

9 October 2009

Tobias Mayer has a great quote that I just learned about, “Scrum guarantees failure in 30 days or less.”  It’s so true – in a good way, of course.  Better to fail within 30 days and get back on track than fail after a year or more and be beyond the point of no return.

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22 September 2009

As I read and think more and more about entrepreneurship, business models, business practices (especially agile project management, product development, and customer development methodologies), and how technology impacts them all, I find myself wanting to write about these topics and ideas that are floating around in my head.  That is what I intend to do here.  Comments are much desired.

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