#013 - Which hill are you climbing?
Welcome to Issue #013 of The Forcing Function - you guide to delivering the right outcomes for your projects and your users.
✍️ Insights: Are you climbing the nearest hill, the easiest hill, or the right hill?
🤔 Made me think: The map is not the territory.
👨💻 Worth checking out: How PhotoSynth can connect the world's images + How to film a burger falling “per-fect-ly”.
Are you climbing the nearest hill, the easiest hill, or the right hill?
Consulting on projects, I occasionally feel that I'm in Groundhog Day: delivering the same platform but to different clients in different industries in slightly different ways.
What keeps me coming back, project after project, is the sheer range of characters and personalities I get to work with.
Don't get me wrong. There are times when I'm literally tearing my hair out as I attempt to "cat herd" my stakeholders or play peacekeeper to mediate conflicts between them. But there are also times when I learn something new from them.
On one project, when discussing a contentious requirement, a stakeholder comments: "it's fine, it's not worth dying in the ditch for".
Later, I learn that the expression comes from King William III in the late 17th century. On being asked why he couldn't accept that his country was lost, he responded: "There is one way never to see it lost and that is to die in the last ditch".
Knowing which requirements are red lines for your stakeholders - those last ditches they are going to fight to the death for - is one thing. It's important to know what their minimums and their contraints are. But, it's only half the story.
Neither tells you their vision for the project. It doesn't show you why they want to do it, or what they're willing to stretch for and strive to achieve. Only what they don't want to happen.
In other words: what's the hill that they're looking to climb and conquer?
What happens if it's the wrong hill?
Climbing the wrong hill
During the Vietnam War, the Battle of Hamburger Hill proved a decisive lesson in winning the battle but losing the war.
In May 1969, US-led forces assaulted Hill 937. Held by the North Vietnamese, it was a heavily fortified solitary massif in dense jungle. Over the course of 11 brutal days, the US-led forces were beaten back multiple times, suffer 25% losses and casulties, but captured the position.
The battle was so attritional that the soldiers dubbed Hill 937 as "Hamburger Hill".
"Have you ever been inside a hamburger machine? We just got cut to pieces by extremely accurate machine-gun fire."
Sergeant James Spears | US Army infantry soldier
A mere 2.5 weeks later, they abandon the position. The commander of the US-led forces, Major General Zais, commenting: "The only significance of the hill was the fact that your North Vietnamese (were) on it … the hill itself had no tactical significance." Shortly afterwards, the North Vietnamese re-occupy the hill.
A victory for Zais, but a Pyrrhic victory.
Weighing the heavy loss of men and materials against the fleeting win, the decision to climb and take Hill 937 was controversial. So much so that it led to criticism from the US Congress and a change in US strategy to reduce their casualties. It became a key factor in turning public opinion against the war itself.
Don't climb the first hill you find
Finding which hill to climb with your project is similar to climbing a hill in real life.
Before doing anything, your first step should be to familiarise yourself with the territory. That helps you understand where you are, how to get to where you need to go, and what obstacles are in the way.
Whilst easily explained, it's hard to master.
I've lost count of how many times a stakeholder has dropped a solution they've excitedly found and told me to just get that implemented.
That's akin to being taken onto the slopes of a hill they've found and then ordered to climb to the top. If you're new to business analysis, you find it easier to just get on with it without questioning anything. Especially if you don't want to antagonise your stakeholder by questioning them.
Welcome to the trap of temporal discounting. A bias where people tend to undervalue rewards that aren't near-term. It's why people tend to be bad at saving for their retirement as they prefer immediate benefits - even if they are smaller.
Every time this happens, I discreetly disregard what my stakeholder suggests.
By not doing the legwork to understand the territory your project is in, then you're wilfully ignoring the reality of where you're working. You can't be confident that there's not a better solution out there - a better hill to climb. So, you risk conquering the wrong hill, for the wrong reasons, and "win" the wrong outcome.
So which hill, then?
In an ideal world, you'd find every hill, compare it to all the other hills, and then decide which is the "best" one.
Life isn't like that. Your project doesn't have unlimited time. You are in a world where information is imperfect.
What's worked for me is applying a lesson I learnt from photography.
That my first photo of whatever I'm capturing is rarely the best photo I'll take. I've got to move around, try out different positions and angles, and waiting for the right moment to press the shutter.
Though not too long when it comes to food photography lest I incur the wrath of my patient wife!
In my projects that translates to using the time I have to:
Explore the project artefacts to confirm the rationale and identify what's missing / contradictory.
Talk to as many stakeholders as I can to build up a picture of their overlapping and contrasting perspectives.
So, paraphrasing President Roosevelt, the "best" hill is the one that you can climb, with what you know, and from where you are.
It may not turn out to be the right hill. But you can only know that by climbing it in the first place. And by learning from this, you improve your chances that the next hill is the "right" hill to climb.
🤔 Made me think
The map is not the territory.
Just as being presented with a solution as a fait accompli should be viewed with a degree of suspicion, the same goes for anything that purports to represent the territory.
Maps, by definition, are inaccurate. So the same goes for project briefs, process maps and documentation, and even detailed requirement catalogues.
As the saying goes: trust, but verify.
🧑💻Worth checking out
📺 How PhotoSynth can connect the world's images (TED): Aside from this amazing demo, it was revealing how most photos of tourist attractions are photographed from the same positions.
📷 How to film a burger falling “per-fect-ly” (It's Nice That): Love that Chuck Studios built a precision machine to get this shot. And why what you see in food photography isn't what you get in real life.
🖖Until next Thursday ...
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For now, thank you so much for reading this week's issue of The Forcing Function and I hope that you have a great day.
PS: Thanks to P for reading drafts for me.