Bots! Huh! What are they good for?

Figure: Click here to chat… maybe to a real person, or maybe to a bot

Bots are pieces of software that can speak and be spoken to, either in text form, e.g. web chat, or in voice form, e.g. Siri.

Figure: Often simple questions will be fielded by a bot, and only if it can’t answer your question will a real person be contacted

A bot could enable you to text a number to order pizza and have it delivered without ever talking to a real human.

A bot could also allow you to ask a question in natural language, and will provide you the answer. It can often do this by digesting a company’s knowledge base, and either linking you to the correct place, or else give you the answer directly.

Another use for a bot is to kick off an automated task. If you’ve ever asked Siri to set an alarm or reminder, read you a message, or even turn on the lights in your smart home, then you know what I mean

Figure: Siri reminders have completely revolutionised how I organise tasks

Bots During Coronavirus Season

Businesses at the moment are struggling with both a supply and demand problem. The downturn in the economy has reduced demand in many sectors, while also simultaneously making it hard for many people to work due to social distancing concerns.

There are also record numbers of queries on forums such as job boards, requests for information on welfare, and concerned people trying to get the latest information on what changes are being made.

This is a perfect opportunity for Bots to shine:

  • They are infinitely scalable (i.e. can talk to thousands of people at once)
  • They work 24-7
  • They never get sick

The best customer experience generally happens when a bot fields initial queries, and then passes over to a human agent only if it gets stuck. This combats the possible downside of a customer potentially asking questions the bot can’t answer, while still deflecting the majority of tickets with an instant answer that requires no human effort.

Examples of ways Bots have helped during this crisis so far:

  • Centrelink – the welfare government services have been hammered by applications for the dole as well as requests for information. Bots have been able to deal with a huge proportion of the cut and dry cases.
  • Remote work support – the sudden shift from people working in offices to at home has caused a big change to people’s requirements for their home internet. Bots have helped telecommunications suppliers to make sure their customers’ requests can be answered or actioned in real time, at any time of day or night.
  • COVID-19 information – more powerful general purpose bots such as Siri, Cortana, or the Google Assistant can get key information from certain websites to be able to instantly ask common questions such as “How many Coronavirus cases are there in Australia?”

Bot Frameworks

Microsoft Azure and Google DialogFlow are both excellent frameworks for building custom bots, and both provide voice recognition, natural language processing, and workflow tools.

If you want to build a custom bot for your own company, have a look at https://www.ssw.com.au/ssw/Consulting/Bots.aspx and maybe give me a call.

Stay safe.

Further reading: Adam Cogan, who owns SSW, did a piece on bots last year:. Check it out to see 5 simple questions that bots should be answering in your business: https://adamcogan.com/2019/09/26/i-like-big-bots-and-i-cannot-lie

The Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model

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I found a small book at an airport recently called “The Decision Book: Fifty models for strategic thinking”. It’s a nice easy read and a good thought provoker, and one of the models in particular really spoke to me.

The Drexler/Sibbet model covers how to turn a group into a team. It specifies 7 distinct stages that a team will generally go though, and the unique issues that can arise at each stage.

1. Orientation

Orientation

Main question to answer:

  • Why am I here?

Benefits if resolved:

  • Purpose
  • Team identity
  • Membership

Problems if not resolved:

  • Disorientation
  • Uncertainty
  • Fear

 

2. Trust Building

Trust Building

Main question to answer:

  • Who are you?

Benefits if resolved:

  • Mutual regard
  • Forthrightness
  • Reliability

Problems if not resolved:

  • Caution
  • Mistrust
  • Facade

 

3. Goal Clarification

Goal clarification

Main question to answer:

  • What are we doing?

Benefits if resolved:

  • Explicit assumptions
  • Clear, integrated goals
  • Shared vision

Problems if not resolved:

  • Apathy
  • Scepticism
  • Irrelevant competition

 

4. Commitment

Commitment

Main question to answer:

  • How will we do it?

Benefits if resolved:

  • Assigned roles
  • Allocated resources
  • Decisions made

Problems if not resolved:

  • Dependence
  • Resistance

 

5. Implementation

Implementation

Main question to answer:

  • Who does what, where, when?

Benefits if resolved:

  • Clear processes
  • Alignment
  • Disciplined execution

Problems if not resolved:

  • Conflict/confusion
  • Non-alignment
  • Missed deadlines

 

6. High Performance

High performance

Main question to answer:

  • Wow!

Benefits if resolved:

  • Spontaneous interaction
  • Synergy
  • Surpassing results

Problems if not resolved:

  • Overload
  • Disharmony

 

7. Renewal

Staying power

Main question to answer:

  • Why Continue?

Benefits if resolved:

  • Recognition and celebration
  • Change mastery
  • Staying power

Problems if not resolved:

  • Boredom
  • Burnout

 

The 12 Biggest Benefits of an Intranet

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With so many companies now using some flavour of Microsoft Office 365, the question of whether to make use of SharePoint Online to build a company intranet as part of your digital workspace is coming up for more and more people.

So why might your business need an intranet? Here are the top 12 reasons:

  1. Improves internal communication

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    A good modern intranet, such as SharePoint and/or Teams, allows discussions to occur via chat features, instead of the usual behemoth reply all email chains.

    • Teams can have open discussions
    • Individuals can share knowledge
    • Leadership can stay in touch
    • Departments can provide updates
  2. Connects your company across locations and time zones

    globe
    It can be hard for a geographically distributed team to stay up to date and cohesive, and an intranet can help this by becoming the place where conversations take place, company news is shared, and events are planned.

  3. Helps employees find information

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    A well indexed Search is one of the most useful tools in an intranet, as if this is done well, it can be a huge productivity booster, and stops the old problem of people pulling their hair out while trying to find which folder they saved the proposal document in.

    The intranet should also be the 1 stop shop for anyone looking for any other tool they might need to do their job. Even something as simple as an easily accessible repository for quick links can increase discover-ability and expose them for use.

  4. Document version control and collaboration

    version control
    Once you do find the document you’re looking for. Another very useful tool is document collaboration and version control. Stop your employees sending hundreds of competing “FINAL v3.5 – last one” email attachments, and instead train them to only exchange links to the one single source of truth in your document repository.

    You then have full version control to be able to see who made what changes, and roll back to previous versions as needed.

  5. Records Management

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    Many companies need to be able to keep certain documents for a period of time (e.g. 7 years for legal documents), and many intranets can automate this for you, and even automatically archive or delete older docs as needed to avoid over-bloating.

  6. Boosts recognition and reward

    rsz_employee_recognition
    Employee motivation is a key topic for any business owner, and timely recognition (either public or private) is one of the easiest tools to employ to help with this.

    This is also a great way to reinforce and improve your company culture.

  7. Simplifies employee on-boarding

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    A good intranet makes on-boarding simpler than ever. New hires can use it to find their feet with easy-to-access documents, up-to-date organisation charts, rich bios on their peers, and a vibrant news hub that provides information and insights into the culture of the company.

  8. Provides organisational clarity

    organisational-clarity-model
    Especially in larger organisations, it can sometimes be hard for any employee to easily grasp the full structure, and roles and responsibilities of all their co-workers

    Intranets with clear and dynamic organisation charts provide clarity on the shape and set-up of your company. Individual bios or profiles add rich layers to this clarity and help employees understand the roles and responsibilities of individuals throughout your business, as well as contact details if appropriate.

  9.  Reinforces your brand and values

    Brand
    Intranets provide many avenues for putting your company values front and centre, such as:

    • Publicly recognising employees for living out company values
    • Sharing web articles relevant to your values
    • Asking employees to share examples of the values they see in daily work life
  10. Reduces emails and meetings

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    Intranets with a good, integrated chat feature make discussions easy. You’ll be able to ditch the dreaded reply-all email and have productive conversations away from messy inboxes.

    With improved internal communication, it’s easier to keep everyone informed and garner feedback. Which means you won’t need as many large group meetings that suck up time from multiple calendars.

  11. Simplified processes and workflows

     

    Simplify processes
    An intranet is an obvious place for approval workflows to live, whether for content creation, leave forms, purchase requests, or anything else. If you need a predictable, easily find-able, repeatable, audit-able workflow, the intranet is the perfect place for it.

  12. Brings your workplace culture to life

    workplace-culture
    A company is not a company without its people, and modern intranets are about those people. Bringing them together, bringing out the best in them, and enriching your company culture in the process.

    Through the actions mentioned above—peer-to-peer recognition, leadership articles, brand messaging, and more—a good intranet becomes a hive of activity that takes on the characteristics of the company itself.

    It’s a hotbed of company culture, and this should help to keep your employees engaged.

    Conclusion

    An intranet can be a powerful tool. It can turn your employee engagement around, clarify internal communication, and streamline processes. But, you have to make sure you build it right, and drive adoption.

How to Motivate your Team – The Power of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

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The number 1 tool that employers think they have to motivate their team is dollar compensation. A higher pay should equate to higher motivation to perform well at work, but actually this is only true up until a person’s basic needs are met, and to ensure they feel they are being paid fairly.

Dan Pink wrote a book called Drive in 2009 that argues that, past this point, motivation is most affected by these 3 factors:

 

Autonomy

Autonomy

Self determination is such a strong motivator that it has, in the past, caused civil wars. If you have engaged staff who are on board with your vision and are pulling in the same direction, they will think of things that you couldn’t and can surpass your expectations. If you micro-manage, the best you can ever expect is for them to do what you asked them to… this model of engagement over compliance is discussed further in my blog on Orders vs Enrolment.

 

Mastery

Mastery

People like to think that they are good at their job, and proficient in their careers. If each day at work deepens that self-confidence and belief, then every day is self-motivating. As a team leader or employer, it is therefore important to try to give people work that they feel aligns with how they want their career to progress. Of course every job has some dull or repetitive parts, so just make sure to keep the balance reasonable.

 

Purpose

Purpose

Purpose is the hardest of the 3 to be able to give employees, since most companies are for-profit and the main purpose is to make money and grow, but in some industries this is easy. If you work in any care industry, a charity, a not-for-profit, education, health, or the arts, then purpose is in-built, and all you have to do is keep it front and centre in peoples’ minds while they work. Make sure they can see the impact they make on the world on a regular basis.

In a less intrinsically purpose filled industry, it might be alignment with the company’s mission statement that gives the employees purpose. For instance, at SSW, a custom software company, employees either get lucky and work on a project for one of the above industries, or else they can find purpose in aligning with the mission statement “To identify and use best practices (in technology, DevOps, and Scrum) to navigate the dangers of software development and produce the best possible software solutions.”

 

Conclusion

If you can structure your team’s work so they are self-directed, improving skills needed to get the job done, and cognisant of the good that their work puts out into the world, they will move heaven and earth to perform well.

The Five Advantages That Consultants Have Over Employees

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Internal employees have context. They have worked inside an organisation for potentially many years and surely know the business better than anyone… so why hire consultants? There are a number of factors that can allow an external consultant to be a bigger agent for change than internal employees, and I’ll go into them here:

 

Consultants have industry knowledge

Whereas long term employees may think that the way things are done in their company makes sense, they don’t have the wide ranging experience to be able to see the best practices used elsewhere.

 

Consultants can zoom out

Any internal employee will see their company through the lens of whatever their particular role is within the organisation. Accounts people will have ideas that could help with cash flow, technical people will have technical ideas, etc… but very few of them will be able to look at the big picture and put all of these ideas in context for the maximum possible return on investment.

 

Consultants can point out the sacred elephant

In any company, you will have things that seem strange to new people, but that everyone else tells them is there for a reason, and so is soon taken for granted as part of the status quo. This might be an antiquated policy or procedure, and may have been the right thing to do when it was 1st conceived of, but may no longer make sense. A new employee will feel pressured to “fit in” and will likely put up with this, but a consultant knows he or she will soon be gone, and only has a limited time-box to make effective change, so is much more likely to challenge this “Sacred Elephant” in the room.

 

Consultants are new and shiny and their opinions matter

A consultant is only brought in when there is a problem to be solved. They are expensive, and only there for a limited time, and so they are given a lot of power, and anything they recommend is carefully considered, and never discarded lightly. This helps to dispel some of the organisational inertia that often paralyses internal staff from being able to make any meaningful change to an organisation.

 

Consultants are sometimes brought in to give more weight to an argument that already exists

Change is expensive and energy intensive, and so sometimes a business might already be getting very good advice from internal staff to make a necessary change, but they often are not able to overcome the natural inclination of management to resist changes to the status quo. This is not a dig at managers… if they said yes to every idea their staff had, they’d spend all of their time in churn and pulling the business in countless, often incompatible, directions. However, if a consultant comes in and backs up an idea already proposed, so long as they are able to provide confidence that it makes sense and aligns with the company’s bigger goals, they are often able to push those ideas through.

The Five Things Every Scrum Master Should Do

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The larger a Scrum team is, the more opportunity for wastage there is, and so the more difference a good Scrum Master makes.

A team with a bad Scrum master can feel powerless, floundering, isolated, and overwhelmed whereas a team with a good Scrum Master generally feels well informed, connected, directed, powerful, and like they are working at peak effectiveness.

Be punctual

  • Set a regular cadence for the team.
  • The daily scrum is always at a predictable time so no time is wasted trying to organise it every day. The larger the team, the more important this is.
  • This of course also applies to the Review, Retrospective, and Planning meetings too.

Set a strict agenda

  • Tangent topics will come up regularly during meetings, and although sometimes these can be important discussions, they often take up a lot of time. Make sure that there’s never a time when 2 or 3 people are talking and everyone else is phasing out. If it’s on topic for a Scrum meeting, everyone should be involved, otherwise it should be taken offline (after the meeting with just the relevant people).
  • Make sure that someone takes a note of these topics as they can sometimes be forgotten otherwise.

Help your team

  • The people who know best how to make software are the people actually making it. If they raise an impediment, take it seriously and work towards a solution.
  • Help to motivate the team by showing appreciation for quality work. Doing this publicly often helps motivate other team members to strive towards the same level.
  • Encourage collaboration amongst team members. If one person is stuck, help them to realise that it’s always ok to ask for help.
  • Protect the team from excessive scope change. Adding a last minute Product Backlog Item (PBI) to a sprint should only be allowed if the team can drop an equivalently sized one.
  • Minimise WIP (work in progress) by encouraging the team to finish each PBI before picking up another whenever possible. This helps to minimise multitasking and ensure granular delivery of value to the stakeholders.

Help your Product Owner (PO)

  • A good Scrum Master should help the PO effectively communicate his requirements and priorities with the team. He should then reinforce those priorities and encourage the team to work in priority order whenever possible.
  • It’s a good idea to have high level conversations with the PO on occasion to work out what their more abstract goals are so you can help by making micro decisions for the team when appropriate. This way you can occasionally act as a Proxy-Product Owner when needed.

Coach your team

  • Make sure the team follows the Definition of Done.
  • Make sure the Product Owner creates well fleshed out PBIs with easy to understand Acceptance Criteria.
  • Ensure that the team has a uniform understanding of the estimation method being used (we use 2-Small, 4-Medium, 8-Large, where a Medium is about a day’s work)

The difference a good Scrum Master makes is well documented, and if you follow the above guidelines, you should be well on your way to empowering your team.

Along with my brother, I made a video on this topic which explains how the Scrum Guide defines the role of Scrum Master:

I’ve written many more specific tips on SSW’s Rules to Better Scrum

The Importance of Positively Managing Conflict in a Team

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Teams don’t always just hum along. People have personal and professional differences, and sweeping them under the rug is not healthy long term, and could eventually cause a full breakdown. If there is a tiff, managing it correctly can actually reinforce respect and cause a team to function substantially better than it did with the pent up tension still unspoken.

I’m speaking here mostly from the point of view of someone managing 2 people who have had a conflict, but these could also be used to manage a conflict you are having directly with someone, although this is harder, and a facilitator can sometimes still help.

There are 3 main steps to successful conflict resolution:

1. Agree that there is a problem that needs to be solved

If one or more of the parties are not willing to address the issue, it will be substantially harder, if not impossible, to positively resolve it. It’s best to appeal to professional integrity (i.e. a professional would address this, so you should), zoom out to the big picture (i.e. to show the benefits that the project/organisation would have from a harmonious team), and alleviate fears that the process will be too scary or unpleasant. Many people fear conflict resolution because they don’t understand that it can be a very positive experience.

2. Hearing the other’s point of view

In order for each person to both get their say, and effectively hear and understand the other person, it is important that both of them go in to the process with an open mind, and allow the other person to speak without getting defensive (overly defending each point) or righteous (focusing on being seen to be right in the small things instead of having a good outcome).

Remember that any examples given will likely be not that big a deal on their own, and only in the context of the person’s frustration, will they have much weight, so don’t get fixated on any one example.

3. Compromise

Each person must be willing to compromise to find a solution that works for both. If there is a power imbalance, such as a conflict between an employee and a manager, beware the solution being the manager just 100% getting their own way, as this will often foster longer term resentment. There’s a great tongue in cheek saying that is “the only good compromise is where neither party is happy”.

Both parties benefit from positive conflict resolution. Discussion may even reveal that what you thought was the cause of the problem is inaccurate, incorrect or misleading. By remaining calm, showing patience and demonstrating respect, you can help resolve problems in a constructive manner. This results in effective long-term relationships and increased productivity. Conflict that results in punishment for one party may result in continued tension, stress and disruption. Focus on positive outcomes and you’ll get better results.

The 5 Technologies that Will Change Everything in the Next Decade

Here’s my take on the main technology areas that will make a massive difference to our lives in the next decade.

Artificial Intelligence

This is a huge one and encompasses something as simple as Amazon’s recommendation engine, up to self driving cars, and eventually expert systems such as IBM’s Jenkins that could potentially replace doctors and lawyers and any other information based career.

everis-NEXT-Artificial-Intelligence-Infographic-by-Virginia-Duran

Blockchain

The most famous blockchain technology is Bitcoin, but cryptocurrency is only one use for this technology, taking out the requirement for trusted third parties such as banks. Fundamentally however, it’s just a general ledger system and could be used to track ownership of anything, including property, votes, assets, contracts, licencing, or even identity.

Theoretically, this goes a long way to removing the need for currency, government, and banks, unless they can find other ways to stay relevant than being the “trusted third party”.

Here’s how a blockchain transaction works:

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Quantum Computing

Computers have become approximately twice as powerful every 18 months, following Moore’s Law, but we are now approaching the physic limits of how small transistors can get and how fast this technology can be. The next big jump will be dropping binary transistors and adopting QuBits instead.

With this potential for quantum computers to become exponentially more powerful than transistor computers are today, this will enable much stronger cryptography (as well as also making current cryptography obsolete), machine learning algorithms to be run much faster (enabling AI), Bitcoin mining, and of course just doing everything we currently do much faster.

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Brain Machine Interfaces

This technology will start with restoring lost function to disabled people, such as paraplegics, the blind and the deaf, will continue into solving Alzheimer’s, dementia, and mood disorders, and will eventually be the new way we interact with computers and potentially even each other.

Elon Musk has bet big on this and thinks it’s one of the best ways to make sure the AI revolution doesn’t leave humanity behind.

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Genetic Engineering

Mapping the human Genome to fully understand the source code behind life will allow us to, first of all, remove all genetic and hereditary disorders and diseases, and then move on to specify exactly what traits we would like to optimise for in our offspring. Future humans will be smarter, stronger, and more robust.

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The Sunk Cost Fallacy

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The sunk cost fallacy is in action every time you:

  • Sit through a long boring movie even if you decided after the first half an hour that is was terrible
  • Finish a meal that tastes bad and after you’re already full
  • Continue a bad relationship or friendship, purely because of the time and energy you’ve invested in it so far

Put simply, it’s the motivation to continue on a bad course of action, where logically the future does not look bright, only because of the time/money/energy you’ve put into it up to that point.

These already spent costs, that cannot be recovered, are known as “sunk costs”, and there is a strong human resistance to giving them up. It feels like admitting failure. But being able to be agile and “pivot” when needed is the mark of an intelligent business, and the sunk cost fallacy is generally the main thing in the way of that.

A pivot is when, part way through developing a product or service, you decide to take it in a different direction than the current planned path. This might mean changing the main focus of the offering, or even making it do something completely different to the original plan, and should be informed by early feedback as much as possible.

The problem with the sunk cost fallacy is that you end up investing much more than necessary in to whatever you’ve sunk the costs into, leaving you with fewer resources to go down productive paths. For example, if you’re stuck in a bad relationship, you can’t open yourself up to a future good relationship. And if you’re constantly paying for ongoing product development on a dead product, you can’t be working on a useful product instead.

All you’re doing in this case is throwing good money after bad… but there’s a silver lining. What you’ve paid for up to this point isn’t all wasted. The validated learnings you have gained will stop you from repeating the same mistakes. You have tested the market, an idea, or a product line, and you’re better positioned for your next endeavour.

How to Delegate Effectively (Orders vs Enrolment)

There are 2 ways that you can allocate work. You can give orders, or you can enrol people.

Orders:

This is most people’s default way of delegating work. To do it well, you speak to the person involved, give them sufficient context, and enough detail that they can get the job done to your specifications.

Pros:

  • Appropriate for outsourcing of very specific tasks to free you up to do other things
  • Good for if you have a new employee you’re still not sure you trust to do things their own way

Cons:

  • Their main goal will be to not make a mistake, rather than get an optimum outcome
  • People will only do enough to not get in trouble, as micromanagement can be a disincentive for going above and beyond (as they’re more likely to make a mistake if they go off-script)
  • They feel no ownership of the task, as they’re just an extension of you
  • The best possible outcome is the one you envisaged, no better

Enrolment:

This is trickier but has a huge payoff if done correctly. Instead of giving them extremely specific instructions about both what to do and how to do it, you instead describe the problem that needs to be solved, give a recommendation for how you would solve it, but also the assurance that if they think of a better way, they should go for it. It can also help to give them resources to call upon if they hit a roadblock. Once enrolled (i.e. once you’re convinced they care and are on board), they will put the full power of their intellect behind it, and if you have good people, you should get a great outcome.

Pros:

  • People have the same goal as you
  • They feel ownership of the problem, and personal achievement for its success
  • They feel valued
  • If they are smarter than you or have a better idea than you, you can end up with a better result than you could originally envisage
    • Since you hire specialists who are great at certain things… you’d hope that they’re better than you are at their job, or you’re probably not hiring the right people
  • Appropriate for any task that really matters

Cons:

  • Generally not appropriate for new starters who don’t yet understand your business
  • May require some early input from you to make sure they’re on a path you can be on board with