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December 11, 2002 Volume 2, Issue 50
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What Haven't I Told You?


When a project team hits a speed bump, it often learns that it had all the information it needed to avoid the problem, sometimes months in advance of uncovering it. Here's a technique for discovering this kind of knowledge more systematically.

Oliver was stunned. "Let me see if I understand — Dana, you're saying that the reason we can't get the emulator to run is that we need the 4.03 system upgrade? And Jan, you knew the emulator wouldn't run in 4.01, but you thought Dana wouldn't need the emulator before March? Do I have this right?"

Wooden shoes"Yep," from Dana.

"Right," from Jan.

"Well," Oliver continued, "how come Jan didn't know we would need the emulator in January?"

"Easy," Jan replied. "The schedule said March."

Dana added, "Back when we were scheduling, the Ajax Phase 2 tests didn't need the emulator, so I didn't tell you I needed it."

Oliver, Dana, and Jan are caught in a trap that awaits many project teams. Together, they had all the information they needed to avoid the trap. They just didn't know they did. Each one of them thought everything was OK — until the problem arose. And it was only when the problem arose that they found out, together, that if they had only shared what they already knew, they could have avoided the problem altogether.

You've probably had this experience yourself, but you can reduce the chances of having it again by playing a game called "What Haven't I Told You?" It's similar to brainstorming.

Project "surprises"
are often emergent.
They're made of
little pieces,
each of which was
known to somebody.
You play the game with a small group of about ten or fifteen people, and it helps if someone acts as a facilitator and scribe. In each round, the players think of something that they know but haven't talked about, and that they haven't heard anyone else talk about. Then in turn, the players describe their items to the group. The scribe records each item. As in brainstorming, there is no evaluation.

As a player, you try to think of something so detailed or arcane that other people probably don't know it or haven't thought of it. And it should be important enough that it has implications for at least some other people on the team.

After the ideas stop flowing, the group can rank them according to relevance, cluster them according to relationship criteria, or apply morphological analysis.

Here are some tips for finding good stuff for your next game of What Haven't I Told You? Ask yourself these questions:

  • If I wanted to sabotage the team's effort in a subtle way, what information would I withhold? What would I change? What would I lie about?
  • If someone else were trying to sabotage my efforts, what information would they want to withhold from me, or change, or lie to me about?
  • Aside from my formal deliverables, what am I doing that anyone on the team could conceivably care about?

You don't need to be a team to benefit from playing this game. What haven't you told yourself? Go to top Top  Next issue: Caught in the Crossfire  Next Issue
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Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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