A conversation with Ben Aston, Founder of Black & White Zebra

“Sometimes we’re blinkered. We think we know what our project should be, and we think we know why we’re doing it, but we miss out on a whole area of opportunity simply because we’re just too blinkered to see it. So giving people that ‘get out of jail free’ card can open ourselves up to some opportunities that we might not otherwise realize.”

Ben Aston is a digital project manager and founder of both Black & White Zebra and The Digital Project Manager. He is passionate about understanding customer needs through design research, identifying opportunities based on those insights, and empowering designers and technologists to create solutions. Ben is driven to develop and uncover new opportunities for clients, establishing strong connections with their customers through product solutions that create lasting value.

In this episode of Control the Room, Douglas speaks with Ben about improving meetings through connection, bringing back lost momentum, and unlocking opportunities we may not yet see ourselves. Listen in to hear the key questions Ben asks his team to create positive, impactful outcomes and uncover opportunities for his clients and customers.

Show Highlights

[5:21] Why Today’s Meetings Feel Archaic, And What Would Make Them Better
[14:38] The Importance of Connection
[19:01] Reasons We Lose Momentum (And How To Bring It Back)
[33:05] Why Ben’s Favorite Question is ‘Why’
[37:29] Unlocking Unrealized Opportunities

Ben on LinkedIn
Black & White Zebra’s Website
The Digital Project Manager

About the Guest

Armed with a x386 PC and a 33k dial-up modem, Ben launched his first website, aged 14 and was hooked. Ben Aston is a digital project manager and online entrepreneur – the founder of Black & White Zebra, an indie media company on a mission to help people and organizations succeed. He’s also the founder of the largest and fastest growing community for digital project managers – The Digital Project Manager. Ben’s a PRINCE2 Practitioner, Certified Scrum master with more than 15 years of project delivery and PMO leadership experience at top agencies including Dare, Wunderman, DDB, and clients including Honda, Unilever, & Sony.

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings. 

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Podcast Sponsored by MURAL

Full Transcript

Douglas: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting.

If you’re listening to this podcast, there’s a good chance you’d be interested in checking out our 3rd annual facilitation summit. Due to the pandemic, we’re going virtual this year, and we’ve got some really awesome things waiting for you. We have 18 master facilitators, each day 6 of them will be sharing 20 minute lightning talks in the morning, and facilitating workshops in the afternoon. Each attendee will get to see 18 talks and 3 workshops over the course of 3 days; there are plenty of networking opportunities to connect with other attendees, plus games and prizes. I’d also like to thank MURAL for exclusive conference sponsoring. MURAL is an online collaboration tool that we’ll be using during the conference. We hope to see you there, register today at thevoltagecontrol.com/events.

This episode is brought to you by MURAL, a digital workspace for visual collaboration. At Voltage Control, we use MURAL to facilitate engaging and productive meetings and workshops from anywhere. MURAL gives teams the means, methods, and freedom to collaborate visually. Use their suite of facilitation superpowers to control the virtual room and solve tough problems as a team with their pre-built templates and guided methods. To see for yourself why companies like IBM, Atlassian, and E-Trade rely on MURAL, start your 30-day trial at mural.co. That’s mural.co.

Today, I’m with Ben Aston. Ben is a digital project manager and online entrepreneur. He’s the founder of Black and White Zebra, an indie media company on a mission to help people and organizations succeed. Welcome to the show, Ben.

Ben: Thanks so much for having me, Douglas.

Douglas: Absolutely. Let’s start off by hearing a little bit about how you got started.

Ben: Yeah. Well, for me, my journey begins probably back when I was 14 and started building websites. I think my first major website was theworldofben.co.uk, which no longer exists, but maybe you can find it on Wayback Machine. 

But I think starting building websites more than 20 years ago was how it really all started and really got my excitement and passion about the opportunities that online presents and the way that it can make a big world really small. Yeah. It all started back in the ’90s. 

Douglas: Yeah. I can relate. That’s when I started my journey and the world is quite different. I was actually recently comparing the predicament we’re in right now to the early ’90s or the late ’90s around when we were first starting to see e-commerce come online. 

Ben: Right.

Douglas: And now with the advent of all these new digital meeting tools and collaboration tools, we have to keep in mind that they’re in their infancy. When we think back to where e-commerce was back then, it can help us give a little bit of visibility on where we might be headed.

Ben: Definitely. Yeah. I remember the first time, or the first few times, that I went on the internet. Which in those days meant getting a magazine from the shop, getting a CD from CompuServe, putting it in your computer and you’d get 30 minutes free internet when you bought a magazine. And yeah, it is really strange to think with a dial-up modem accessing the internet, using a CD somehow, and creating your CompuServe account.

And then you go to the internet, which was just a directory page on the CompuServe homepage, and that was it. That was the gateway into the worldwide web. And you weren’t quite sure what to do with it or where to go. But you knew it was definitely exciting. So yeah, I think when we think about meeting technology and compare that with how far the internet has come in 20, 30 years then yeah, the opportunities for meetings in the future, I think is really exciting. 

Douglas: Yeah. When you kind of think back to young Ben at the shop getting the magazine and rushing home to get online, fire up the modem, hear the blips and bloops, the little squawk – that’s a noise that people don’t know anymore.

Ben: I know. It’s a good noise.

Douglas: I know, it’s sort of nostalgic. Yeah. Imagine there’s a young Ben today logging on to Zoom and one day there’ll be reflecting back on how strange it was to see each other in little squares on a flat screen. What do you think that future Ben will be doing compared to today, and his flat Zoom experience? 

Ben: Well, I don’t know. One of the things my kids really enjoy is the Google Animals, when you search for an animal on Google and then you have this augmented reality type thing where you can have an octopus in your room, crawling around the floor and floating around. I think the way that meetings are currently constrained to a screen feels a bit archaic and limiting, when I think what would be exciting is if people were more in the room with you and it was more augmented reality. 

So I think that ability to turn to different people and talk to different people, bringing that into a space that’s not a screen would be super powerful, as well as the audio problem, which we have where you can only have one person really talking at once. And the way that you interject with one another in real life is not the same as what happens on Zoom, where Zoom decides who gets to talk by putting the green square around them.

And so just conversation is a lot more stilted. So some audio improvement, and some augmented reality hologram type thing is what I’m looking forward to. I hope that’s on the roadmap. 

Douglas: Yeah. It makes me think about 3D audio, and how in games you can move around spaces and sound sources get louder or quieter, but here in these meeting systems that we use, it’s just on or off. There’s no spatial volume adjustment.

Ben: Yeah. And I think there’s also, the part of the meeting that’s also kind of missing for me is the wrap-up component, where there is the entering of the room and the leaving of the room. In real life, the entering and the leaving of the room, what happens just before the meeting and just after the meeting, you miss that currently in digital because that’s actually where some of the most important conversations happen.

Yes, you’ve wrapped up the meeting and you’re just going to the next thing, but as you’re walking down the corridor with someone or you’re just joking around with someone, it’s just very different in a digital world, and I’m not quite sure what the solution is there, but that part of the meeting for me is something that’s missing. 

Yes. We can talk to one another, but a meeting is more than just communicating about the topic. There’s the trust building component. There’s the relationship building piece, which I think we lose a lot of when we’re doing it over Zoom.

Douglas: Yeah. 100%. I think it requires a lot more preparation and facilitators have to lean in and support that, and how they plan to be intentional about it. Because to your point, if we’re in a room together, we can just kind of serendipitously allow it to emerge and we know how to plan for it so much. So I agree when the software can help support some of that stuff, it will be great, because we won’t have to work so hard. 

Ben: Yeah. And I think there’s that “Leave Meeting” button part of it as well, where you click on it and you’re gone. That’s it. Whereas in real life you get up from your chair, loiter around a bit, hang out by the door. I don’t know, a bit more of making more of the entrance and exit,and I think this is where the hologram comes into it. 

Yeah. You still have a meeting. I think you’re so right about being intentional on the importance of planning an agenda so that the meeting is really useful, but I think how we can facilitate relationship building outside of the meeting itself, but within the context of a meeting is important too.

Douglas: Yeah. And I’m always really curious what types of meetings people are having and finding magic. We have a book that’s about to come out called Magical Meetings. It’s a journey of mine, a quest of mine, to find everyone’s magical meetings.

Some people love a stand up, some people love a retrospective. I was recently hearing about someone who designed a meeting for 30 different teams to come together. I’m just curious if you’ve had any interesting challenging meetings, or that were fun to try and figure out and make work or something that just, you get a lot of value out of. 

Ben: Yeah. Two of them spring to mind. We’re recording on a Friday today and one of the meetings that we typically have on a Friday afternoon is called “Friyay.” And it’s sharing the wins from the week, because I think so often we can go through a week and on a Friday as well, particularly when we’re remote, the distinction between where Friday ends and the weekend begins, and then when Monday starts again, almost seems like a bit of a blur.

So our Friyay meeting is a chance for us to check in with one another, remotely, at the end of the week on a Friday afternoon, and just share our big wins from the week. And it’s really just focused on helping people celebrate what’s gone well. Talking about the things that they’re excited about, the accomplishments that they’ve made, and just a chance for people to connect and feel good about themselves and the team going into the weekend. That’s our Friyay meeting.

And then on Mondays, we have more of a retrospective. We do a metrics review every Monday. Each Monday we call it “Elevens” and it’s 11 o’clock on a Monday, where we’ll do a review of the week before. So we’ll go through our key metrics, and just talk about the things that seem to stand out, anything that’s worthy of discussion and then in that meeting as well.

So it’s a bit of a retrospective, but it’s also a way for us to talk about the week ahead. The question that I always leave people with, and we just kind of go around on the call. What is the most impactful thing? What’s the single most impactful thing that you’re going to work on this week? 

Because I think it’s really important that we really focus our attention, and our team’s attention, on creating impact. And we all have, especially on a Monday, a big, long laundry list of things we can or should or could do, but I think bringing it back to impact and really asking people that question: What is going to be most impactful? Is it that thing that is on the top of your list, or is it actually the thing that’s on the bottom of the list that you haven’t been wanting to do for a while? So really drawing people’s attention into impact, I think is really helpful. 

Douglas: I love that. Do you have ways to focus on the impact or the types of impact you’re trying to drive? You mentioned the metrics. I was kind of imagining some kind of visual that folks were focused on.

Ben: Yeah. We’ve got a metrics dashboard. We’re currently actually trying to put it into a tool called Databox, which has a cool data visualization thing. A bit like Microsoft Power BI, but the cool thing about Databox – it’s not too complicated. It connects with all kinds of different tools, and you can do calculations within the tool as well. 

Anyway, right now we’re just using Google Sheets. What we’re looking at is, I’m sharing a screen, we have our metrics and we’re just going through really the bottom of funnel metrics. We’re not looking at all the factors that drive these metrics. We’re looking at the key performance indicators, the results, that’s just in a table. 

We’ve got the weeks in columns. We’ve got the metrics down row by row that are important for us. And we’re just going down this column, looking at the metrics and asking people. Everyone’s got responsibility. So there’s different people’s names on different metrics. I’m just looking for a comment or insight into why things are the way they are, and if there’s anything we should be excited about or concerned about. 

Douglas: How long have you guys been doing the Elevens?

Ben: Elevens is, I don’t know, it’s been awhile. It used to actually be an exercise that we did every day because I just really wanted to focus people’s attention on, “Hey, these are the things that matter. These are the metrics that matter. Let’s do impactful things that impact these numbers, because if these numbers are heading in the right direction, then we’re doing well.”

These are the KPIs for us, but I think it’s been, I don’t know, probably a couple of years now. Buta year ago, we reduced it to once a week because it was becoming an hour long meeting every day, which is too much.

Douglas: Yeah, no doubt. So what have you noticed in these two years now, one year of doing it weekly? Have you noticed shifts in the team, or comments or feedback on the Elevens, and what it’s created for the team?

Ben: I think the great thing about it is that it focuses people’s attention and by having it, the first thing that we do every week when we begin the meeting… Actually the first thing we do is not actually look at the metrics. 

The first thing we do is tell stories from the weekend. And that’s how the weekly meeting starts – it’s let’s connect with one another. And then we’re looking at the metrics through that lens of friendship and connection, rather than, “Show me the numbers.”

Douglas: Yeah. I often tell people – a lot of times these meetings are for the connection, and if we honor that fact and say, “Hey, this isn’t a pointless meeting, we’re actually having it so we can bring people together and have the weather report.”

Ben: Yeah. Definitely. And we actually begin that Elevens meeting with a show-and-tell. I really encourage people to come with a story, come with a picture to share, tell us something interesting that you did. 

Because I think it’s so important, particularly when we’re remote, that we find ways to connect with people and build our relationship with them, even if we’re not face-to-face, even if we’re not connecting in real life. I think those stories and creating that connection is super important before we actually get into the numbers. 

Douglas: Yeah. And it serves another purpose too. It’s the boot up time, right? If people come in and they’ve got something on their mind that’s really dragging them down, we can use levity and connection to get everyone centered and together.

Ben: Definitely. 

Douglas: Yeah. I want to come back to the Friyays, I’m a big fan of appreciative inquiry and positivity. It can be really powerful. How long have you been doing the Friyays?

Ben: That is a lot more recent actually. That’s only been a couple of months probably. 

Douglas: Oh, wow. How’s it been turning out? 

Ben: Yeah. It’s good. With our company and our organization, I think we work in quite a siloed way. In many ways, we can go for days without all meeting together, because we don’t have to. And actually I’m quite comfortable with that, because I personally despise being in a meeting where there’s no value. 

This was just a good opportunity to be intentional about connecting with one another and having no purpose, no real agenda, other than sharing good news, which I think gets everyone pumped. And typically, do you know it’s not even a scheduled meeting? Part of the fun of Friyay is the serendipity of it as well. It’s that people know I’ll post a message saying, “Anyone up for a ‘Friyay’ right now?” And it’s Friday afternoon.

Slowly I’ll see on Slack people say “yes, yes, yes, yes.” And then we’re like, “Okay, let’s do it now.” And everyone hops on. I think it just builds a bit of a sense of excitement around it, and everyone can find something good to say. And I just think cultivating that culture of positivity and encouragement, and saying well done to one another, appreciating people and giving me an opportunity to say, “Hey, great job.” I think that’s super helpful and motivating. It just makes people feel good about themselves.

Douglas: If you don’t reserve the time, sometimes it’s easy for those moments to float away and miss them.

Ben: Definitely. Yeah. I mean, it is an optional, extra kind of meeting and I think with many of these, I mean, I’m going to classify it as an HR style meeting. We wouldn’t need to do it if we were all in the same office together. It would be happening organically throughout the week.

But I think as we’re all working remotely, we’re not just shouting across the room when something exciting is happening anymore. Or someone might post something on Slack saying, “Oh, this happened today,” but it’s not quite the same. So having more of that celebration… I think it can only be a good thing. 

Douglas: Yeah. I agree. And I love it. So kudos for that. Let’s see. I was also wanting to just hear a little bit about when you’ve seen teams get stuck and lose momentum, what are some of your favorite ways to kind of get them re-engaged?

Ben: Yeah. I think sometimes we lose momentum because we’ve lost sight of the vision. And so I think bringing things back to the basics of why we’re doing something in the first place is super important. And I think when we’ve lost momentum again, it can often be because really we’ve lost sight of why we’re doing something in the first place.

And for me, that’s actually why it’s so important that we’re constantly reminded of the metrics, and everyone’s aware of what we’re doing and why we’re trying to do those things. But bringing it back down to, “Okay, here’s the rationale. Here’s ultimately the mission of what we’re trying to achieve as an organization. And here’s how this task, or this project, fits into that vision.” Let’s join the dots again. Let’s connect this in people’s minds, so they can see the importance of what they’re doing and how that fits into the bigger picture of what we’re trying to achieve.” So realigning, recasting vision, is important. Joining the dots. 

But I think also being honest with ourselves and each other and say, “Hey, do you know what? Maybe we’re doing the wrong thing here.” Maybe there’s a reason that we have lost momentum. Is this the right tactic to help align us with the vision and the goals? And really just opening up things for discussion is important as well, because sometimes by playing devil’s advocate and asking people, “Does this really make sense? Is this a waste of time? Should we be really doing this? Should we be doing something slightly different?”

Sometimes that helps people get buy-in as they then have to play back to you why it’s purposeful, why it’s meaningful, how it aligns with the bigger vision and mission. Getting others to play that leadership role can help them convince themselves that what they’re doing is important. But I think it’s worth examining as well – why has this stalled? What is going wrong?

Oftentimes, it can be simply because the objectives were unclear in the first place. Sometimes it’s just a case of re-clarifying the brief, and that can then create the clarity towards, “Ah, now I get it. This is what we’re doing. This is why we’re doing it, and this is why it’s meaningful.”

Douglas: When you talk about re-casting or re-examining the visions, are there some tactics that folks can use to do that work?

Ben: I think for us when I’m thinking about, “Okay, what’s our overall vision and strategy?” That’s something that doesn’t change very often, but I think asking people questions to try and help them understand why it is we’re doing something can really just help unlock a problem. So just asking people to think about, “Okay, well, why does this matter? Why is this worth doing? What kind of advantage or benefits does it give to who? Who’s going to be impacted with this, and what will the impact be? Will it be that people succeed? Well, how will they succeed? Why will they succeed? Why is it meaningful? What difference will it make? Will it impact their boss? Will it impact their team? Who’s going to be impacted, and why does that matter?” And I think just kind of drilling down into the impact can really help us solidify the vision, but also make the vision more meaningful and worthwhile.

Douglas: I like that. It’s like, “What is the impact or outcomes getting driven, and how are we going to have influence over it?” 

Ben: Yeah. And I think choosing and recognizing that that influence is not something just to be taken for granted. We’re doing something that actually matters here. And I think, particularly, again when we’re remote, we can just become consumed by the four walls that we’re living, eating, sleeping, playing in.

And I think losing sight of vision is a real challenge, particularly in this COVID-infused environment that we’re currently in, and getting people to really just poke their heads above the parapet a bit, be brave, see the bigger world out there, and see the bigger picture of what’s going on and how their work is still meaningful, I think is important.

Douglas: Go on and talk a little bit about what you’re proud of, as you reflect over the last year at the very least, if not further back from maybe when you founded Black and White Zebra. Regardless of how far you go back, what comes to mind when you think about things you’re proud of?

Ben: Big picture, it would be that I’m proud of leaving a comfortable, full-time job and starting my own thing. That’s macro picture. I’m not an employee anymore. I’m an employer, and I think that’s a point of pride for me, because it allows me to create a culture that I want to work in, but also one that I think other people want to be a part of as well. 

So for me, it’s massively motivating, leading a team that enjoys the job. Finding and creating work that’s meaningful, work that’s impactful, and in an environment that I think is healthy. So for me, that’s definitely a point of pride. And then in terms of the work itself, I think I’m really proud of the fact that we do work that makes an impact.

One of our platforms is called The Digital Project Manager, and we’re helping people deliver projects in a digital world. We’re helping them deliver better projects, more value-driven projects, projects that are profitable, that come in on budget, on time, that have a scope that makes sense and matches the timeline in the budgets. This is tough in a digital world.

Delivering technical projects well is not an easy thing. And for me, I feel really proud every time that we get some positive feedback from people saying, “Hey, I’m so glad I found you. This has been massively impactful.” I got an email from someone who we’ve been coaching. It was on Thanksgiving and he was like, “Man, the thing I’m most thankful for this year is our time together, because it’s just made a massive difference.”

And for me, that’s a point of pride. The fact that this is meaningful because it’s impacting people’s lives, it’s helping them become more confident, it’s helping them become more skilled, and I’m connecting people with one another who otherwise wouldn’t be connected. And so for me, that’s meaningful. That’s purposeful. 

Douglas: Given what you know and the work you’re doing and gaps that you see in the world today, what do you think is possible right now that’s just not quite happening?

Ben: Oh, man. That’s a big question, isn’t it? Possible in terms of what?

Douglas: Yeah. I like to ask that open question because often there’s just something nagging at people. It’s like, “Why? In this day and age, why isn’t it so that we’re not doing X or this is impossible?” And so generally, through the lens of the work you do, when you look at what could be possible and it’s just not happening yet. I’m just curious if anything jumps out.

Ben: This isn’t related to my work, but every time I fill out a form, I can’t help but think, “This is this complete waste of everyone’s time.” I was filling out a form the other day. I’m talking about writing down things. When I go to the doctor’s, I have to tell them what my name and my address is.

Douglas: Well, hold on. Hold on. That’s the worst because it’s not only that you’re having to do it, but you’re having to do it for the 10th time because they can’t seem to use computers to keep records.

Ben: Yeah. And I’m writing it down only for someone to read it and type it. It just seems like the most ridiculous problem that in 2020, you still write down information on a piece of paper for someone to then put into a computer. That springs to mind as just a “Why?” challenge. 

But going back to kind of more of my day job, in terms of helping people deliver projects in a digital world. I think one of the big challenges out there is this value misalignment in terms of what people are willing to pay, and how much effort they think it should take to deliver a project, versus the reality of what it actually takes. 

And what I’m basically saying here is clients, stakeholders, will think a project is a $1,000 project when it in fact, is a $1,000,000 project. And I think in the world of digital, there are so many unknowns. So much of the time, it could be a $1,000 project or it could be a $1,000,000 project, depending on one small detail. 

And I think it’s the details that get people tripped up, but also create this opaqueness around digital projects and about building things in a digital world, which make it really hard for people to understand why something is a $1,000,000 project rather than a $1,000 project.

And I think it’s confused by the fact that every man and his dog knows someone who builds stuff. “My neighbor is a developer, he says it’s a $1,000 project.” And that just really creates a lot of confusion out there. When we’re building things technically, there are enterprise-grade ways that we build things. There’s building things properly and then yes, there’s a quick hack/patch version.

Yes, you can do it in Squarespace or Wix and it’ll take you five minutes. And I think the continuum of complexity in the world of digital, and that opaqueness that comes with not quite understanding that continuum very well, makes managing projects in this environment really quite tricky.

Douglas: Absolutely. I’ve definitely seen that on so many realms. Even remodeling projects in a home – it’s communication and getting to an understanding of the future, which is why I love prototypes so much. We can get to so much certainty and get past all this ambiguity of like, “Is this what you’re talking about? Show this to your neighbor and see if they say they can build that for $1,000.”

Ben: Yeah. I think there’s so much value in a whiteboard and a quick sketch. I mean, that is a prototype of sorts, but there is so much confusion so often simply because people are misunderstanding one another. And I love drawing stuff out, and my notebook’s full of diagrams of this line connected to that line, but it really just helps.

Quickly sketching something, proto-typing something effectively is what we’re doing to help explain how information flows, or how decisions are made, or how things are connected or how data relates from one piece to another. So yeah, the ability to sketch something out as you’re trying to explain something provides a lot of clarity sometimes in these situations where you know that there’s confusion. 

And I think that’s actually the important thing, is when you know that there might be confusion is just double, triple checking to make sure that you’re both on the same page with, “Does this make sense? What about this is confusing?” And some of those kinds of risk management questions start becoming really important.

Douglas: It brings me back to this concept that questions are the facilitator’s Swiss army knife. And if we can’t make a prototype, or maybe it’s just the wrong context for it, just timing-wise and the fidelity of what we’re engaging upon, then we need to rely on questions to get past the ambiguity and the confusion and the lack of alignment. 

And so I’m always curious to hear about people’s favorite questions. What are some questions that you love to use when you’re working with your team and you’re trying to get to a better understanding? Even family. Some people love to do, what was your high-low? What are some of your favorite questions to get to more connection to better understanding?

Ben: Yeah. I mean, I like asking “Why?” a lot and keep digging into the why, and particularly when we’re thinking about strategy and goals, asking the question, “Why are we doing this?” And you can ask that in lots of different ways. But understanding the goals of why we are doing this. Just getting some reassurance that people understand what impact we’re trying to have here.

Asking people, again kind of strategy-related questions about, “Okay, well, so if that’s why we’re doing it, what are the KPIs for that?” Because often thinking about the KPIs, the key performance indicators, can really help us think about what’s the actual metric we’re trying to move or shift. So KPIs are super important and just asking, “Well, how will we know if it’s worked?”

Again, that’s kind of linked back to the KPIs. “How do we know if this is the right thing to do? And how will we measure or know if it’s worked?” I think that’s kind of right at the beginning of the project when we’re in this prototype stage, but we’re trying to work out if we’re doing the right thing. Those are some really important questions to be asking.

Douglas: That reminds me of one of my favorites, which is how will we know if it didn’t work?

Ben: Yeah, definitely.

Douglas: Because if you’re just constantly searching for the rainbow like, “We’ll know it worked when we see the rainbow,” and you never see it. It’s like, “Do we just go on for decades?” Do we have some rule that will tell us when we pull the ripcord?”

Ben: Yeah. I’m similar to that. A question I love is “Okay, well, if this all fails, if this all goes totally wrong, why would it be? What does total failure look like? And then how would that have happened? How would that failure have occurred?” So we’re looking at risk. Again, we’re looking at are we doing the right thing?

But also then thinking about, “Okay, well, how now can we steer around that? What can we do to avoid, to mitigate, or to transfer that risk? Does it mean if that’s the worst thing that could happen, if that’s really what failure looks like? How do we run a million miles away from that?”

Douglas: Yeah. A couple of other questions to think about, because sometimes you ask the question “Why?” or sometimes I ask the question “Why?” and people look at me with a blank stare. And so I like to say things like, “Well, what if this is not good enough? Or what would the world look like if this didn’t happen?”

Just learning to challenge some of that. Just reframe it and let people see it from different angles, because I think so often people get enamored with an idea and it becomes the best thing in the world and we have to bring them down to reality.

Ben: Yeah. Talking about bringing people back down to reality. One of the things when we’re estimating projects or thinking about, “How are we going to build something?” One of the things I like to ask people at the end of the process of estimation, if they’ve just told me it’s going to take 40 hours to do something. And I’ll say, “Well, what could we do in 20 hours?”

And there’s that crushing moment for them when they’re like, “Man, we’ve just done this. It’s a 40 hour thing.” But actually thinking about what you could do in half the time or half the cost. What if you only had half? What would you do then? Because then often we can simplify things to the really essential components, and it really helps people work out what the more simple approach is. So trying to help people simplify things, I think can be really useful.

Douglas: You know what? It’s also handy to ask, what would you do if you had more time? Because then you can find out where people are cutting corners. So I like the idea of “What if you only had half the time?” Because then you can find out if people really had to prioritize, what they would cut. But then if you had more time, sometimes you can find the gotchas, which is like, “Well, I am doing this a little half-assed over here.” And it’s like, “Oh, okay, well maybe we should take a look at that.”

Ben: Yeah. We actually just issued an RFP and one of the things that we put in there was “What’s the most important thing that we’ve left out of this RFP?” And it was not meant to be a trick question, but more just to give people the ability to add in scope. 

Sometimes we’re blinkered. We think we know what our project should be, and we think we know why we’re doing it, but we miss out on a whole area of opportunity simply because we’re just too blinkered to see it. So giving people that “get out of jail free” card can open ourselves up to some opportunities that we might not otherwise realize. 

Douglas: I love that, and I think that’s a great spot to end on this notion of opportunity that we didn’t know we could realize. And isn’t that a powerful concept, just thinking about ways that we can unlock new opportunities. I want to just give you a moment to give our listeners a final thought.

Ben: Yeah. Well, I think one of the things that I’ve just been thinking about recently is risk management. And making unpredictable things predictable, and just this idea that we can minimize risk. We all want our projects to run as smoothly as possible, and one of the ways that we can do that is by mitigating against the risk and making unpredictable things predictable. 

So again, I think it’s about asking the right questions about what we can do. How can we change our approach? How can we change the scope? How can we adapt the deliverables? How can we make this more predictable? Because ultimately going back to what we were talking about at the beginning in terms of the strategy, we’re all doing things because we’re wanting to have an impact. There’s a reason for why we’re doing things.

We’re wanting to shift KPIs, we’re wanting to have impact, and we want that impact to not be unpredictable. One thing that I’m finding really useful is, “How do we simplify this so that we make it predictable? How can we reduce the uncertainty and maximize the opportunity for positive risks?” Because the risks can go both ways, right? There can be negative risk and positive risk, and finding opportunities to make things certain by making them simpler, I think can be incredibly powerful.

Douglas: Well, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you today, Ben, and thanks a lot for sharing and being with us.

Ben: Yeah. Thanks for having me. It’s been fun chatting with you. 

Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control The Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want more, head over to our blog, where I posted weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com.