Dug, looking for a squirrel

Accountability: It’s Not Just for Stand-ups

Have you ever worked with an especially disfunctional team or group? I’ve run across my share and this story came to mind lately. [If anyone from the old days cares to let me know how the guys mentioned are doing today (privately please, not in the comments), I’d appreciate it! -ed]
Dug, looking for a squirrelAnyway, this particular team had two members who didn’t always work well. It was especially bad when they worked together. Maybe my memory has added some oddities, but here is how I describe them: Bentley [names have been changed] is like a Cocker Spaniel, excited by every squirrel running by; imagine Dug, the dog in Disney’s UP. Fred was the old curmudgeon who went off a cliff in the passenger seat of a beat-up pickup truck and while on the way down says, “Yup, I could have told you this was a bad idea.”

In addition to having very different personalities, they also had habits which reinforced the worst in their partner. To give you some background on the work-environment, they worked in Paired Programming. Their computer was set-up with dual monitors, keyboards, and mice. They worked on a single task at a time, most of which should take from 1/2 to 2 days.  Bentley hogged the keyboard and did not share the typing responsibilities well. It was incredibly common to find he spent a few hours digging into a problem unrelated to his work. Fred, also a nice guy, appeared frustrated he was not allowed to type or control the direction. In response to his growing annoyance he would withdraw from the process, often leaning back and literally watching with crossed arms.

Now, they were not on my team, but their colleague, Andrea asked me how I would deal with them. Bentley and Fred didn’t report to her, but to the extent anyone was leading the team, she had the role. The problem was they hadn’t accomplished anything in the previous two weeks. Remember, tasks should take less than two days, but this was two weeks and not one thing was done. Really!

Andrea received a report the team was not accomplishing much and sat down with them for the afternoon. While she worked with them they were able to take three tasks they had started over the last week and move them through to completion. Yay! The next day the team went back to their old ways and completed… nothing. What’s a colleague to do?

I had a couple pieces of advice for Andrea, one set of advice was about enabling both team members to communicate and work with each other. But I also advised her to take accountability to the next level.

Some teams use a daily stand-up to increase accountability. It may be called a huddle or scrum meeting, but it’s all the same thing. The point of the daily stand-up is to get everyone on the same page for the day’s tasks. Everybody states what they accomplished yesterday, what they plan to accomplish today, and lists anything in the way of them achieving their goals. When this is used on a daily basis, most teams find it incredibly empowering for themselves and the team, in part because they are aware of what is happening, in part because they have made a statement about their goals and know they have to speak about their results the next day.

The very best managers I have worked with are incredibly strong at holding people accountable and use a version of this technique. Here are the basics:

  1. Break down the work into a small unit—something that can be accomplished in 2 – 4 hours.
  2. Ask if there are any roadblocks in the way of getting this completed. If yes, deal with this immediately.
  3. Say “Good job. Go do it. If you have any problems, come find me and we’ll knock them down. I’ll be back in a couple hours to see how you’re doing.”
  4. Come back on time and see if the work is done.
  5. If the work is done, congratulate the individual / team and repeat.
  6. If the work is not done, find the problem, fix it, and get a new commitment.

The more you use this method, the more you realize this has power. I think everyone should be managed this way. People in new roles should have shorter time periods. If you are training someone in a fast food or retail establishment, then you might set tasks that can be accomplished in minutes. If you are dealing with an executive the task might be weeks. The key here isn’t the time period, it’s the mutual commitment and follow-up.

I have had staff members who think this technique is micro-managing, but I disagree. I’m not telling anyone what programs to use or keys to push. I am not telling how the work must be accomplished or even asking how it is going to be done. I am asking for a commitment, asking if it’s met, and offering help to clear obstacles. Oh, and I am expecting those around me to treat me likewise.

Take away: Increasing your team’s accountability will lead to greater productivity.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Assessing Yourself with Bloom’s Taxonomy

Have you heard of Bloom’s Taxonomy? More importantly, have you thought about how you can use the taxonomy to give yourself a performance evaluation?


Benjamin Bloom led a team of educators in the 1950s to identify a taxonomy, or classification, of learning objectives. The committee broke the objectives into three distinct areas, Cognitive (knowledge, comprehension, and critical thinking), Affective (emotional response and empathy), and Psychomotor (physically manipulate body and tools / instruments). For more information, I refer you to Wikipedia and Don Clark‘s articles for more information.

Bloom's Taxonomy

For my part, I want you to focus on the Cognitive function. You can find a number of cool graphics displaying the domain with an online search, but for my part I want to focus on the following chart, taken from “Critical Thinking in the Management Classroom” (by Athanassiou, et al., full reference below.)

Cognitive Hierarchy, credit to Athanassiou et al.

When reading this, I translate it into BA practices:

  • The basics of our job start with Knowledge, learning about and defining our business’ domain, able to answer a developer’s questions about a given process.
  • We daily demonstrate Comprehension, translating business process needs into requirements, paraphrasing and summarizing the business needs into the language of our multiple audiences.
  • Application is where we start to prove ourselves, applying business expertise to answer questions and predict behaviors & outcomes.
  • It takes deeps business knowledge to do good Analysis, understanding not only business definitions, but seeing patterns, recognizing hidden meanings, understanding the context of information, systems, users, etc.
  • Synthesis is all about combining old ideas to create new ones, generalizing for given facts, integrating and designing.
  • Comparing and discriminating, assessing options, and verifying the value of different ideas is part of Evaluation.

Note: Bloom’s Taxonomy was revised in 2000, changing the names from nouns to verbs and changing the order of the last two items. The new list is: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, Creating. It is worth considering if BAs should in fact spend more effort on Evaluation / Evaluating and have less need for Synthesis / Creating.

I want to argue every BA needs to be great. Every BA needs to be able to perform at all of these levels. Every BA needs to be perfectly fluent in each of the Cognitive domain areas. But do they really need to? I am better at some than others. In fact, I am better at some higher levels than I am at some lower levels. Does this mean I’m a bad BA? I don’t think so.

Imagine you could have your pick of three BAs. All three are very good at Knowledge and Comprehension. The first BA is outstanding in Application, applying all the knowledge they have learned. The second BA loves Analysis, in particular digging into business operations and understanding how it relates to business rules. The third BA lives for Synthesis, integrating old ideas into something that seems new.

Now continue imaging and tell me which BA would you pick for a project that has to combine information from four different systems into a single report? Which BA should go to the project with the stable team, supporting the finance department with regular upgrades and system maintenance? Which BA should work on building out a new CRM system to track all of customer interactions?

As you can see, different projects have different needs, different cognitive levels. And as individuals, we are better at some tasks than others. So what does that mean?

It means we need to understand and play to our strengths. It also means we need to acknowledge our weaknesses and look for the best way to support our project and team when the project does not match our strengths. You can partner with others on your team if Synthesis isn’t your strong suit. You can push more decisions to the team if your Evaluation level is weak. You can still contribute to a successful project when it needs one of your weak areas, but only if you are paying attention and diligently shoring up this level.

Here’s a checklist to think about your contribution to your current project, modified from Athanassiou’s paper:

The Checklist

  1. ____  Did you summarize the concepts / goals / stories / requirements covered by your business partners? (Knowledge)
  2. ____  Did you demonstrate you understood what this project was about by comparing it or contrasting it with other projects, requirements, applications? (Comprehension)
  3. ____  Did you connect the ideas from this project to other projects, initiatives, business goals, competitor actions? (Application)
  4. ____  Did you examine the business goals and requirements so that you identified the theories, assumptions, fallacies, and ways of organizing their ideas? (Analysis)
  5. ____  Did you explore the goals and use this exploration to build a new understanding of the business or formulate new ideas or solutions? (Synthesis)
  6. ____  Do your actions demonstrate you critique ideas and solutions based on an understanding of overall business objectives rather than personal opinion? (Evaluation)

Athanassiou, Nicholas, Jeanne McNett, and Carol Harvey. (2003). Critical Thinking in the Management Classroom: Bloom’s Taxonomy as a Learning Tool. Journal of Management Education, 27(5), 533-555. Available here (@ $32! for 1 day of access)

Hat tip to Chris Boynick for referencing the above paper and giving me more context to start digging into Bloom’s Taxonomy.