Tag Archives: actionability

The Butter Test

butterThis morning for breakfast, I chose the “nutritious” option of a slice of buttered rye. After the obligatory ninety seconds’ wait, my freshly toasted bread popped out of the toaster. It was hot, with a little steam coming off the sides – pretty atractive for a frigid winter’s morning. But I’d forgotten to take the butter out of the refrigerator earlier – arrhgrhh, I thought, now I’m going to have to wrestle with the cold butter and try to get it to spread on my rapidly cooling toast.

I hate cutting cold butter. The butter itself is unwieldy – it tends to act like an anti-magnet (at least for me), consistently tipping the wrong way, repelling the knife at every attempt. It’s an altogether unpleasant experience, certainly not a complement to a rushed morning where you’re trying to get yourself ready for work and kids ready for school.

But — microwave that butter for about 15 seconds and everything changes. All of a sudden, the butter is at your command. The knife slices through effortlessly, like an airy ballet. The pat of butter, liberated from its stick(!) conforms to the shape of your toast with only a few strokes.

But I spend more time managing software development than I do buttering toast.

So it’s become my opinion that the software you use should feel the same as the experience of cutting the warm butter. But all too often, software feels far more like the cold butter. You try to take a decisive step with your newly coded tool, but the application jumps out from under your control. It falls on the ground, sometimes things get dirty, maybe lands face down or picks up some hair or dust, and then it becomes a struggle to work with the tool thereafter. That is, until you’ve had a while to adjust to the software, and it’s had time to adjust to the “room temperature” of the deployed environment and become more malleable. Just as the butter eventually adjusts to a temperate environment, with extended use, a user will adapt to software and be able to work with it. This is not always due to changes in the software, but to changes in the human-software sociotechnical system – that is, you just develop an all-around better relationship with the app and it becomes easier to work with.

Enter the Butter Test.

The Butter Test is the equivalent of the “5-Second” test for user interface navigability – but for software applications, web pages, web applications, APIs, or any other software-related design. (There’s even a web app that helps you conduct a formal 5-Second test.) Whereas the 5-Second test gauges your user’s first impressions when they visit your web page, the Butter Test assesses how malleable the software is upon a user’s first encounter. To do the Butter Test, spend about five minutes with a new application. You don’t have to be alone; you can get a walkthrough from someone who’s more familiar with it. How does it feel? Do you feel like you’re struggling with a cold stick of butter? Does the software respond in a jagged, unpredictable way – forcing you to catch it before it falls on the floor? Or alternatively, is your first cut at using the software smooth? Do the results feel trustworthy, interpretable, and extendable (meaning you’re left feeling empowered to do more)? Using the Butter Test, your first impressions count.

The Butter Test is not just useful for subjectively evaluating full software applications. Today, I used it to determine whether a taxonomy for a directory structure made sense. We needed a file structure for holding different types of data (with different levels of “ease to reproduce”) from different instruments. After learning more about the proposed new structure, I could immediately figure out where new data would go, how we would adapt to novel data types and processed data products, and how to access the data without an a priori knowledge of the full directory structure. By learning a few rules, I could work easily with the entire collection of data – and I learned all this in less than five minutes. The new taxonomy passed the Butter Test with flying colors.

I’ve been using the Butter Test for about 15 years and it does not disappoint. Trust your instincts. If your software was toast and butter, would you be content or frustrated?

Eight Ways to Deal with Complexity

There is not one person I know who doesn’t have to deal with complexity in their work or personal lives. Either the subject matter they work with is complex or specialized, the politics are stressful, or there’s just too much information to process and the information overload becomes oppressive.

Fortunately, dealing with complexity has been the subject of recent research and there are some lessons to report. These lessons revolve around the importance of “sensemaking” – a term coined by Karl Weick to reflect concerted effort made to understand the relationships between people, technologies, places and events, how they behave, and how to respond to their current and future behaviors.

Weick and Sutcliffe (2001) studied the environments of aircraft carriers, nuclear power plants, and fire fighting teams – situations where the stakes are high, and on-the-job errors can be costly and dangerous. These are the workplaces “that require acute mindfulness if they are to avoid situations in which small errors build upon one another to precipitate a catastrophic breakdown.” Snowden (2003), who worked at IBM, said that most environments just weren’t like that – so it would be difficult to generalize how those workers dealt with complexity to the typical office.

Browning & Boudes (2005) compared and contrasted these two studies to try and define some guiding principles for how people make sense of complex scenarios. Here’s a synopsis of what they found:

1: “Acknowledging and accepting complexity is better than placating it with planning models. There are simply too many situations where the standard tools and techniques of policy-making and decisionmaking do not apply.” The lesson: move away from a “training culture of obedience” and towards a “learning culture of understanding and action”. (This will be a challenge, because it requires humility and trust.)

2: “It is important to acknowledge failure and learn from instances of it.” Self-explanatory, but as above, this requires humility and ego-transcendence. For people to learn from failure, they must first confront it. I can think of some “death march” software projects where failure “never” occurred!

3: “Self-organization is an order that has no hierarchical designer or director.” Browning & Boudes cite Peter Drucker’s idea that “in the Knowledge Economy everyone is a volunteer.” Volunteerism means that everyone is fundamentally qualified to do some part of a project, that roles shift to accommodate existing talents and the development of new talents, and that if a person isn’t working out in one role, they can move to another. In volunteer contexts, leadership is often dynamic, where everyone serves for a time as the leader and then moves on.

4: “Narratives are valuable for showing role differentiation and polyvocality.” There are many voices, and many perspectives, and these can be effectively communicated when people relate to one another through stories and examples. Diversity of opinion and distance from a problem can help raise solutions – but the people who know the situation best, and who are closest to it, must be open to the possibilities. (Easier said than done.)

5: “Conformity carries risks, and thus we need diverse inputs when responding to complexity.” The authors suggest that learning should be valued over order and structure. This does not mean that order is unnecessary, but that any order that is established should be viewed as temporary – a framework to serve as the basis for new learning.

6: “Action is valuable under conditions of complexity.” Acting, learning, and adjusting is more effective and more productive than trying to identify the right solution, plan it, and then do it. Action builds identity and creates meaning; “the most useful information is contextual and need-driven.”

7: “The focus is properly on small forces and how they affect complex systems.” The authors suggest that focusing on small wins and keeping things simple is a strategy for success. I love the following story that they describe, so I have to include it here:

Snowden relates a story of two software development groups – one expert, the other a lesser group – whose experience in programming was limited to the fairly routine requirements of payroll systems. In a competitive exercise between these two groups for learning purposes, the experts created a plan for an elegant piece of code that would take two months to develop. The payroll programmers, meanwhile, downloaded a “good enough” list from the Internet that cost five dollars (Snowden, 1999). Thus one feature for smallness for Snowden is the decisions that can be made that allow the group to move on – to accept “good enough,” implement it, and then see what that action means.

8: “It is important to understand the irony of bureaucratic control.” Producing data and information can be overwhelming; innovative achievements can be suffocated by measurement, evaluation and control. We assume that organizations are deterministic and behavior can be programmed, using carrots and sticks. But people are neither rational nor linear, and this can be both the strength of the organization and its Achilles heel.

New organizational models are needed to be able to follow this advice. So many of the projects I see today are like solving mysteries: you know what needs to happen (because you have requirements documents), there are motivated people all around you who really want the mystery solved, someone is footing the bill (at least for a while), and everyone wants to make progress. But because the process is full of learning new information, finding clues, and relating to people’s needs – it’s impossible to put a timeline on it. This frustrates project managers (and their bosses) immensely, because their jobs revolve around bringing some order to complexity and setting expectations in terms of time and budget.

Can you imagine a crime show like Law & Order starting out with a murder – and then you cut to the scene where the police chief says: “We need to solve this murder immediately… all the clues need to be found by next Friday, all the suspects interviewed by the following Wednesday, and then I want a report on my desk with the solution three weeks from today!”

It sounds funny, but this is exactly what plenty of managers are trying to do right now in their own organizations. The “corporate consciousness” will support this kind of behavior until a rational alternative is found.


Browning, L. & Boudes, T. (2005). The use of narrative to understand and respond to complexity: a comparative analysis of the Cynefin and Weickian models. E:CO, 7(3-4), 32-39.
Snowden, D. J. (1999). “Story telling: An old skill in a new context,” Business Information Review, 16 (1): 30-37.
Weick, K. E. and Sutcliffe, K. M. (2001). Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Reading This Will Change Your Brain

From dailygalaxy.com

The title above comes from a Newsweek article published on October 14, 2008. The moral of the story is that recent research in neuroscience indicates that use of modern technology – in particular Web searching – actually exercises the decision making and complex reasoning parts of the brain. The end result is that younger people who are more attuned to life in cyberspace have more finely developed skills in these areas, whereas those who are not as steeped in the web are better at social skills and reading emotions from facial expressions.

“The more time you devote to a specific activity, the stronger the neural pathways responsible for executing that activity become.”

Gary Small, who leads a research team at UCLA, recently published an article in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry that explains these finding in depth, and suggests that a “simple task like searching the web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults.” What does this news have to do with managing your organization? It helps you understand how to manage change by pointing out that certain activities can be strategically applied to develop specific parts of the brain.

These phenomena are comprehensively explained in the 400+ pages of Schwartz & Begley (2002). By studying obsessive-compulsive disorder, Schwartz learned about how the brain rewires itself to deal with problems and heal from wounds and uncovered much of the theory that’s being refined and developed by researchers like Small.

One of the lessons from this tome is that “practice really does make perfect”. You should give your employees time to build their capabilities and continually refine their skills – try not to rush them. “We have the ability to bring will and thus attention to bear on a single nascent possibility struggling to be born in the brain, and thus to turn that possibility into actuality and action.” There is a biological basis underlying the idea that people need the time to focus to turn an idea into action.


Schwartz, J.M & Begley, S. (2002). The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force New York: Harper Perennial.