Budgets Are Not Broccoli (or, Why Surveys Suck)

Agile Australia is less than a month away! To celebrate, guest blogger and Conteneo’s Founder and CEO Luke Hohmann joins the Agile Australia blog today. Luke is travelling to Australia next month to give a keynote presentation at Agile Australia (get a sneak peek of what he has in store here), and he is also holding workshops in Melbourne and Sydney. To plan your Agile Australia experience, check out the full Conference program online.

In today’s post, Luke discusses how the element of collaboration is missing from surveys.

Broccoli pic

Budgets are not broccoli (or, why surveys suck)

Luke Hohmann

Let’s start with a story. I was in Paris this week, teaching a master class on serious game design and attending Playcamp Paris. Produced with our partner, Raphael Goumot, a Black Belt CCA and owner of creagile.fr, we spent the entire evening discussing Participatory Budgeting, our Budget Games and our Budget Investor.

Through an amazing coincidence, Tarang Patel (an Agile specialist from Adobe and another Black Belt CCA) was in Paris. Tarang has personally facilitated San José Budget Games sessions in 2013 and 2014 and told this story:

“What is amazing about collaborative prioritization, in which citizens have to work together to purchase projects, is how collaboration can change the minds of the other participants. In 2014 our table was not interested in funding any items. And yet, near the end of the session, a girl from the youth commission who strongly believed in addressing what she felt was an increasing problem of homelessness, invested a substantial sum of her money on a project designed to address homelessness. The other participants at her table really took notice and started to explore the issue. By the time they were finished, the table had changed their minds and joined together to fund this project.”

This story is not unique. As near as we can tell, every single collaborative forum changes the opinions of the participants. Here is another story, this time from Laura Richardson:

“At our table one woman from an affluent neighborhood started the negotiations by purchasing code enforcement. She wanted to make sure the City was looking as good as possible. She changed her mind, however, when a mother from a less affluent part of the city described the dangers her children faced from gang violence — just walking to school wearing the wrong color jacket could leave her child harassed, beaten, or even worse. The emotional impact was visible because both women were crying by the time the ‘negotiations’ were finished. The table quickly aligned on purchasing projects designed to address gang violence.”

We see similar outcomes in our platforms when used for prioritizing features in product roadmaps and project portfolios inside corporations: collaboration provides a forum for understanding complex issues and making better choices. Here is a story from my own experience in helping VeriSign prioritize a set of potential customer projects:

“One of the projects under consideration was a self-service support website, in which customers could form a community to post questions, share best practices and help each other configure and use VeriSign products. In every forum junior customer service agents would purchase this project because it promised to make their lives easier. And in every forum a more senior and experienced agent would gently explain that this project would actually increase the amount of work because every comment by a forum member would have to be reviewed and verified by a VeriSign employee. The reasoning was simple: VeriSign provides complex, sophisticated security solutions. Hackers and other nefarious types could provide incorrect advice to make it easier to exploit a website.”

But Why Broccoli?

Let’s compare these stories about shared prioritization of a budget with broccoli. I happen to like broccoli. A lot of people don’t. And no matter how much time I spend trying to convince you that you should like broccoli, I’m not going to change your mind. And no matter how much time you spend trying to convince me that I shouldn’t like broccoli, you’re not going to change my mind.

Broccoli isn’t a budget. At one level, it doesn’t actually matter if you like broccoli, or you don’t like bananas. Conversations on these topics aren’t going to change your perspective and they certainly aren’t going to affect your job or your city.

This is why surveys suck when you’re dealing with complex issues like corporate or city budgets. The results of the survey are subject to change once you start talking about the items with other people.

This change is what draws people together instead of pushing them apart. In my next post, I’ll outline how surveys evolve from being something that just plain sucks to being something that is downright harmful.

This blog was originally posted on Conteneo’s websiteRegister for Agile Australia to hear Luke’s keynote – and you can also sign up for Luke’s workshops in Sydney and Melbourne.

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