The Time Machine exercise uncovers hidden fears and helps us choose to take action differently.
The Time Machine exercise is a lightning fast way to uncover the range of hidden hopes and fears around a piece of work. Try it with your team (you’ll find instructions at the end of this email).
I’ve run the exercise dozens of times with product teams, and I’ve noticed that a few fears keep coming up.
Some fears are universal. Some fears are shared by the makers in the team. Other fears are shared by the managers in and around the team.
It’s worth knowing about these fears, so I’ve simplified them here for you. My fear (!) is that these drive a surprising number of pointless debates and unhelpful behaviours, especially if you don’t know they’re there.
Most teams, across all sorts of people, come up with these fears:
people won’t want what we make
people won’t be able to use what we make
people want and can use what we make … but then they hate it
Underpinning all these is one fear: our effort will be wasted.
The fear of wasted effort drives makers and managers in different ways, guided by their other fears.
Makers almost always come up with these fears:
it’ll take too long to make this well
it’ll be too complex to make this well and we’ll never finish
our team is going to be moved off this before we’ve made it well enough
Underpinning all these is one chain of fears: we won’t have long enough to do a good job, and so we’ll make it badly, and so people won’t want it or like what we’ve made, and so our effort will be wasted.
The fear of wasted effort drives makers to want more time so they can do their best work.
Managers are typically worried that:
the thing won’t be “done” by a deadline (may be external or political)
the makers are overthinking everything instead of getting what matters done
the makers are wasting time on the wrong stuff
Underpinning all these is one chain of fears: there’s more that we need to get done than we have time for, and so we won’t get enough done, and so people won’t want it if it’s missing stuff, and so our effort will be wasted.
The fear of wasted effort drives managers to ship worse things faster so they can get more things done.
Makers are afraid of taking less time but managers are afraid of taking more time.
Makers are afraid of doing bad work but managers are afraid of over-investing in too few areas.
And so we end up with debates about “MVP”s, and well-meaning promises that we’ll rush it now and then fix it in v2. (We never come back for v2.)
This is fear-driven development. Our conflicting fears about how long we spend on what we’re building distract everyone from exploring our shared fears that we’re building the wrong thing in the first place.
The universal underlying fear
Everyone shares one underlying fear:
We’re going to look incompetent or silly
What to do about it
Next time you find yourself in an inexplicable disagreement with someone on the same project as you, it might help to ask yourself the question: is it because your fears are coming from different places?
If you want to go further, try doing the Time Machine exercise. It’s part of the Pivot Triggers methodology but you can do it as a standalone. I’ve shared the instructions below.
I’d love to hear how you get on!
Thanks to Corissa Nunn for help making this article make sense.