Can someone actually explain to me what Sharepoint does?  If I worked in Microsoft’s sales department the best pitch I could give is:

“It’s the greatest, most versatile product that has ever existed. You can use it to run any complex system that your imagination could dream up.” This however would only be what I would pitch, not believe.

I’ve asked the question “ What does Sharepoint do?” to Microsoft sales staff, developers, and consultants. It always starts with something like: “Well… it’s, you know, like… a collaboration tool… BUT! It can do a ton of other stuff too”.

And that is the best answer I’ve gotten.

I’ve asked the same question of SAP vendors, Microsoft Dynamics consultants, and IBM Watson Cloud experts. The answer is always some amorphous, borderline ridiculous answer consisting of “well it does a lot of things” and “it greatly depends on the user”. This was not me asking rhetorical questions either. I was not trying to be glib, or overly clever, or even to pull some sort of #iamverysmart coup de grâce. I was trying to articulate what I do for a living by standing on the shoulders of “giants”.

You see, my company builds a “platform as a service” (roughly) type product as well. Something that could be more than one thing to more than one person. I struggle constantly with explaining that our product is better than anything else on the entire market. This is not a brag, nor a marketing ploy – but only because what we do is so niche that only 100 or so companies in the world might care. And that is not the game IBM, Microsoft, and SAP are playing. They are ultimately the owners of your software. Sure the configurations, the modifications, and the custom programming on top of these platforms is yours, but if they take the platform away, or stop supporting it, what do you really have left? It’s even tougher in “the cloud” business because then if your subscription runs out you’re dead.

I recently made a prediction to a friend who was starting a project with IBM. I warned them of the potential lock-in problem by making a prediction something along the lines of “They are going to tell you they can build it quicker and more effienctly with IBM Watson Cloud. No project ever runs perfectly, and when you finally step in to set things straight, you will find out you have zero leverage. They will simply say you are more than welcome to fire them, because they know you would have to build everything over from scratch”. My predictions were to no avail. No one ever gets fired for hiring IBM. And guess what happened? The only upside is that I get to say “I told you so” a little more often.

There is hope! There are other ways that platforms can be useful but also safe. One way is to use an open source platform, one that if at worst comes to worst, you can fire all your consultants and hire new ones, and the platform is still going to be around.

This is a little tougher with very niche enterprise products like ours, but we’ve done something a little different to combat my lock-in loathing: Our  products are OWNED by our clients. We sign a three year, non-exclusive agreement with our clients for support and maintenance,  and a traditional license fee is baked in. They get all the source code, and agree not to resell it. But if we don’t perform, or our clients want to go a different way, they get to keep the software and build on it themselves. We earn our right to be at the table by being the experts in a system we designed, working with their developers, adding new features, bringing our industry expertise to the conversation, and hundreds of other small bits of value. In this way we hope to be at the top of the renewals list in three years.

The idea of someone taking your software away from me is abhorrent. If your car company one day sent you an email saying that you now had to upgrade your fuel tank, and there was going to be a new subscription service if you wanted to keep using the same type of gasoline, you would riot in the streets. The model of software is not what is wrong here, what is wrong is the lock-in. Vendor lock-in is amoral. If there is no ability to keep something running, and there is no TRUE data portability option, then you are basically being extorted.

I get that as a business you are trying to maximize profit. I try to do the same thing. However I want to my product and my company to seen as sticky because we are valuable, and not because we would just be too painful to get rid of.

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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

A Simple Communication Framework

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

George Bernard Shaw

Why a Framework?

The single most important thing that we do at work is communicating with other people. It’s generally how we are able to come up with ideas and execute them in ways that a single person could not.

It does seem that this whole “talking to each other” thing can get complicated. “Miscommunication” seems to be the number one excuse for something getting messed up in a knowledge worker environment. There are a whole host of reasons why this is the case. But one of the easiest ways to combat the lack of retention, the lack of comprehension, or simple miscommunications is to start with the way that we express ourselves.

At Sourcetoad, we use an adapted communications framework that has made life a lot easier for everyone involved. We have set up some basic rules for communication that are easy to remember, and we use keywords so that people receiving the information can context switch into the receiving framework mode. In other words, when people incite the framework, everyone changes their mental stance and prepares to communicate.

An Adapted Simple Model

This framework has been adapted from an amalgamation of numerous other frameworks. It takes a lot from military communication tactics (where being understood can be the difference between life and death) and a number of other popular communication frameworks. This is just the simplest way that we’ve been able to express it. It has been hacked together from too many sources to cite, but it is still simple enough to work well for us.

The Framework

Our framework has only four key pieces:

  • Intent
  • Context
  • A sketch of the desired outcome
  • A sketch of a strategy to get to that outcome

These four items can be placed in various orders, but typically they start with intent and end with a strategy.

Intent

Stating your intent, or at least clearly knowing what your intent is, is the most powerful part of this framework. Understanding your own intent in everything is extremely powerful, but that’s another blog post. Conversations that do not have a well-understood intent are just “chats.” They’re not the type of communication that will solve any problem.

Stating your intent at the beginning of a conversation does two very important things:

  1. It switches the receiver’s brain into “communications framework mode.” It allows the other person to understand that you are about to use the framework.
  2. Stating your intent allows the person to whom you are speaking with to know why you are talking. If I don’t know what you want right at the beginning, we’re probably not going to have a fruitful conversation.

Context

Context is the backstory or history that your receiver may need to fully understand the conversation. Telling the person you’re talking to about the players involved, what previous conversations touched on, or what the stakes are can be extremely useful.

The three main questions you should ask yourself when giving context are:

  • What are we talking about?
  • What do you need to know about this?
  • Have I told you everything you need to know?

When saying this bit out loud, you can use the following trigger phrases to make sure your receiver knows you are using the framework:

  • “For a little background…”
  • “For context…”

Sketch Desired Outcome (End State)

After you’ve laid out your intentions and the context the receiver needs, it’s time to actually tell them what you want. This involves explaining your vision of the outcomes, or the “end state.”

An outcome or end state might be as complicated as: “I think what I want is for the company to open a new line of business, complete with staff and warehousing. I also think we’re going to need to custom build an entire logistics software system over the next few years.”

Or it could be as simple as: “What I would like is that at the end of this conversation, we set up a time to have a formal meeting about it with the team.”

You need to be flexible here because even though you might know what type of outcome you are looking for, you need to leave room for the solution to include new ideas from your audience. That’s why we call it a “sketch.”

When saying this bit out loud, you can use the following trigger phrases to make sure the receiver can envision what you want to happen:

  • “What I see happening…”
  • “My desired outcome is…”

Sketch a Strategy

You know what you want (intent), the receiver knows what you want (end state), and they have the backstory (context) to understand what you’re talking about — we can now move on to action.

In this phase, we outline a possible method of getting to that end state I mentioned earlier. This is up for discussion, of course. The person you’re speaking with is not required to follow your sketch. Rather, this phase invites them to build a strategy with you to accomplish the desired outcome.

The person you’re speaking with might have a much better idea of how to get there than you do, especially since they now understand your intentions and what the end goal is. So keep an open mind, and enjoy the brainstorming.

When describing the strategy you envision, Use triggers like:

  • “A rough strategy we could take is…”
  • “A path I see is…”
  • “I’d suggest x as the next steps. What do you think?”

Example 1

Intention: I want a dashboard to show the ten most important KPIs for our internal product. I want the team to manage the build-out and timing to balance client needs. I’m prepared to invest about 100 hours for the MVP.

Context: Hi Joe, some quick context: I would like for the team to build a dashboard that provides a brief overview of the system – I want this to show the variety of features for sales calls and to be useful for current clients.

Outcome: My desired end state is I get a demo-able dashboard on our test instance within the next four months. It should have 70% of the functionality shown in the mockups.

Strategy: I think the rough path to getting there is for you and Jane to meet and work out which features are doable in the next four months while balancing client requests. Then you can create tickets for the segments and decide how flexible the dashboard could be. Let’s get together for a review and approval meeting when that’s done. After that, we can start handing out the tickets to the team.

Example 2

Intention: I want to get James to switch the DNS servers for a client.

Context: Hey James, for some context, Martin asked me to help him with their new mail server. They’re going to be setting this up on their side with Office365. I’m not sure what is required 100%, though.

Outcome: I would like to send Martin an email with the steps he needs to take to prepare for the switchover and the dates when we plan on doing it. If we have any questions for him, I’d like to include those in the email by the end of the day tomorrow.

Strategy: My strategy here is that I will follow your advice and guidance to the letter because I’m not the expert.

Recap

If you are talking to someone at work, they might not actually be paying attention. Having a communications framework with key phrases and trigger words can make a huge impact on changing the mindset of the sender and the receiver. When both parties know that information is going to be transmitted in a certain way, retention and accuracy rates are way higher.

At Sourcetoad, we use the trigger words and key phrases below to help change our thinking, speaking, and listening modes:

  • Intent
    • “My intention is…”
    • “What I’m looking to do is…”
    • “What I want is…”
  • Context
    • “For some context…”
    • “A little background…”
  • Sketch of my desired outcome
    • “The outcome I’m looking for is…”
    • “When this is all done, I’d like to see…”
  • Sketch of a strategy to get there
    • “I think a rough path to get here is…”
    • “The strategy I imagine is…”

That’s it! It’s a very simple yet powerful tool to help improve communication. You can alter this plan or invent your own, but the key is that both parties know the rules. The idea that people can switch between a conversation and “communication” is life-changing – but it requires training on both sides.