Several days ago I visited Vincit and Futurice to collect stories for Yay4Monday. Though I had very clear picture in mind what kinds of stories I needed I didn’t know how to get them. No. Idea. At all. I have some experience interviewing people but it was no help that time. I gave up coming with a solution and I decided to figure it out on my very long drive to Tampere where Vincit’s head office is located.

The stories I was looking for are memorable moments, jokes, situations or anecdotes which people share with their family and friends or new colleagues (“Hey, dude, you don’t believe what has happened today…”). Thinking I found a treasure with this memorable word I created a set of questions around it like “What was the most memorable thing happened at the last hackfest?”

It took me three interviews to prove that my questions worked badly. It was difficult for people to recall any story after the questions and I ended up just talking to them. During these talks the interviewees shared many interesting facts and occasionally told me a story or two I came for. The results were not great with only four stories in my pocket after three hours of interviews. On one side, four stories were enough for my purpose. On the other side, I didn’t understand why the questions hadn’t worked and what I should change. I had to find answers for these questions because next day I visited Futurice and had only two hours for everything.

Luckily, Johanna came to see me. Johanna is one of few great people from Vincit I work with and she helped to organise my visit. We had only 20 minutes to discuss many things. Feeling the shortage of time I threw out my questions and told her a story about sofa.

Sofa and a Women’s Day

Several years ago I led a very cool team of 11 people. There were two ladies in it, Regina and Alexandra who we cared a lot. Discussing what to present them on the upcoming Women's Day and choosing between boring and very appropriate options and fun and totally inappropriate options we decided to buy them a sofa.

Our team had a separate space in the office but we had no area to hang around and take a short rest. We thought that a sofa could help with it.The idea felt crazy, especially when the sofa finally arrived and it was bigger than we expected. I don’t remember how we managed to deliver it from the ground floor to the second floor through our narrow corridors. In addition we did it while the ladies were out.

To tell the truth I was afraid of their reaction. Would they think it’s cool? Would they think it’s stupid?

We put the sofa at the only place we could find, our daily stand-up area, and waited. Their reaction exceeded all my expectations. Regina and Alexandra cheered and found it awesome. The sofa became the centre of informal interactions. We drank tea, played board games and talked. To this moment I think that sofa was the best team-building initiative I have ever seen.

To my surprise the story clicked immediately and Johanna said, “Aha, I see what you need. When you talked about stories I was thinking about something bigger and more general. And you’re looking for something very small and actionable”. That moment her colleague was passing by. Johanna asked to share one very nice story and he gladly did it.

Hm… Just after ten minutes I got a story. That was an improvement!

For the next day I changed my strategy from asking questions to sharing the Sofa story. I stayed in FutuCafe — an area for Futuricers and visitors to hang around — and tortured random people with my pitch followed by the story.

It was a success. I collected four stories in less than 40 minutes. However I had to tweak my strategy again. During my third interview the interviewee couldn’t come up with any story. We discussed some stuff for a while but there were no obvious progress. Desperate I said, “Ok let me share one more story”

Helium and Daily Stand-ups

On another Women’s Day we decided to rent a 40-litres helium gas canister and several hundred balloons, from ordinary round ones to sausage-looking ones which you can shape to a dog, a clown face or whatever you like. It was a nice funny day with balloons flying all around the office and people talking funny voices after breathing helium.

We rented the canister for the shortest possible rental period — one month. It was f**king heavy and we were very lazy so we left it for a while in our room. Then a real fun began.

Having a constant access to helium our team members used it for their advantage. The developers were coming to my desk asking serious questions with silly voices. The team was passing a balloon with helium as a speaking token during daily stand-ups. A host was starting sprint demos with our customers not forgetting to take a breath or two. We even prolonged a rental period for one more month! Sometimes we made silly things just not to take our life and job too seriously.

The second story helped. It sounded so silly that people got easily relaxed and let their thoughts to flow.

On my way back home I tried to summarise my experience from past two days.

  • everything is a hypothesis you need to check. Even the way you interview people.
  • take some time after each interview to think and write down what worked and what didn't
  • make a pivot as soon as you understand your strategy doesn't work
  • it's better to start somewhere and change later than to figure out the best way from the beginning.

These are results you can read in any book. Nothing fancy. I had the very same process during my tour. However the timespan was different. Thanks to its shortness and fast feedback cycle I could literally see how I tested and changed my hypothesises.

Tomorrow I’m interviewing folks from Ministry and I’m going to make one more tweak. I’m thrilled to see how it will change the quality of results.

Do you have a story from your work when you felt happy? Share in comments.