‘Satisficing’ Is The Best Word Your Team Didn’t Know Existed

satisfice (ˈsadəsˌfīs) – verb – To accept an available option as satisfactory.

Anyone who has cleaned their house recently knows the definition of this word. You didn’t pull out toothbrushes and spend all weekend on your hands and knees. You cleaned until you were satisfied with the state of whatever room you were in, and moved on. I would argue that the younger your children, or the larger in number they are, the more you understand.

Satisficing is what advertisers count on in a sea of choices today. When you have dozens of toothpaste to choose from, why try something new when you don’t have time to stare at that aisle all day. You choose the brand that you are either most familiar with — or whatever is top of mind thanks to a recent commercial — and move on to toilet paper.

In 1976, the average supermarket stocked 9,000 unique products; today that number has ballooned to 40,000 of them, yet the average person gets 80%– 85% of their needs in only 150 different supermarket items. That means that we need to ignore 39,850 items in the store.

One would think that kind of cost savings on our brain gives us extra horsepower to use for the important stuff in the day. Rather, it is evidence that we have a finite number of decisions to make during any day. Even worse, the brain doesn’t have the foggiest on how to prioritize decisions. From The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, a book by Daniel Levitin:

“Neuroscientists have discovered that un-productivity and loss of drive can result from decision overload. Although most of us have no trouble ranking the importance of decisions if asked to do so, our brains don’t automatically do this.” He goes on to say, “we can have trouble separating the trivial from the important, and all this information processing makes us tired.”

Many an Agile leader would argue this is why we need a regularly prioritized list of work items to draw from to help focus our brain cells on what’s really important: making the stuff, not deciding on what stuff to make next. Levitin supports this in an illustration he calls the “attention filter”:

“The attentional filter is one of evolution’s greatest achievements. In nonhumans, it ensures that they don’t get distracted by irrelevancies. If you’ve ever tried to call your dog while he is smelling something interesting, you know that it is very difficult to grab his attention with sound— smell trumps sound in the dog brain.”

Same goes for my kids. Try getting my son Owen’s attention when Thomas and Friends is on the TV. That boy loves him some trains.

Even people like me, who get paid to be interrupted for the sake of helping others, can run out of processing power at the end of the day. That’s why after a day of work, dinner at home with the family, bath time with the kids, and reading Prince Caspian before bed to them, I often dont have anything left over for challenging conversations with my wife on things like the budget. Even though it’s not her fault she has to wait till night often, it doesn’t change the fact that my mind is out of RAM.

After contemplating the challenge, I thought of a few things that could come in handy to give your teams extra processing power during the day and help them save something for their families.

Don’t forget the Checklist Manifesto. In his brilliant book, Atul Gawande makes the case for saving yourself from having to make routine decisions daily by making them in advance. Whether its a list of items you do every morning before work, your routine for re-entry from a bathroom or coffee break, or things you cover during regular meetings, there are dozens of decisions you can save every day that would help out.

And before you worry about how a checklist will make you look, put some success metrics on it and test it’s efficacy. If you go an entire two-weeks sprint without forgetting something during stand ups, I would argue that’s a worthwhile effort.

Remember, you grow where you measure.

Schedules are your friends. Some of our clients at Bottle Rocket love routine weeks and steady team they can count on. Others have hectic timelines with lots of spinning plates and want some flexibility from delivery. In those times, I think books like The Organized Mind would help enforce keeping sprints on track. If my team can look at the week ahead and count on it remaining the same, they can effectively take in work and deliver.

Teams with uncertainty have to keep that in the back of their mind constantly. Are you willing to take up the space in their brains with unnecessary information? How do you think that makes them feel?

As a coach or leader, there’s an application for you as well. You can combat this uncertainty by either flagging emails with questions or putting them in a folder to address in a designated time of the day. A 30-60 minute session where you answer all the needs of your teams and clients every day can help you on multiple fronts. It shows you can be counted on and creates a rhythm for all parties. Think about what that will do for team morale.

Spend time with each team member. This could be over coffee, or a one-on-one session during the sprint to help clear things up. Ask them individually if there’s something they are needing that hasn’t been mentioned yet. We’re all different, and as much as we want our team members to act in unison, there’s no way that reality will happen. Find out more about them.

Some team members may like chatty collaborative sessions. Others may want quiet heads-down time. Some may have no problem speaking up in retros. Others may need just you alone to speak up. Trust me, though, they all like brownies and You Tube.

Regardless, if there’s something you can take off your team’s plate and give them extra decision-making power, encourage them to tell you. It might not seem like much at first, but trust me when I say it puts the focus back on delivery. Can’t wait to hear your results.


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