Sketchplanations

Explaining the world one sketch at a time

RAS Syndrome illustration: Redundant Acronym Syndrome shown with a person using their PIN Number in an ATM Machine

RAS Syndrome

RAS Syndrome is Redundant Acronym Syndrome Syndrome. It's when an acronym is followed by a word that's also part of the acronym. Some examples you may come across: ATM machine - Automated Teller Machine PIN number - Personal Identification Number ISBN number - International Standard Book Number PDF format - Portable Document Format LCD display - Liquid Crystal Display HIV virus - Human Immunodeficiency Virus DC Comics - Detective Comics RSVP please - Répondez S'il Vous Plaît — Reply please MLS soccer - Major League Soccer PAT testing - Portable Appliance Testing While, in principle, the following word is redundant were we to spell out the acronym, that we tend to include it in everyday speech means it's usually serving a helpful function. Quite often, it's clarifying what you're talking about given many people won't know what the acronym actually stands for (see TLAs). By the way, ATM is technically an initialism, while PIN is an acronym. I'd guess you've probably come across RAS Syndrome, too. However, I didn't realise there was a name for it until recently, even though it was coined in New Scientist magazine back in 2001. Also see acronym or initialism, TLAs, Capitonym, pleonasm
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The Wheel of Death illustration: a pie chart of last week's support issues from large categories of login problems, and payment issues to smaller ones at the end in shades of blue. A tool to help review and prioritise issues.

The Wheel of Death

The Wheel of Death is a handy and simple tool to help prioritise issues and where to spend time fixing things. I learned it from the domain of customer service. It's used something like this: Keep track of customer issues that you encounter each week by tagging them. At the end of the week, tally up the responses and produce the Wheel of Death to see the highest volume of questions or issues taking up the team's time. Use the Wheel as part of a conversation about where the company should focus to improve the experience and save time for the team and customers. The proportion of issues is only part of the story, and other factors like how critical the issue is, how much time it takes to resolve it, and how much work it is to make it go away will all be part of the decision. I learned it from working with a talented head of customer experience as we worked on fixing support issues, though don't confine its use to that. I find "the Wheel of Death" a name that sticks with me, but it could also be called the Wheel of Fortune. If you focus on the Wheel for a spell, it's hard for things not to improve. Worth bearing in mind that in its form as a pie chart, you'll need to combine it with volume or time metrics, or it can look like you're not making progress.
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Chickens and pigs illustration: also known as the bacon and eggs principle, shows a bacon and fried egg breakfast with an egg for the chicken's involvement and a cleaver for the pig's

Chickens and pigs

Chickens and pigs is a metaphor for who's got skin in the game. Or to leave metaphors behind, who's involved in a project vs who is fully committed. Also known as the bacon and eggs principle, it's from the old joke (sometimes told as a short story), "In a bacon and eggs breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed." Many people may be interested in and share their opinions on a project or decision. But only some will be responsible for delivering the project and directly accountable for its success. Everyone may be interested in a bet, but only some players have money to lose. The chickens and pigs metaphor used to be part of the scrum guide for developing software but was removed. While it memorably distinguishes accountability in a project, there's a danger that it alienates or diminishes valuable input that might make a project successful. For a more conventional grouping of stakeholders in a project, see RACI
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Bellini or blini illustration: a glass of a bellini—a prosecco and peach cocktail—shown next to blini—small Russian pancakes with smoked salmon and caviar

Bellini — blini

While both are excellent starts to an evening, it's easy to mix up a bellini with a blini, if only because you might mishear one for the other. What's the difference between a bellini and a blini? A bellini is a refreshing cocktail made with peach nectar and prosecco. A blini is typically a bite-size pancake often served with smoked salmon or caviar due to its Russian origins. Both are delicious in very different ways and yet sound almost exactly the same (like a homophone). The good news is that at a noisy party, even if you can't quite make out whether someone is offering you a bellini or a blini, the safe answer is always yes. In Russia, I am told, blini tend to be thinner, pan-sized pancakes rather than the topped, cocktail party style, thicker but mini pancakes they have evolved to in Western cooking. More food and drink sketchplanations
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Normalisation of deviance: A person looks dubiously on at a building site which seems to be ignoring all the safety signs.
(Normalization of deviance)

The Normalisation of Deviance

Normalisation of deviance is the process where what was unacceptable gradually becomes acceptable over time in the absence of failures. So, the longer a period without incidents, a requirement to wear a hard hat may start to be taken less seriously and later ignored. The unacceptable becomes the norm, no longer seen as deviant. The term was used by Diane Vaughan when discussing the culture and events leading to the Challenger disaster. However, it’s easy to recognise it in much more mundane examples. Classic workplace examples where deviance may start to become normalised include: Wearing the correct protective equipment Sticking to speed limits Not sharing passwords Closing gates or tailgating Smoking Testing backups Handwashing and cleaning Thorough background checking Normalisation of deviance can be particularly tricky to avoid when failures are rare yet severe or with known but distant dangers, such as smoking. Also see: The Swiss Cheese Model Recency bias The Overton Window
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Amphitheatre and theatre (or amphitheater and theatre): an open theatre like the Minack theatre is shown on the coast on the left, contrasted with a larger amphitheatre with seating on both sides (or all the way round) on the land on the right.

Amphitheatre and theatre

Theatre and amphitheatre (or theater and amphitheater) have the distinction that a theatre is one-sided viewing of a central stage, and an amphitheatre has viewing all around. The word amphitheatre derives from the Greek word amphi- loosely meaning on both sides or all around. For years, I've used amphitheatre for any large open galleried seating, but technically, as for the spectacular Minack theatre in Cornwall, England, if it's one-sided, then it's a theatre. You'll also see the same pattern in amphoras, which commonly have handles on both sides of the vessel, and amphibians who are at home on both land and water. Plus, related ambivalence, ambidextrous (amphi- Greek, ambi- Latin). It's fun having an aunt who used to teach classics =) Also see: classical columns, pyrrhic victory, the Rosetta stone
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The XY Problem (or X-Y Problem): a child tries to reach a balloon by precariously stacking chairsand asks how they can stick them together to someone outside of the room who, eventually, wonders what for?

The XY Problem

The XY Problem (or X-Y Problem) often comes up in software development or customer support, where someone asks for help to achieve a solution (X) that they have chosen as a way to solve a different problem (Y). Helping with their solution may not help them solve their actual problem if it's not a good approach in the first place. An example from software development is a person asking how to extract the last three characters of a filename (solution X), because they want to know the file type (problem Y). After helping them do solution X, it still wouldn't solve problem Y as some files have extensions of more than three characters. Another example is a customer asking for help accessing their online account without realising that what they really want to do has to be done over the phone anyway. There's art and skill in respectfully answering questions and helping with what's asked while seeking to understand the real goal. And if you're asking questions, providing more context may help others provide better answers. In development, it saves time and effort. In customer support, it leads to happy customers. In design, it may be uncovering unmet needs. The name is indirectly from Eric Raymond in How to Ask Questions the Smart Way: "Q: How can I use X to do Y? A: If what you want is to do Y, you should ask that question without pre-supposing the use of a method that may not be appropriate. Questions of this form often indicate a person who is not merely ignorant about X, but confused about what problem Y they are solving and too fixated on the details of their particular situation." Also see a better hierarchy of needs, the metrics onion, challenge and clarification questions, prefer open-ended questions, ask the question at talks, don't fill the silence.
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Box breathing illustration: a person demonstrates breathing in, holding breath, breathing out, holding breath, counting 4 each side around the sides of a box. Also called square breathing: breathe in, hold, breathe out, hold

Box breathing

Box breathing can help us focus on the present, reduce stress and anxiety by lowering cortisol levels, and generally relax and be calm. Box breathing involves four steps repeated in sequence, each for an equal count: Breathe in Hold your breath Breathe out Hold your breath It's called box breathing or square breathing, as the four equal steps are like the sides of a virtual box. Counting to four is typical, though it can be more or less. Because of box breathing's simplicity and effectiveness, it's also used by the Navy SEALs—for example, ex-Navy SEAL Mark Divine can lead you through box breathing on video. I find meditation surprisingly difficult and the steps and simple counting of box breathing help me stay focused and free of distraction as well as any other technique. Even a few cycles of box breathing before a difficult conversation, a public talk, or after a challenging spell with our children helps me stay cool and be better.
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