The art of experimenting

I guess I am the last Agile coach who didn’t post an article yet on any blog platform or whatsoever. Maybe because I’m a modest person. Things I do, things I’ve achieved, they are all pretty ‘normal’ to me. So why start now? To be honest, I don’t know. In criminal investigations they always talk about means, motive and opportunity to do something. I don’t have much other work to do right now so I have time (opportunity). There are plenty of means for blogging, that’s not the issue. But what is my motive?

My motive has to do with the fact that there is more that we don’t know than what we do know. And most posts I read from fellow Agile coaches (and all other consultants) somehow try to convince the readers that they do know how to solve an issue. They all seem to have found the silver bullet. “You have to implement SAFe”, “Scrum will help decrease your time to market”, “You have to invite your stakeholders to the sprint review” … And I understand where this comes from. Nobody wants to hire someone who’s not certain about his or her solutions. I wouldn’t buy any detergent either that “Might clean your laundry perfectly, or not”. Certainty sells, uncertainty doesn’t.

I have been working as a Scrum master or Agile coach for almost ten years now and I’ve learned that there is no silver bullet. What works in one organization doesn’t work in another. Best practices are nothing more than possible experiments. Strong beliefs do not always turn out to be correct after all. I have learned that again, recently. In every organization there is legacy. Things that were there before Agile made its entrance. Legacy in systems, legacy in mindset, in people, processes and procedures, in technology and in management. You never have a clean slate to start from. Even in a start-up or greenfield you will have to deal with previous experiences and beliefs of the people. These legacies will impact the implementation of any framework or practice which will make the outcome uncertain. You will always have to inspect and adapt.

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So, if the only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain, there is only one thing you can do: start an experiment and see what happens. This is the basis that Agile has been built upon anyway.

To run an experiment there is more or less consensus on the following elements:

·      A problem to solve

·      A possible solution to solve the problem

·      A timebox to run the experiment

·      Defined success factors

·      An evaluation of the experiment

From my experience in Agile transformations this is not sufficient. We need more.

In organizations with a strong command and control history and heavyweight procedures there might be a lack of courage to experiment. People are afraid to do something that might not be successful or to even raise their voice if they have an idea. They rather do what they are told to do.

And what will happen if the experiment is not successful? Will the earth stop orbiting around the sun? Will people die? Will something else terrible happen? If that is the case, the experiment doesn’t have the opportunity to fail. Maybe a smaller or different experiment is a better way forward (use mice instead of men). But with most experiments in our line of work nothing too serious will happen if it doesn’t work out as we thought it would. We might not solve the issue or maybe it even got worse. But we will certainly gain new insights and learnings to run a new and better experiment.

So, the two additional things we need to run experiments are:

·      The opportunity to fail

·      Courage to do the experiment

These things are elements of the culture within an organization. If it’s not there coaching of team members and management might be a good experiment. Make them feel that it’s ok if an experiment doesn’t work and collect the learnings to do another experiment. Embrace the learning experience. In one of my assignments, they introduced a thing “Postmortem” at each department townhall meeting. A moment to share things that gone wrong terribly. It wasn’t my idea, but I loved it.

Motivate, support, and facilitate people to be courageous. Give the example and lead the way. Make experimenting part of your business as usual and get better at it. It’s the only way forward.

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