Saturday, October 26, 2013

Disconnect: why business does not "get" the idea of "experiments"

Experimentation is an important agile concept. Experimentation is a risk management tool: the idea is that one tries out a new approach out as an "experiment" before committing wholesale to the new approach. If the approach does not work out, one can quickly change course, and the experiment was a "contained failure".

What business hears is, "Let's play: we will experiment, and reward failure. We will spend your money trying out things that we are not sure will work."

This is a big disconnect, and the agile community bears much of the blame for this disconnect. It is the hubris of the agile community that emboldens it to speak about experiments and other agile practices as if the case for experiments need not be made. When speaking to senior IT people who have decades of pre-agile experience, one really should have some deference, and not expect them to swallow practices with names that are purposefully controversial - even frivolous ("team happiness").

As Carl Sagan said, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".

Perhaps instead of talking about "experiments", we should talk about "proof-of-concept" or "pilot". Experienced IT people understand those concepts, and they are really the same thing. It is counter-productive to use new terms - terms that have a shock effect - when trying to convince management in an established organization to adopt a new practice.

One thing that is new about the concept of experiments is that failure should not be viewed as negative: failure causes learning, and therefore better decisions are made after that point. It is a sad fact that in most large organizations, any kind of failure is damaging to one's career - even if the experiment was daring and innovative and caused learning. Agilists want to encourage a culture where prudent and careful risk taking is accepted and rewarded - even if it sometimes results in a contained failure.

But failure is still failure: it results in sunk costs - lost time, wasted effort, wasted money. Management needs assurance that failure - even contained failure - actually results in learning, and that the failure was unavoidable. They want to know that teams are being thoughtful and are using their best judgment and the best information available before they try something that results in failure. It is up to teams to instill that confidence, and it is up to management to be open to encouraging risk if the team demonstrates that it is cautious and thoughtful before it undertakes an experiment.

Are we upholding our end of the bargain?