Book Launch of “Commitment”, and an Interview with Olav Maassen, Chris Matts and Chris Geary
Commitment is a graphical business novel about managing project risks. It is based upon “Real Options”, a way of thinking to improve your decision making.
Two book launch events were organized in Amersfoort, The Netherlands on May 14 and London UK on May 16. InfoQ attended the first event and did an interview with the authors just before the launch.
InfoQ: Thanks Olav, Chris and Chris for having InfoQ at the launch of your book "Commitment". Please shortly introduce yourself to the readers of InfoQ?
Olav: I’m Olav Maassen, I work as an agile consultant for Xebia, and I’m currently based at a client in Rotterdam called Portbase.
Chris M.: I’m Chris Matts. I normally work with investment banking focusing on risk and trading systems. At the moment I’m working with Skype, which is a division of Microsoft.
Chris G.: My name is Chris Geary. Cartoonist is my main job, working with my own company called InkShot.com, an independent publisher of Graphic Novels, the last one being International Aces a series on the top pilots of first world war.
Chris M.: The key thing here is our relationship. Olav and I met at the 2nd agile development conference in 2004, and got together again in 2006 when I started to work on the Real Options model and we’ve been collaborating ever since. In 2011 we hooked up with Chris Geary to draw our novel. The introduction to Chris Geary came through a quite famous source, David Lloyd, the artist of “V for Vendetta” (the book that went on to become the film). Chris attended his class at the London Cartoon Centre.
InfoQ: What made you decide to write a novel about Commitment and Risk Management? What makes your book different from existing books on these topics?
Olav: We’ve been working with Real Options for quite a while, as Chris said from 2006, and a lot of people like it. There wasn’t a single source that people could go to except for the two of us, and that didn’t really scale up. So we decided that we would create something for people to read and point at when people want to learn more about Real Options. We wanted to create a book, and what makes it different is that it’s a graphic business novel. We focused on how to make the content as readable as possible, making it easy on the reader. Normally a textbook would take you 20 to 25 hours to read, our book takes you about 2 to 2,5 hours.
Chris M.: One of the things that I have been studying for the last 10 years is the different kinds of learning, and it turns out that comic books are a really great way to learn. When I am reading articles, the person writing the article almost has the voice of god as I call it. It’s like they are talking to you and you have think about what they are saying. When you watch television, people can be discussing things. When they are discussing things in the 3rd person it is a lot easier to follow what is going on and it’s not such hard work. The problem with doing a play, which is the way that you would have 2 people discussing things, is that it is difficult to remember who is talking. While a comic book makes it really easy and in fact it is even easier than a video. With a comic book you can go your own pace, and easily flip back to a previous piece. It’s all about the reader. As a result, it turned out to be significantly harder work for us writing it.
InfoQ: Chris, from your perspective, what makes “commitment” unique?
Chris G.: It’s basically that this subject has not been tackled in this manner before. What has been done previously was more on the comic side, very extreme in the way that emotions are done and action oriented, where we tried to make it as realistic as possible and always relatable as possible so that the story and the characters gone through more then being a showcase of a flashy art.
InfoQ: It can be hard to commit, and sometimes difficult to live up to the commitments that you have made. Many people struggle with commitment. Given that, do we really want commitment, should we strive for commitment since it is so hard to do?
Chris M.: Commitments are important. When you have children you are making a commitment to them and without commitment the species wouldn’t survive at the very extreme. The problem is, we often make commitments when we don’t need to and that’s where a lot of the problems are occurring. People have more options in their live than they realize and because they are making these commitments they are destroying their options and they are making life harder. So commitments are important, but let’s not overdo it.
InfoQ: So people are committing too much?
Chris M.: Exactly! What we are hoping is that the Real Options model is helping find the right balance between retaining options and making commitments.
InfoQ: What are Real Options, can you explain them in just a couple of lines?
Olav: The Real Options model is the easiest way that we could create to get to the core of financial decision theory, informational mathematics, and apply that to the real world. If people get that model it will help them improve their decision making. It’s been pretty stable ever since that we started. If you get the model you will see the world in a different way. Yesterday we received a quote from a translator who said that now that he has translated the book he sees options everywhere; his world view in that sense has changed.
Olav: We boiled Real Options down to 12 words and 3 lines:
- Options have value.
- Options expire.
- Never commit early unless you know why.
That is the whole Real Option model.
InfoQ: Let’s take a look at the first one: Options have value. What’s the value?
Olav: The value is that when people think of the things that they can do, that represents a certain benefit to them. What we want people to realize is that there is an extra value for the fact that you still have the option to choose. As long as you can choose there is a chance that you will get to a better situation so that is value. People do get hung up on the word value, and they want to calculate something. How much is it worth for you to kiss somebody, or give a good friend a hug, if they are getting on a plane and you know that you won’t see them for a while? There is value to that, but it’s an emotional value and not a price tag. Understanding that there is a value to having options is what we want people to see.
InfoQ: How does value relate to decision taking?
Chris M.: The thing that options have value is really about our behavior. In the past we have seen that people try to value them using very arcane financial mathematics, to get a precise value. And that’s not much use. Options have value basically says that we should not deliberately kill options unless we need to. These things have value, don’t just carelessly and casually get rid of them but keep them as long as you can. When you make the commitment, when you kill options, do it deliberately and understand why you are doing it rather then just by default. A natural inclination is to want certainty in our lives and to kill options. Option thinking allows us to embrace uncertainty. So ok. I’m gonna live with some uncertainty but I know I’m not at risk because I understand I’m in control of this process.
InfoQ: How can you use Real Options, how do they help you to take decisions?
Olav: What we’ve encountered is that people see the many decisions that they are making as commitments, as a way of avoiding uncertainty. What we give people is a way of having bounded uncertainty, which means “let’s decide when a certain condition is met and not decide now”. Because we know when we are going to decide, we are reducing the amount of uncertainty.
InfoQ: I see some similarity with Gary Klein, the author of Sources of Power. He wrote that you want to know the point where you have to make a decision, He’s done research on decisions making and has described how people take a decision because they know when they have to take a decision and they don’t want to take it earlier. Is this is similar to commitment?
Chris M.: It’s similar, but we are slightly softer because what we say is make a commitment, there is a difference between decisions and commitments. So a decision would be tomorrow I have decided that if it’s raining I’ll wear a coat and if it’s sunny I’ll wear shorts and a t-shirt. A commitment is I am going home today or I am going on a trip and I won’t take my coat with me because I’ve decided to wear my shorts and t-shirt. So I have committed then by leaving my coat behind to not have that option.
InfoQ: As long as you have everything with you, you haven’t committed?
Chris M: That’s right.
Olav: You should see his backpack.
InfoQ: I assume it’s keeping all the options open?
Chris M.: Certainly. And that is one of the things that people would go “I have decided it’s going to be sunny tomorrow and I’m not taking a coat” as opposed to thinking “what’s the smallest lightest coat I can have that I can fit in my bag to reduce the cost of carrying a coat”.
InfoQ: Going back to Real Options. You’ve been working at this since 2006. When did you start publishing Real Options?
Olav: First time we published something was in 2007 on InfoQ (see “real options” underlie agile practices).
Chris M.: InfoQ has been one of our big supporters from the early days, we’ve published a few items on InfoQ over the years and we are looking forward to doing our first major United States keynote at one of the QCon conferences. InfoQ has been really great; it’s a really important community and a very important resource to get new ideas out there.
InfoQ: What makes InfoQ so important for you?
Chris M.: It’s the fact that they regularly try out new materials, so they are not just publishing about the most popular approaches or practices or theories, not always the most famous people, they actually take risks with people that are less well known.
Olav: We’ve published at least one article that could upset some people and we appreciate the fact that InfoQ took that risk and was willing to do that even though we are not all that famous. I think that this is an important aspect of InfoQ, bringing value to the community, of learning and trying out new stuff.
Chris M.: As well as providing the big names and the big ideas that are popular, there is this constant stream of lesser known people presenting new ideas and it’s a great channel because there is a curation process as well, it’s not just a case of people self-publishing and you don’t know the quality of the content, because of the editorial process at InfoQ you’re guaranteed that there is a minimum standard of quality. We just managed to get above that, we can do any minimum quality now.
Chris G.: Related to InfoQ, I think we even did an interview prior to going live?
Chris M.: We actually did an interview with Shane Hastie for InfoQ on the bulk document.
InfoQ: Back to Real Options, how can Real Options help you make decisions?
Chris M.: The thing about Real Options is it’s a very lightweight thing, it’s only 12 words, but those 12 words give you a very simple structure to actually understand when you are making commitments and how you are making your decisions. First, it’s behavioral, so understand that options have value, so you keep them open as long as possible. Then the second part is to understand that if you don’t do things, sometimes options just naturally disappear. So my option to get my plane back to the UK expires, actually our option to get our plane tomorrow expires around 5 am. If we are not in a taxi by then, we are probably going to miss our plane, so we won’t have that option to get that plane.
InfoQ: So, they are time bound?
Chris M.: Some are time bound, but they may be relationship bound, there are many different bounds out there. So, it’s understanding when they could disappear. And the final bit is never commit early unless you know why. And what this is telling you is unless you know why, go find the information you need to be able to make a commitment early, because there is value to making a commitment early, basically by removing all the uncertainty and to do that you need to find out the answer to a whole load of questions.
InfoQ: One of the stories in the novel describes how having the wrong goal in mind (the ski trip story) was hampering coming up with solutions. Do you see this happening often?
Olav: I think that one of the big things in Agile is that if we have a common goal it’s easy to motivate and make the right decisions that will help us get through that wall. The funny thing about the ski trip story is that it’s actually a true story. Chris, can you tell us?
Chris M.: This is actually the story of a ski trip that I did, and that’s the thing about a number of the stories in the Commitment novel they are actually true stories, they are not things we’ve made up. Some of the more dramatic elements are things that have occurred and we’ve incorporated them into the story.
InfoQ: Does this happen often?
Chris M.: Yes. I think that people get very focused on the short term goal and they forget to look at the slightly bigger picture. So, they might be focused entirely on their ability to get a particular task done and as a result the team fails or the team focuses on getting it done but as a result the business fails. It’s kind of what are you really trying to achieve, it’s the asking the five why’s. I prefer Joe Walne’s phrase “popping the why stack”.
InfoQ: Popping the why stack?
Chris M.: You just keep asking why until you understand why. When I say popping the why stack or asking why, some people literally think you are just going to ask why five times and you get an answer and that doesn’t work, and their answer is that doesn’t work. So, what you end up doing is you find lots and lots of different ways of asking why without getting punched.
InfoQ: In the same story, rethinking the goal led to better options, which helped to reach it. Is this what Real Options is about?
Olav: The Real Options model is really about being deliberate when you make commitments and seeing when you are making commitments and understanding the difference between commitments and decisions. Having the proper goal in mind will help you understand the options you have of getting towards your goal, so I think it’s an important part, but not actually the most elemental.
Chris M.: But it’s one of those truths in life and I am going to use this illustration from Alice in Wonderland. Alice is in front of two paths and said to the caterpillar “Which is the best direction to go”, which could be expressed as “which is the better option?” The caterpillar said “Well where do you want to go to?” And Alice said “I don’t know” and then the caterpillar said “then they’re both equally good”.
InfoQ: So if you don’t know where you want to go to?
Chris M.: Both options will take you there.
InfoQ: In the book you talk about technical debt. What is the relationship between technical debt and project risks?
Chris M.: If you think about it, technical debt has two impacts on a project. The first impact is that it slows you down. As a result of having technical debt it would take you longer to actually get from starting a task to finishing a task. The other thing it does is that it adds uncertainty because technical debt means you may have an extra work you need to do in order to get something working. By having too much technical debt you may actually get to a point where you have to do a lot more work than you originally hoped, so there is more uncertainty around it. What that means, is you actually have to make your commitments much earlier if you’ve got a lot more technical debt in the system than if you haven’t got a lot of technical debt in your system. As a result, because you are making your commitments earlier you’re taking much more risk into your system. So by paying down technical debt and having a system that can respond faster, it gives you more ability to respond quickly and as a result you can wait longer before you make a commitment. It’s very much in alignment with the model.
InfoQ: Let's suppose that I want to use Real Options to manage my project risks. What do I need to do to start with it?
Olav: The first thing to do is look at where your commitments are with projects, what the dates are, what the conditions are under which your various options expire. And then you need to look at how you can push out the deadlines that you have on the various options and when they expire and make sure that you have the right goal in mind and look at different options that you would have.
Chris M.: So one of the things is to look at the commitment you have in your project and identify which of those commitments you can turn into options. A couple of years ago I worked with a team and I said “look, the nature of the work we are doing we may get requests that we want to get things out of the test environment not in the order that they arrive. So I want the option to choose the order that they come out of the test environment. If we have a big piece of work that is going to take a few weeks to test and I want to bring a small piece of work into the test environment and get it out of the other side before the big piece, but without the big overhead of task switching”. Just by telling the team what I wanted, they were able to architect and create that option for me technically. And so they created some pretty cool stuff and I think David Anderson coined it as latent code patterns. They actually gave that option and it was something that we used over and over again. But we deliberately built that option, the team deliberately architected their solution so that they could provide me with that option and it was very useful, as it turned out, because it was something that happened very frequently.
InfoQ: If people want to learn more about Commitment, Real Options, and Risk Management, where can they go to?
Chris G.: They can go to our website commitment-thebook.com to buy the book. We’ve also got a few blog posts, the process we went through and you can just read some chapters of the book, or download them.
InfoQ: Is there any community set up for discussing commitment?
Olav: We are thinking about this, there is a scene within the book where the main character enters what’s called the learning cantina and we have registered the URL which we would like to use to create a community around this topic. We have a community of translators, about 30 people who have read every word of the book and have translated it into 15 different languages.
Chris M.: I wouldn’t be surprised if either some of the translators or someone who’s read the book will create the community and we’ll support them, that is very much a community effort rather than us controlling it.
InfoQ: What will you do this evening at the book launch?
Chris M.: We are going to talk tonight about the method of production for the book, how we went about it.
Olav: The way we went about creating the book is an interesting perspective as well.
InfoQ: Thank you for the interview and looking forward to the rest of the book launch tonight and see the presentation and your experiences from getting this book out in the open.
Olav: Ok, thank you.
Chris M.: Thanks very much.
Olav: The book’s yours. Would you like us to sign it?
InfoQ: Yes, I would.
Chris Geary, Chris Matts, Olav Maassen at the book launch.
Photo credits: M.C.A. van Eekelen.
About the Interviewees
|Olav Maassen works at Xebia as an agile consultant. He is interested in new developments and new ideas that can help others improve themselves. He knows how to inspire people to optimize their capacities and skills so that they can get the best results for both themselves and the company. Olav tweets at @olavmaassen.
|Chris Mattsis a business analyst and project manager who builds trading and risk management systems for investment banks. His aproach to IT risk management is based on what he has learnt from investment banking risk management. Chris tweets at @papachrismatts. He blogs here and here.
|Chris Geary has been Creative Director of InkShot.com since 2009. Previous to this he has had work published in a variety of publications in the UK, the most recent being International Aces. He attended the London Cartoon Centre, mainly under the tutelage of David Lloyd, and will soon have a story appearing in Aces Weekly, A new digital only anthology magazine published by David Lloyd. Chris tweets at @ChrisAGeary. You can find him also here.