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Commitment – Writing a Graphic Novel explaining Real Options

Posted by Shane Hastie on Apr 05, 2012 |

Chris Matts & Olav Maassen have written extensively on Real Options and how they relate to Agile practices:

Their latest project is to collaborate with an artist and write a graphic novel which explains using Real Options to manage risk on projects. They took time out for an interview with Shane Hastie from InfoQ.

InfoQ: Hello Chris and Olav – thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. To kick off with, please could you briefly introduce yourselves. 

Olav Maassen: I’ve been with Xebia in the Netherlands for the last two years. I’ve been using Agile for the last ten years, and been a consultant for the last six. I met Chris in 2003, and we have been collaborating on what we now call the Real Options meme ever since. 

Chris Matts: I’m bit of a dinosaur of IT – I was trained as a programmer many years ago and worked through the traditional roles of development, design, business analysis, project management etc. You could say I’m classically trained. I got into Agile in about 2002, and found a home. My background is in investment banking and that is where I came across the concept of financial Options. I was faced with an opportunity in 2003 and because of my work in financial options I tried to use the concepts in evaluating and taking advantage of the opportunity, and that became the basis for our work on Real Options. Finally, after about six years we are at the point where we feel we can produce the book we’ve been talking about for a while. 

InfoQ: Please can you briefly explain Real Options. 

Olav: Options have value, options expire, never commit early unless you know why.

Options are a way of looking at decision making. Financial options work in very narrow areas, in the financial marketplace they entail paying a fee to defer making a choice about purchasing a share or financial instrument until a later date. Our thinking about Real Options was inspired by financial options, but they are much broader in application.

Real Options are more to do with the psychology of how people make decisions than with the choices available to them. 

InfoQ: Please explain. 

Chris: People hate uncertainty, so much so that they would rather be wrong than uncertain. In a “rational preference” the hierarchy of decision making would be:

  1. Have the right answer
  2. Be uncertain about the answer
  3. Have the wrong answer

The reality is we prefer to be wrong rather than be uncertain, so the hierarchy is:

  1. Have the right answer
  2. Have the wrong answer
  3. Be uncertain about the answer

We can tell this because when people are faced with uncertainty, they would rather make any decision, even if it is the wrong one.

Generally people would rather have a definite wrong answer than be unsure about an answer.

Real Options is about understanding when to make a decision, rather than how to make decisions. By adding the “when” to the decision making process we remove the uncertainty and enable people to make better decisions.

Like financial options have a fixed contractual expiry date, real options have a conditional expiry date.

Olav: For example – one of our friends was getting married recently, and she told us how she used real options thinking to enable her to defer making a decision about which shoes to wear until the latest possible time. Rather than stressing about selecting which shoes to wear in advance, she purchased four pairs of shoes and only decided which one to use on the day itself (with the intent of returning the other three pairs). There was a cost involved in this choice, but it meant she had the best options available to her at the time when the decision needed to be made. 

We’ve come to realise that Real Options is more a “meme” than a model.

InfoQ: How does the Agile concept of the “last responsible moment” link to real options? 

Chris: With real options there is an understanding that there are many ways to achieve something, many options available to us. For example – Olav is about to set off to work, he has many different ways to get to his clients by 09h00. [Ed Note: this interview was conducted very early in the morning for Olav and Chris] As time evolves, some of the options available to him disappear:

At the moment he could drive there himself, call someone to get a lift, perhaps take a train, or (given that he’s in Holland) he could take his bicycle. So he’s got four different ways to travel.

What real options does is say he’s got four possible ways, but if he wants to drive he needs to set off by 08h00, if he’s going to get a friend to pick him up he needs to make the call by 07h30, if he’s going by train he needs to set off by 08:15 and if he’s planning to cycle then he should have set off last night.

So, in real options there isn’t the concept of a single last responsible moment – for us there are last responsible moments (plural) until you get very final time that you can make a decision. This means that if for some reason the option is no longer available at which time risk increases exponentially. If Olav chooses to take the train, and arrives at the train station at 08:15 to discover that the train was cancelled he will be late – there are no other options available to him which will let him get there on time.

The reality is that what is often referred to as the last responsible moment is the last IRRESPONSIBLE moment since it is your very last choice.

Olav: This often means that the “last responsible moment” is in fact the first irresponsible moment, because we cannot adapt to the risks inherent in the decision.

Chris: “Putting all the eggs in one basket” so to speak.

InfoQ: So once a commitment is made the option is taken away from us. 

Chris: The reality is that in real life many of our commitments are reversible – we can change our minds and reverse the decision without too much impact.

What we often find is that these commitments which we have made are emotional, especially in IT projects, rather than real. So a lot of real options is helping people to understand they actually DO have options rather than just commitments. 

Olav: That’s an important difference – when people look at a decision using real options they also look at the reversibility of the decision. Instead of going down a single path and assuming that it will be the right one, there are people looking at multiple solutions and keeping the choices open as long as possible.

Chris: It’s important to distinguish between a commitment (which is not reversible) and an option, which can be reversed.

Olav: In one of our workshops there was a very good question about airline tickets – is it an option or a commitment? Someone asked from which perspective we are examining the question. For a passenger it is an option but for the airline it is a commitment to carry a passenger to a destination, although the airline retains its option to change and cancel the flight. 

Chris: Airlines can charge a premium if the passenger wants an option rather than making a commitment. Cheap fares are non-refundable and have restrictive conditions, if you want flexibility you pay more. Airlines really “get” the real options meme, and hotels are starting to catch up on it today as well. Some hotels are offering two prices – a cheaper price which has no option to cancel, and a more expensive price which allows free cancellation.

InfoQ: Thanks for the overview of real options – now, please tell us about the graphic novel. The book that the community has been waiting on the two of you to write for a few years. Why a graphic novel, and not a textbook?

Olav: We’ve been explaining real options for many years now, and we’ve discovered that in order to explain it well we need to include visuals and graphic, not just text. In our presentations we use lots of images, we use some acting and theatre and other techniques to get the point across. That doesn’t translate well into a textbook format.

Chris is a big comics fan, and it seemed the logical step to produce the book in the form of a graphic novel. We started thinking about this three years ago, and we agreed we needed a good graphic artist to convey the message well. It’s taken us three years to find him, but now we have found Chris Geary who is a professional artist.

We need to include chunks of text, so a pure comic-book format is not acceptable; the graphic novel format allows us to insert blog posts and diary entries to explain concepts and still keep the flow of the novel, similar to the use of Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes stories. The conversations of Sherlock Holmes with Dr. Watson are used to explain things to the reader without losing the narrative thread.

You can see this in the first chapter of the novel which is available for download. At the end of the chapter the lead character writes a diary entry about what she’s learned. This approach continues through the whole novel.

Chris: As Olav mentioned, I’ve been a huge comics fan for many years, one of my favourites is Watchman which has a very similar format. At Agile 2008 I was chatting with Luke Hohmann and he recommended a book called Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. I read it, and it was great. In the Agile world we use a lot of visuals to explain and support ideas, and yet when we try to share our ideas we reduce them to text.

I read the book, and started drawing cartoons (while commuting on the Tube) and they grew into the comic book which we handed out at Agile 2009.

I discovered that when you write a text-based article, if you put a diagram in then you spend a lot of words explaining to the readers where to look on the diagram. Using the comic book format you can have a character point to the place in the diagram that you want the reader to focus on, without needing to waste time and words explaining where to look.

By using the graphic novel format, you end up with a much denser information content, and it’s much easier for the reader to consume it.

Another thing that I find – when you read an article the writer has “the voice of God” where they are telling you stuff, talking at you. Whereas in a graphic novel or a comic the characters can talk to each other and the reader can be an observer of the conversation. This makes it easier to absorb the material and frees the reader to read at their own pace. A graphic novel is lighter on the text and easier to absorb because of that.

InfoQ: Isn’t this format too frivolous for our modern business world?

Chris: So is playing games, using post-it notes, putting things on walls, standup meetings …

Olav: There are some people who won’t want to read a graphic novel because they are uncomfortable with the format, likewise some people don’t like business novels or business books, and that’s OK.

We think this is a relatively new format for a business communication. There are some business graphic novels out there, but we think this is one of the first serious ones, especially in the IT industry.

Chris: Books that have inspired this are things like Eli Goldrat’s The Goal, Tom DeMarco’s The Deadline, and we’re looking to extend on those with more graphics content.

The reality is that if we had wanted to write a “traditional” text-based book it would have been much, much easier. Olav and I have had to study extensively to be able to do this – we’ve had to really study how to write stories. Fortunately Chris Geary the artist is an expert in the art of storytelling and he’s been guiding us a lot in that aspect of the work.

Comics are a great way to communicate ideas to children, to people who don’t necessarily want to focus on learning. In the Agile community we know that the best ways of learning and communicating are different to what we’ve done for many years.

So Olav and I are putting in much more effort to producing the book in order to make it easier for the reader to understand and absorb the material.

Olav: The writing process on an article or a textbook is much more straightforward – write the text, have it reviewed and submit it for publishing.

We’ve had to adapt our whole writing process to accommodate the graphical format, how long it takes to draw the panels and what it means to have certain things in certain panels, for instance.

The process we follow is very iterative – the artist draws thumbnails with our text alongside, that gets sent to reviewers, they give feedback and ideas, then the art gets drawn, then we need to decide what words the characters should be saying and add them to the panels. It’s not a linear process – it’s happening in several places at several levels at once.

It’s also different for the artist – he’s used to being handed a script and then drawing the artwork from that script. On this project he’s working in a much more iterative way, and he also gives us feedback.

Chris: Something that’s also very important on this project – since it’s a graphic novel there is a lot less text, and that makes it far easier to translate it into multiple languages. Simultaneously to us writing it it’s being translated into about 20 different languages – French, German, Dutch, Russian, Chinese, Hebrew, Catalan, Icelandic, all of the Scandinavian languages and many more.

Something that is great about the people doing the translation is we get very high quality feedback from them as they are doing a deep review of the material while they are doing the translation. People are considering each word as they do the translation, as a result of this deep review we have learned a lot about the English language, and our choice of words.

Olav: Last week we had a conference call with a few of the translators and they were really digging deep into the meaning of words that we thought were obvious, but didn’t translate well into their context so we had to reconsider the terms and language we use. Words mean so many things, it’s really important to understand the meaning of the words both for us and the translators.

We haven’t decided on a publisher yet, we’re in negotiations with a few. It’s a new format for many of them and the multiple translations are both a challenge and exciting for some publishers. We also want the option to publish in an electronic format. Electronic publishing enables us to have the same book available in multiple languages almost simultaneously when we publish.

Chris: The iterative process described earlier means we give the material to the translators after the artist has drawn the panels and inserted the text we send it to the translators for review; we’re looking for feedback from the translators so we can make changes if needed.

Olav: There are different costs involved with change – changing the art is expensive and takes more time, changing the text is much easier and is cheap as it is in a separate layer on the image file.

Chris: We showed some sketches/sample pages at the ALE (Agile Lean Europe) conference and got great feedback from them. We are using the ALE Network extensively for the translations, and they have been fantastic.

When we showed the early sketches at the ALE conference, Ivana Gancheva, one of the women in the group asked us how come the lead character’s mentor is a middle-class male? This challenged us, and we reconsidered – and changed the characters so the mentor is now the lead character’s younger sister, which has meant that the relationship in the narrative works a lot better.

InfoQ: Coming right back to the beginning – what is the problem that you are trying to solve with the release of this graphic novel?

Olav: The problem we are trying to address with real options is the way that people commit to choices too early, they don’t understand that there are choices available to them – that many decisions are reversible and that they can have options, not make commitments.

We want to promote the idea that people need to be more conscious of the choices available to them and not make commitments too early, or at least that people are more deliberate and understand why they make commitments.

The problem we are trying to solve with the book is the fact that we don’t scale well – we can’t constantly go around the world and teach this stuff so we need a way to get the message out there.

Chris: There are lots of people out there telling people how to make decisions; we don’t tell them how to make a decision we give them tools to make good choices about when to make decisions.

Something we have come to realise recently is that real options is a “meme” – it applies in different ways in different contexts. A meme is an idea that people propagate. Depending upon the context, or fitness landscape, the meme will have a different form.

When you apply real options they will look different in different situations – there is no simple recipe that we can give people, they need to understand the context for themselves and adjust their approach to fit the context, discuss it with others to clarify their understanding and come up with an approach that is right for the context.

We (Olav & I) don’t scale very well – we can’t be part of that conversation for everyone who applies real options whereas a book can form the basis of conversations and discussions that people can have.

InfoQ: Please tell us about the funding model you’ve chosen for the book?

Olav: As Chris said, the easiest way to do this would be to write a regular textbook as that would only require us to commit our time, but we have chosen a much more expensive format in the graphic novel. There is much more work involved and the artist needs to make a living, and he can’t wait for the royalties to pay out.

There is a considerable investment in the production of the book – we could pay it ourselves, but we wanted to share the risk and provide some reward for participation, something special.

Using Sponsume people can contribute what they want and for specific contributions can purchase certain rewards – for instance GBP200 gets your face on one of the characters in the novel.

Chris: This is similar to the writer of the comic book Kick Ass – the writers auctioned off the naming rights for the main character in a charity auction. I wish we could do this for charity too, but we need to fund the production of the book.

Also, the idea of crowdsourcing of funding is new and it is something we wanted to try out – it’s only when you try something new that you actually find out what’s really involved, that you really learn about it.

Another benefit is that it engages our audience much earlier – a lot of what we are doing is about getting feedback, and the funding model is another way of getting feedback from our audience. By keeping people engaged all along the production process we get more feedback and engage them more effectively. We want to get it out to as wide an audience as possible as early as possible, so we can get peoples feedback – is this a style that they like, is this an approach they like, or are we wasting our and their time?

On the funding site there is a complete first chapter (and on infoQ as well) – we want people to read it and give us their feedback.

Thankfully, so far, the majority of people have said they like it. A few have said they don’t like graphic novels, and they will have to wait for someone to write the text-based novel.

Olav: Something that’s related to this approach is the fact we haven’t yet decided on a publisher, or if we are going to self-publish. We are deliberately keeping our options open – applying real options to the way we are building the novel.

Chris: One final point - The idea of producing a business graphic novel is new, and it is possibly a way to engage business teams with the artistic community.

Olav: We want to make it very clear how grateful we are to the translators, and to the ALE (Agile Lean Europe) network who have provided them. Their conference is coming up in Barcelona soon.

InfoQ: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us this morning.

About the Interviewees

Chris Matts is 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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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