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InfoQ Homepage Articles Inspect & Adapt – Digging into Our Foundations of Agility

Inspect & Adapt – Digging into Our Foundations of Agility

Key Takeaways

  • Our brain tricks us when we are trying to inspect impartially because we cannot separate our emotional side from our observations easily.
  • Biases can hinder effective decision-making. When we adapt to a situation, often we are already attached to the outcome.
  • Taking the time to openly inspect ideas and opinions from various internal and external stakeholders gives us a competitive advantage.
  • Biases can be constructively challenged by awareness.
  • Being fully aware of challenges and opportunities might feel uncomfortable as we seek clarity. Introducing complexity might not seem constructive, but it is as simplifications usually mean that we don’t get the full picture.

Inspecting and adapting are fundamentals in agile practices. Yet, there are wide interpretations of how either is done well. It is a matter of our heart and soul – but the answer lies between our ears. Or is it embedded in our "gut feeling"? Which parts of us are active when we are inspecting? How do we make decisions and what happens when we are adapting? What are the fundamentals in ourselves when we are facing change and how do we resonate with them? In this article we invite you to dip your toe into the deep waters of the internal inspect & adapt mechanisms. It is by no means comprehensive nor it is conclusive. That being said, all the words in this article can be summarised in four words: Think. And think again.

Challenges of inspect and adapt

Inspecting and adapting sounds easy. However, in practice it can be hard to apply. Neither inspecting nor adapting comes naturally easy to most of us. First we taint facts with our very personal opinions. Second, we all too often respond to change rather than working out an adaptive strategy. Sound grim and negative to you? Well, let’s take a closer look. What are the terms used?

1) Inspection: "The act of looking at something carefully" (The Oxford dictionary).

When we inspect we are limited by our own experiences, filters and biases. If we are not aware of our limitations we might find that sort of "evidence" we have been looking for in the first place. Stripping our biases off allows us to gain data in a neutral way – and to set the foundation for meaningful inspection. This requires us to be aware of our own limitations when looking at our environment carefully.

How does inspection work for us humans? Shall we simplify? We can learn a lot when looking at biology. How do animals "inspect" their environment? Even looking at primary senses such as seeing – light detection – can help us to understand our human way of "seeing" the world compared to all the other lovely creatures around us. Our retina holds three colour detectors. One absorbs blue light, one absorbs green light and the third one absorbs red light. From these three colour absorption units we "calculate" all of the millions of colours that we can perceive.

What shines light on inspection is the comparison with other animals. Not all have the same colour detection as we do. A Koi carp for instance detects four different colours. With this simple change of colour detection input – how does a koi carp see? Is it different to us? Probably yes. Bees can see polarised light – something that we cannot imagine. Our pet dog pays more attention to smells than visual clues. Dogs smell a picture of the world around them.

But let’s go back to humans. When we ask work colleagues what they "see" works well or doesn’t – it sometimes feels as if we are talking to a person with a very different kind of "detector unit". Some seem to see with different colour input units like koi carps, others detect things that I am totally oblivious to. What makes working as a team so valuable is that we can tap into the wide spectrum of viewing angles, ideas and concepts. Why is it valuable? It is because we can create a more accurate picture of what is around us, a picture that has been created by a higher diversity of "detector units". This limits errors but might be more time intense to produce because we introduce complexity.

An even bigger problem is that we usually only see what we like to see, figuratively speaking. If we want Scrum to be ‘better’ than Kanban, then we will find many reasons why it is. Or vica versa, when Kanban is something we "like" for one reason or another then it might be hard to acknowledge that Scrum might be a more suitable framework in a certain situation and at times.

So we have two levels that are active when inspecting:

  • The pure detector units and how they see the world
  • The volition aspect – a data selection filter and truth-bender

After ensuring that we are aware of the pitfalls when inspecting, we can move on to see how we can improve adapting to change.

2) Adaption: "The process in which a living thing changes slightly over time to be able to continue to exist in a particular environment” (Cambridge dictionary).

Biologically speaking, adaption is used to describe changes in the DNA. In agile environments we don’t want to wait for the actual DNA to change, and we certainly don’t just want it to change by change. Commonly we are talking about adapting when we actually mean change. This is important to distinguish because an adaptation carries a much deeper meaning. If we, for instance, change the Daily Scrum from 15 to 20 minutes we are simply changing this. The adaptive process might take place as we take the liberty to deviate from an established practice to fulfill our specific needs at a given time. This might well be a change in our corporate DNA because we might be changing the culture around meeting discipline.

In a directed adaptation – that is what I understand we are trying to do when we are employing agile practices- we want to catalyse an adaptation and guide the changes of our DNA/culture in a desired way – we often initiate quick changes "by the book" or based on too little unbiased information. Commonly we pick-and-choose what we think "good agile" is and try to implement what we think our environment should look like. Again, we are limited by our perceptions and the way we see the world distorts our compass from "true north". Hence, we simply set the direction of travel and work towards "implementing agile" in a transformation. The question at hand is, how can we trust our brain to work out what really works best in a specific ecological niche? In other words, how can we adapt without falling into the temptation of executing a "transformational delivery plan"?

How our brain tricks us when reflecting

Commonly we like to "predict" how things will turn out. Dan Gilbert calls this brain functionality the "Experience Simulator" (see his TED talk The surprising science of happiness). Our internal Experience Simulator is a functionality that is almost impossible to turn off. We can’t help it but to "predict" how things turn out and how this makes us feel. Depending on the simulation, we then feel good or bad about a future event. This prediction does not work in our favour when assessing how things actually turned out to be. It also "anchors" us towards a specific outcome. We get blocked to other outcomes and are hence influencing the experiment that we otherwise might have set up to eliminate biases. We simply want things to go "our way". Needless to say, this does not always work in our favour in the long run. And by "our" I mean us and our environment, not only us personally and our career progression.

The way our brain inhibits change

Everyone has a certain degree of resistance to change. Yes, we might like to change things we do not like about our lives (or other people’s lives for that sake). But quite often we do not like to face the consequences that are associated with change. Or we don’t want to do the work that is necessary for change to happen. Or we have unrealistic expectations. New year’s resolutions for instance have statically a very low success rate. Over the years we learn that we repeatedly failed to initiate the change we want to take place. Then we associate the negative memory of failure with trying to change.

Change is associated with energetic expenditure. Our brain consumes the least energy when we just do what we already know how to do and are used to it. We form habits around these behaviour patterns. Who finds it easy to change a habit? Almost nobody unless the habit comes with a high degree of pain. Mind you that for some people changing can be a habit too. For some having a flat white every single day sounds awesome. For others this might be a form of torture because the changing between various types of coffee is essential.

The common ground is that we do not like to change the way we generally operate.

Exploiting our brain capacity

Our brain is a complex system with many functional parts to it, many of which may have opposing "interests". I call them the different "stakeholders" of the brain. One stakeholder wants to have an easy life. This part might be risk averse and resistant to change. Another stakeholder seeks challenges and "knows" that that is how we learn the most. One more stakeholder might be responsible for carrying out our very own impact bias. Another one is the experience simulator.

There is one part that has the capacity to integrate all of the other stakeholders. That is the part that generates awareness. The different parts of the brain can’t talk simultaneously, but can in rapid succession. Each part’s voice will influence the following stakeholder and that opinion. The awareness part can integrate over the various other parts when we remember each contribution of our internal dialogue.

The advantage here is that with the abundance of internal thoughts and ideas or opinions, we can build a "realistic" picture of what was, is or will be. One of the main powers of the brain is the capacity to observe many (different) points of view and be able to integrate these using a floating average calculation. Too often we just don’t use the floating average of our internal dialogue to make a (conscious) decision. We simply run an identification with the current view. The awareness function can build an opinion that has "listened" to the many internal voices or stakeholders. The brain has a democracy of its own and that makes it powerful.

When we embrace our own stakeholders and establish an inner democracy, we improve our inspection and adaptation.

The five characteristics of successful change

To increase the positive outcome of a change we embark on, we need to consider our biases, read the situation and know when it’s the right time for a change. In order to allow a constructive decision-making process to take place, there are five key parameters to be aware of. These can serve as a checklist before we call the shots.

1) Clarity about our internal driver for change:
We need a good understanding of why we want change to happen. Sometimes we feel trapped and dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. Clarity about the desire or need to change – or not to change, is helpful. Habhazad changes or changes without understanding as to why and how are rarely successful. A non-change can be quite a successful change. "Continuous improvement" can be misunderstood. Change does not necessarily mean we are improving.

We can raise the question as to why one wants/doesn’t want the change to happen. How do I relate to it? Which parts/"stakeholders" of my brain are talking at a given time? Maybe my desire to change originates mostly from a gut feeling that I have. Maybe I just like to run away from the problems that I have and the desire to change manifests in this inner notion. Do I understand the consequences of changing versus not changing? The education around one’s opportunities and risks is essential.

2) Knowing the inner resistance to change:
When we need to change we usually feel a resistance against it. Take the current pandemic for instance. The simple action of wearing a facemask in public has caused indisputable resistance in many of us. Cognitively we understand that there is a benefit to doing so, even if there were long discussions on exactly how beneficial it would be. But emotionally it did not come natural and easy to most. Do you remember how it felt the first time you wore a facemask when entering the supermarket? It was not very pleasant, was it?

But even when we are the driver for change we might find resistance against it. New year’s resolutions come to mind again. The majority of new year's resolutions are abandoned come February, even though the desired results have not been achieved. In other words, the resistance to change might sometimes show up late to the party. What might be missing here is endurance and resilience to small throw backs.

3) What is the status quo and what is the way out?
I believe that we need a thorough understanding in which situation we currently are. This sounds simple and easy. And on a mid-level it is. "We need to come out of the pandemic with a net positive", a director of a company might say. This is seemingly a simple example. When we go into detail however, then it might not be so apparent how to tackle this problem. Are we overstaffed at this point because we just need a skeleton crew to keep the lights on? Which personnel of the organisation can be introduced to a tupor for half a year? The majority of the people put on furlough for instance appear to have been on lower levels of the hierarchy. The question arises if that is the most effective way to "survive" the pandemic.

On the other hand, we can imagine a very different survival strategy to come out "net positive" in the same year. Maybe it’s a good time to take a bite out of the financial buffer to get rid of the tech debt so that one has a competitive advantage once the economic engine starts churning again. This strategy of early growth investment can be observed in nature. In the constant dark of the Arctic winter there isn’t sufficient light for algae to grow. Just before the ice melts and light is found in the water column, some algae species start growing already tapping into their energy storage (for example, see Trapped under ice, light-loving algae grow in the dark Arctic winter). This gives them a competitive advantage as they can tap into resources more effectively compared to species who wait for the first light to kick-off growth. Now, it might be a devastating decision to go for such a high-risk strategy. Ideally we embrace creative strategies that also limit the risks involved; the point being that we often react to changes in our environment without really taking unbiased stock of what is now and how to solutionize creatively. Thinking out of the box becomes increasingly harder when we do not have a neutral understanding of where we are.

Disclaimer: I talk a lot about clarity. I distinguish between clarity and being convinced that something is clear to us. Sometimes something seems very clear to us. But in retrospect, we realise that we have simplified too much and not taken all factors into account. On the other hand, if we think we are not clear on something, we might actually have a superior view of the complexity deriving from the issue at hand. That sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? When we are confused to a degree, we might be taking various points of view or inner opinions into consideration. This adds clarity because we are less likely to fall for our internal "convincing engine" or biases. When we feel uncomfortable about a decision and think we need more information or data points, we probably have more clarity than we think we do. And certainly we have more clarity compared to when we are "crystal clear". Sounds strange doesn’t it? But who said life is easy and should always be comfortable? We often learn most when there is a bit of (internal) friction. So sad.

4) Make change meaningful and less painful:
Change can be very disruptive; disruptive in a constructive way. Yet the disruption should not be associated with high degrees of pain. Given that most changes will induce some degree of discomfort we work best if we understand the constructive impact that the change will have. Once that is understood, we should avoid high degrees of "teething pains". If phasing out platform engineers for instance sounds like a good idea, there needs to be a system in place that allows the rest of the team to consecutively build knowledge and confidence around the contributions that the platform engineer has to the team.

5) Be impartial towards the outcome of the change:
If we attach too much emotion or hope to the desired effect of the change, we will be unlikely to assess the results unbiased. If we are biased, we will be very creative at finding any type of data to prove that our predicted outcome is indeed accurate. Needless to say, this is a common tactic. The disappointment when we don’t hold up might be more damaging than a more experimental approach where we "see if we are able to ..." rather than "it will be awesome when ...".

Improving decision-making by accepting uncertainty

When we are facing a decision, we are experiencing two main motivational motions. We can either be driven to initiate the change, or oppose it. When we want the change to happen, we usually simulate the outcome and attach positive emotions to it. Let’s say we have been made an offer to work with another client or company. We need to decide to stay with the current employer, or hand in our resignation and move on to work with the new company. If we embrace change, we will probably be presented with a much more pleasant future than staying at the current place.

If our mind however gravitates towards rejecting the change, we might feel it’s too much to change jobs. We dread having to get to know new colleagues. We will find it annoying or frightening having to get used to a new structure and power dynamic, etc. It might just be "too much".

To be driven by either extreme might feel good as it gives the impression of clarity. On an emotional level that is true and people can live quite happily in either state. Whether that is a constructive way to live one’s life depends on the situation.

Chances are that the majority of us will be experiencing both notions consecutively – and a melange thereof. We are aware that some parts of us embrace change and other parts don’t want change to happen. We will make lists of pros and cons and deliberate on how to go forward.

It is possible that we don’t like this phase of decision-making because we are in a limbo state. Clarity and stability usually feel more pleasant than uncertainty. If we accept that there is uncertainty for a period of time and that this is a constructive phase of the decision-making, we lower the risk of jumping to conclusions only because we want to escape uncertainty. If the limbo state persists, we can experience so-called "analysis paralysis" where we seemingly are not making progress. Here it is worth noticing that we are struggling to make a decision. This is an advantage as either outcome doesn’t seem entirely preferable. So maybe it’s not that important which way we decide to go!

Now, what do we need for good decision-making? For constructive decision-making to happen, I think it’s about finding how out much each driving force is right at a given time. Striking the balance between driving and resisting forces whilst acknowledging the constructive and destructive part of each is essential. In a certain situation, staying on with a current employer can be absolutely the right thing to do. We might not be up for a new challenge. At other times, exposing oneself and looking for a new challenge might be preferable and help us. Afterall, we have the responsibility to ourselves to contribute to our personal well-being as well as being constructive in our environment.

All we really need to do is collect data from our different faculties and "calculate" the average over a period of time. After that, we just make a decision and accept the consequences of that decision, until another decision needs to be made. Then we do the same again, each time a little bit better as we learn from our experiences. Isn’t that great?


Inspecting and adapting lives hand-in-hand with decisions to be made. Decision-making cannot be avoided. Our brain doesn’t always present us with comfort around the uncertainty that decision-making comes with. However, evolution has equipped us with a wide spectrum of tools to decide how to go about decision-making. If we pay attention to the various opinions that we come up with and if we limit our biases, we can make better decisions than ever before. If we embrace other opinions openly too, we multiply this improving factor. With better decisions we can collect data in an increasingly meaningful way and truly adapt to the driver for constructive changes for a more successful future and a happy life.

About the Author

Sven Ihnken is an agile practitioner with many years of experience in technology and non-tech-environments. Prior to that he was a biologist who specialised in acclimation of photosynthetic units in algae cells. After years of investigating organisms in the laboratory, he decided to turn his experimental inquisitive notion to his one mind. What place is better to observe the mind than a Buddhist monastery? In two years of meditative mind observation, Ihnken hasn’t learned how to levitate. But he gained first hand experience on how one can observe one’s own mind without being fully swept away by one’s own thoughts.

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