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Uncertainty in Agile and the Discovery Mindset

| by Ben Linders Follow 26 Followers on Jun 11, 2015. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes |

Andrea Provaglio talked about growing your discovery mindset at the Agile Eastern Europe 2015 conference.

InfoQ interviewed Provaglio about business models for execution, optimization and discovery, dealing with uncertainty and leveraging it to create business value, understanding both value and cost, growing a discovery mindset, and creating a culture where people have the courage to make mistakes and can learn from them.

InfoQ: You explained in your talk how business models can be related of execution, optimization and discovery. Can you briefly describe this?

Provaglio: In my talk I present a conceptual framework that may help us to better make sense of some of the things that we do in software development, including the way we design our business models. I relate the "Execution mindset" to the classic Waterfall approach that we inherited from post-industrial Taylorism; the "Optimization mindset" is related to the Toyota Production System, Lean and (in IT) Kanban, in the sense that we pay a lot of attention in optimizing the value stream of our software production and in minimizing variations; the "Discovery mindset" is related to the empirical methods to deal with uncertainty and variations, which is typical of the Agile world.

In the talk I suggest that a healthy business model is probably made of a combination of these three elements: Execution, Optimization and Discovery, which support each other.

InfoQ: Discovery comes with uncertainty, which can be hard for people. Do you have examples of dealing with uncertainty and leveraging it to create business value?

Provaglio: I don’t need to look too far. The entire Agile approach is doing exactly that. In my opinion, Agile accepts uncertainty as a fact of life and provides quite a few disciplined practices to empirically navigate that uncertainty, with the freedom to defer decisions until the last responsible moment and to review, on a more informed basis, previously made decisions, as we gather additional data on the go with multiple feedback loops. The ability to quickly respond to what we discover as we proceed is a way to leverage uncertainty to create business value.

InfoQ: Why is it so important to understand both value and cost? Any suggestions how people can do this?

Provaglio: This is a complex subject. We generally tend to associate value and costs to finance (i.e. money) which is certainly very important, but it’s just a small part of the value/cost equation, since both value and cost are multi-dimensional.

For example, cost is not just how much we spend but also, for instance, how much potential profit we lose by not doing something (as expressed by Cost of Delay), or the financial debt we acquire by chasing quick wins while poorly architecting code that will, at a later time, cost us much more to modify.

Value is also multi-dimensional and, on top of that, different stakeholders perceive value on different dimensions. For example, the founder of a company may be highly concerned about the company’s image that is associated with their products, even though it would be very hard to directly correlate that to money; a Product Manager, on the other hand, could also be interested, to some degree, in the company’s image, but would probably "value" the prompt delivery of those features that hypothetically generate the highest revenue, or new users acquisition, more.

I don’t really have an advice here and now on such a complex subject, except perhaps to suggest to start looking at value and cost as multi-dimensional entities, not just money.

InfoQ: You talked about how people can grow their discovery mindset. Can you explain what a discovery mindset is?

Provaglio: To me, a Discovery mindset is rooted in accepting uncertainty as a fact of life and in developing smarter ways to deal with it, as we move on with our projects and aspirations. It takes understanding empiricism, knowing a little bit about complexity thinking, letting go of blame and, last but not least, some courage.

InfoQ: In your opinion, what is it that makes people reluctant to make mistakes?

Provaglio: Well, I think we should first be clear about what is a mistake and what is not.

Wiping out the production database of a mission critical application, mistaking it for our staging environment, is certainly a mistake (and a big one indeed). But delivering a simplified version of some feature, because we underestimated the effort it would take to implement the whole thing, in my opinion is not a mistake.

In the first case, we have probably violated a few protocols, procedures and good engineering practices. In the second case, we have simply discovered that one of our hypotheses, in this case about the complexity of what we wanted to build, was invalid. This can be perceived as a mistake only if we believe that we can predict the future, in which case it would have been a mistake in our "pre-cognition practices".

Of course I doubt that anyone would seriously believe that we can see into the future. What we can do instead is to adapt smartly to what we will find as we get there, which is exactly what an empirical approach and a discovery mindset are all about.

A few other reasons about the unpleasantness of "making mistakes", which I’ll touch only briefly here, are some of the mental models that we acquired as we grew up, as well as working in an organization which has a local blaming culture.

InfoQ: Can you give some suggestions on how we can create a culture where people have the courage to make mistakes and can learn from them?

Provaglio: Leaders are in the best position to create such a culture. Please note that I used the word "leader" and not "manager", which are two separate things: the former is more oriented to people, the latter to all kind of resources except people (who are not a "resource" despite the fact that we have HR departments).

In my opinion, some of the leader’s responsibilities are: to take countermeasures against any sign of a blaming culture; create an environment where people feel safe to speak their mind and to try validating hypotheses, even when sometimes that fails; and promote individual and shared responsibility inside the organization.

That’s no simple leadership task and, in fact, there is much more that I could tell about it. However, to keep it simple for now, I’ll just say that I believe that when we change something inside, something outside changes as well. In other words, leaders introduce change by changing themselves.

InfoQ: Can you give some advice on what people can do to exercise discovery in their daily life?

Provaglio: Many of the concepts we discussed so far apply to personal life as well. To recap some of those: keep multiple options open, defer decisions to the last responsible moment when you have more information; understand what you really value and manage the different dimensions of cost; re-prioritize frequently; assess risk and decide how much of it is acceptable for you. If you want to practice, you could try this the next time you plan for a vacation!

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