Against ‘Experiment’ as a Social Hack

Large Hadron Collider
The Large Hadron Collider

The year is 2009. I am having a hard time convincing my team to adopt one week iterations. As I’ve since observed, this short iteration length unnerves some teams, who fear they won’t be able to hold the high pace necessary to deliver each week. But I really wanted us to be extreme programmers, and I had read (sic!) that xp-ers did one week iterations.

So, I’m in the middle of my sales pitch and I can’t seem to be convincing my team, when I remember a trick I had learned from an agile book. I asked my colleagues:

Let’s make an experiment and see what happens!

After uttering the magical word: “experiment” everybody relented. It was something they didn’t seem to be able to fight against. We went forward with the one week iteration and eventually decided it had indeed been a good choice.

But the true meaning of experiments is somewhat different. Wikipedia dixit:

An experiment is an orderly procedure carried out with the goal of verifying, falsifying, or establishing the validity of a hypothesis.

Get it? No hypothesis, no experiment. You need to state what you are trying to prove with the experiment (the hypothesis) and also the means of verification (the measures). This way, assumptions and biases become more obvious.

So in the example with my team, I could have said:

My hypothesis is that one week iterations will not negatively influence our ability to deliver. We will run 5 one week iterations and 5 two week iterations. We will measure time spent in meetings against total working time. We will measure total story points delivered against total story points planned. The percentages should be similar for one week and two weeks iterations.

Often times, the experiment proponent does have a hypothesis in mind but doesn’t articulate it. By articulating it, the team can engage in critical thinking about the hypothesis and the measurements, thus improving the experiment.

Other times, like in my case, the proponent uses the ‘experiment’ coat as a social hack meant to get acceptance for a proposal. Please don’t use it like this. You owe it to your team to fully bake your thoughts.

I know I have learned my lesson.


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