“Do or do not, there is no try”– Yoda, Star Wars.
You know that feeling just before you do something for the very first time? Or just before you do something scary or something you’ve put off for far too long?
I dread that feeling. Usually accompanied by a physical sensation of butterflies and knots.
The kind of feeling that causes you to swallow as the hairs on the back of your neck bristle?
The kind of feeling that’s magnified when others dare, double dare and triple dare you to do something.
Kinda like taking your first ever dip in a swimming pool’s deep end or skiing down a triple black diamond trail or speaking in front of a large audience.
You close your eyes, take a deep breath or two, open your eyes, leap and afterwards either…
- Breathe a sigh of relief or
- Lick your wounds
With your heart pounding in your throat and ears, adrenaline rushes over your body as you reflect on what just happened.
Regardless of the outcome, you chose to do something and that is something.
It reminds me of a saying loosely attributed to Theodore Roosevelt:
When I procrastinate, I make the worst decisions.
As your adrenaline rush subsides, happiness or sadness washes over you and you exclaim with one of the following reactions.
- “That was great! I should have done that much sooner.”
- “That was terrible. I knew I should never have done that.”
- “That was terrible. What can I do better next time?”
In the spirit of Roosevelt, most of us would prefer reaction 1. Yet, many of us will experience reaction 2 or 3. And some of us may even prefer reaction 3.
The difference between 2 and 3 is the difference between
- Being stuck and moving forward
- Resignation and aspiration
- Stagnation and progress
- Status quo and innovation
It’s the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
It’s the difference between seeing life’s challenges as rigorous rites to be avoided or as experiments to be embraced.
When I think of experiments, I think of Bunsen burners, test tubes, Petri dishes, Chemistry and Biology. I think of the scientific method I learned as a schoolboy.
- Asking questions
- Making hypotheses
- Running experiments
- Observing outcomes
- Drawing conclusions
- Rinse and repeat
Avoiding life’s challenges is the equivalent of asking questions, making hypotheses and then doing nothing. When we experiment, we do something with those questions and hypotheses. We seek to answer those questions and prove or disprove those hypotheses.
When we experiment, there are no right or wrong answers. There are only answers which lead to more questions. In a way, we can never go wrong when we experiment.
Imagine what the world would look like if we treated everything like an experiment. Before this year, I could not have imagined such a world. The pandemic has turned the imagined into reality.
Agile ways of working are guided by the scientific method and its empirical nature.
The heart of Agile is people. People ask questions and make hypotheses The soul of Agile is the relentless rhythm of adapting and experimenting. The relationship between adapting and experimenting is like the symbiotic relationship between Yin and Yang.
People learn to adapt to unforeseeable challenges, impediments and obstacles. Adapting sustains and lights the way for experimenting with, observing and adopting new ways which in turn, spawns the need for adapting to new challenges, impediments and obstacles. And so on.
Two practices which I’ve used to initiate an appreciation for experiments are:
- Powerful Questions
- Thought Experiments
Powerful questions are questions which can’t be answered with a binary “yes” or “no”. They are open-ended, not closed. For example, rather than asking, “Is it cold outside?”, one could ask “How does it feel outside?”. The power of the latter question is in the variety and richness of possible responses and the opportunity for more questions.
Every time you ask a powerful question, you can trigger a thought experiment. Thought experiments can turn a hypothesis “x” into a hypothetical question. “What would it mean to us if “x” were true?” Thought experiments can reveal new possibilities by theoretically removing constraints. “How would it change if money and time were not an issue?” Powerful questions and thought experiments can be a quick and safe way to spark an interest in experiments but are not sufficient to sustain a culture of experimentation. Thought experiments are theoretical in nature so that any outcomes and conclusions can only be theoretical as well. They are no replacement for running real hands-on experiments.
What do real, hands-on experiments look like?
Chances are you’re already running some.
Here are a few examples from my work life and consulting engagements.
- Changing the duration of a sprint
- Starting with an Agile method such as Scrum and then deciding to switch to the Kanban Method
- Running a story mapping workshop
- Using Lightning Decision Jam for a retrospective
- Co-creating an organization unique Product Owner role description
- Giving teams the freedom to self-select their members
- Switching from project based funding to block funding
- Augmenting traditional PMBOK performance metrics with agility metrics
- Reaching out to obscure prospects for business development
The best thing about a culture of experimentation is that it’s not limited to work life. For me, I’m learning to apply it to all facets of my life. Both professionally and personally.
Here are a few examples from my personal life.
- Taking up the practice of meditation
- Submitting to my daughter’s interior decorating whims, turning our house upside down
- Cutting as many digital cords as possible. It’s amazing how many digital TV channels you can pick up over the air without cable.
- Training my dog, Joey how to stop jumping up on people
- Fixing the stuck pistons in my eScooter’s rear brake calipers. I love YouTube!
If I approach everything in life as an experiment with no right or wrong answers, perhaps I’d be less adverse to do those scary or off-putting things. Perhaps, my dread would be enhanced with curiosity. That, would be something.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”– Thomas Edison