Project Management

Early experimentation is key to reducing project risk

From the Easy in theory, difficult in practice Blog
My musings on project management, project portfolio management and change management. I'm a firm believer that a pragmatic approach to organizational change that addresses process & technology, but primarily, people will maximize chances for success. This blog contains articles which I've previously written and published as well as new content.

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Inspection and adaptation are two of the pillars of the Scrum framework but all agile methods recognize the wisdom of Deming's Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle.

While the Manifesto does not explicitly reference the scientific method, it is implied in the value statement "Responding to change over following a plan" and in its final principle "At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly."

Agile teams embrace experimentation in many ways.

Some of these relate to the product. Minimum Viable Products and Minimum Business Increments can be designed and run to test hypotheses about what we feel is valuable to customers at a macro level. Split testing and similar short feedback techniques might validate whether specific features should be pursued or not.

Some relate to the team's delivery process.

Both the Rational Unified Process and Disciplined Agile Delivery highlight the importance of proving solution architecture early and one effective means of doing this is through the design, construction and execution of experiments focused on quality attributes such as performance or flexibility.

Working agreements such as Definitions of Ready or Definitions of Done can be thought of as experiments to validate whether teams are able to efficiently complete work items and whether teams understand what complete means.

Ceremonies such as retrospectives help a team to identify delivery improvement ideas. Rather than assuming these ideas will help and implementing them on a broad scale, teams will run experiments to see whether these ideas actually show promise. For example, improving product quality through pair programming might seem like a good idea so a team might elect to try pairing on a subset of their upcoming work items and comparing the outcomes to those completed using their previous methods.

Spikes are another form of agile experimentation. Rather than losing significant effort in comprehensive analysis of a specific uncertainty, a short time boxed deep dive focused on learning which options might be feasible is often a better alternative.

So how could adopting this commitment to experimentation help those teams using a predictive life cycle?

Assumptions which have not been validated are a common source of project risks. While a team could wait for an assumption to be passively proven, wouldn't it be more effective to frame a critical assumption as a hypothesis and then design and run an experiment to get data to make the team feel more confident about that assumption?

Incorporating ongoing experimentation into the risk management life cycle might provide a more effective method of de-risking all types of projects.

Posted on: December 08, 2019 06:59 AM | Permalink

Comments (11)

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Dear Kiron
Interesting approach to the theme: "Early experimentation is key to reducing project risk"

Thanks for sharing

To what extent can "incorporating ongoing experimentation into the risk management life cycle" increase project costs?

Thanks Luis! By running experiments to explore assumptions and uncertainties early on, you can reduce costs related to rework, gold plating or poor decisions. The key is to define good questions, construct minimal experiments and be willing to act on the data you get from them.

Dear Kiron
Thanks for your perspective: "The key is to define good questions, construct minimal experiments and be willing to act on the date you get from them."

This is can test the maturity of the organization. When there is an expectation to [only] deliver fast, the team can feel cautious on experimenting even though the results could lead to acceleration.

Whoops, typo! If only I could edit these comments! :)

Hi Kiron. This is very interesting. I can see I have a way to go to appreciate all good stuff built into (implicit in) Agile. Having said that I've always been a fan of Proof of Concept and Feasibility Studies. The difference I can see is that these are still more like project phases whereas the experimentation you've described use a much shorter cycle and are "just part of the project process". I can see how this should (overall and done well) lead to much faster convergence on the best outcome.

Great piece Kiron.

Experimentation, where possible, is very beneficial because failing fast is a good thing.

Hi Kiron,

There is always some skepticism while dealing with assumptions, your note on creating a hypothesis is very valid and a go to approach. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks Andrew - consider the comments an experiment unto itself :-)

Thanks Ashleigh - if we truly embrace the humility of an agile mindset, then experimentation is a natural byproduct. As Stephen Hawking said "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge."

Thanks Rami & Ganesh!

Agreed Kiron.

Early experimentation, challenging the assumptions, failing fast, etc are key factors and helps us to minimize project risks.

Thank you for sharing views.

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