Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Thougtht Experiments are not Agile

Agile methodological such as Scrum are the rage these days. They have helped organizations achieve some perceived control over delivering projects on time and managing the overall scope of projects. In most cases when waterfall or agile processes fail it is the failure of the organization in managing expectations and not necessarily in the processes that were used. I think everyone can agree on that.

This blog is not meant to be a bashing or endorsement of scrum, waterfall or any other project  methodology. Personally, the approach I usually prescribe to is that you do what you say you are going to do and that your processes (whatever they are) are repeatable and are well understood by all in the organization. And from one release to the next you work to make your process better. End of story.

Now having said all that, lets get into what I really want to talk about. What kind of methodology inspires and nurtures the best and most innovate design work (software, UX or any other creative design) and ultimately leads to the best products and systems being built? No surprise that the answer has nothing to do with whether you are using agile or waterfall or with how much analysis and design documentation you generate. The answer instead has everything to do with tapping the human imagination.

The best designs and products don't come from a process of painting by numbers. You can break down a user story into as many tasks as you like (in your favorite scrum tool) and you can have "spikes" that lead to other user stories and build POCs until you are blue in the face, but this does not lead to creative or ground breaking results. What does? Well, if we look back at some of the greatest designs from the amazing works of such people as Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, these great minds had something in common. They conceived of many of their brilliant works with thought experiments.

I argue that great design can't be prescribed into design documents or crafted from user stories. The best and most innovative designs come through thought experiments. Then once you have the outline of a concept in your mind you can runoff and start coding and crafting your ideas and attempt to let them take form. There is nothing like immersing yourself in deep thought over a problem. Few of us can claim to be at the level of brilliance of an Archimedes, but thought experiments are the path to brilliant work, whatever discipline you are in. I don't want to diminish the value of hard work and having good team discipline, but innovative designs are best done deep within mind experiments. Only in your mind can you think big while juggling all the variables and constraints, yet aiming small on your target and balancing all the parameters and dependencies that your problem and solution domain demand. No great design document or architectural blueprint will come to shape without this, if it does, throw it away and start over.

So when you are sitting in your next sprint planning meeting, see if you can carve out a few user stories for some thought experiments. You might just deliver on some of your best work :)