Experiment to prevent rigor corpus - part 1 of 4

Oct 01, 2022

The focus can be on creating a culture where people can make a change… as needed.

This is a series of four related posts:

Introducing the experiment

When we talk about Rigor Corpus, the slow painful process of growing companies becoming inflexible, we worry about making big change. Maybe small is what we need.

To help you down this road I give you an idea from Ester Derby , one of the best agile coaches I’ve found. She codified “The Experiment”, a process that gets everyone comfortable with small quick changes. It is easy to follow and lends some scientific rigor to making things better.

Gather up your team, come up with some ways to make your lives better, try some out, and see what happens. It takes the right people and you are one of the best experts at your company on how to do your job.

The experiment framework comes down to a document that describes:

  • what you are going to change
  • what you hope to see happen
  • how long you will give it
  • how will you tell if it is working

You then execute on a limited scale to see what happens. The document identifies your approach and will guide you in evaluating it over time. There is a lot less formality around change as the limited nature reduces any damage done.

Sometimes it may not be worth the fight

This process grants unlimited power to the team doing the work. Yes, unlimited power. But only within pre-defined guardrails agreed to with your leadership. The Experiment is designed to move fast enough that other groups cannot be involved in any sort of approval. Because of this, your leaders will have to where to allow this to happen. There are a few spaces I can think of where you or your leader may not want to use this process.

Systems with formalized processes where safety is on the line. For example, You would not want to be on a plane where the ground crew has just decided to try an interesting new form of landing gear. I would also not apply this where there is a large impact if things go wrong. “We are sorry but because we tried a new kind of math, most of the accounts in the bank were wiped out”. In cases where regulations dictate the operations. “Yorg, why not try to store radioactive waste under the barrel instead of in?”. Okay, those are excessive, but hopefully, it was an entertaining way to make the point.

There are some places where you can try this but will have a fight ahead of you. An organizational culture that is not tolerant of change maintains dictator-like control of everything, or does not believe that things can be done better will be difficult to convince. You may also face a battle with your peers. Some employees are not interested in making work better. They do their job and go home. Others are beaten down to the point of why bother. In some ways, this makes it a more valiant effort, but in others painful.

Starting small, from the bottom, is perfect

To combat corporate inflexibility we need to address it from both the top moving down and the bottom up. It is like the human body. One day you get a little knot in your leg… some tiny annoyance that you feel just a bit. It is not the end of the world and you go about your days mostly unimpeded. Over the next year, you get another dozen or so of these tiny knots. You can still walk but it’s different now. Maybe you take the elevator a lot more often and walk much less. As a result, you put on some weight and start getting out of shape. You can still walk but you are different.

Companies accumulate bits of inflexibility in the organization in the same way. One overly restrictive process is not the end as the system can work around that. But as these accumulate, entire departments, then organizations reflect that inflexibility. Everything takes longer, people may stop trying to make positive change, and worse yet employees feel a lack of control.

Failing will happen and it is okay

When done in responsible amounts anyway. No one has a perfect score with changes. Some work and some do not. But if you are not trying to make things better, the chances that it will happen on its own are slim.

The trouble we run into when talking about new processes is we often consider them a “big change”. Once that idea sets in, we get worried and aim for perfection or get paralyzed with fear of making a bad change. This is also a symptom of environments where the culture punishes failure – which leads to everyone playing it safe.

The experiment sets up a framework for trying new things in a limited but meaningful way. It focuses on learning things from the experience. When things go wrong, there is very little damage due to the scope. No one, no matter how famous or skilled, got it right all along the way.

When you fail you have the opportunity to learn from it. In almost all cases there is some value that you can find. Perhaps a single bad assumption made the process unstable. You can adjust and try it again.

The risk and benefit are asymmetrical. People play the lottery when they have no reasonable expectation of winning. The risk and benefit are very asymmetrical. You bet $1, and you are likely to lose it, but if you win…

This is very important to wrap your head around to see the benefit of experiments when some fail and some work.

Take these assumptions: An good and bad change both had the same absolute effect. Each day they resulted in a 30-minute time saving or 30-minute over-run. After a week we call the experiments to an end and opt to keep the good change.

The bad change would cost us about 150 minutes lost during the experiment. The positive change gained us 150 minutes that week. But over the next year, the positive change will gain us an extra 26 hours of recovered time (7,800 minutes)! You can see the asymmetrical benefit here… the reward greatly outweighs the risk.

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