Agile means admitting that we don't know everything
I’ve been thinking about the Ben Folds’ song “Bastard” lately. The chorus goes, “Why you gotta act like you know when you don’t know? It’s ok if you don’t know everything.” Those lyrics come to my mind when I encounter someone that strikes me as a know-it-all – someone that is clearly forcing an answer into the space of question just because the space exists. And hey – it takes one to know one. I am this person on MANY occasions. It’s usually me reminding myself that it’s OK to just utter those three simple words: I don’t know. But I bet I’m not alone. I’m sure this is rooted in how we were brought up as students – a focus on the answer more so than the process of discovering it. Plus, there’s just that amazing feeling of being right.
But one of the things that makes us know-it-alls annoying, as well as harmful, is that we’re not always right – or there’s no way to prove whether we are or we aren’t. Yet we hop into the answer hole so fast, we often (unintentionally on my part at least) discourage others from seeking another (equally or even, gasp! more right) answer.
Now before you think this is just some personal rant, let me make a connection. In an earlier post on agile development I referenced the somewhat controversial statement out of 37 Signals as they contend that the planning process that is part of most traditional development cycles is simply guessing – and that guessing is dangerous. We also took a look at the difference between that traditional development cycle of Learn > Make > Test and the agile cycle of Make> Test> Learn.
In a traditional environment the learning is scheduled up front. A lot of good primary and secondary research is done and, when combined with our experience, produces valuable insights that then feed our strategy, design and execution. But these insights – much like the planning I believe 37 Signals had in mind – are really just (educated) guesses. And unfortunately, those guesses serve as the “answer” deliverable and that task of seeking answers is often considered closed after that inital phase.
An agile environment certainly is not void of upfront research and insights – but there is focus on getting to them fast and treating them as valuable, but temporary. We’re forced to leave the space of the question open for a while and that can be uncomfortable! And it’s uncomfortable for most clients too! No one wants to say, “We’re not sure, let’s just try it and see.” But we have to. It’s the best chance our next website/social campaign/”killer app” has. The agile agency must fight to be metrics-driven – meaning learning and acting based on measuring the first build. Not just collecting the data, but genuinely seeking answers that potentially prove our insights wrong – and having the time and budget allocated to be iterative.
Now back to the song. I don’t think Folds is on any sort of personal rant either. I think he just wants to say that there is something very special – whimsical yet substantial – about discovering life’s truths – the details of which can be largely missed if we rush into knowing. Which, strangely, has amazing relevance to our lives in an agile agency.