Heuristics are useful, especially in the complex world in which we find ourselves. Unfortunately, they’re often underutilized, and the notion of heuristics is largely misunderstood. What we frequently find instead are platitudes that, while inspiring, do little to help us determine our next step. In fact, I have my own set of these platitudes that I’ve dubbed north stars.
So why are heuristics useful? They’re immediately enactable, straight forward, and they can help us determine what to do next in real time. Consider this heuristic from the Marine Corps:
Capture the high ground. Stay in touch. Keep moving.
Clear, right? Hell! Anyone–with or without military experience–can appreciate the advice, I think. So why aren’t we using these more often and in our own agile contexts? That changes today, and it starts with my own.
Let’s begin with a set of heuristics I used as a manager or seen used by other managers:
- If I have to tell you no, I will provide a compelling reason. If I don’t provide or you don’t find the reason compelling, hold me to it.
- I’m only your manager when we’re in our one on one or you’re throwing a punch at someone. In all other cases, I’m your product owner. (Caveat: manager as product owner is often a bad idea, but in certain cases, I’ve seen it work.)
- If my reports have a spouse or kids, know their names and interests.
I use this next set of heuristics as a facilitator in every retro:
- Be the quietest person in the room. If I must talk, ask a question.
- Questions should come from a place of curiosity. It should never be a game of trivial pursuit so never make someone guess my answer.
- Offer advice only when it’s asked for.
Here’s a set of heuristics I exercise for influencing or being influenced by others:
- The opinion that matters most belongs to the person directly affected by the problem.
- Know my customer. If I can’t name who I’m working for, pause and determine.
- Always start with why.
- Avoid nomenclature with the uninitiated. It’s only valuable when others possess identical mental models.
- Never teach something that my student can’t put into action before the week ends.
When it comes to change:
- If our experiment can’t begin tomorrow, it’s too big. Make it smaller.
- Tweak only one thing in a given context at a time. If multiple contexts exist, run tweaks in parallel.
I started this post explaining that heuristics are often misunderstood. For example, what’s the difference between a rule and heuristic? And does such a distinction even matter? If you’re curious to read my opinions, you’ll see them in the comments below.
Thanks goes to David Snowden for not only reminding me of the power of heuristics but also for helping me refine my own opinions around metrics as I prepare to speak at the Scrum Gathering in Austin in May. I hope to see some of you there.
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