Thinking like a scientist

Getting back into the swing of things over here. The cool air is setting in and it’s starting to feel like blogging weather. I am excited for the midwestern autumn with the brisk air and the fall colors.

As the colors are changing and we begin to enter the last season of the year, I too am changing and beginning to reflect on the past year. I am reflecting on what I have learned and what reassessing the way I think of organizations and myself.

I recently finished a book called The Choice by Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt and his daughter Efrat Goldratt-Ashlag. This book was about how to live a full life and how to apply scientific principles to not only organizations (like with Theory of Constraints) but also in personal life.

In the book, he and his daughter, his daughter is a psychologist, debate on what it means to be to deal with problems that prevent people from living a full life. Through examples from organizations Dr. Goldratt has worked with and the experiences and training Efrat has had, they work together to build a framework of living a full life.

I don’t want to write a book review, but I want to go into what was most meaningful to me from the book and what it means for organizations.

The book starts with this idea of thinking like a scientist and how that helps deal with failure. Scientists don’t really see failures, only valuable results to guide the direction of their work. In the science world, when experiments are formed and executed it is not the desired results being achieved that makes a scientist good, but rather how well the scientist understands the cause and effect of the results.

The book ends with that the better we understand the world around us, the more time we spend learning about the things that are meaningful to us, the more better intuition and logic we develop about the situations we deal with. Logic feeding intuition and intuition driving the path of logic. One not existing without the other and logic not existing void of emotion. To understand the true cause and effect relationships in the complexity we see, we need intuition to break through the noise and see the simplicity in every situation (Every situation is inherently simple is a key theme in the book).
The ultimate goal is that we understand reality for what it is, not for what we want it to be. The middle parts of the book are about what we need to do to get past the obstacles that block us from understanding reality.

So what does this have to do with my DevOps blog? I am realizing now what I think I have been missing and what most organizations miss. I think that organizations have no desire to think scientifically, and neither have I.

For the time I have spent with Agile and DevOps, despite the roots and the message of these methodologies, I have found that most organizations adopt them as ways of achieving quick wins or matching industry trends. The goal is hardly ever preached as understanding reality, but rather something like “work better, faster, more efficiently”.
Not to say that we shouldn’t strive to be more efficient, but we shouldn’t strive to do so by sacrificing effectiveness. I feel often that new techniques are adopted without ever asking how these techniques will directly impact our work. I feel that even my self, find some new thing that promises what I want, like a diet fad, and I never really dig into how this will impact my life. Then when all is said and done, I don’t see the results I want, and sometimes have results that made things worse, and I am right back to where I started.


Going back to DevOps, How often do we start doing scrum or Kanban but only see small improvements? Or worse, start seeing new undesirable effects that leave us back to where we started? How often do we say, “Let’s just focus on the low hanging fruit”? When was the last time we really focused on the problems that will really drive improvement?

I think that it always comes back to fear of failure. Often I hear “fail fast, fail often”, I know from my dating life that this is not a great method. I think a better saying is “learn fast, learn often” but I know from reading that this only gets so far as well. I don’t think saying “learn” always implies the right amount of actions. I think culturally, “learning” implies more research than experimentation. In The Choice, they talk about people needlessly gathering data without any real direction. I could google all day about how to lose weight, but all that data will only get me so far in my weight loss if I don’t take the simple actions dieting and exercise. Data can drive better decisions, but only if I have a good understanding of the cause and effect. Sometimes too much data can be like looking at individual trees in the forest, not really getting anywhere.

So what do we say is the “right” attitude to take towards unwanted results?

If we thought like scientists, we would be searching for the best approach to understand reality. We would seek to understand why things are the way they are. Things like “industry standards” would be second to “This is the best way to do this because we learned from actions  a,b,c lead to results x,y,z”. And sometimes, x,y,z were not the results we expected. Instead of getting mad and blaming our people about not getting the results we wanted, we could say, why did we get x,y,z as results and not what we expected. Seeking blame points us in the wrong direction but seeking to understand drives improvement.

“But won’t that lead to complacency for failures?”, you might ask. That’s where Agile comes into play. Continually testing and being objective about the results we see every sprint or every implementation will change actions a,b,c to d,e,f  and the resulting x,y,z effects will change of over time towards the desired results. Continually striving for continuous improvement is not easy. It takes a great deal of discipline and courage to change the norms and try new things. One cannot be complacent and scientific at the same time. 


What about DevOps? DevOps is the like the wrapper layer that augments the Agile methodology.  The automation speeds up the pace of Agile, providing faster feedback and strengthening our understanding of the cause and effects of our decisions and our intuition of the problems and customers.

Intuition I think is truly the key. I think that’s why when leaders don’t trust their people organizations fail with DevOps and Agile. Most leaders are too far removed from the work to have developed a good intuition of the problems the organization face, so even the best tools and methods will never work. People who do the work have the best intuition into a problem, they see and understand the root causes of issues in ways that someone higher up might never be able to find.  A scientific leader would understand this, and empower their people to find solutions for the goals and keep them focused on the larger vision of the organization and let the vision change with the results of their actions. 

Organizations do not need to be Agile or use DevOps methods to succeed. I believe they need to be scientific, humble, open, and bold enough to accept reality for what it is. And then not only accept, but then adjust to it and quickly before their competitors do. Iteratively releasing products and growing in a positive direction and so living to their full potential.


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