Iterating vs Dabbling
Agilists are often urging each other to “iterate” — that is to make small, incremental changes and test each change in the market as you go.
Iterating makes sense, especially when building complex systems. In complex systems, even small changes can have unintended or unexpected effects, and by moving incrementally we give ourselves the best chance of detecting early enough to minimise the cost of correction. We’re not just talking about software bugs in the new features here. “Cost of correction” includes addressing misjudged customer requirements, pivoting to reach a better market fit, and fixing regression errors.
We can also iterate without coding and this can make a lot of sense in the very early days of product development. Deming’s “Plan, Do, Study, Act” (PDSA) cycle is helpful even in early concept development. For example, we might have a few iterations of the basic concept development, talking to potential customers and then reflecting back our understanding of their needs, just to make sure we’ve really understood, and are talking about those needs in ways the potential customers recognise.
So Iterating is Good and we’ve all got that religion. Excellent.
What we might not have is a common understanding of what “iterate” means. It’s obviously suggestive of a cycle, but are we all using the same steps in the cycle? I’ve specifically called out Deming above because it’s a genuine iterative cycle:
- Plan: Decide, up front, what question you’re asking and how you’re going to get the answer. If you believe you’re not asking a question then what you’re about to do is probably not an “iteration” of anything so you can stop reading now.
- Do: Execute the Plan. Measure and gather results.
- Study: Analyse the data gathered above. Look at what we’ve learned, and if our original question is answered.
- Act: (Action Research calls this “reflect”) Finally, we integrate the learning generated from the Study above into our product, service, processes or plans.
Looking at this in the four steps above it might be easy to miss an essential feature: the cycle repeats. That is, you are not iterating if you only do it once.
Apple’s App Store is littered with dabblers.
Dabbling has some shallow similarities to iterating:
- Small things are done, then released.
- There’s an apparent attempt to gather feedback.
And then, after that, nothing happens.
There are some particular examples I have in mind but it’s unfair to call them out because there are so many others. On the App Store the telltale sign of a dabble is that there’s been only one or two releases and they were some time ago. There’s nothing really wrong with this kind of development. Perhaps the author just wanted to learn the process, and that they’ve taken things all the way through to a release on the App Store is actually a Really Good Thing from a learning point of view.
On the other hand you can also find apps that have had one or two releases and then been abandoned because they “haven’t been profitable.” It’s easy and relatively cheap to build new apps — but it’s difficult and expensive to build new businesses.
Even large and well-funded projects can catch a touch of the dabbles. Requirements churn, stories that fiddle with colours and fonts, and funding cliff-falls are all potential warning signs that you’ve stopped being serious and have started pretending:
- Requirements Churn: Are you implementing the same basic functionality but you’re not sure why? Are your non-functional requirements changing rapidly? Are you contemplating switching to Yet Another Framework? Take a moment to check if these changes are going through a proper iteration cycle (PDSA).
- Polishing the Poo: In past projects I look back at the number of “0.5 point” stories and realise how useless all that was. It added up to a lot of “points” but I suspect little business value was added. There was no measurement of effects in the “Do” step, and no attempt to Study the impact. We’ll simply never know if any of that work was worth it.
- Budget/Funding Cliff-Falls: Looking back at research projects that I’ve managed I’ve decided one mistake I made was approving “build a prototype” projects with no funding or plan locked in to check it and develop it further. We certainly intended to do those things. But without a pre-approved budget to actually do them we lost momentum, staff, and potential customer enthusiasm.
There’s nothing wrong with dabbling, but dabble consciously. Understand when you’re doing it and why. If you’re iterating, iterate consciously. Call out the specific steps in the Deming/Shewhart cycle and confirm for yourself that the results of this iteration will be used in the next.
Now get back to work.
- In some formulations of Deming the word “check” is used here. In Action Research the word “observe” is used instead. I prefer “study” or “observe” over “check” because it’s closer to what we want to do — we want to learn and understand something about what we’re doing.
- What question is your MVP asking?
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