So this post has been on my mind for a while, but something happened at work today….
It would seem to me that it’s human nature to explain occurrences in the simplest manner possible, often in the form of linear “cause and effect” relationships. You know, after you kick a ball, you realize the that the kick (cause) led the ball to move (effect) and so we are always looking for that “kick” that led something to happen. For example, why did we find fewer defects this sprint? Well, it’s because we went from a 3 week sprint to a 2 week sprint.
Is it really that simple? I don’t think so. I’m reminded of the phrase “correlation does not imply causation“. In the domain of systems thinking (and every one responsible for the system should have a basic understanding of systems thinking), we realize that there are often many variables at play in the system.
Take the “fewer defects” example I mentioned earlier. While it is true that the sprint duration was shortened, is it possible that other conditions changed as well? Was the team now a bit more familiar with the work? Was their less pressure because they committed to less in that particular sprint? Was this work less complex than the work before? Was technical expertise that had been missing before made available? What about the conditions we are not aware of? I mean, we can’t be aware of everything can we?
The additional challenge we have is that we rarely have the luxury of repeating our experiments. Every time we try something new, the conditions are different. How many times do we get the opportunity to develop the same feature repeatedly just to capture how effective a change is? I assume rarely, if ever. Our laboratories don’t allow us to reset and run the exact same experiments over and over.
So where does this leave us? (Especially those of us who consider ourselves to be expert problem solvers!). Does this imply that we cannot attribute cause to the things that happen around us? I think we need to be a bit more respectful of the complexity of the problems we often face. We need to understand that the underlying structures and conditions continually impact one another. To use systems thinking parlance, structures reinforce and balance one another. There are often many factors at play and we should be careful latching onto a single one as THE (only) cause. This complicates things for us in some regards, but put us in a position where we can actually dissolve problems.
It is rarely as simple as we often make it out to be.
PS. Some links to my posts on systems thinking.