In one scene of the TV show Mad Men, a young advertising copywriter (Peggy Olson) asks her boss (Don Draper) how to know which of her advertising ideas will work best.
He tells her she can’t know in advance, which frustrates her. He then adds that part of her job is “living in the not knowing.”
Part of our job, too, is living in the not knowing.
To survive--perhaps even thrive--here in the not knowing, we need to become comfortable with uncertainty. That means we can’t:
- Know six months in advance exactly what will be delivered on what date and at what cost
- Know exactly how much more productive one team is than another
- Know how users will respond to a feature before they see it
Similarly, we can’t even really know things such as that velocity will go up when a good, new member is added to the team. It should, but it’s not guaranteed.
I can think of at least a couple of situations in which adding a good person to the team reduced velocity for more than the first few sprints while the team adjusted to the new member.
And, of course, we can’t know what external forces may affect our product, company or industry.
We are all living in the not knowing.
What can we do about it? As Kent Beck put in the subtitle of his book XP Explained, we need to embrace uncertainty. We can do that by:
- Realizing that whatever uncertainties our organization faces are also faced by our competitors. To outdo your competition, you don’t need certainty. You just need to deal with uncertainty better than they do.
- Not wasting needless time trying to eliminate uncertainty that cannot be eliminated. You could waste a lot of time striving for certainty. And living in the not-knowing, you’ll never reach it, so stop trying.
- Acting on whatever information you already have or can get quickly and efficiently. In a world where we can’t know everything, the best recourse is to act on what we already know and then learn more by iterating on the product.
Welcome to the not knowing. The sooner you can get used to being here, the sooner you can succeed with agile,