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Culture of Experimentation

Successful evolution demands experimentation, but some companies fail to experiment because they are too busy delivering to plans. Successful experimentation is about running small activities on a regular basis to try out new ideas (both from a technical and product perspective) and to integrate successful experiments into existing systems.

The real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded into 24 hours.

Thomas Alva Edison

Organizations can encourage experimentation in a variety of ways:

Bringing ideas from outside

Many companies send their employees to conferences and encourage them to find new technologies, tools, and approaches that might solve a problem better. Other companies bring in external advice or consultants as sources of new ideas.

Encouraging explicit improvement

Toyota is most famous for their culture of kaizen, or continuous improvement. Everyone is expected to continually seek constant improvements, particularly those closest to the problems and empowered to solve them.

Spike and stabilize

A spike solution is an extreme programming practice where teams generate a throw-away solution to quickly learn a tough technical problem, explore an unfamiliar domain, or increase confidence in estimates. Using spike solutions increases learning speed at the cost of software quality; no one would want to put a spike solution straight into production because it would lack the necessary thought and time to make it operational. It was created for learning, not as the well engineered solution.

Creating innovation time

Google is well known for their 20% time, where employees can work on any project for 20% of their time. Other companies organize Hackathons and allow teams to find new products or improvements to existing products. Atlassian holds regular 24-hour sessions called ShipIt days.

Following set-based development

Set-based development focuses on exploring multiple approaches. At first glance, multiple options appear costly because of extra work, but in exploring several options simultaneously, teams end up with a better understanding of the problem at hand and discover real constraints with tooling or approach. The key to effective set-based development is to prototype several approaches in a short time-period (i.e., less than a few days) to build more concrete data and experience. A more robust solution often appears after taking into account several competing solutions.

Connecting engineers with end-users

Experimentation is only successful when teams understand the impact of their work. In many firms with an experimentation mindset, teams and product people see first-hand the impact of decisions on end-customers and are encouraged to experiment to explore this impact. A/B testing is one such practice companies use with this experimentation mindset. Another practice companies implement is sending teams and engineers to observe how users interact with their software to achieve a certain task. This practice, taken from the pages of the usability community, builds empathy with end-users and engineers often return with a better understanding of user needs, and with new ideas to better fulfill them.

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