A Probe by Any Other Name

In complexity (new stuff is complex) we prefer to probe; which means to try something out that’s safe-to-fail.

Knowing things are failing or succeeding relies on feedback loops; but who do we get feedback from? And what do we do with it?

There are a few different terms for different kinds of probes in the industry, so I’m writing down my thoughts here about each kind, from the PoV of someone in the development team. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules; if you have different naming conventions that’s probably OK.

Spike – demonstrates to us (the team) that something is possible.

Prototype – demonstrates to someone else that something is possible.

Alpha – gets feedback from real users / customers on value. Fix showstoppers; keep track of other bugs.

Beta – gets feedback on readiness to release. Fix bugs.

Release – provides value, even if in a limited context. Fix bugs urgently.

One of the most common problems I see is a mismatch between what the team, the PO, the business and other stakeholders all think people are working on.

Chris Matts explained a phenomenon to me called “signalling intent”. It’s what happens when you intend to explore or open up an option, but instead you accidentally communicate a commitment.

For instance, let’s say you work in a very casual office. Shorts and flip-flops are the norm. You get a call from an engineer at Avogadro Corp (side-note: read this book; it’s really good). It seems like it might be a fun conversation; even if you aren’t looking to jump ship, it would be a shame to waste the chance to find out more. So you turn up in the morning dressed smartly, ready for your meeting in the afternoon.

But your team-mates and managers have noticed. They think you’re going for an interview. Your lightweight probe is interpreted as a commitment; they think you’re about to jump ship. Their behaviour changes as a result.

When a perfectly lightweight probe is miscommunicated as a firm investment or commitment, people start aligning around it (positively or negatively) until it becomes the only option available. At that point it’s no longer safe-to-fail.

So if you’re thinking of trying out a probe, consider how you’re going to communicate it, both internally and externally, to the team, or to the leaders, or to the customers.

And if you are a leader, consider how you’re asking for the probe in the first place. If it’s an experiment you want, tell your people. Clarify your intent about the level of feedback you’re looking for, and the extent of the commitment you’re willing to make, in time or money or social capital, however small.

The alternative is disorder, and the inevitable chaos that results.


This entry was posted in cynefin, feedback, real options, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Probe by Any Other Name

  1. agileidiot says:

    You talk about a book in the article, but no mention of what it is.

  2. Pingback: BDD Addict Newsletter December 2020 (#50) - Gáspár Nagy on software

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