The limitations of inpect and adapt

Inspect and adapt is a beautifully simple concept. Start with a process and introspect to find areas where things are not optimal. Test remedies for the problems you uncover to see if they improve things. Repeat. In theory you can arrive at an ideal development process within your context with the aid of inspect and adapt. All agile processes that I know of include a variant of this approach. Some gurus even suggest that inspect and adapt is almost the only essential part of an agile process.

I have made it a habit to be skeptical of ideas that seem to be too good to be true. Things that seem self-evident often turn out to be gross oversimplifications. The more you look the more loose ends you find. And yes, the promise of inspect and adapt is one of those ideas that tends to be oversold. That does not mean it is a bad idea! You should definitely be doing it in your team. Just do not expect miracles.

What’s the problem?

Imagine asking a typical manager in a software development house about how they decide on changes in the way things are done. Do you really think the answer would be: “We just guess and never check the result”…  Managers I have worked with invariably describe a decision making process that uses some form of inspect and adapt. So, by logical inference most every company should already have an optimized development process that everyone is happy with. And yet they don’t.

I need to sidetrack a bit. I am generally skeptical of quotes as they tend to lose their meaning when taken out of context. The following Deming quote is a case in point:

Experience by itself teaches nothing… Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no questions to ask. Hence, without theory, there is no learning.” W. Edwards Deming

Taken at a very literal level this quote is absurd. All theory is a result of an iterative process where experience feeds theory and theory supplies ideas for what should be experienced. Another thing that I find strange with this quote is the idea that people operate without a theory. People do not always make their theories explicit but that does not mean that they have no theory. This second quote comes to mind:

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” John Maynard Keynes

So what am I trying to say? Simply this: the problem with inspect and adapt is that if you start with a misguided theory, experience in itself is no guarantee that you will be able to improve. Sometimes you need input from the outside in order to see why things are not working.

Niklas Björnerstedt

Posted on 2013.10.09 at 13:48

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About Niklas

Born in Sweden, grew up in New York, lives in Norway. Yes, I have problems with identity, but I do think that my background helps me see things from a different perspective.

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