SATURN 2013 Keynote: Learning to Surf, Mary Poppendieck (notes)

Notes by Brendan Foote

Keynote Address: Learning to Surf
Mary Poppendieck, Poppendieck.LLC 

We’ve always had to ability to think in different ways by pretending to “stand in someone else’s shoes.” But without even trying, we are using two different modes of thinking: type 1, the fast, reflexive, intuitive mode; and type 2, which is slow and thoughtful.

“Instead of learning to surf, conventional organizations try to organize the waves.” Holding to this metaphor, the more useful approach is to hone one’s type 1 skills. We should become expert surfers. And expertise is classically type 1 behavior, where reflexes are internalized and don’t require thinking. Experts have focused on a subject area long enough to make enough mistakes and get enough feedback to develop a mental model of a problem space, so that if things unfold in the way the expert expects, no thinking is required.

In thinking, there are pitfalls called cognitive biases. Three common ones are confirmation bias, anchoring, and loss aversion. Another potential pitfall is classifying decisions as purely either-or, of which both teenagers and corporations are guilty. But there are other options: why not both, or what about none of the above? Decision makers can also learn as much as possible and decide as late as possible. Solving by looking for patterns or analogies is also an effective technique for decision making. Cognitive biases can also be combated by sourcing different opinions from team members and checking them against base rates of the success of given solutions.

Can big companies surf, or must one necessarily be performing such a feat alone? Well, Ericcson was able to break the false dichotomy of either-or decision making in the context of speed or quality by automating processes sufficiently. He and his team also decided to manage features instead of projects, and to decouple their releases from development. They also embraced uncertainty by having teams not report an estimated completion date, but rather the earliest date by which they might finish, as well as the latest possible date.

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