Saturday, June 30, 2012

On Puzzles and Mysteries

While reading Steve Denning's  "The Leader's Guide to Radical Management" this morning, I was introduced to an interesting distinction between puzzles and mysteries. I'm not sure this would be a dictionary type of distinction but certainly a useful one. Steve asserts that a puzzle is a problem for which there is a known (or at least knowable) solution. Even though that solution may be challenging to apply it is at least plannable. Traditional management and waterfall style methods are a good fit for puzzles, not surprising as that is exactly the kind of problem that they evolved to solve.

Mysteries, on the other hand, are problems that are new. That no one has solved before. They are not really knowable (at least in advance) as they are unique. The solution is going to be hard to find and will have to be uncovered a piece at a time with each successive discovery leading the investigation like clues in a good mystery novel :)

This idea seems to be basically the same as the difference between complicated and complex in complexity theory (as I understand it). Puzzles are complicated, mysteries are complex.

In his book, Steve is asserting that the traditional methods of management are aimed at solving the puzzle of efficiently providing goods and services. We have to accept that this is a valuable puzzle to solve, it provides obvious competitive advantages. He further asserts that this does not address the issue of what goods and services to provide and that there is a gap between what customers get and what customers want that is not answered through traditional management. This is where there is an opportunity to exploit another competitive advantage by refocusing the organisation on delighting customers. This seems to be the main driving force for the radical management techniques and I have to agree that this is the new frontier where real gains in competitive advantage can be found.

Steve's book provides a lot of insight into how an organisation can refocus on this frontier; self organizing teams, leaving decisions to the last responsible moment, iterations and increments, focusing on a minimum marketable product, etc. These are the same principles (and maybe some additional ones) that come from the Agile movement and Scrum.

What interested me this morning though was the nature of this problem of delighting customers. It may be mysterious now but if the solution is Radical Management/Agile/Scrum what happens when everyone is doing it. Will the problem become a puzzle, what will the next frontier be?

I think the answer is no. Delighting customers is not the problem that is solved by these new practices, it is the result of solving some other problems. It is a moving target, the key is in finding the problems/mysteries that then lead to customer delight. Delight comes from having a problem solved that you didn't even know you had. This may be leading to a delighting customers arms race as mysteries are found and converted to puzzles but that doesn't sound so bad.

In statistics there is a concept of a non-stationary time series (I know a little about this as it was the subject of my final year dissertation at college). This is a series of data over time that is by it's nature not possible to model as it changes behaviour (technically variance) over time. Such activity is found in stock market prices where feedback in the system is a factor. While there are people making a lot of money out of quantitative analysis (predicting the future by analysing the past data) the problem is that the activity that results from applying a model may change the model.

My feeling is that delighting customers follows the same pattern. Once customers figure out what it is that's delighting them they will no longer be delighted and will look for something more/different (I hope mainly different rather than more as that's what makes chasing these problems interesting).

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Arthur C. Clarke"Profiles of The Future", 1961 (Clarke's third law)

The problems we solve that delight people are the magic that then quickly depreciate to the status of advanced technology (sorry, advanced technology, you're just not as cool as magic). Magic (and delight) is a moving boundary.

So why am I worried about this? Well, I'm sure that there will be something new after Radical Management/Agile/Scrum but for now I wanted to reassure myself that these are the tools we need now to keep chasing the magic boundary which is still far ahead of us. When we catch it (or get close to it as traditional management has gotten us close to the magic of efficiency) we will likely need to adjust  our focus on a new magic boundary and with that will come new techniques and practices.


Apologies to Steve Denning if I have failed to get what he wanted to say in his book or in fact completely misrepresented him in this post. Suffice to say that everything written here is my own understanding and I do not wish to put words in anyone's mouths. Also, I'm less than a third of the way through the book so there is likely more in it than I have gotten out of it so far.

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