Saturday, July 12, 2014

What we forget about the Scientific Method

I get fed up hearing other Agile evangelists champion The Scientific Method, I don’t disagree with them, I use it myself but I think they are sometimes guilty of overlooking how the scientific method is actually practiced by scientists and researchers. Too often the scientific approach is made to sound simple, it isn’t.

First lets define the scientific method. Perhaps rather than call it “scientific method” it is better called “experimentation.” What the Agile Evangelists of my experience are often advocating is running an experiment - perhaps several experiments in parallel but more likely in sequence. The steps are something like this:

  1. Propose a hypothesis, e.g. undertaking monthly software releases instead of bi-monthly will result in a lower percentage of release problems
  2. Examine the current position: e.g. find the current figures for release frequency and problems, record these
  3. Decide how long you want to run the experiment for, e.g. 6 months
  4. Introduce the change and reserve any judgement until the end of the experiment period
  5. Examine the results: recalculate the figures and compare these with the original figures
  6. Draw a conclusion based on observation and data

I agree with all of this, I think its great, but…

Lets leave aside problems of measurement, problems of formulating the hypothesis, problems of making changes and propagation problems (i.e. the time it takes for changes to work though the system). These are not minor problems and they do make me wonder about applying the scientific method in the messy world of software and business but lets leave them to one side for the moment.

Lets also leave aside the so-called Hawthorne Effect - the tendency for people to change and improve their behaviour because know they are in an experiment. Although the original Hawthorne experiments were shown to be flawed some time ago the effect might still be real. And the flaws found in the Hawthorne experiments should remind us that there may be other factors at work which we have not considered.

Even with all these caveats I’m still prepared to accept an experimental approach to work has value. Sometimes the only way to know whether A or B is the best answer is to actually do A and do B and compare the results.

But, this is where my objections start…. There are two important elements missing from the way Agile Evangelists talk about the scientific method. When real scientists - and I include social-scientists here - do an experiment there is more to the scientific method than the experiment and so there should be in work too.

#1: Literature review - standing on the shoulders of others

Before any experiment is planned scientists start by reviewing what has gone before. They go to the library, sometimes books but journals are probably more up to date and often benefit from stricter peer review. They read what others have found, they read what others have done before, the experiments and theories devised to explain the results.

True your business, your environment, your team are all unique and what other teams find might not apply to you. And true you might be able to find flaws in their research and their experiments. But that does not mean you should automatically discount what has gone before.

If other teams have found consistent results with an approach then it is possible yours will too. The more examples of something working the more likely it will work for you. Why run an experiment if others have already found the result?

Now I’m happy to agree that the state of research on software development is pitiful. Many of those who should be helping the industry here, “Computer Science” and “Software Engineering” departments in Universities don’t produce what the industry needs. (Ian Sommerville’s recent critique on this subject is well worth reading “The (ir)relevance of academic software engineering research”). But there is research out there. Some from University departments and some from industry.

Plus there is a lot of research that is relevant but is outside the computing and software departments. For example I have dug up a lot of relevant research in business literature, and specifically on time estimation in psychology journals (see my Notes on Estimation and Retrospective Estimation and More notes on Estimation Research.)

As people used to dealing with binary software people might demand a simple “Yes this works” or “No it doesn’t” and those suffering from physics envy may demand rigorous experimental research but little of the research of this type exists in software engineering. Much of software engineering is closer to psychology, you can’t conduct the experiments that would give these answers. You have to use statistics and other techniques and look at probabilities. (Notice I’ve separated computer science from software engineering here. Much of computer science theory (e.g. sort algorithm efficiency, P and NP problems, etc.) can stand up with physics theory but does not address many of the problems practicing software engineers face.)

#2: Clean up the lab

I’m sure most of my readers did some science at school. Think back to those experiments, particularly the chemistry experiments. Part of the preparation was to check the equipment, clean any that might be contaminated with the remains of the last experiment, ensure the workspace was clear and so on.

I’m one of those people who doesn’t (usually) start cooking until they have tidies the kitchen. I need space to chop vegetables, I need to be able to see what I’m doing and I don’t want messy plates getting in the way. There is a word for this: Mise en place, its a French expression which according to Wikipedia means:

“is a French phrase which means "putting in place", as in set up. It is used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients (e.g., cuts of meat, relishes, sauces, par-cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables, and other components) that a cook will require for the menu items that are expected to be prepared during a shift.”

(Many thanks to Ed Sykes for telling me a great term.)

And when you are done with the chemistry experiment, or cooking, you need to tidy up. Experiments need to include set-up and clean-up time. If you leave the lab a mess after every experiment you will make it more difficult for yourself and others next time.

I see the same thing when I visit software companies. There is no point in doing experiments if the work environment is a mess - both physically and metaphorically. And if people leave a mess around when they have finished their work then things will only get harder over time. There are many experiments you simply can’t run until you have done the correct preparation.

An awful lot of the initial advice I give to companies is simply about cleaning up the work environment and getting them into a state where they can do experiments. Much of that is informed by reference to past literature and experiments. For example:

  • Putting effective source code control and build systems in place
  • Operating in two week iterations: planning out two weeks of work, reviewing what was done and repeating
  • Putting up a team board and using it as a shared to-do list
  • Creating basic measurement tools, whether they be burn-down charts, cumulative flow diagrams or even more basic measurements

You get the idea?

Simply tidying up the work environment and putting a basic process in place, one based on past experience, one which better matches the way work actually happens can alone bring a lot of benefit to organizations. Some organizations don’t need to get into experiments, they just need to tidy up.

And, perhaps unfortunately, that is where is stops for some teams. Simply doing the basics better, simply tidying up, removes a lot of the problems they had. It might be a shame that these teams don’t go further, try more but that might be good enough for them.

Imagine a restaurant that is just breaking even, the food is poor, customers sometimes refuse to pay, the service shoddy so tips are small, staff don’t stay long which makes the whole problem worse, a vicious circle develops. In an effort to cut costs managers keep staffing low so food arrives late and cold.

Finally one of the customers is poisoned and the local health inspector comes in. The restaurant has to do something. They were staggering on with the old ways until now but a crisis means something must be done.

They clean the kitchen, they buy some new equipment, they let the chef buy the ingredients he wants rather than the cheapest, they rewrite the menu to simplify their offering. They don’t have to do much and suddenly the customers are happier: the food is warmer and better, the staff are happier, a virtuous circle replaces a vicious circle.

How far the restaurant owners want to push this is up to them. If they want a Michelin star they will go a long way, but if this is the local greasy spoon cafe what is the point? - It is their decision.

They don’t need experiments, they only need the opening of the scientific method, the bit that is too often overlooked. Some might call it “Brilliant Basics” but you don’t need to be brilliant, just “Good Basics.” (Remember my In Search of Mediocracy post?).

I think the scientific method is sometimes, rightly or wrongly, used as a backdoor in an attempt to introduce change. To lower resistance and get individuals and teams to try something new: “Lets try X for a month and then decide if it works.” Thats can be a legitimate approach. But dressing it up in the language of science feels dishonest.

Lets have less talk about “The Scientific Method” and more talk about “Tidying up the Kitchen” - or is it better in French? Mise en place…. come to think of it, don’t the Lean community have Japanese word for this? Pika pika.


  1. I would also question how feasible it would be to perform a real experiment. For instance to do it properly, we would need to isolate the experiment from external influence. For instance...

    Introduce a control group. i.e. A team which is not permitted to change any of its practices for the next 6 months.

    Block all other changes to working practices. i.e. Ignore all improvements proposed in retrospectives for the next 6 months.

    Prevent changes to the working environment. i.e. No office moves. No management restructuring. No new team members. Nobody permitted to leave the team, go off sick or take vacation.

    Nobody permitted to learn anything for 6 months. Because that could have a serious impact on productivity!

    Otherwise, any results are clearly inconclusive. :)

  2. I suggest going back to the foundations in Descartes' original writings. There is some really good foundational stuff in there about the place of separation of concerns, inductive and deductive reasoning, an overall audit of reason, and many other nuggets. Most of what has come down from Descartes to modern-day method loses many of his original ideas in part because it's grounded only in his earlier writings. In his later writings he became much more like his nemesis Pascal (as Pascal became much more like Descartes as well).

    Anyhow, to me, scientific method is something much deeper than can be caricatured in a a six-rule summary. And it's only common sense to discover when people take ridiculous and inhumane courses of action even in the name of science, and you don't need such a definition of science to achieve progress. Go the extra mile and discover the richness of the ideas in its origins, starting with Discours sur la Methode and then graduating to his essays from later in life.


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