Borrow to Unlock a Breakthrough

Borrow to Unlock a Breakthrough

In his book Range, David Epstein describes a classic cognitive psychology experiment (p. 104ff). Participants in the experiment are given a challenging thinking puzzle involving how to use radiation to kill a tumor without harming healthy tissue. Only about 10% of participants solve the initial problem. Then, researchers share an analogous story from war strategy. With this extra story, 30% of participants solve the problem. Finally, researchers share another analogous story, this time from firefighting. Now, 50% of participants solve the problem. Given the problem, both stories, AND an instruction to use the stories to help solve the problem, 80% save the patient.

Epstein goes on to show example after example where borrowing an idea from an unrelated field unlocks a breakthrough. But, he points out, most people get stuck inside the details of the original problem and fail to take advantage of external ideas.

We developed a Sprint Review agenda based on choreographer Liz Lerman’s critical response process, a way to give and receive feedback in the context of dance. Then, we realized our Sprint Review approach could (and should) be applied in other situations where we or clients need feedback on work-in-progress outside of the Scrum context.

Similarly, we borrow from how we use Kanban on support teams to answer the question from a Scrum team: “How do we deal with emergencies that interrupt our sprints?” Check out this week’s Humanizing Work Show episode for our answer.

Breakthroughs come from applying ideas from outside their original context. But it’s important not to apply ideas from other contexts naively. What works in one context is unlikely to just work in another context. This is particularly true with complex problems, where the solution is experimental. Form a hypothesis about how to adapt and apply the idea, then run a test, then adapt based on the test. Repeat until it works or you discover it doesn’t and move on.

Next time you’re facing a challenging problem in your organization, where there’s not an obvious recipe to follow, instead of looking for a solution just within the original problem context, consider what you know from a hobby, a sport, history, etc., and let the analogy suggest creative solutions.

And another thing…

It’s frustrating that none of the standard backlog management tools make priority visible as we work on items. When we use physical boards to visualize our work, we have a prioritized list to start with. We bring the top item over to the next column as we work on it, while other cards in the ToDo column remain where they were originally placed. So at a glance, you can still see them in their original order. This makes it visible right away when a team pulls work into “in progress” out of order and should trigger a useful conversation.

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