Agile possibility space

Agile possibility space

There are many different options that a team may take when adopting or adapting its processes. For instance:

  • an explicit daily standup, or an asynchronous approach with daily updates circulated by team members
  • how long the team’s cycle is, governing the frequency of forward planning meetings, team retrospectives and so forth
  • cake Wednesdays?

The total range of options can be thought of as a possibility space, which allows us to think of the current practices as being at a particular point in that space, with the team able to move in a number of different directions by making different choices.

At any given time, a team may move in a number of directions through possibility space.

Choices will either make things better or worse for the team (or have no overall impact). We could think theoretically in terms of each position in the space, itself a combination of different choices, having a ‘fitness’ number. So for instance a team distributed across several timezones would likely have a higher value of fitness for daily updates than for a daily standup at a particular time, because they may not all be able to attend.

There may be more than one ‘current best position’. In fact, with the number of process choices a team is likely to have available to them, there probably will be more than one — and there could be many. If we think of a possibility space in two dimensions only, we could imagine a map of some landscape, with fitness being the height. Maybe you can visualise a team, scrambling over rocks or running down gullies, trying to find the best place to be right now.

We can visualise fitness as contour lines on a map.

One benefit of thinking like this is that it focusses our attention away from trying to find the “one true best methodology” and onto exploring the space. Teams sometimes have to try things out to see if they work, and it’s often not possible to know what the best set of choices are in advance. Certainly there is no universal ‘best position’: it’s dependent on both the current team and the current situation. If you’re on a mountain and someone twists their ankle, or there’s an unexpected thunderstorm, your idea of the best place to be will change. Similarly, changes to team composition, project demands, and other environmental factors from outside the team, will affect good process choices.

If you think of adapting a team’s process as an adventure in possibility space, it can also make it more clear how important it is that the entire team is involved. An idea of which direction to strike out in — which process change to try — can come from anyone, but should be implemented with everyone’s consent.

Of course, the possibility space for most teams will have many more than two dimensions. Additionally, because the ‘success’ of a process choice can be measured in different terms (such as happiness of team, short-term velocity, long-term defect rate and so forth), you can’t really assign just one number; in fact, you often can’t fully predict the outcome of a particular process choice. However conceptually (and mathematically) this doesn’t matter so much, and it’s useful to have a metaphor for things.