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Heuristics; It Takes a Pandemic For Me to Finally Understand...

What are heuristics and more importantly, why should I care? Heuristics is a term my friend uses all the time and one I simply never understood. It felt to me like a word that no one understood and the simple term “rule of thumb” seemed completely sufficient.

It took a global pandemic for me to finally get it. We are in the middle of a crisis that is proving to be one of the most complex problems of a generation. While most medical issues are complex, they typically have a scientific response that often solves the problem. These responses are reinforced through empirical data and continued effectiveness. There are no proven responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore we have to look for the very best alternatives that have the potential to solve the problem, also based on previous experience.

It is not that these potential solutions are sure bets by any stretch of the imagination. They may cause harm or one approach may directly conflict with another. We simply do not have time to put in the work to scientifically prove a solution is effective before we act. Whatever we do, that is at least based on something, is better than doing nothing at all.

These actions are heuristics. We know from experience that social isolation has a likelihood of keeping people from passing on a contagious disease. It would certainly be preferable to have a 100% safe and effective vaccine so we didn’t have to really do anything to stop the spread, but this will take far too long if it is possible at all. The social distancing heuristic seems like a pretty good idea compared to doing nothing and in the absence of a sure bet.

So finally understanding the term is one thing, but then I had to ask why do I care? I am not a Doctor or a Scientist by trade. I am an Agile Coach and Business Consultant working to help people perform to their full potential and deliver maximum value to their customers. But similar to the pandemic response, I have learned that there are really no absolute solutions in my business either.

Most of the customers I work with are dealing with truly complex problems that I cannot solve based on memorizing a series of solutions and just matching them up with the problems that are presented. I need a set of solid heuristics that I can leverage to help me try some things and see what works. I start to get in trouble if I start thinking my heuristics will always work or if I start to apply too much precision where there is no such precision.

The bottom line for me is I am actually pretty glad to have a word to describe this much larger definition of what I do for a living. Any given heuristic-based approach my customer and I use, may or may not help teams improve. If we go in to the exercise of trying things with this understanding, we set the right expectation and if we need to pivot, everyone is prepared to do so. If we think in absolutes, we may master the approach without really seeing the benefits. The result could be that we do agile practices well, but are we any better for it?

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