Ben Holliday

The weight of starting

Why you don’t need more evidence or certainty

Seal of the City of Cincinnati
Image credit – elycefeliz

I sometimes think there’s a problem of digital teams taking too much time to do things. They just don’t get started soon enough.

Getting started is about being willing to go out and test your biggest assumptions.

Another way of looking at this. You sometimes don’t make your biggest assumptions until you start. That’s what starting is all about.

This doesn’t underestimate the importance of understanding the problem before you start, or what we sometimes call a ‘discovery‘.

My concern is that discovery can run and run before teams really get started.

This misses the point that agile teams should always be in a mindset of discovery, or continuous learning. Always willing to revisit assumptions they’ve made.

Working in a culture of evidence

So why don’t teams get started? The problem is the perception of not having enough evidence, or not having enough certainty to make decisions.

How important this is depends on the culture you’re working in. But again and again, I’ve found that people worry about evidence to the point of not starting.

To balance that argument, again and again, I’ve found from personal experience, that the best way to learn is to do something. This means making something, building proof-of-concepts. Anything that helps your team learn what works, and most importantly, what doesn’t work.

Counterbalancing starting with evidence

The hard part is starting.

I’ve found that the more you think about starting, the bigger it gets. It becomes an increasingly significant milestone.

The temptation is to try and counterbalance starting with evidence. With enough certainty to start.

The problem. The more evidence you think you need, the less likely you are to start.

Think of starting as being heavier than any combined weight of evidence you can gather.

There’s no tipping point for evidence in ‘discovery’. When building products for people, it doesn’t matter how much evidence and certainty you have, it will never outweigh the advantage of learning by doing.

Learning what doesn’t work, learning what does work

The basis of this idea is a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way.

Despite our best efforts to work with evidence, most of the time, we just don’t get things right first time.

When you’re working on a problem everything moves around you. The best chance you have is to learn what works. To do that, you first have to learn what doesn’t work.

Finding a better role for evidence

Sometimes the evidence you do have will mean you don’t start at all, or you start work on a different problem.

It’s important to find ways of using different types of learning and sources of data when building products.

The important thing is that we’re never done with bringing together different types of evidence. This is about increasing the certainty within a team that helps us to solve the problem and deliver the best possible product.

The certainty you have as a team should continue to grow as you develop your product. Building, measuring and learning.

Final point. Starting doesn’t mean that you won’t stop. It just means you stop sooner because you learn what works faster.

Making it real

Starting is making it real, or making real things.

It’s the momentum you need to make something happen. If you want to make things better for people you have to start.

To be a team that ‘starts’ think about introducing sensible time constraints. Apply these to understanding the problem, finding insights, and generating early testable ideas.

Remember, the hard part is starting. It’s a heavy weight. The only way is to get past it. Hurdle it. Go around it. Whatever it takes.

Just don’t try to outweigh starting with ‘enough’ evidence. You can’t.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.