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Linda Rising at ADP West: Deception and estimating

“Every conference should have a weird talk,” began Linda Rising at the Agile Development West keynote this morning. “No one wants to talk about deficiencies in their brains.”

I guess it should be no surprise that the “weird talk” was a big hit, maybe because it was, in fact, different than what we are used to hearing.

Rising gave many examples of how we are not rational in the way we make decisions. “How many of you are married?” she asked, and then followed with, “Was that a rational decision?” No, not all decisions are rational.

In fact, Rising said, none of our decisions are rational. We use “filters” that influence our decisions that sometimes we may not even be aware of. How do we know Agile is the better way to develop code? Do we have proof? Rising compared this to someone taking a blue pill who claimed they felt a lot better when they took the pill. If they suggested you take it too, without any proof that it would work for you, would you do it?

“Cognitive scientists are telling us that all of our decisions are made below a level of consciousness and are not rational,” said Rising. We’re hardwired to think we are better than we really are. We see what we want to see.

Rising said that estimates are merely guesses. Even with sophisticated tools and data, estimates can be no better than a stab in the dark. Numbers we come up with are “squishy” numbers, so there should be some warning against using these for mathematical equations, said Rising as she compared this to predicting the competency of a sport’s team by averaging the numbers on the backs of their jerseys.

Though estimates are merely guesses, there are things we can do to better our chances at success. Smaller iterations, retrospectives and transparency — through having business and developers involved in decisions and estimations — can help improve accuracy with our project predictions.

In the end, Rising asked, if there was a pill that would let you be completely rational with every decision you made, would you take it? Though some people answered yes to this question, Rising said we are better off with our deception.

“Clinically depressed people are rational. That’s why they’re depressed!” she said, which got laughs from the audience.

Our minds may be overly-optimistic as we deceive ourselves and others, but these deceptions provide us happiness, confidence and passion about our beliefs. And though our estimates may not be factual, being aware of the limitations and working on ways to improve accuracy will help us with our decisions, even if they aren’t entirely rational.

Check our SSQ Special Report for more coverage and interviews with presenters at Agile Development Practices West 2011.

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