Podcast Ep. 5: Exploring an Experimental Mindset with Adam Ulery

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Episode Description:

In today’s episode of Agile Coaches’ Corner, host Dan Neumann joins AgileThought colleague, Adam Ulery, to discuss experimental mindsets.

As a senior agile coach and a multifamily property investor, Adam is a perpetually curious, continuous learner who is always willing to encourage others to try new things. Adam help organizations of all sizes clarify and meet their business outcomes. He is passionate about helping companies to become resilient, rediscover curiosity and change their traditional approach to business.

In today’s episode, Dan and Adam explore both the ‘experimental’ and the ‘mindset’ side of an experimental mindset, fully explaining what it is, how it’s used, the importance of it and the benefits. They also highlight how to successfully explore an experimental mindset and some of the key learnings that can come from implementing it.

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Key Takeaways

  • What is an ‘experimental mindset?’
    • Trying something new or different to see if it will work with an intention
    • Intention about what you’re setting out to learn (through a hypothesis) and then measuring results
  • How to successfully set out to experiment:
    • Begin with an end in mind (i.e. know what you’re setting out to achieve)
    • Be curious and start asking questions
    • Have a general awareness as a team and notice patterns to identify areas that may need experimenting (i.e. “what would happen if…?”)
    • Begin collecting data to help identify patterns
  • The importance of ‘mindset’ in an experimental mindset:
    • Being open and willing to try new things
    • Approaching it with a genuine curiosity
  • The benefits of an experimental mindset:
    • The results will always be valuable regardless of the outcome
    • They are small, safe experiments vs. big, risky bets
    • Provide valuable learning outcomes that mitigate risk

Adam Ulery’s Book Picks



Intro: [00:03] Welcome to Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought. The podcasts for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host, coach and, agile expert, Dan Neumann.

Dan Neumann: [00:21]  Welcome to this episode and with me today is Adam Ulery. You’ll read one of my fellow coaches here at AgileThought and one of the things I like about working with Adam is he seems perpetually curious and willing to encourage people to try new things in addition to trying things out himself. And so we are going to explore experimental mindset with Adam today. Thanks for joining.

Adam Ulery: [00:40] Thanks Dan. I’m happy to be here.

Dan Neumann: [00:41]  Fantastic. So maybe just to start and make sure we’re on the same page with what experimental mindset means, what, what comes to mind for you?

Adam Ulery: [00:50] Um, for me I guess the first thing that pops into my mind is trying something new to see if it will work. Trying something different to see if it will work.

Dan Neumann: [01:00]  Okay. That definitely fits with what I was thinking as well. How do you, how do you differentiate kind of trying something versus really setting up an experiment?

Adam Ulery: [01:16] Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the difference between just trying something that may or may not be useful may even be a waste of time. Um, and an experiment where you, you really learned something in the end is that you’re more intentional with the experiment. You’re intentional about what it is you want to try. Uh, you’re intentional about measuring that, finding a way to measure, determining what you should measure and then you are intentional about examining the results and comparing it to a hypothesis you made before you started.

Dan Neumann: [01:55]  Yeah, the just try it mindset reminds me a lot of what we used to do and in what would be called a post mortem. You know, back in the day we’d do a project three, six, nine, 12 months and then we do a post mortem and come up with this long list of things we wanted to do different next time. They were usually things like, oh, we should estimate better. Well, I mean, if we could estimate better, we would have like we didn’t intentionally estimate poorly, so there was really no way of knowing if that was going to be a successful change. It was just very haphazard.

Adam Ulery: [02:30] Yeah. I, you know, Dan, I consider myself a continuous learner. I’m, I’m always learning, uh, I consider myself someone who is constantly trying to learn new things. And that’s one thing I love about experiments is it lets you try new things and then actually learn from it versus just try something and hope it works and see what happens. Right.

Dan Neumann: [02:57]  Definitely. You had mentioned, uh, the intentionality of it and trying to understand what was working, what wasn’t, how you were going to measure it. How do you encourage folks to set up, let’s say that hypothesis. So really applying the scientific method is what, what you’re describing. So having a hypothesis, something that you want to either prove or disprove. You know, it doesn’t, you don’t have, you don’t have to be, right. You still learn, even if you’re wrong. How do you help people go and set that up when, when they want to go down this road of experimenting?

Adam Ulery: [03:27] Yeah, I usually, I talked to them about what it is we’re trying to achieve. So like Stephen Covey said, begin with the end in mind. Think about what outcome we’re really after. Why are we doing this experiment? Uh, and then that kind of helps one frame up what the hypothesis could be because it’s based on something you want to achieve. Um, from there you can kind of frame up a hypothesis what you, what you think may happen if you try this and um, and then that gives you something pretty good to go on and, and measure how you’ll determine if it was successful.

Dan Neumann: [04:05]  So Adam, we’ve talked a little bit about the experiment part of experimental mindset. Let’s explore the mindset portion of that. What, uh, what’s the importance of mindset in this topic?

Adam Ulery: [04:21] I think it’s about being open and willing to try new things. Um, mindset is so important and so many things we do in work and life. And, um, I think having a certain frame of mind, an approach to how you, how you work through problems is critical. If you’re not able to approach something with a genuine curiosity, with a willingness to try something new to step outside your comfort zone, even in some, in some areas, then it’s going to be really hard for you to try things. Uh, and especially when you’re not quite sure what will happen in the end.

Dan Neumann: [05:13]  Yeah. That to me, that differentiates maybe what we would expect from, oh gosh, I know we, we hear the phrase, oh, we can’t fail at this. Or, uh, we, we have to X, Y or Z, which is a very different mindset than, gosh, I wonder what will happen if we implement this new engineering practice or if we put the team closer together or what if we use post-it notes instead of an electronic tool or, you know, x, y, or z. So we have a hypothesis about what might happen as opposed to we have to do x or the outcome has to become y.

Adam Ulery: [05:53] Yeah. I completely agree. I mean that’s really what I’m talking. And, um, there, there’s often a tendency of some people in business to feel like they have to know everything. Um, and you know, they’re knowers. And like I said earlier, I’m more of a learner than a knower. You know, I don’t have to know everything. Um, and I’m really willing to admit that and try things to learn more. Um, I’m actually trying to get at the truth honestly. Um, I value discovering the truth over being right or knowing everything.

Dan Neumann: [06:35]  And I see that, I mean we’ve got two fairly like minded people talking here, so it’s, it’s almost unfair that we agree. I do think about people though who are learners stuck in organizations that reward knowing, cause there are some times when we walk into organizations, I’ve been in organizations where people get rewarded for their expertise and get promoted based on that. And there can be times when not knowing isn’t safe or rewarded within that organization.

Adam Ulery: [07:07] Yeah. And as agile coaches, Dan, you and I see that all the time as consultants, we’re always in different organizations, new organizations, and we’re usually there to help solve some really tough business problems. So I think you and I see that perhaps more than many. Um, and you know, I, I am at a point where I’m completely comfortable letting clients know, I don’t know exactly how this is going to go because many times there isn’t a predictable way it will go, but I love teaching them how to discover together in a way that’s safe. I love experimenting and trying something and showing them that we can do this and no matter what happens, we’ll be okay. It’s not going to be catastrophic and quite the opposite. I think we’ll learn something extremely valuable from it and then we can apply that.

Dan Neumann: [08:07]  Yeah. The phrase of safe to fail experiments comes to mind. We don’t want to create an experiment where if it goes wrong, there are some kind of catastrophic results to it,

Adam Ulery: [08:20] Right. We would never want to do anything like that or you know, take unnecessary unnecessarily high risks. At the end of the day, we’re really trying to learn something and we’re trying to solve a business problem. That’s the context around what you and I are discussing here regarding the experimentation. So, um, you know, we, we would always be doing it in a way that would allow us to learn something without causing irreparable damage to the organization.

Dan Neumann: [08:54]  That’s a nice transition. I was going to ask about some of the benefits of experimental mindset and I think you’ve touched on a couple of them. You know, there’s the value of, there’s the learning that comes out of it so that we’ve improved the process over time. And you’d also alluded to the safety, the benefits of an experimental mindset is we want to do small experiments that are safe as opposed to making big bets that maybe in a traditional project we would run a long time with a big bet that hey, when we, when we deploy the software, it’s going to scale well or it will be performant when lots of people hit it or you know, that it’s going to work in a model where we have some of our people located in one geography and some in another. We let these assumptions run for a really long time in a non experimental mindset. So in addition to maybe the safety and the learning, what other benefits of experimental mindset come to mind?

Adam Ulery: [09:58] I mean, I think the learning is, is such a large benefit. I’m not sure it could be understated. Um, that’s, that’s certainly the primary benefit that comes to mind for me because so much stems from that. Um, value flows from that. Right? I mean, and at the end of the day, that’s really what we’d like to see our clients and organizations we work with get is value to their customers from something we have learned. Because a lot of times, at least for you and I as agile consultants, uh, we’re trying to help the organization deliver some valuable product to their customer. So our experiments revolve around that in some way. And as we can learn that that’s kind of the gift that keeps on giving because that’s something we can apply in the future. It’s not just a one time thing. They can use that new learning, that new knowledge to improve how they do things in that area.

Dan Neumann: [11:06]  The value is one of those things that I think people can get hung up on. A lot of times when we think of product backlog items or learning value always not always put value frequently becomes something we talk about in terms of dollars and cents. And what we’re talking about here could be value of risk mitigation. It could be the value in the learning itself or behavior or keeping people engaged with your product longer. There’s all kinds of ways we could start to measure value that go beyond the dollar.

Adam Ulery: [11:41] Yeah. Agreed. And um, measure it at the customer. Like the last one you mentioned is the one that I was thinking of while we were talking about, which is retaining your customer, uh delighting your customer, you know, making them a loyal customer. So think about your favorite mobile app. Um, you know, they’ve, they’ve probably done something along the way to ensure that you love it. There’s a reason why you do. They’ve probably talked to other customers or users similar to yourself. Uh, they’ve probably done some experiments with the app itself and uh, you know, that’s part of what we’re talking about here.

Dan Neumann: [12:20]  Definitely. So how do you encourage folks to get started? Let’s say they, maybe this experimental mindset is new to them. Running a hypothesis or validating a hypothesis or invalidating it as new to them. How, how do you help folks get started?

Adam Ulery: [12:37] I talk to them a lot about being curious and just start asking questions. Like, I wonder what would happen if “…” Asking those out loud, even in front of each other, I think is a great way to get started in that, that kind of instigates this curious mindset and what to experiment with will come out of the conversation that flows from that type of thing.

Dan Neumann: [13:07]  Yeah. The conversation, the free flow of ideas going back and forth that you can kind of have a chance to then build on, build on each other’s ideas.

Adam Ulery: [13:18] Right. Like, you know, I um, it seems like we’re really having trouble getting this piece of software deployed at the end of the sprint. I wonder what would happen if we did X, Y, Z to, to crack that and then the team can kind of jump in and start talking through what that might look like. If it sounds like something that would be valuable for them to experiment with, then then they can start to move towards a more formal experimental setup.

Dan Neumann: [13:53]  Yeah. As you said that another type of question that came to mind for me is what are we assuming that if we’re wrong it’s going to be catastrophic. So yeah. I had alluded to maybe scaling earlier, like we will be able to handle, you know, x hundreds or thousands of people at a time. Boy, if we’re wrong about that, come black Friday where we’re in trouble. Are there other things? So there’s, you know, what assumptions are we expecting to hold true that that’ll have kind of a major downside. There’s, there’s the, I wonder what would happen if, what other types of getting started comes to mind?

Adam Ulery: [14:48] You know, kind of an awareness of some things that could be tried. Um, a bit of awareness around your approach. It’s almost like a, a self awareness as a team for example, hey, we know we’re doing this thing this way and I’ve just noticed a pattern. We seem to be getting tripped up here. So that kind of self awareness can help the team identify areas where you might want to try something. And then once you kind of get that feeling that hey, I think there might be something that we could try here. You could articulate that again out loud in front of your teammates and that will get the conversation started.

Dan Neumann: [15:34]  Pattern identification is huge. You said you’d mentioned maybe we’ve noticed a pattern that’s happening. And one way to notice those patterns is to begin collecting data. And one of the things I see a lot of Scrum teams do is about the only data they look at is their velocity. So they might look at how many story points they finished each sprint, but oftentimes they don’t go beyond that very superficial metric. They’re not looking at the test failure, they’re not looking at the test coverage or the code. They’re not looking at how many person hours get spent to deploy their software, you know, to QA, to staging, to production, those types of things. And collecting a bigger set of data can really help to identify what those patterns are. Gosh, maybe what would it be like to not spend 20 person hours deploying to production every sprint.

Adam Ulery: [16:38] Right. Right. I like that. And then that’s going to lead to other questions. Um, you know, through that conversation I believe the other questions about, yeah. That, that’s right. Uh, what could we do about that? Hmm. I’m curious what would happen if, and um, you know, just to continue around that asking questions around what it would look like, what the end state would look like, the desired end state. Yeah. If we didn’t spend 20 hours deploying, uh, if we spent three or less, what would we be doing instead? Oh, that sounds great. Let’s talk about some things we might try to get us there.

Dan Neumann: [17:26]  Definitely. So thinking out loud, asking those questions and starting to look for patterns are three of those keys that we, we’ve talked about here. Have you employed the experimental mindset kind of outside of what we traditionally think of as software teams? Or what experiments have you conducted?

Adam Ulery: [17:46] Uh, yeah, I’m, uh, I’m doing this outside of the agile teams. I’ll do it at home, uh, with my family and, um, I invest in real estate and I’ve tried it there as well. When I first started my real estate investing journey, uh, did a lot of experimentation and I continue to, uh, and at first some, some things that stand out to me are when I was trying to figure out what my investor identity really was. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to flip houses or, or buy houses and hold them and rent them or do something different. And where I ended up was apartment investing. So, uh, currently invest in apartment buildings and it took a lot of experiments to get there. So I tried a lot of things, try to investing in some of those other areas and what, you know, of course did some of the things we talked about here where I, I measured the results and solve, uh, the outcomes and that helped me decide where to ultimately land, which is where I am now.

Dan Neumann: [19:02]  Yeah. So you were experimenting essentially on a business model, so how do, how do you find the right business model for your, your other interests outside of kind of the software world? And that’s a place where, you know, a lot of software teams, software companies or companies, whether they’re making software or not, can, can also experiment to find out maybe where their core business model is, if they’re starting or how to leverage some of their core competencies for maybe some incremental revenue outside of what their traditional core is so they can diversify a little bit.

Adam Ulery: [19:40] Right. Yeah. And I did some experiments within that. I mean, for example, with capital investing, uh, at first I tried some different ways to raise capital and um, saw how they worked. And where I’ve ultimately landed is I raise capital now from people like you and me, busy professionals who want to invest but may not have the time to, but I didn’t get there right away. It took some, some experiments. I tried some private money, I tried, uh, money from traditional lending institutions and through those experiments I landed where I am now.

Dan Neumann: [20:15]  Very cool. More safe experiments. Nice. Then that actually segways into what types of things are you learning right now, particularly through reading as part of your continuous learning journey? It’s something we’ve been asking folks as part of capping off the podcast episode.

Adam Ulery: [20:33] Oh yeah, thanks Dan. This is one of my favorite questions because I’m an avid reader. I read a ton, um, lots of self improvement things. And right now I’m reading a pretty awesome book by Brené Brown called “Dare to Lead.” I’m getting a lot of that. Um, she talks about some things I mentioned in the podcast earlier with, um, being a learner versus a knower. I love the way she puts that. Um, and before that I read “Principles” by Ray Dalio and that also has something that I mentioned. Uh, a lesson I took out of that was really valuing, getting to the truth over being right. Uh, so those two have been super valuable to me. And then, um, I, I’m finishing up the “Age of Agile” by Steve Denning. There are so many incredible lessons I’ve taken out of that. I can’t stop talking about that book. Uh, and then I’m also reading “Crushing it in Apartments and Commercial Real Estate Investing,” by Brian Murray. So I’ve always got several things going on.

Dan Neumann: [21:40]  And this is where I feel inadequate.

Adam Ulery: [21:48] My whip is high in this area, but I do continue to make measurable progress so I don’t feel too bad about it.

Dan Neumann: [21:56]  Very nice. Well, and I’m guessing you can correct me if I’m wrong, that the pay off or the value isn’t in finishing each of these books, that somewhere in “Dare to Lead” or “Principals,” “Age of Agile” or “Crushing,” there is not big bang value on the very last page of the books.

Adam Ulery: [22:14] Right. And I really try to take things away from those books. I don’t speed through them.

Dan Neumann: [22:21]  Yeah. So more of a studyer versus um, kind of bubblegum types of books.

Adam Ulery: [22:26] Absolutely. I mean, usually the books I pick are pretty meaty on purpose and I’ll always have one on audio. So I listened to those while I’m driving. If I’m not listening to a podcast like this one.

Dan Neumann: [22:40]  And “Dare to lead” has come up now this is at least you’re at least the third person that has brought that up this week. So I think that’s going to have to bubble up to near the top of my backlog and we’ll link off to those four books that has as part of the show notes. Hey, well thanks for joining Adam. I appreciate you sharing insights on the experimental mindset.

Adam Ulery: [23:03] Thanks, Dan. I really enjoyed our time.

Dan Neumann: [23:05]  Until next time.

Outro: [23:08] This has been the agile coaches corner podcast brought to you by AgileThought, get the show notes and other helpful tips from this episode and other episodes at agilethought.com/podcast.

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