Don’t fall into the scientism trap

Product teams can be victims of scientism. With agile methods and quick iteration, you can build things fast. But you can't make sure you're building the right things.

There is a fine line between theory and ideology. Both inform practice, but while a theory is preliminary and subject to change, an ideology is persistent and hostile to modification. Theories can easily turn into ideologies, and this can be damaging. Oftentimes, the distinction can be seen through the addition of the suffix -ism. In our case: science becomes scientism.

Scientism elevates a reasonable method – science – to the one and only acceptable way of doing business. It rules out everything that’s not scientific, in a hard science way. Science becomes something absolute, like the French king in the age of absolutism. This can of course work well for a while, but only until the French Revolution degrades the king.

These inevitable revolutions have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Scientism in product teams

Ben Sauer, who is scheduled to speak at NEXT19, posted a Twitter thread early this year to discuss the problem of scientism in product teams. He observes that agile and devops seem to be working, teams are getting better at iteration, organisations are improving delivery and coping with uncertainty. No doubt these are good news.

What Ben dubs scientism is the overstretched application of these modern toolsets and mindsets to situations where they don’t really make sense. It’s the old bias that comes with every tool: if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. With agile methods and quick iteration, you can build things fast. But you can’t make sure you’re building the right things.

Ben has some ideas about why scientism apparently has taken over. The first reason he gives is the widespread practice of measuring everything blindly. Only digital technology made this possible, since in the past it would have been prohibitively expensive to measure everything. The level of surveillance that’s feasible today was a wet dream of East Germany’s Stasi thirty years ago.

Measuring everything easily leads to a mindset assuming that everything that’s not measured or not measurable doesn’t even exist. Or at least doesn’t need to be taken into account. Key performance indicators are becoming the real thing, as opposed to indicators that point to something else, and something greater. For example, in the agile world velocity is important, but worthless if the team is racing towards the wrong goal.

New products are not about efficiency

How to find the right goal in the first place is another important question. There is a certain kind of uncertainty involved that needs to be reduced, while efficiency, speed and numbers should be increased. But new products are not about efficiency – new value is king. This new value must be discovered first, and this discovery process inherently comes with high uncertainty and low efficiency.

Ben’s bottom line: We need both qualitative and quantitative research. Quantitative is about the what, but not about the why. It is tempting to bring up Simon Sinek at this point. In the product world, the why is critically important. The why is the purpose. And the value as well. While purpose is qualitative, value can also be quantitative, at least when it comes to money be made.

So money and the bottom line can be key performance indicators for value created, but we should not confuse money with value. Products make money in exchange for the value they create.

Turning the modern toolsets into the citadel of scientism fits well with the tired old world of the industrial age, their corporate silos, their command and control mindset. But that’s not where the real value is. The real value drivers are creativity and imagination. Both are hard to measure. Both are deeply rooted in the liberal arts.

We are at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, as Steve Jobs famously put it. We might as well add science to the mix. But we shouldn’t fall into the scientism trap.

Photo by Devon Rogers on Unsplash