Agile, Learning & Random Walk of Performance

The pace of business continues to accelerate. Learning is more valuable than ever. We place a high priority on change. However, with this focus on pace and adaptation comes the danger of a random walk of performance.

The Random Walk of Performance

The random walk of performance occurs when the rate of change overwhelms the insights of the performance of that change. We begin to react before we know what we are learning from our changes to improve performance.

Here’s a common example:

  • A product owner wants to test a new product in market with the sales team
  • After the first few days the results are disappointing so they make a change to the communication materials
  • A few days later the results haven’t improved so there’s changes made to the sales approach
  • A few days later the product pricing is changed because the change in sales approach disrupts the sales team and sales decline
  • Later still some more product features are announced to address customer feedback from the first week
  • Eventually with no consistency & no baseline to measure from the team realises that while there may be positive signs now, they don’t know what they learned through this process of change. Would results have improved with time? What changes worked? What should they do now? Everyone is stressed & confused, catching up with the cascade of change, and the confusion isn’t helping performance. Was that the issue all along?

I used a product example but the same situation happens with the development of personal skills. Practising new skills takes time to develop confidence, involves discomfort and needs persistence.  Layer too many changes of approach on top of each other too quickly and it can be hard to develop the desired skills and understand what is driving changes. Far too many people give up on positive changes because they aren’t prepared to wait for outcomes or the change gets overwhelmed by the next new thing.

Avoiding the Random Walk

To avoid the random walk, changes need to be given time to embed into performance and they also need a clear baseline against which to measure performance.  The desire to test multiple changes at once is why many organisations now run complex comparison testing. Separating the changes into different cohorts helps keep clear the impact of each change. It also makes it easier for the system to adapt to each individual change and improves the pace of assessment.

Processes like scrum build in reflection at the end of a sprint cycle so that learnings can be built into the next sprint. Staging learning into the system in this way gives better assessment of the need for and impact of changes.

At an individual level we can manage the random walk by:

  • being clear on our measures of performance and the base performance level
  • persisting with a change until we can understand the impact on performance, often until after the period of conscious incompetence ends
  • resisting the temptation to change everything at once or in rapid succession
  • building in time for reflection

Rapid learning is more important than ever. However a random walk of performance tells us little. We need to plan our changes as part of a process of managing learning and adaptation.

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