We like to have options. Whether it’s expressed as alternatives to choose from, or cash in hand, or ability to change, options are important to us. We aren’t meant to be confined.
If you really investigate your own feelings about options, I bet you’ll uncover a few things. First, the idea of having options is more important to us than actually having that potential for change, or for free choice. We overvalue having options available to us, in a lot of situations. And the fear of losing the options we imagine we have matters more to us than it probably should. This isn’t just about loss aversion. It’s the idea that we are clinging to things that were illusory, or didn’t have much value, to start with.
People spend so much time keeping their options open, spend energy examining and choosing between alternatives, that it gets in the way of doing good and being good. It’s like the Liverpudlian philosopher said: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” So the trick is to preserve options—but not to let the upkeep and maintenance of too many options become a kind of distraction, or cost, or other waste. When you go too far the other direction—and get into a mode of just pursuing one idea at a time, getting on that mule and riding it until it falls over dead in the dust, and then swapping it out for another one, doing that over and over—you’ll have too many false starts and dead ends.
What does all this mean when it’s time to work together to make things and do things as a group? How do we fit these characteristics of how we deal with options into a continuous improvement mindset?
Well, if you’re designing products or services, set-based design is the way to go. Set-based design. This is a key lean method that is often overlooked because it’s about design, not production. However, I often see people take continuous improvement frameworks for maintaining and improving production activities and try to apply them to design and development of new products. This is the underlying mistake of most “agile” practice in software development. So if you want to do this right, I suggest look into set-based design, which is a way of managing trade-offs and exploring options in an organized way as part of product design and development. You’ll start with a larger set of options, and then shrink this set of options through experimentation and prototyping eventually narrowing down to the one or two options that everybody can live with and that you’re going to proceed with. It can help you develop consensus, avoid expensive rework or mistakes, and explore riskier, longer-shot ideas alongside less interesting, more conservative, options. The go-to book here is Lean Product and Process Development by Ward and Sobek. Make sure you get the second edition, it’s got some good case studies and so forth. It’ll give you everything you need to get started.
As humans, we value options. I think we probably overvalue options. But that’s OK—we can make it work. And one critical tool I’d love for you to take a look at is set-based design.