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Tuesday, 16 December 2008 at

Aspects of Agile - Scarcity and Consistency

We're called Agile Lab - not Agile Museum. And that's because we're always working to develop our understanding of Agile, and especially, to understand how Agile thinking connects to other kinds of understanding. That's why in this lecture, given recently to final year product design students at the Edinburgh College of Art, we talk about some thinking from the field of social psychology which is powerfully relevant to project management and Agile thinking.

No Robot Dogs Allowed

This is a talk which joins up a bunch of things that I read a while ago about social psychology and the "science" of persuasion, especially in a book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
by a Social Psychologist called Robert Cialdini. When I was teaching our Introduction to Agile Course, I found myself very often trying to deal with objections to Agile ideas by explaining the notions of Scarcity and Consistency. And I also began to realise that a lot of the objections that people who attended my course were raising were also motivated by the kinds of psychological influencers that Cialdini talks about. Cialdini actually talks about six different influencers, but today, I'm just going to concentrate on Scarcity and Consistency, maybe some other day, I'll talk about the others.

Can I have a volunteer?

So when I gave this talk at the Edinburgh College of Art - I asked for a volunteer, preferably someone who could drive. I asked my volunteer to sit on a chair, close their eyes and pretend that they were driving. And since I was in Scotland, I asked them to imagine that they were driving up country at the end of the day, perhaps to a little cottage somewhere in the highlands.


Then I asked them to imagine that, as they were driving, it started to snow. And it snowed and snowed until the snow was so heavy that they couldn't see the road. Then, I asked them to imagine that they suddenly realise that the road veers sharply to the left and doesn't go straight on as they imagined! What should they do?

On this particular occasion, my volunteer wrenched the steering wheel to the left. We then discussed what would have happened if she'd done this in real life. Would she have skidded off the road? What should she have done? Steered into the skid, pumped the brakes? Changed down to a lower gear? The problem is that what you do in these situations is instinctive, unconscious and - as in the case of wrenching the steering wheel to the left, not always, actually, the best thing to do in the circumstances. But of course, with training and practice, you can be taught to do something different in those split seconds. You can be taught to do the right thing, the thing that the experience of others and lots of research has shown to be better than your gut instinct. In many ways, this is what Agile Training is about - giving us better instincts.

Influence by Robert Cialdini

And I think that's why I started to come back to a book I'd read, maybe a couple of years ago, the more that I taught courses in Agile methods, because the psychology of influence is all about playing with your instincts. Most of the people who are trying to persuade you to do something (the ones who are any good at it anyway) aren't trying to make you think, they're trying to stop you thinking. They're trying to use the fact that you will, reliably wrench the steering wheel to the left and stamp both feet to the floor when you realise you've missed a turn in the road.


A long, long time ago, this was all fields. For England this was about three hundred years ago. And when England was all fields (and still some forests) how rich you were depended entirely on how much land you owned. England in the middle ages was slightly poorer than some other countries - for example Poland - because there were slightly more people per acre of land.


And this idea that land, food resources are scarce and that if there are more people, there is bound to be famine, disease and disaster is a very powerful one. In England, as the population grew it was described most famously by Thomas Malthus:

"The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world." Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 – 1834)


The irony is that at the very time that Malthus was claiming that Britain couldn't support its population, it was suffering a labour shortage because of these things. The invention of manufacturing and mass production in England and the US shifted the balance of who was wealthy from the people who owned the most land to the people who could make the most stuff that people wanted.


For a couple of hundred years, the richest men in the world were people who figured out how to make things that people want - like cars. They realised that you can get round the Malthusian problems of scarcity by just making stuff up - as long as it's stuff that people want.

Then this guy came along...


This is Alan Turing. It's arguable whether he actually came up with the design for the first real, working computer, but even if he didn't, he did come up with the idea of a "Turing Machine" which was a theoretical machine that could calculate anything. And so we moved into a new era of non-scarcity. Soon the richest man in the world wouldn't make anything that you could even touch or feel.

Bill Gates

Yes - this guy is arguably the richest man in the world and he didn't make it from farming. Computers took us into a new age of non-scarcity.

And this guy...

First web surfer

Does anybody know who he is? He's arguably the first web surfer. The man who shared an office with Tim Berners-Lee.

So we've come a long way from the times when how much land you had was a direct measure of how wealthy you are. Almost all of our wealth now comes from making stuff up. But even though we live in an internet age, we've stone age brains...

Daily Mail

The idea that some scarce resource is being exhausted - as is implied here, houses, jobs, school places, hospital beds - is a powerful persuader. It's like the feet shooting out and the steering wheel being wrenched to the left. It's instinctive, it's primitive. And the people who are using it, in newspaper headlines like this - or in adverts that say things like "Limited Edition" or "Sale Ends Saturday" are relying on you reacting instinctively.

Wizard of Oz

And the scary truth is - we can never go back to Kansas, not even if we wanted to. We can't go back to everybody having their own bit of land, not without the famine, war and pestilence that Malthus promised. If we want to be richer (actually, if we want to just keep living in the manner to which we've become accustomed) we're going to have to make up new stuff.

I hear objections about scarcity all the time when we're trying to teach people about Agile. In fact, the most frequent objection that I hear is "But this is a fixed price project." In almost all of the cases where people have this objection, I suspect that the scarcity of budget isn't a real scarcity - like a scarcity of wheat or a scarcity of land. Rather it's a fake scarcity - like a scarcity of designer handbags or bargain sofas. Someone is artificially creating scarcity to persuade someone to do something that they don't want to. And when the scarcity isn't real, there are a lot of alternative ways of making progress.


"Good negotiators make the pie bigger." Good negotiators find a way out of the "scarcity trap" by discovering new things that are of value to the parties in a negotiation. And Agile methods present lots of opportunities for making the pie bigger and exploring what's of value to the client. When you're you're working using Agile you should be suspicious of any claim for scarcity, if there isn't a physical thing like a wheat field or an oil well involved the scarcity probably isn't real. Someone is just trying to use your primitive fear of scarcity to persuade you of something. And that's your cue to do some work to make the pie bigger.


OK, so that's scarcity taken care (for now), so we'll move on to another one of the "six influencers" mentioned in Robert Cialdini's book.

Who wants a sweetie? Ok, this works better in real life that it does on the web.


Imagine the following dialogue:

Me: Would you like a sweet?
You: Well, thank you very much, I'd like one of the purple ones.
Me: Well, I've changed my mind now, you can't have one.

How do you feel? Wronged? Betrayed? And how do you feel about me? After just this tiny bit of unreliability, don't you that I'm either a little bit untrustworthy or a bit mad, maybe a bit of both? Perhaps something a bit like this gentleman.

Lord Archer

This man went to jail for - actually not for telling a lie - but for making preparations for telling a lie if it were necessary. But the way people treated him after he'd been caught, shows why our second influencer - consistency - is so powerful. If you aren't consistent. If you don't always say the same thing, if you aren't a man or woman of your word then people are tempted to draw one of two conclusions, either you're mad, or you're dishonest. Nobody wants to be thought to be either of these, so the pressure to be consistent is very powerful.


And the people who want to influence you to do things - like give them money - know that. Consistency can be used in all sorts of ways to make you do things that you otherwise might not want to do. For instance - collect for charity.

A sample of Bloomington, Indiana, residents were asked to predict what they would say if asked to spend three hours collecting money for the American Cancer Society. Of course, not wanting to appear uncharitable to the survey taker or to themselves, many of these people said that they would volunteer. The consequence of this sly commitment procedure was a 700 percent increase in the volunteers when, a few days later a representative of the American Cancer Society did call and ask for neighbourhood canvassers. - Robert Cialdini: "Influence - the psychology of persuasion"

Seven hundred percent! That's the power of consistency.

Korean War

During the Korean war, the Chinese were exceptionally good at getting American prisoners of war to say things that were critical about America, and also getting them to say positive things about the communist regime. The didn't torture their prisoners, but they did use consistency as a powerful weapon.

Prisoners were frequently asked to make statements so mildly anti-American or pro-Communist as to seem inconsequential ("The United States is not perfect." "In a Communist country, unemployment is not a problem."). But once these minor requests were complied with, the men found themselves pushed to submit to more substantive requests.

The majority [of American POWs] collaborated at one time or another by doing things which seemed to them trivial but which the Chinese were able to turn to their own advantage.... This was particularly effective in eliciting confessions, self-criticism and information during interrogation.

So you see, you agree to one small thing, and the next thing you know...

Washing Machine're buying a washing machine. Yes the same principle used by Red Army interrogators is being used by the people who design competitions for washing machines. If you write down in your own handwriting that you really like this washing machine - then guess what? You're working hard for the washing machine company to convince yourself that you really like their washing machine.

Bob Dylan

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Consistency is especially dangerous for innovators and creative thinkers. How can you innovate and be creative if you bow to the pressure to do exactly what you've always done? When Bob Dylan moved away from acoustic folk music and "went electric" in the late sixties, someone famously shouted "Judas" at one of his concerts. Bob's response was to turn to his band and snarl "Play fucking LOUD." But it takes a lot of guts to be inconsistent especially if everybody liked what you used to do (anyone remember when Bob started wearing make-up in the 80's?).

Tony Blair

And maybe for some jobs, being consistent is well, just not consistent with being successful. It's rumoured that before he became Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked whether he was Scottish or English and he replied (jokingly?) that that was something that would be reviewed over the course of the next parliament.

And maybe being a project manager is one of those jobs. One of the most common complaints that I hear from project managers is that they can't negotiate when they're "on the back foot". They promise to deliver something for a certain budget, in a certain time frame and then they can't. They feel terrible. Because they've been inconsistent, their client, they feel, is entitled to think that they are either incompetent or dishonest. Not pleasant at all.

How can Agile help? Well, Agile can't stop, or even really fight the power of consistency, but it can offer some alternative things to be consistent. Firstly, if you're consistent in the way that you apply the agile concept of velocity, you're going to know very early on whether you're going to be able to deliver what you promised when you promise. Secondly, if you follow this blog, you'll know that very often - to quote my friend Tim - "the only projects that we make money on, are the projects where we admit up front that we don't know". Being consistent about admitting when you don't know can save you a lot of trouble - and make you money. Your client is trying to get you to promise the earth for the price of a pizza - does that me you should go for it?

Consistency is a powerful tool (remember the American prisoners of war - remember the seven hundred percent increase in charity volunteers). The only real way to fight it is to use it for your cause and to be consistently honest with your clients about what you can and can't estimate and honest with yourself (in terms of velocity) about what you and your team can and can't do in a specific period of time.

And so now to the star of the show...

Robot Dog

What's all this about robot dogs? Well, the story as Robert Cialdini tells it is that he meets his neighbour in a toy shop on new year's day. And they both think that it's quite a coincidence, since they met each other there exactly a year ago, and, since they're both busy men, even though they're neighbours they hardly ever see each other the rest of the year. What's even more of a coincidence is that they're both buying the same toy - lets say it's a robot dog. The must have toy of the year.

When he gets into work a few days later, Robert Cialdini mentions this to one of his colleagues and his colleague - who used to work in the toy industry laughs a low dark laugh and explains that it's no coincidence. The toy companies spent years trying to figure out how to make sure people carried on buying toys into January, they tried all the usual stuff - sales, special offers, finally they hit on the use of a powerful tool of influence - scarcity! Around Christmas, rather than making sure that there's a plentiful supply of whatever the must-have toy of that season is, the toy companies create an artificial shortage. Then in the New Year, they ramp up their advertising and lo and behold there are plentiful supplies of the must-have toy.

Cialdini is furious when he hears this. He feels so manipulated - and he a social psychologist who should know about these things. He shouldn't be so easily suckered by a straight-forward scarcity ploy . He resolves to take the robot dog back. But BOOM! KABAM! - here's the other half of the double whammy? As his cynical friend in the office points out, he's buying the robot dog because he's promised it to his son. Does he really want to be the kind of dad who goes back on his word? What's he going to say to his son? I would have bought that for you son, but I decided not to be a puppet of the capitalist system - cue wailing cries of betrayal from the apple of his eye. Yes, backing up the scarcity move, is a consistency move.

In the end, he takes the robot dog home to his son. Older, wiser and hopefully not so easily fooled next time.

"You said you could do this for this for this amount of money. Now you tell me you can't. Well, there's no more money. What are you going to do?"

Sound familiar? It's just the old robot dog double whammy in a different time, a different place but with just the same power. Agile methods and Agile training can give you some tools to deal with these situations. Negotiation strategies can help provide "wiggle room" where is supposed to be nothing but scarcity. Tracking velocity and being consistent with the maximum "don't lose money" rather than "stand by what I said when I didn't know what I was talking about" can ease the psychological pain of appearing inconsistent.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all our readers!

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