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Be Like Beaker: Experiment on Yourself


As a kid, as soon as I heard those words from the good professor I just knew that something awful was going to happen to his poor hapless assistant, Beaker. Beaker knew it too, that was the really hilarious part about this Muppets skit. His pitiful, terrified protestations to whatever sadly misinformed experiment the professor was going to inflict on him kept me rolling on the floor laughing. Being able to see the inevitable outcome a mile off just made it even funnier. You could see it, Beaker could see it, and Honeydew didn’t have the faintest clue.

Even as an adult, watching Beaker on the Muppets makes me laugh so hard I avoid milk for fear of being caught spraying it out of my nose.

Of course that’s why you have a trusty lab assistant isn’t it? You need somebody to experiment on, right? When you have a truly brilliant hypothesis – we’re talking real genius here, what you really need is a willing subject to perform your tests on. What could possibly go wrong? After all, how else do we expect science to progress? I’ve seen a lot of Bunsen Honeydews in software development. Shucks, I’ve played one myself. For 50 cents and a cup of coffee I’ll teach you how to be a Honeydew too.

Unfortunately, for almost every professor Honeydew there is a corresponding poor schmuck playing the role of Beaker. Maybe it’s just one person or maybe its a whole team (If you’ve ever experimented on an entire team, you are hereby entitled to call yourself an “agile coach”). Sometimes it seems as though every lead, manager and coach has to go through a Honeydew phase, blindly inflicting their experiments on others.

Let’s face it: having your very own lab assistant to experiment on is great if you can manage it (you lucky dog). But what do you do if you don’t have a Beaker handy – or the wily creature keeps running away. What then? Well there is still one test subject available: You.

Yeah, you.

“What? No!” I can hear you exclaim. Who in their right mind would experiment on themselves? Well, as it turns out, there is a rather curious and rich history of the famous and infamous who have performed experiments on themselves. And we’re not talking about trivial stuff here either. Many of these experiments represent real and substantive contributions to the body of scientific knowledge.

Benjamin Franklin is an early example of someone who performed self-experiments. He tracked how well he was able to dedicate his full attention to the “Thirteen Virtues” for an entire week. Anybody want to try to dedicate their attention to the 12 Principles of the Agile Manifesto for a week? I tried once and learned some very interesting things about myself and the manifesto.

Another example, Dr. Albert Hoffman accidentally discovered the psychedelic properties  of LSD and then subsequently experimented with it on himself. Wow! Me too!

Of course fiction is full of less fortunate examples of self experimentation. Take for example, the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Invisible Man. One hopes we are not so unfortunate in our own efforts!

One of my professors in college was an advocate of self experimentation. He tried sleeping each night with the head of his bed tilted toward the ground so that the blood would pool in his head as he slept. He reports that it gave him a tremendous headache.

You might laugh at that last example, but it highlights a very important point that I want to make: When you test out ideas on yourself, you can get rapid feedback on what may pay off and what won’t – all without inconveniencing anyone else! It’s brilliant! That’s what my college professor realized. He could perform dozens of tiny experiments in the time it took to set up a single experiment with a population size much larger. Its that ability to try multiple small experiments in order to gain rapid feedback that lies at the heart of all the agile methods!

So why would you waste your time trying to persuade a recalcitrant team to try out your latest hare brained process, when you are perfectly capable of proving it much more rapidly yourself? Not only can you quickly validate your ideas, but you can also refine them much more rapidly by yourself, so that when you do finally reveal them to the team, they have had some refinement prior to being inflicted on others. Hell, they might even work!

Aha! You pounce, you can’t possibly achieve statistical significance with a population of only 1 can you? Well, I’m not necessarily looking for rigorous statistical significance here. I’m keeping things simple and using simple statistical tools (time plots, etc.) to capture just the information I need to discover if I’m “moving the needle” in the right direction. Also, repeated measurements and an ABA design can go a long ways toward validating these simple assumptions.

What about your objectivity? Phah! I don’t need no stinking objectivity! In fact, because it is just me, myself and I, we can take advantage of subjective measures much more readily than you would in traditional large population experiments. Questions like “How do I feel today?” have easy, subjective answers that can prove just as useful as traditional objective measures.

Furthermore, with the advent of mobile devices with rich applications and interfaces we are now starting to see the development of an entirely new class of self-measurement devices. Nike has the “Fuel” bands, my iPhone has mood trackers, workout trackers, pulse monitors. The list of applications is growing with astonishing speed. It is actually leading to a movement of sorts that labels itself the “Quantified Self” movement.

In this new ecosystem of rapidly evolving new tools we have a new wealth of opportunity to experiment with ourselves. With the combination of agile methods we have the ability to rapidly iterate through many tiny experiments on ourselves and help to refine the techniques that we can use not only on ourselves, but on our teams.

Now is your chance to make yourself part of science. Explore your inner Beaker!

#Agile #research #scientificmethod #Selfexperimentation

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