I’ve always been a stubborn person. Not in an “I already know everything and I don’t need to listen to anyone’s advice” way, but more like “I know this may not be the way other people would do this thing, but I want to try it like this anyway, even if I fail miserably”. Most of the time, doing things “my way” works out just fine. My task gets accomplished without incident, I’ve usually learned something valuable about the process, and I feel a sense of satisfaction at having been validated in my methods. Sometimes, however, I unwittingly throw myself headfirst into potential disaster.
Several years ago, I was doing some chores around the house and decided it would be a good time to clean out my oven. I was in my early 20s and hadn’t cleaned it since I inherited the stove from my parents. Having never actually cleaned an oven before, I did a few seconds of research on the best cleaning solution to use and then happily got to work. Within twenty minutes, I was sprawled out in the middle of the kitchen floor with the entire stove on top of me. Why? Because I had climbed right on top of the open oven door so that I could reach the back of the oven to clean it out properly.
I escaped the ordeal with only a few scrapes and bruises. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for my stove, which I had to replace shortly after. At the time, I thought that the incident would just be a funny story to tell, but looking back, it actually taught me a lot about the value of empiricism. Of course, when I tell that story, people will inevitably say that I should have known not to climb onto the oven door, but should I have known that? Why is it assumed that we must always live within the constraints of so-called “common sense”?
For those unfamiliar with the term, empiricism is “the theory that all knowledge originates in experience” (Webster). In essence, it’s about applying the standard scientific method that you learned about in school to all areas of life, understanding that experience is the greatest teacher. This is a term that is widely used within the agile project/product management industry. But it’s also how I’ve lived my entire life, long before I ever even heard the word “scrum” used outside of a sports reference.
Let’s take a look at the oven situation from an empirical point of view so that you can understand what I learned on this journey. I’ll use the steps in the scientific method to break down my thought process:
- Make an observation. My oven is dirty and it needs to be cleaned. However, I have short arms and the oven is deeper than my natural reach extends.
- Ask a question. How can I extend my reach or change my position so that I can get to the back of the oven and clean it thoroughly?
- Form a hypothesis. The oven door is in my way, but it’s flat and I’m small, so I should be able to easily overcome this obstacle by using it as a platform for my body.
- Make a prediction. If I sit on the oven door, then I will easily be able to reach the whole way inside of the oven.
- Test the hypothesis. I sat cross-legged on top of the oven door while it was open and reached into the oven to clean it.
- Record results. I was, in fact, able to successfully reach the entire interior of the oven to clean it. Unexpected consequence: the stove tipped over when I moved too close to the edge of the oven door and the entire unit fell on top of me. It’s likely that the weight of my body, coupled with a change in my position on top of the door, caused the unit to become unbalanced. Hypothesis supported; need to adjust approach.
When you view your approach to a task through the lens of empiricism, seemingly illogical solutions suddenly become valid. As my example shows, that doesn’t always mean that they’re going to be successful, feasible, or even safe.
In the true spirit of empiricism, reflecting on the results of your experiment is essential to growing your knowledge on the subject. This leaves me with a couple of questions about my experience. By asking these questions, I can reflect on what I’ve learned and determine how I will iterate on my experiment for next time.
- Was the outcome of the stove falling on top of me preventable? Obviously, yes. If I hadn’t shifted my weight on the door, I might never have fallen. More importantly, if the anti-tipping brackets had been installed on the stove, my risk of being crushed under it would likely have been greatly reduced.
- What assumptions did I make that led to this outcome? I assumed wholeheartedly that the anti-tipping brackets were installed on that stove. Also, since I know you’ve been wondering about this the whole time, I did not know at the time that you could remove the oven door from the stove. I assumed that it was attached in a way that I wouldn’t be able to take it off.
- What would I do differently next time? I would just take the oven door off. See? Growth!
- What did I learn? It’s not enough to simply form a hypothesis and run with it. One of the most important things you should do as part of empiricism is research. There’s a pretty good chance that someone has already found a solution to your problem. Had I done my research from the start, I would have known that I could take the oven door off of the stove instead of sitting on it. Additionally, it’s crucial to capture, evaluate, and test your assumptions about a situation before you dive into experimentation. I only made two assumptions about that stove, and both of them were wrong. I’m grateful that the experience only cost me a few bruises and a big chunk of change for the new stove.
Knowing what I know now if I could go back in time and change anything about how I handled that situation, I wouldn’t. This is how I learn all of my best lessons, and that stove taught me a lot. Not only am I now fully equipped to clean an oven without injuring myself or the appliance, but I’ve also learned the value of doing thorough research before I run headlong into an experiment. I’m definitely not advocating for doing anything that you know is potentially dangerous, but I am saying that empiricism is a worthwhile approach in your career and in your life. Sometimes it’s fun to ditch common sense for a little while. Just maybe not when it comes to heavy appliances.