Lean tools: Options thinking

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Lean tools: Options thinking

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We now have finished exploring the Lean tools for amplifying learning like feedback, iterations and set-based development. We enter the real of the 3rd Lean principle, Decide as late as possible. This principle is oriented to postpone decisions as long as the delay does not impact the product, in order to gain more flexibility instead of becoming locked in with some initial design decisions.

Software is easy to rebuild from source code, but its architecture is not always malleable by default as non-technical people would think. Moreover, there are some changes which will always happen, like upgrade of libraries and operating systems, which complements change in requirements or integration ports. The easiest decision to change is the one that has not been made yet.

Options Thinking

The first tool that helps in postponing decisions is Options Thinking: the introduction of mechanisms whose specific purpose is to enable delaying decisions. In the financial domain, an option is the right to buy a good at a certain price before a future date comes - effectively transferring the decision of buying shares or products some time in the future, as options can expire without being exercised.

A simpler instance of Options Thinking cited by Mary Poppendieck is an hotel reservation: you invest a small sum of money (the reservation fee) to book a room; exercising the option means actually going to the hotel, a decision which is made only when the time comes.

Trains and airlines often use the same pricing model for seats (even if we do not consider the rise of prices as a flight is being filled). There are multiple types of tickets for each combination of flight and date: some basic and not transferrable or refundable, some more costly that provide the option of changing the date or to get a partial or total refund.


Mary Poppendieck adds the insight that Agile software development is a process that creates many options by introducing a very flexible plan and only prescribing more detailed actions after several inspect and adapt loops.

It's not bad to delay a commitment until you know more about a problem: forced early decisions are the mark of waterfall (actually of the mainstream version of waterfall). But options do not come for free: for example, in order to simplify a technical decision, XP suggests to create throwaway code. These spikes are the exploration of each potential solution, which in a certain sense are a waste of development time as their final result is of low quality and usually thrown away. However, spikes produces knowledge about the solution that results in a better estimate for its full development or in its abandonment. The decision to adopt a technology or of which solution to adopt is delayed until the end of a spike, but this option pay itself quickly as uncertainty is removed and decisions "get it right" with an higher probability.

Real world examples

Almost any application I have been involved with in the last two years has had the separation of a persistence layer as one of the goals: Active Record has been progressively abandoned in the PHP world to favor Data Mappers like the Doctrine ORM and ODMs.

As for all options that can be bought, this separation does not come for free: development is a little slower when Repositories are objects that have to be designed instead of just a bunch of static calls to the Entity class like User::find() (although there are benefits of the Data Mapper approach that go beyond keeping options open.)

An isolated persistence layer, however, allows us to postpone fundamental decisions about the database to use: it's a rough time for many of them as licenses change (MySQL) or new NoSQL solutions come out and evolve. Every month of development where you're not tied to a specific database is a month where the hype goes down and we move towards more mature solutions that we can choose with a greater knowledge of the requirements of our data. Do we need relational database consistency? Or a schema-less store?

Moreover, the investment in persistence adapters separated from the core of the application let us able to choose different databases for different bounded contexts of an application; for example, storing views in a relational database and the primary database as a set of aggregates in Couch or Mongo.


I will never advocate to invest in an option just for the sake of the technical challenge, nor that they come for free; but once you recognize postponing a decision freezing is valuable for the project, there should be really no issue in go and buying it.


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