Spaceships over London – Real Options at XP Days

Real Options Space Game

Do you want to prevent galactic war? Do you have experience flying spaceships in dangerous corners of the universe? Not afraid of space pirates and angry aliens? Then sign up for the Real Options Space Game at XP Days London. The pay isn’t great, but the benefits more than make up for that.

The Real Options Space Game is a board game for 6-13 players that lets you play with Real Options concepts. Portia and I will be running two games in parallel (in parallel universes?), so that we can compare many different strategies, a sort of set-based design.

In the game, pairs play the crew of a spaceship who must transport a precious cargo from one end of the galaxy to another. On the way, the crew has to deal with risks such as attacks by space pirates, strikes by disgruntled transport workers, disputes between different alien races, technology breakdowns and more bizarre plot twists. And they have to do it with limited resources and time. Sound familiar?

What are Real Options?

Real Options is a decision-making tool that, like so many of these tools, looks deceptively simple. It’s just common sense, most people respond when we first explain the concepts. But we quickly see that these simple concepts aren’t applied. We can explain Real Options until we’re blue in the face without any effect. You have to experience how to apply the tool under (simulated) pressure to realize if and how Real Options are useful.

Real Options consists of two components:

  • The concept of options. Each option has
    • A value
    • A buying and exercising cost
    • An expiry condition which determines when the option becomes useless
  • A process to deal with options:
    • A way to determine the last moment when we have to take a decision and commit ourselves
    • Keeping as many options open as long as possible
    • Actively seeking out more information and more options in the time before we have to commit

Unlike with financial options, we often don’t have exact numbers for cost and value. Most of the time we don’t need the numbers, we only need to know which of two options has a higher value or lower cost.

And what does that have to do with XP and Agile?

You can apply Real Options in just about any situation where you’re faced with difficult decisions. Once you know the concepts, you see options everywhere.

Real Options underlie some of the tricky Agile and Lean practices. By working with short releases and user stories that are elaborated during a release, we push back the moment of difficult decisions, so that we have more time to gather information. By using good engineering practices (TDD, refactoring, continuous integration…) we lower the cost of changes and decisions, again pushing back the moment of decision. Meanwhile, we have more options open for the direction of the application. Set-based design is an economical way of exploring may design options

It all sounds very reasonable to me, but much of the resistance against Agile is about the ideal moment of decision. Most of us feel more comfortable when we’ve made a decision. Having lots of open options may seem like procrastination or even indecisiveness. We feel the need to make that decision NOW, especially when we’re under pressure. Keeping our heads cool and applying the Real Options tool can help us make better informed decisions.

Once we practice Real Options in real life, we start asking “when do we have to decide?” and we look for more options. Try it, practice it, so that you can take better decisions under pressure.

See you at XP Days London, 11-12 December 2008.

Pictures by Pentadact (spaceship), Jason Pratt (sunrise) and Nasa/JPL (planet). Used with permission