Real Options in the Real World

Real Options?

This Friday, Portia and I will present the “Real Options Space Gameat XP Days London. This strategy board game set in space allows players to experiment with Real Options concepts.

Real Options is a tool to optimize decisions: it helps us to consider and manage more possibilities and gives us more time to gather information, so that our decisions are better informed. The basic ideas are taken from financial options, but have been widened to be applicable to real-world management decisions.

There are several types of Real Options. Let’s see if the option metaphor is a useful one. How can we apply Real Options in the real world?

The option to delay a project

In this paper, Aswath Damodaran compares a Net Present Value (NPV) analysis with a Real Options analysis to decide which projects to fund when. Projects with a negative NPV now, might still become valuable later. That’s because the Real Options analysis takes into account the value of getting more information and therefore reducing risk and uncertainty.

We always have the Learning Option. We can always gather more information.

In the article, the delay is examined in a situation where the organisation has (or can buy) a way to get a hold on the market, like with a patent. We can create an option to delay a project even in a competitive market: if we have a shorter cycle time than our competitors we can afford to wait longer to start our projects. This gives us more time to gather market information. In a very volatile market, it can be more valuable to wait, to increase the odds of building the right product at the right time.

For example, if Toyota’s new product development time is 6 months shorter than a competitor, Toyota can afford to start development 6 months later. That’s 6 months in which to gather more information, six months in which they could see major swings in customer demand or in the market. That’s six months in which people can work on other projects.

So, if you decrease your cycle time you create options to

  • Increase your cash flow
  • Be first on the market
  • Delay the project, take the go/no go decision later, when we have more information

By using Lean and Agile methods to decrease cycle time, we create real options. Starting later may be the right thing to do.

There are more fun real options, like the option to abandon a project. What could be the value of abandoning a project?


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


Pictures from Agile North mini-conference

The Agile North mini-conference on April 26th featured the Real Options presentation and “Space Game” by Portia and me. Pictures and slides are now online.

The handout for the Real Options session is not yet online, but you can download it from our site.


XP Days France 2008 part 3 – Space Game

Real Options, l’ultime frontière

The last session of the day was our first run of the Real Options Space Game in French. The little skit Portia and I did at the day’s opening must have worked because a lot of people came to the session. This time we had a larger room than the previous session, but still not enough room to seat everybody comfortably. At the previous session at Agile North, we had 28 participants. This time we had about double that number.

Real Options session packed with people

We started off with a brief presentation on Real Options. We then explained the rules to the participants, grouped in about 7 teams. Participants first had to plan their route across the game galaxy, using very limited funds. Then, in several rounds, they made their moves from planet to planet. To keep the game manageable, one representative of each team came to sit at the game table. This way, we didn’t have to deal with the whole audience, but only one participant per group. Unfortunately, keeping this large an audience to the game timeboxes proved to be too difficult. Switching between game and reflection was also very difficult. You try to quieten 50-60 players engrossed in the game, trying to win.

After the Agile North session, Portia and I held a retrospective and improved the game. With the changes, we were confident that we could host the game for +/- 30 people. Unfortunately, the changes were not enough to comfortably deal with double that number. Waiting for my train home, drinking a beer at the Gare du Nord I thought of some ways to deal with this large a group. Too late. L’esprit de l’escalier is alive and well.

We will write up the session and publish the game materials, like for the XP Game, so that you can play this game at home and at work.

Despite the noisy and crowded session, the participants did get the message of the session. The groups did a short retrospective at the end, with generally favourable feedback and some ideas for improvement.

The space Game board before the start

Closing drinks

The conference closed. The turnout was a success: participants got good value for their money, lots of contacts were made. Dealing with unexpectedly large numbers of participants proved difficult. The organizers of XP Days France and Benelux will collaborate on ideas to scale sessions.

Portia and I bought a round of drinks and had a bit of time to chat with some participants. My Swiss friends had a bit of interesting news that you’ll hear more about. All too soon we had to leave to catch our trains back to London and Brussels.

XP Days Paris, je t’aime! I had a great time and hope to be back next year. Hope to see you there!