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Striking a balance between known and unknown a.k.a. Explore-Exploit Continuum
How can we variate and explore, and when should we double down on on the known.
These days, I’ve been reading The Creative Act by the legendary music producer, Rick Robin, and the chapter on experimenting and variation reminded me of the explore-exploit continuum and I knew this was something I would like to share here… It’s maybe not that closely related topic, but variation and experiments are definitely a way to explore.
Before we dive in, first things first: what is this explore-exploit continuum thing?
Best way to choose your meal (or a slot machine)
The explore-exploit concept is fundamental to decision-making, and it refers to the trade-off between exploration and exploitation in situations where a decision (or a series of decisions) must be made.
Exploration refers to the process of gathering new information and trying new options to determine their value, while exploitation refers to using the information one already has, working in proven ways they’ve been working, with a focus on optimizing and scaling for benefits. Simply put: Should we explore new ways, or double down on the familiar ones?
I first learned of the exploit-explore concept a while ago in relation to innovation management, but it applies across the board, wherever a decision needs to be made between trying out new approaches or utilizing the proven ones. For instance: clinical trials, gaming, investment, transportation, psychology, machine learning, running startups…
If you want to learn more about the concept itself, check multi-armed bandit, or Feynman’s restaurant (which inspired the heading above). If you want to learn more about this in the context of business strategy, I recommend this blog post from Strategyzer.
Here, we'll take a look at how the exploit-explore applies to your life, and how to handle it.
Two roads diverged in a wood... The exploit-explore in life
When you think of it, the exploit-explore dilemma is something we confront on (almost) a daily basis. From tiny random decisions to huge existential questions:
Should we go to the same old restaurant we like, or try something new?
Should I stick with the usual for my new apartment, or experiment with colors and design?
Stick to Apple, or switch to an Android?
Try out a new fitness studio or sport, or stick to my local gym?
Try new products, or stick with familiar brands?
Meet new friends and expand your social circle, or focus on existing friendships?
Settle down with a partner, or explore new romantic relationships?
Stay at your current company, try a new one, or maybe switch the whole career, or start your own business?
It’s hard to navigate this many questions, but there are simple practices from product management that may help in your life as well.
Building blocks for success (or at least less regret)
I’ll share 4 principles and practices from product management that helped me with exploit-explore dilemmas in life. The boundaries between them are not always clear, they might overlap, and are definitely related in nature. They are:
Running experiments, shortening the feedback loop, and minimizing effort and risk
Understanding (conflicting) interests
Prioritization and tradeoffs
These principles are quite focused on making the decision (which in itself is exploratory), while exploitation is something that comes after an option is established as good. This will be covered in other posts. For instance about optimization (e.g. lean philosophy, Toyota Production System (TPS)).
Lastly, they don’t work in every context. Hopefully, you can use some as-is, tweak a portion, and disregard the rest.
1) Running experiments, shortening the feedback loop, minimizing effort and risk
To begin with, we operate in the unknown, and the unknown keeps changing. That’s the nature of life, and complex challenges. To navigate, we need to probe - sense - respond. And while doing that, handling risk through shorter feedback loops and minimizing the effort/investment.
Run experiments to learn – sounds natural, but we forget to do it.
Before committing to something next time, try and run an experiment. Looking back at our dilemmas: do a trial/test workout first at the new gym; borrow an Android for a day; think of (less drastic) ways to explore the relationship with your partner before making any big decision.
Shortening the feedback loop
Experimenting in this context beats the purpose if it takes a lot of time to learn from real-life feedback. In most Scrumteams, sprints (a period when the team builds) last for 2 weeks (or more and more often even 1), while they should never run longer than 4.
In life, many times you could get real-life feedback very quickly, so strive to organize your ‘experiments’ in such a way. Think of any long-term processes and see if can get feedback earlier (most often, you can break them into chunks or talk to someone early in the process)
Minimizing effort and risk
By shortening the feedback loop and doing (small) experiments, you are already minimizing the (initial) effort and risk.
Be mindful of your time, energy, money… and other resources when it comes to any (new) decisions.
2) Understanding (conflicting) interests
You are your own most important stakeholder. And you have many conflicting interests, or at least a few conflicting wishes and needs. (Think, you need to be more socially active, but you also need to get some alone time and rest). To make things harder, you have many more ‘interested parties’ from your partner to friends and colleagues.
Understanding (conflicting) interests
Try and always think about the underlying needs.
Is what you (or your ‘stakeholders’) wish the only way to satisfy the underlying need(s)?
Think: Do I want that chocolate, or am I hungry? Maybe I have a need to reward myself? Is this chocolate the only way to satisfy my underlying need(s)?
3) Managing expectations
There’s an old Serbian saying: the bigger the island of expectations, the longer the strands of disappointment
I don’t say you should never dream big, or have high hopes and big expectations. But I say you need to manage them. In the long run, it even helps with motivation.
Think: if you’re exploring a new food and fitness regime, do not expect drastic results within days. Or if you changed your job or career, do not expect that your whole world will change (right away).
The same goes for other people’s expectations
4) Prioritization and tradeoffs
One of the main parts of a job, when you work in product, is prioritization, thinking of tradeoffs, and making decisions accordingly. And it’s also one thing we all do in life – consciously or not. You can never do everything at once and always. So you need to prioritize and choose your battles.
Prioritization and tradeoffs
Remember those underlying needs; orient yourself in terms of their importance, and then see what action brings the most value to your most important need
When you have a set of (exploit-explore) decisions to make, deal with the most significant ones. Not all decisions are equally important or valuable.
Remember: Every yes to something, is also a no to something else.
Short summary of a long story
The exploit-explore dilemma (or continuum) is fundamentally related to decision-making: when faced with a choice between focusing on the proven option, or exploring possible options.
Exploitation refers to using the information one already has, working in proven ways they’ve been working, with a focus on optimizing and scaling for benefits (and usually scaling).
Exploration refers to the process of gathering new information and trying new options to determine their value, and see what could work as good as, or better than the proven options.
The exploit-explore dilemma is seen in many fields.
It is very typical for innovation management; product (portfolio) management; and entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship.
It is also very typical for our daily life. On a regular basis, we face many such decisions – from trivial to existential.
There are useful product management principles and practices that can help with exploit-explore dilemmas. For example: experimenting, shortening the feedback loop, minimizing effort and risk, managing expectations and conflicting interests, prioritizing and choosing tradeoffs.
And also, there is no need for me to justify my (weird) train of thought.
A great resource here is the Cynefin framework by Dave Snowden, which deals with ‘sense making’, and looks into clear, chaotic, complicated, complex, and disorder systems/contexts. That’s where I ‘took’ probe-sense-respond from.
Scrum is a lightweight agile framework, and (one of) the most popular framework today. You can learn more about it here on Scrum Alliance.
Ok, I lied. The original saying says “island of knowledge”. Also, I have no idea how old it is.
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