Small Ahas

Are you rapidly learning or rapidly doing?

Between August, 1976 and August, 1977, Dr. Paul MacCready and a small team of family and friends in Southern California crafted and refined hundreds of versions of their Gossamer Condor, an ultra-lightweight, human powered airplane that they hoped would win the Kremer prize. To win the £50,000 prize, created in 1959 by British businessman Henry Kremer, a human-powered airplane had to make an unassisted takeoff, fly a mile-long, figure-eight course and land safely. MacCready and team made 222 test flights and attempted to win the Kremer prize 9 times. On their 223rd flight and 10th attempt at the prize, the team finally did it.

During their year-long journey to victory, MacCready and team experienced many small ahas. An aha is an expression of satisfaction, triumph or surprise. Each small aha resulted from MacCready and team discovering what worked or needed improvement, making design improvements quickly (sometimes in hours) and trying the next test flight. Even moments before their famous 223rd, award-winning flight, MacCready decided to try cutting a small vent in the underside of the fuselage in hopes of keeping the pilot’s legs cooler. It worked. A series of small ahas is what got them the Kremer prize.

Do you work in small ahas?

If not, you may be at risk of wasting time on work that doesn’t yield sufficient value. Imagine writing a book with zero feedback along the way —maybe no one is interested in the subject and won’t buy your book?

To quickly discover how to delight customers, we must experiment and learn rapidly. We don’t do that by focusing on how much work we’ve completed. Completing work is crucial, yet knowing what outcome we’re aiming for and discovering how to deliver it is even more important.

Small ahas help us do that. We quickly move from small aha to small aha as we rapidly learn what will produce a desired outcome.

A small aha differs from the lean manufacturing notion of a small batch. While a small batch emphasizes speed to completing work, a small aha emphasizes speed to discovery.

A “small aha” requires:

  • Speed — we arrive at an aha as fast as possible.
  • Learning — every aha helps us learn and adapt.
  • Safety — we are safe to succeed or fail as we learn.

Small ahas are an implementation technique for living the motto “Outcomes Over Outputs.” The focus is on discovering how to deliver a key outcome over simply reporting on work completed.

Consider the following outcomes and associated small ahas that help us move in the direction of those outcomes:

Outcome: I want to be a better cook.
Small aha: “Everyone loved the veggie burgers I made!”

Outcome: I want to connect with more people on social media.
Small aha: “My tweet Sunday got zero attention. Maybe I need to avoid Sundays or at least include an image and hashtag?”

Outcome: I want to write a best-selling book.
Small aha: “People didn’t understand my martial arts analogy, but they said my diagrams were super clear.”

A small aha can happen after minutes, hours, days, weeks or months. They don’t fit neatly into fixed-length time boxes, like sprints in Scrum or iterations in Extreme Programming. Instead, small ahas occur in relatively short windows of time that vary depending on the timing and nature of the work. For example, the time between test flights of the Gossamer Condor varied from hours to days to occasionally a few weeks. The pace of small ahas is not standard.

Small ahas make us adaptive. And because they are small, they help us avoid bottlenecks and keep us in a steady state of flow. They teach us things that impact what we do next. So rather than measuring our progress on estimated work in a fixed-length time box, let’s focus instead on accomplishing important outcomes by means of a steady stream of small ahas.

Thanks to Bill Wake, Brett Schuchert, Amr Elssamadisy, Heidi Helfand, John Le Drew and Tracy Reppert for feedback on this article.