I wish empiricism wasn’t called empiricism.

On the face of it, it sounds like a great word, slightly philosophical, slightly scientific. You see it all over the agile community too. Scrum is, after all, based on empirical process control. Running experiments and seeing what happens.

However despite years of studying it, or perhaps because of years of studying it, it’s still a word I look at and think ‘What does that word mean?’. Which is a real shame, as it’s potentially one of the most important words in modern business. So to help fix this problem, this is the first in a series of blog posts looking at what empiricism actually is.

After all, if empiricism is seen as a technique for separating facts from opinions, truth from falsehood, clarity from confusion, then surely we need to start by applying those ideas to the concept of empiricism itself?

First though, what is empiricism not? Can we perhaps understand it by holding it up against its opposite?

In a loose sense, the opposite of empiricism is not empiricism. That sounds vague, and it is, because a lack of empiricism very often is vague. We decide what to do based on gut instinct, or guided by the experiences we have had and the beliefs they have formed within us, or we just ‘muddle through’, lurching from crisis to crisis, making decisions and solving problems with whatever time and mental capacity we have available to us at that moment.

First then, there is a rigour to empiricism. We don’t just muddle through. We don’t just do what feels right. We’re aware that our current opinions have been created by yesterday’s experiences, and as such they are potentially a very poor way of understanding the future. Most of all, we don’t try to force our opinions on others through appeal to authority. Everything should be open to doubt, every thing should be open to inspection. Just because you’ve risen to become a CxO, it doesn’t mean that you know best.

Therefore, because rigour requires effort, there is more effort required for empiricism than there is for muddling through, which is why I suspect empiricism often doesn’t happen.

Another contrast with empiricism is ironically with something that itself claimed to be based on science. For a long time now, much of the world has been following Tayloristic ideas from the early 1900’s. Ideas that told us that the world can be made predictable, repeatable and controllable. We just needed to closely study and analyse how work is done, often at a senior level, then use that learning to define the work and processes for others people to follow, before making sure that they follow what has been defined for them. As a project manager once said to me “plan the work, then work the plan”.

However, the world isn’t predictable. If it were, then you should go and buy a lottery ticket right now with the winning numbers on it then retire. It’s not controllable. If it were, we’d feel in control. It’s not repeatable. If it were, we’d never be surprised by anything.

The problem with Taylor’s scientific method was that whilst it believed truth could be found through empiricism, it promoted the view that once a truth had been found, it could remain unchanged. Taylor’s was a very thin idea of empiricism, one that both assumed that truth existed, and that once it had been uncovered, it was unlikely to change.

So, if the world isn’t predictable, repeatable or controllable, how do we deal with it? Well, we deal with it by testing and learning. We have an idea for what might happen, run a test to see if it happens, then learn from that test to decide what to do next. That way, rather than defining the process up front, we uncover the process as we go, continuously testing, learning and improving to get to a better result.

That’s a good chunk of all empiricism is. Testing and learning, being open to our ideas being right or wrong, being open to finding the truth of reality, even if it shows we ourselves were mistaken or wrong.

For many people, this is where empiricism stops. Vague mumblings about the ‘scientific method’, focussing on facts over opinions, and running small experiments.

All of that is good, but when held up against the field of empiricism, it barely scratches the surface. What is reality really? Does it even exist? If it does, do we really have the ability to understand it? How is our understanding formed? Do we need to experience something to know it to be true? Should we have no opinions at all any more? Is intuition still relevant in a binary world of truth and falsehoods?

These are the sorts of questions we need to understand in order to understand empiricism itself. For only once we understand it, can we truly use it.

I’m not going to lie, it’s a tricky subject at times. However, over the coming blog posts, I’ll endeavour to make it as simple as I can.