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A Shallow Dive Into Chaos: Containing Chaos to Improve Agile Story Pointing

In May 1968 the U.S.S. Scorpion (SSN-589), a Skipjack-class nuclear submarine with 99 crewmembers aboard, mysteriously disappeared en route to Norfolk, VA from its North Atlantic patrol. Several months later, the U.S. Navy found its submarine in pieces on the Atlantic seabed floor. Although there are multiple theories as to what caused the crippling damage to the submarine, the U.S. Navy calls the loss of the Scorpion and her 99 crew an “unexplained catastrophic” event [1].

The initial search area stretched across 2,500 NM of Atlantic Ocean from the Scorpion’s last known position off of the Azores to its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia. Recordings from a vast array of underwater microphones reduced the search area down to 300 NM. Although technology played an important role in finding the U.S.S. Scorpion, it was the collective estimate of a group that eventually led to the discovery of the destroyed submarine. The U.S.S. Scorpion was found 400 nautical miles southwest of the Azores at a depth of 9,800 ft., a mere 220 yards from the collective estimate of the group [2].

The group of experts included submarine crew members and specialists, salvage experts, and mathematicians. Instead of having the group of experts consult with one another, Dr. John Craven, Chief Scientist of the U.S. Navy’s Special Projects Office, interviewed each expert separately and put the experts’ answers together. What’s interesting about the collective estimate is that none of the expert’s own estimates coincided with the group’s estimate—in other words, none of the individual experts picked the spot where the U.S.S. Scorpion was found.

A Quick Lesson in Chaos

According to Dave Snowden, Chaos is completely random but if you can contain it, you get innovation. You do this by separating and preventing any connection within a system. And when done properly, you can trust the results. Skunk Works projects and the Wisdom of Crowds approach made popular by James Surowiecki are great examples of how to contain Chaos [3].

Dr. Craven’s approach to finding the U.S.S. Scorpion is a controlled dive into Chaos; preventing any connections within the group, protecting against misplaced biases. Moreover, by bringing in a diverse group of experts, Dr. Craven ensured different expert perspectives were represented in the collective estimate.

To contain Chaos, three conditions must be satisfied [4]:

1. Group members should have tacit knowledge—they should have some level of expertise

2. Group members must NOT know what the other members answered

3. Group Members must NOT have a personal stake

Story Point Estimates: Taking a Shallow Dive into Chaos

Agile software development teams frequently estimate the effort and complexity of user stories found in their product and iteration backlogs. Individual team members “size” a story by assigning a Fibonacci number to a story based on their own experiences and understanding of the user story. A point consensus is not the aim but, unfortunately, is frequently coached and practiced.

To reduce cognitive biases, contain Chaos, and accelerate the story pointing process, AGLX trains and coaches clients’ software development teams to ask the product owner questions using various Red Teaming techniques, to include Liberating Structures. Once all team members are ready to assign points to the story, team members place their selected Fibonacci card or chip face down on the table.

On the “Flip” in “Ready…Flip,” team members turn their cards over and the ScrumMaster rapidly records the individual points. When all points are registered, the ScrumMaster takes the average of the points scored and assigns that number to the story (rounding to the nearest integer, if desired). No need to waste time re-pointing or trying to come to a consensus.

Example. A six-person software development team assigns the following individual points to a story.


The average is 6.5 (7 if rounding). In this example, none of the individual estimates match the group’s estimate. And, the group’s estimate is not a Fibonacci number.

In some High-Performing Organizations where psychological safety is well established, some development teams will have the team members who pointed the story with a 3 and 13 (using the example above) to present their reasoning using a complex facilitation technique—time-boxed, of course. The point behind this ritual is not to re-point the story but to have team members listen to the story outliers or mavericks for the purpose of identifying possible insights. Caution: This is an advanced technique.

Innovative and Resilient Organizations

Containing Chaos requires expert facilitation and will not happen overnight. However, simplifying your story pointing approach by not allowing consensus or team consultation (Condition 2) when it comes to story pointing is a small step to becoming an innovative and resilient organization—if that is what the organizations desires.

Although the loss of the U.S.S. Scorpion and her 99 crew was a tragedy, by sharing the story of how the collective estimate of a group of diverse experts found the submarine on the seabed floor is a great example of the power of cognitive diversity and containing Chaos.

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering naval aviator, co-founder of AGLX Consulting, LLC, and co-creator of High-Performance Teaming™ – an evidence-based, human systems solution to rapidly build and develop networks of high-performing teams. Contact Brian at brian@aglx.consulting.

[1] Sontag, Sherry; Drew, Christopher (2000). Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. New York:

[2] Surowiecki, James (2005). The Wisdom of Crowds. Anchor Books. pp. xv. ISBN 0-385-72170-6.

[3] Snowden, D.  KM World 2016 Keynote.  http://cognitive-edge.com/resources/slides-and-podcasts/

[4] Ibid

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