Friday, November 29, 2013

Are agilists turning their backs on the very technologies that their clients are building?

I remember three decades ago standing in the bookstore of my university reading sections in a new - and first ever - textbook about the design of large scale integrated circuits. The book was noteworthy because it was created through a collaboration of people from different countries and universities around the world, all communicating via email and other protocols. This was before the Internet, back when networks were owned by universities and DOD and companies, and those private networks using proprietary protocols (e.g., DecNET) were tied together by ad-hoc leased line connections. But it was usually possible to email someone if you knew how to "reach" them, and at the start of any project the first thing we did was establish was way to email everyone.

Technology has opened up the possibility of collaborating in near real time with people around the world. This made that book possible: it would not have been possible before. And I remember reading articles about the book, explaining how continent-spanning networks had made this book possible for the first time: that the knowledge needed for the book had to be pulled together from people working in far-flung companies and universities. And the book was turned around in one year - before the information became obsolete. That was important. Not only was the book a breakthrough, but the process by which it was written was a breakthrough.

We are turning our backs on the very technologies that our clients are building.

The Internet revolution is about communication. Agile did not invent this idea. In fact, in many ways, agile is undoing some of the benefits. Agilists have observed that face to face meetings and physical proximity enable quick discussion and learning by osmosis, but they have drawn the wrong conclusion. The conclusion should not be that "more proximity is better" or that "all collaboration is best if it is face to face". To enforce that is to unwind the benefits of the Internet.

Agilists often point to the value of brainstorming to come up with innovative solutions. But as Susan Cain explains in her breakthrough book Quiet,
"There’s only one problem with Osborn’s breakthrough idea: group brainstorming doesn’t actually work...Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases...The one exception to this is online brainstorming...This shouldn’t surprise us; as we’ve said, it was the curious power of electronic collaboration that contributed to the New Groupthink in the first place. What created Linux, or Wikipedia, if not a gigantic electronic brainstorming session?" *
This is important: it turns out that brainstorming is most effective when it occurs online and not in real time, so that the participants are able to think at their own pace before they respond, rather than having to think everything through in real time.

Historically, the agile insistence on person-to-person collaboration is really a rejection of communication by documents, and for good reason. During the 1970s and 1980s it was common practice to build systems and poorly document them. I remember this. The complaint was with respect to "key person dependencies" - the fact that the people who built a system would leave and no one could maintain it. And there was a response by the IT community to fix this, by insisting that everything be documented. I remember this also. Like the agilist thought leaders today, the thought leaders who were then in control took this to an extreme and the result was that projects started to be planned and measured around documents. Documents became king, and waterfall flourished.

And that did not work.

Agile pushes back on that, but it is also going to an extreme, insisting that all communication be face to face. That is the wrong conclusion, and it is very linear thinking. Rather, the conclusions should be much more nuanced, something like,
Give people the opportunity to talk when they find it best for them, and to write when they find it best for them, and enable this to happen just in time when it is needed. And balance the value of proximity with the value of access to remote talent and the need of people for undistracted thought when doing complex tasks. And don't rely on documents to convey information: the people who wrote the documents must be around to answer questions. But do make sure that you document important decisions as they are made. Little else needs to be documented.
There is a history to this, and we would all do well to not forget it. Otherwise, we are making the same mistakes.

Extremes do not work. Absolutes do not work.

* Ref: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (2012-01-24). (p. 88). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.