Waterfall and other straw men

Doing stupid things on purpose

Straw man looking for a brainGlen Alleman has read Dave Nicolette’s account of the ‘9 boxes’ session. Glen recognizes the structure of the typical ‘agilest’ argument:

  • Set up a straw man, where people do stupid things on purpose
  • Introduce an agile practice that solves the problem. Of course, the solution is nothing more than common sense dressed up in agile’s funky terminology. If those people weren’t doing these stupid things, we wouldn’t need agile.

As Glen says: “Some kind of inane software development process is applied to a problem. No in the loop customer, just big bang requirements developed by strangers, no feedback anywhere in sight, lots of linear testing at the end, and of course Dilbert management running the show.

Yeah, in those circumstances it’s really easy to improve the situation by implementing some agile techniques, like making customers and developers talk to each other.

Another reading of the same text

I read the structure of the blog post as follows:

  • Here’s a description of a situation that I experienced several times, where people were doing things that I considered stupid.
  • Here’s how we introduced some agile technique and got better results.

As Glen suspects: “Maybe I’ve been around good engineering practices – ones that also use agile – too long and have lost touch with those folks out there “‘doing stupid things on purpose.’

Are there companies out there who use the waterfall methodology? Yes, I’ve worked for some of those.

Are there companies out there who use the chaos methodology? Yes, I’ve worked for some of those.

“They” are wrong

The interesting question Glen asks is “Why?” Why would anyone do things we consider to be stupid, on purpose? Obviously, they don’t think it’s stupid. “This project would have succeeded if only they knew what they wanted and didn’t change the spec every five minutes!” If it doesn’t work, do more of it. Write even more detailed specs upfront. Keep the customers further away from the project, lest they change things.

What are the mental models in use by those people? Obviously, they are different from the mental models Glen and I use. How did these models get created? How can we change those models? How can we remedy the lack of leadership?

Have you noticed that in those cases it’s always “they are wrong”; never “us”. Who are those mysterious “they” who sabotage our projects? I suspect that is an important part of the model. Using a simple, but effective, interview technique where we co-create a shared vision of the future is a small step in the direction of “we” solving a problem.

p.s. I hate Dilbert. Not just the cartoon, the character. The next time you laugh at the inane antics of the pointy-haired boss, ask yourself how Dilbert’s actions (or inaction) reinforces that behaviour. Oy, Dilbert! Stop being a spineless idiot, wallowing in your role of victim! Demand better of yourself.

Thank you to Portia and Chris for the Scarecrow